Our Tuktoyaktuk guide Chris greeted us warmly when we entered the small airstrip building. I was wearing Nigel’s We the North t-shirt and bearing our We the North flag. Throughout our journey, whenever I approached people to talk about the North and to pose with the flag, I’d ask if they knew the Toronto Raptors. Almost all said they did, but they did not know the new Raptors slogan We the North–including self-proclaimed Raptors fans. So I figured that the re-branding had not travelled beyond the GTA. That assumption was challenged when Chris looked at me and said, “A basketball fan I see.”
I laughed and told him about our search for the True North, and that he was the first in our journey to connect We the North with the Toronto Raptors! Chris said, “Well, you’re here. You can’t get any further north on the mainland of Canada than Tuk. This is it.”
Chris took us around Tuktoyaktuk, passing by the community centre, water treatment plant, school, and nursing/hospital station. He talked about how the ancestors would canoe to the Pingos to spot belugas; and how driftwood that travels thousands of kilometres up the Mackenzie River to rest in Tuk harbours, continues to be a valuable resource.
Chris explained that they are just one or two generations off the land, and that the people now live a blend of traditional and modern. He shared with us how his childhood included fishing all day on the ice with his father then spending evenings with family listening to CBC Radio’s Hockey Night in Canada.
Like Inuvik, the oil and gas booms have come and gone in Tuk and may yet come again. Such cycles offer residents of this close-to-sea-level community a temporary boost to the (already ripened) fruit of goods and services rare in this part of the world. But when resource industries run their course, they leave in their wake, flat-lined drilling platforms, sagging industrial buildings, tilted barges, rusting fuel storage tanks, waterlogged caissons, and a stagnant market economy. Juxtaposed to these industrial reminders are distant one-room cabins, leaning slightly, greyed with age, and underscored by fingers of land that become summer islands.
Because now they have tools to dig into the permafrost, a cemetery has taken the place of traditional burial –placing rock over bodies.
Communities above the Arctic circle were subject to residential schools run by missionaries who would gather children by boat. Now Tuk’s community school teaches grades K-12 and about 150 students attend. How do a people who still gather, hunt and fish for their survival, integrate modern education? Education is esteemed in the community–but teaching subjects from a southern slant promotes cultural dissidence among Inuvialuit children and youth. Throughout years of asserting self-determination, the people have successfully championed curriculum that reflects the northern and Inuvialuit experience. And educators are working toward more cultural relevance in the educational programs.
Slowing for sandhill cranes and tundra swans, Chris talked about the extreme expense of basic groceries, winds getting up to over 100 km/hr, language connections with people from Greenland, and how barges transport supplies that can’t arrive via ice road–taking up to a year to get to Tuk via the Mackenzie River. He is clearly proud of his people and his community. As he talked, I felt that Chris expressed the great possibilities of Tuktoyaktuk life while living with what seem like the impossibilities of the Arctic.
We visited the Trans Canada Trail monument which was laid in 2000 with the goal to connect the TCT as a continuous route from coast to coast to coast by 2017, the 25th anniversary of the Trans Canada Trail and Canada’s 150th anniversary since Confederation.
It also reminds residents of the promise by Prime Minister Diefenbaker in 1958 to connect the country sea to sea to sea. The Roads to Resources program was a plan to open up the North to development and to assert Canadian sovereignty as a counter to the communist threat at that time. Now, over half-a-century later, the promised road will be completed in a few more years, connecting the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
I wondered about that prospect– the last of their ice road and isolation. How the south/north experiment brings both growth and loss. How people adopt two (or more) cultures simultaneously while trying to live whole. The influx of sudden money then poverty; the confluence of ancient and now, tradition and change — all in this place where pingos expand and shrink, where brackish water is the resulting exchange between great river and ocean, and where the land lies shoulder to shoulder with the Arctic water frozen or flowing or both.
The night before our departure from Toronto, we celebrated Nigel’s 19th in the CN Tower “Top of the World” restaurant. We also drove the “Top of the World Highway” from Dawson City into Alaska. This map however offers an obvious perspective: On Top of the World and we know–ahh now This Is North.
We took a dip in the Arctic Ocean (well, one toe-dipped, Karen waded, and I swam and immersed myself), then Quentin loaded us back into the tiny plane to return us to Inuvik. As “co-pilot” beside him, Quentin explained to me the dials, the rudder, compasses and talked me through a few pull ups on the steering wheel which doesn’t actually steer but lifts and drops the plane vertically. The whole day was an enjoyable, insightful, and thrilling experience.
Karen and I are happy to have connected with Tundra North Tours and grateful to Chris and the people of Tuktoyaktuk for their welcome.
It was 7PM when we decided to begin our return journey on the Dempster. With the full sunlit-night ahead of us, we couldn’t resist pulling an all-nighter, just the two of us and 800km south to Dawson….
[About 8 minutes of TUKTOYAKTUK Video has been posted on my You Tube channel. Apologies for the poor edits–still learning to finesse the program. I’ll be gathering our video of the grizzlies and other wildlife soon.]