these aren’t the suburbs: rougher in these parts, Inuvik

Smooth latte at a new café at the extreme northern end of town—a coffee shop equipped with cappuccino machine, baked treats: blueberry loaves to wraps. Native artwork adorns the plain wall—vibrant quilts and wooden canoe. And a wall of delectables to purchase: Inuit cloudberry tea, coffee presses, and boxes of hot chocolate. Ordinary grey marbled tables with ordinary grey chairs. But this is a close second to my missed Starbucks. They make a mean latte!

The town looks brighter with the sun high in the sky—though the sun is always up, it’s not always high in the sky. The overnight sunshine and the not-so-tired children make this a difficult place to get a good rest, even with tinfoil on the windows. As a typical North West Territories town, scrubby topography, and block-like homes, I wouldn’t describe it as the beauty of the north.

Garbage is all over the roads, sidewalks, and playgrounds. Not like Africa, with chickens pecking in the sewer lines on the walkways. Still, coffee tops, Kleenexes, pop bottles, broken liquor bottles–everything and anything strewn about.

When we arrived at the park one afternoon, a group of day camp children were picking up as many pop cans as they could find in a minute: 19! And the garbage: in 20 minutes, the girls collected two grocery bags (also found at the playground) filled with bottles. They were excited to add money to their ice cream collection, but we would later learn that the bottle depot burned to the ground the week before.

One more day of eighty dollar grocery purchases: I’m thinking of fasting. Maybe two weeks of fasting will convince the kids that a full belly is better than continuously contented taste buds. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. Rather than spending $180 a week, I’ll spend $80 every two days! Yikes– $320 a week! We spend more here than at Disneyland and there are no Disney Princesses to entertain us.

A brisk wind whipping my just-showered face, mist spraying as I walk down Main Street an hour before lunch. The summer day is not apparent. The cloud cover is overwhelming the air that I breathe. My matted wet hair seems frozen to my head, my ears nipped at their outer edges and deep throbbing inside.

As I saunter past North Mart, two young guys meet up to greet, “Good Morning”. Or is that a cuff upside the head and a fist in the gut? Yes, the latter. Okay, I’ve been witness to a brawl at two in the morning outside my bedroom window, and now, after everyone’s had a couple hours sleep post-partying, they’re up and at’em for some more.

Jim was called out to an elbow dislocation location in emerg last night—we were going to read a chapter from a new travel and food book. Rather, he was called out to the real thing—our travel experience mixed with someone else’s vino. Okay, so it might have been a mickey of whiskey, possibly a six pack of beer, a few shots too many?  Jim made an ill-timed comment about bringing back prohibition.

This ain’t the burbs. Can be a rough place to live.

what to do in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Inuvik

Seven year old Madelyn remarked, “We don’t do much here, mom. We get up, watch cartoons, do studies, play in the common area, sometimes go to the pool or library, do more studies, eat, read and go to bed. Same thing every day”.

Except for the afternoons at the beach”, I added–though few, because as my usually super optimistic child recounts: “It’s gloomy here.” The ‘beach’ is right behind the hospital. There is a lovely walking path all the way around, but not beach as in sand, rather beach as in gravel.

I can’t resist as I go on: “And do you remember the four seat Cessna trip, one hour chartered flight to the Arctic Ocean, and the guided tour around Tuktoyaktuk?”

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And like that wasn’t enough, “Oh yeah, and caramel steamers at the local café? A super expensive fast food dinner at the The Roost Restaurant? Making bread almost every morning together?” She still wasn’t convinced.

You and your sister get to independently prepare breakfasts on the stove: scrambled eggs and french toast anyone?” It runs counter to my naturally controlling self, but I figure if I get out of the kitchen and leave my kids to their own devices, my kids will learn to cook. Yes, the kitchen will be a disaster, but if I stay in the kitchen, they will only learn to watch.

But that’s just food mom. We can do that at home.”

