Just as the Mackenzie River delta, the largest in Canada, and second largest in North America diverges in more than one direction, I could write in two directions. Should I tell about my husband’s location or the colour of the water?
My daughter thought someone peed in the bath water. I see brown in the water. To the store I go for an overpriced Brita filter–$30. We drank tea for the first week! I would so much like to ask someone how the water is treated. Does it come from nearby Boot Lake or the Beaufort Sea? The Arctic Ocean is still a couple hours off at Tuktoyaktuk.
Where my husband is! Back to the diverging Mackenzie Delta, northward, then east a touch. A 36 week pregnant mom with hypertension delivering her baby at the Tuk nursing station meant he got a free flight, to view the Pingos (hills of earth and ice – kind of like a volcano, but ice forcing itself upwards instead). I sent him with my camera.
He dipped his finger in the Arctic Ocean and walked around in the fifteen minute spare time he had after ‘baby girl’ was born. Then they all flew back to Inuvik for post-partum recovery. He thinks it’s an opportunity we can’t pass up and I should fly up with the girls.
So today, at almost the 70th parallel, we decided to take a field trip… a chartered flight to Tuktoyaktuk, a forty five minute flight from Inuvik. I remember the name of this northern Arctic town, because as a child my long distance truck driving dad drove the ice roads from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
So here I was, twenty five years later, booking a flight with a charter company to fly in a six seater Cessna to a North West Territories whaling town on the Beaufort Sea. This might be a magical day for me, but the youngest was still battling over seat choices.
As we followed the Mackenzie Delta northward from Inuvik, we flew over more black spruce than I imagined would be this far north. The mighty Mackenzie fertilizes all these trees. But just over the Delta, flying east, the trees receded into tundra. Lakes upon lakes upon lakes like watery puddles of swiss cheese holes. In a minute, Hannah counted 200 lakes on the right; Madelyn counted 100.
Oliver, the young Quebecois fellow flying the plane up front, graciously tipped the plane to the right for us to see the close-up of a pingo. Right on top of it we were. Like a frozen volcano, the four or five we saw sat forlorn in the far reaches of the north. Five year old Rachel was less than thrilled with this aeronautic trick.
An Inuvialuit woman, Elaine, met us at the Tuktoyaktuk airport. A long time resident to the area, she had lived there since she was a child. She had one son–and for six months of each year, she and her family would go `out on the land`. They’d live in a cabin, hunting caribou and picking blueberries, cranberries and cloudberries.
Eileen showed us the community built Icehouse—30 feet straight down into permafrost—a natural freezer for food with three hallways and nineteen compartments. The girls were so disappointed when I told them they wouldn’t be able to use their Velcro-strapped headlights to make an adventurous trek downstairs. I was advised, “the ladder down is slippery, but you could catch them if they fell”. ??? So we didn’t.
Whaling season just ended the previous month. We could stand on the dock beside the inlet where the belugas and their babies played in the deep brown sea, but we didn`t catch a glimpse. A polar bear was hunted and shot because it was threatening kids in the community.
We learned that the fourteen foot beluga whales were harpooned first, then shot so that when they come up for air and dragged back to the Tuk harbour, they wouldn`t sink to the bottom. Every last bit of the beluga was used for something and could feed three families: blubber for cooking oil, blood drained for blood soup, the almost black meat shared amongst the participant`s families and always something left over for single families or elders.
The health center where my husband had delivered a baby only a week before was small, with ordinary brown metal siding. During his work in Inuvik, he had seen a few injuries related to whaling. A young girl was burned at a bonfire and there was a another person who had botulism after eating raw whale.
Two people occupied the Senior’s home. The remaining rooms were rented out to the fifty year old crowd. There was even a small college…with one professor willing to teach whatever clever ideas the residents could procure.
We were told that Queen Elizabeth visited Tuk in the 1960s. Her car was flown in so she could tour this tiny island in style. Only a week or two after our visit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited too—he ski-dooed down the airport runway.
We couldn`t resist visiting the local store, a Northern Mart. What I thought was expensive in Inuvik now seemed a pittance. At $12 for 4 litres of milk in Inuvik, I was willing to forgo dairy for five weeks. But in Tuk, 4 litres was $20! If I`d lived here, I might not so eagerly support the dairy industry. I might even think soya milk was tasty. That UHT stuff I drank as a child might come back in vogue.
The girls got into their little purses and found enough money to purchase Lik-a-Maids ($1.69 each) and I purchased a white chocolate Toblerone for the trip home. Perhaps I should have checked the expiry on my purchase. I guess white Toblerone is overrated in the north.
We grabbed our treats, were driven by the 4×4 back to the airport and met Oliver in the airport. He flew us over the Arctic Ocean, one last look at this cafe latte coloured northern mark on the Canadian map. As we flew southwest to our temporary home in Inuvik, a rainbow, just under the level of clouds, guided us home.