to the land of the midnight sun

Why would you want to spend two days packing four kids under eight with study books and violins and autumn clothes for a six week summer vacation to the Arctic? I was asked.

I’ll just have to agree with the Tao of Travel that “travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention; that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home”.

Maybe we’ll return home at the end of summer, but you’ll leave a little bit of yourself wherever you’ve visited…this summer we’ll have left a part of ourselves with the midnight sun.

I’d surveyed the house…scanned every item for weeks: should I bring this candle holder? Do I need extra toothbrushes…you know how the kiddos burn through them like candy? When our Terraza was loaded  from the Thule to the knee space in front of everyone’s feet, we were ready to leave the night before our ten day driving adventure.

We made traction by driving an hour away to stay at a hotel. It might sound a little wasteful, especially with four kiddos to bed in one room only an hour from home, but not leaving by the break of dawn also seemed an unreasonable start to a very long 3500 km car trip north.

We spent that next day in the van.

We would normally exit the van on the hour: someone would need the toilet, or was too fidgety, or needed to find a snack to quell the boredom of watching ever-thickening evergreens whiz past.

Try putting a kid to bed after they’ve spent eight hours sitting from morning till bedtime.

That following morning we would have time to jump around the hotel pool. This became the preferred hotel reservation—any place with a pool.

When we thought we’d travelled far enough north the second day, when we’d not seen car lights more than once an hour, and when we’d thought we might have reached the end of the world, we would always see yet another stretch of mile-high evergreens.

Near the northern border of our province of British Columbia, we would see the sign: Liard Hotsprings. The kiddos were excitedly tumbling down the wooden boardwalk, floating above swamp, heading toward hot, hot sulfur-fragrant waters. The naturally-occurring stone floor, roughly hewn back supports of tree roots cemented in meter deep earth claimed the most authentic hotspring to which I’d ever been, and heaven to our flattening bottoms.

We visited the Fort Nelson museum, and climbed the original Alaskan highway building-machinery. Mom, look at this grader! The girls would take turns propping the crutches under their shoulders and pretend to have visited the infirmary building. It would be one of many museums we would visit this summer.

From Fort Nelson, which I always understood to be the northernmost town of British Columbia, we drove to Muncho Lake. The boreal forest went on and on and on. Here is a place anyone could get lost in this sea of trees.  I can see Alexander Mackenzie raising his hand-hewn oar with a bellow of “Onward! Follow that lake!”– no wonder he would find himself at the Arctic and not the Pacific… Jigs and jags up that highway would generally follow the lakes, the rivers, the endless emerald rivers, and even more trees.

Giant cinnamon buns greeted us at Tetsla, just over the Yukon border. A simple café with ten foot long picnic tables extended across the length of the room in five neat rows. Clearly, a tour bus would stop once or twice a day and each would succumb to purchasing that five dollar giant. Another stop at an Alaskan Highway museum would ease our sore bottoms from the endless passage of time.

I’d try to photograph the passing wildlife: mountain sheep and their babies, bison, caribou and a wapiti that would invite us farther into this Yukon neverland. My camera battery wouldn’t withstand my constant clicking on this Highway 97 corridor. I didn’t expect spectacular or oil-colour idyllic. I did not expect to be one of few vehicles travelling north.

When the kids thought we must have arrived, when are we there yet? had been asked a hundred times, we found ourselves in Watson Lake. Home to Big Horn Inn, I felt like I had rented my mother’s 1980s bedroom—walnut-coloured, trunk-thick bed posts, blue floral borders and wallpaper, and foamy mattresses too!

The front doorman had a cot in the corner of the hotel reception foyer with a television blaring Days of our Lives. Deeper in the corner was his unkempt bed. Beside it was a burnt orange couch with the long corridor where we’d sleep…hotel room doors flanking each side.

We went out in search of our final meal of the day. Down the road was the only restaurant available: Kathy’s Kitchen. The cheese pizza was prepared last minute, just as the doors were closing. No other food options were available until morning. No grocer. No gas stations. We brought the pizza back to our cramped room.

The hotel front door was propped open, probably because of the twenty hour sun sweltering. The fan above didn’t suffice to vent the sauna of our room. I couldn’t sleep knowing there was one lock between my family and the outdoor world.

Before lights went out, we read from “Jason’s Gold”: a story of a boy chasing his brothers to the Gold Rush in Dawson City.

We breakfasted in our room–my husband stopped at the grocer after his morning run: Yops, juice boxes, coffee, raisin scones, strawberries and granola bars. Nothing fancy, but forty dollars, wow. We’d quickly come to expect underwhelming, but expensive in the north.

We spent an hour at the Sign Post Forest—passersthrough would leave their vehicle license plates from around the world, attached to solid wood posts. A veritable world atlas in the middle of nowhere. There were plates from near our hometown: Didsbury, Alberta, Cache Creek, BC, the Oprah Winfrey Studio, Austria, United Kingdom, Sudan and Papua New Guinea.

We’d spent three days driving north, though we would see signs pointing east and south and west, and had yet to see the igloos and polar bears and beluga whales that the north had promised.

We were headed to Inuvik, at the end of North America’s second largest river delta, the Mackenzie Delta. We would drive nearer to the land of the midnight sun.

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