Yup, we can. But we don’t normally eat this much stuff out of cans. You get to learn to open cans more…” An argument that would only convince for another month or so.

Woo hoo!” sarcasm intended.

How about attending the ice cream social at the Baptist church? Playing with that missionary family that’s heading to Alaska? Or all the playground visits mixing with the, as you call them, ‘non-blond’ kids?” Meeting new kids on a playground is a great way for both kids and mom to meet new friends.

Yeah that was fun.”

How about trips to the gift store, the book store and every other store in town?” Every. single. store. You want to know what people are like in a new end of the world? Head to the grocery store and people watch. Don’t stand in the middle of the produce aisle and stare, mind you. But you’ll get a quick sense of people as they fill their carts with frozen pizzas and Fritos and Cream Soda. 

“Even grocery shopping is an adventure. Do you remember how exciting it was the first time we went to the Northern? “Wow, mom, look how much diapers are!!” Zachary is on the countdown to diaper training. Who can afford diapers at $75 a box?

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We attended a festival day, Parks Day, at Alexander Mackenzie Elementary School and watched aboriginal drummers and dancers. We made visits to the biggest greenhouse in North West Territories, and the Roman Catholic Igloo Church. A lady came from northern Canada and taught us to make muskox wool out of muskox fur at the Northern Arts Festival.” Where is northern Canada if Inuvik is south?

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I think we’ve found a few things to do!

what we eat in inuvik

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When we take a tour of the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, we discover that in the land of the midnight sun, where permafrost endures throughout the year, things grow, really grow, very quickly…in raised beds of course. Because the northern hemisphere is tipped towards the sun in these summer months, this northerly part of the northern hemisphere is bathed in sunshine. When the old hockey arena is converted into a community greenhouse, it makes for a lot of square footage to grow typical farm garden fare.

After our tour, I bought a fundraising community recipe book, and was eager to discover the northerners recipes for muskox and bison. To my surprise, I discover an international recipe book. How could that be? Inuit and Inuvaliut First Nations primarily populated this area not that many years ago. Along with Canada’s major urban centers of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Inuvik has become a multinational territory now.

I can find a recipe for Portuguese Chick Pea and Spinach Soup, Won Ton Soup, Vietnamese Salad Rolls, Tabouli, Jahb-Chae (a Korean stir-fry), Poutine, Dum Aloo, Cabbage Rolls, Tuscan Ravioli and even Green Onion Cakes. North West Territories is an international mix. Tis a long way to travel, but for those searching for anonymity, you can find it here.

In my new recipe book, I find a recipe for Fireweed Jelly, Yukon’s territorial flower. And two recipes for bannock, of course. I can also find Teriyaki Muskox, Moose Meatballs, Muskox Hamburgers, and Moose Roast.

When I was at the Northern (the grocery store), I asked where to find fish? Surely I’d find something in the freezer aisle. I’d tasted a delicious Arctic Char back in Dawson City. Do they sell beluga? Or is that just for the Tuktoyaktuk residents? A roll of the eyes from the cashier, and a sharp comment, “Over there”…she pointed toward the Mackenzie Delta. “You want fish, you fish”. Okay, so we won’t be eating fish this summer.

That’s okay, because I can find home packaged plastic baggies of muskox hamburger. Gotta try muskox when you can. Have you tried a muskox ball? An awful lot like regular meatballs, minus the fat. Sorta tastes like moose, but gamier, but definitely as lean. Thankfully the cashier didn’t suggest I hunt for my muskox since the only muskox we’d see was standing upright, stuffed, at the visitor center.

Recipe for Muskox Hamburgers…

Mix 1 lb. ground muskox meat

1 tsp minced garlic

pinch of salt and pepper

one large egg

one cup oatmeal

2 TBS Montreal Steak Spice

Well, that sounds familiar!

Thank you Murray Arsenault. The burgers were delish!

What did the kids think of the burgers? They didn’t even know.

first day in Inuvik

The road turned from gravel to pavement and a huge sign welcomed us into this most northerly town. We curved up the road to the left and there was the colour-blocked hospital sitting atop the hill. A quick stop at the hospital to pick up keys to our summer abode, we instead discover a room was booked for us at the Mackenzie Lodge – after nine days in hotel rooms, we have arrived, and will stay in a hotel room. Our promised two bedroom apartment has become a two bed room.

Unpack the van, reorganize the room – that’s Hannah, Madelyn, and Rachel’s bed (each takes a turn at the end)–luckily they’re all under 9 and small enough for that, and that’s Zach’s corner (the foldable travel crib with two blankies) and this is our bed—my husband closest to the bathroom so he can wake, dress and go to the hospital without waking the rest of us. This would be our new dining room table—the classic hotel ‘desk’ with a small upholstered sitting bench and chair. The kitchen is a bar sink, microwave and bar fridge—thankfully I didn’t leave home without my “kitchen”—a backpack style picnic bag filled with matches, a towel and cloth, scraper, peeler, and anything I absolutely need in my kitchen back home. Was I ever smart to bring that now!

Perhaps there could have been some planning, some forethought for our arrival and accomodations since we did request final arrangements for our summer locum five months ago. Renovations were still being completed on the hospital dormitory style building.

When the hospital cafeteria is a sought after, less-expensive dinner option than any restaurant in town, you know you’re in a northern arctic town. The profundity of pizza pops—even at the cafeteria—cannot be a good sign for this town’s version of healthy eating. But who can avoid it when healthy choices are so darn expensive. Almost a hundred dollars for hamburgers and French fries for two adults and four kids under nine.

We’re making the best out of this though—exercise room down the hall is well-used for an hour and a half during Zach’s nap and the leather sofas in the hotel lobby have become our public sitting room and study zone. Ideal? Mwahaha. Make the best of this? Flexibility r us.

we have arrived, Inuvik!

Nostalgia in the north—or at least that’s how I’m choosing to view our trip up the Dempster.

Thankfully Jim didn’t find a carwash these last two days–what a waste of ten bucks that would have been. Our dark blue minivan is camouflaged in a healthy shade of dirt—couldn’t even see through an inch on the back window.

The mosquitoes swarmed us like sunshine on the equator as we stepped towards the Fort MacPherson‘s visitor center. Yikes, I don’t regret using the retirement fund for shares in Deep Woods.

In our brief stay, we felt like Gwichen First Nations on a journey through the northern wilderness stopping at a neighbouring tribe’s home—minks’ furs hanging to dry inside the cabin, a caribou hide tepee set up in the room’s corner, and the fragrance of mosquito coils hanging in the corner (okay, so that might be a new invention).

Onward to Mackenzie Crossing, the mosquitoes disappeared as we, the oil tanker truck, truck and camper and another truck and boat boarded the ferry. A brief jaunt outside found cool wind whipping at us—minus the mosquitoes. The vast and mighty Mackenzie, brown like a Starbucks latte—no Starbucks this far north though.

Being this far north, I was surprised at the continuous stretch of white and black spruce…apparently nourished by the mighty Mackenzie River, the second largest river delta in North America.

I expected flat tundra stretching miles and miles to the Beaufort Sea. In fact, we’d pass through five eco-regions and three sets of mountains—the Ogilvies, the Blackstone Uplands and the Richardsons. Each set were marked by history in the ice age.  How had the ice age formed each? The jagged Ogilvies were forced upward with a shift and the Blackstone Uplands were around long before and after. Only the Richardsons were “new”.

The road just kept going and going and going. After nine days, we’d run out of activities and books to read, watched every video and wondered what we’d do next. Then we rounded a corner of the road, to discover an orange diamond-shaped sign indicating gravel to paved road – the ten kilometre marker preceding Inuvik.

Woo hoo, back on paved road!

Promises of privacy and space outside of suitcases, hotel rooms and this six by ten moving rectangle!

There was the Inuvik sign on the right side of the road! We had arrived!