Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Wells

I’ve had a lot of people say that life here in the north must be exciting. The truth is that life in the north can be weeks or months on end of boredom, followed by a few hours that make up for those boring stretches. I had one of those experiences last week. The company sent me to Norman Wells, the next town up on the Mackenzie River, to work for a week at the Northern Store there.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Norman Wells takes it’s name from the oil wells that Imperial Oil tapped into during World War Two. They are still pumping oil and natural gas today. Most of the houses in town are hooked up to cheap natural gas for their heat and hot water. They pave the main roads using oil (possibly mixed with some other chemicals) to stick the top layer of dirt together. One person told me that biologists have found fish downstream in the Mackenzie are dying from oil poisoning, although skeptics say that there has always been oil seeping from the ground into the Mackenzie.

Norman Wells is the hub of the Sahtu region, thanks to it’s airport. Most people consider it the place to be amongst the five Sahtu communities. It has several restaurants (four by my count), two stores, several gift shops, and a museum. It also has a liquor store and at least three bars. I’ve often heard it described as the “whitest” of the five communities. The population is predominately made up of energy sector workers brought in from the south.

The Northern Store in The Wells (nobody calls it “Norman Wells,” in day-to-day conversation) is a sight to be seen. I’m used to working in a big bright new building with high ceilings and tiled floors. In the Wells, the store was constructed by connecting seven ATCO rental trailers together. There are metal seams in the floor that become insurmountable speed bumps for your shopping cart. The shelving is old and dented, the aisles are narrow, and the fridges and coolers break down on a regular basis. The ceiling leaks all over the place. Midway through my stay, the power in the bathroom stopped without warning. No breakers were blown. Before I left, it came back on for no reason, but when I turned on the ceiling fan it started spraying water that had pooled in the fan’s plastic casing.

Despite its deficiencies, The store has some of the highest sales among similar sized stores in the company. They carry high end items that wouldn’t sell in most other Northern communities. Want crab legs, lobster tails, or premium steaks? They have them at the Northern. The store also has one section of shelving devoted entirely to “Newfie” items such as purity cookies, hardbread, and Lee’s Snowballs. They also sell buckets of salt beef. There are a lot of Newfoundlanders working in the oil business.

The week was uneventful. Work is work, and keeping shelves locked is rarely exciting. The best part of my job is meeting the characters who come in the store. One day, a Newfoundlander named Dudley introduced himself and started haggling over the price of a frozen turkey. He told me that he worked for Aurora college, but he was also the justice of the peace and the coroner. He was often in the store throughout the week. Once he came in to return a defective cordless phone.

“We’ll have to order another one in,” said the manager. “That was our last one.”

“But what do I do in the meantime. I got no phone.”

I couldn’t help interrupting.

“Here’s what you do, Dudley. Get yourself two tin cans and a piece of string…”

“Oh, yiss b’y. Where’d you say you came from?”

The housing there was nice. The Northern Store owns a duplex for it’s employees. I had a three bedroom house all to myself for a week. Around six thirty on Sunday morning, , I awoke to the sound of wood crunching. It was my only day to sleep in, but the sound was urgent enough that I managed to pull myself out of bed and look out the window. I could see that our front fence had been flattened and a white truck was pulling away. He had been backing out of the driveway across the street and had gone a bit too far. I cursed, got out of bed, and called the RCMP. Later that week I had to go give a statement. Apparently there was a second witness and the Mounties told me they had their man.

While all of this was fun, it was my last night in The Wells that made it all worth while. My friend Ron Oe, who took me fishing up on Great Bear Lake last year dropped by the store. I had run into his wife earlier in the week.

“How would you like to take the quads up to the mountains?”

I couldn’t say no to that one. I didn’t get out of work until eight thirty. Ron has two Honda four-wheelers which he bought for a song and then fixed up. It helps that he is a trained mechanic. We topped of the gas tanks and then roared off up towards the dump.

It was a beautiful night. After a week of rain and overcast skies, the air was warm and the sun was low in the sky, giving the landscape a golden glow.

I had never seen the appeal in four-wheeling before. My only experience on one had been bombing up and down a short logging road at my friend’s house when we were teens. Now Ron and I were flying through a maze of narrow trails, sometimes cutting back down the hill, other times launching up steep gravel banks. Before I was usually perched on the luggage racks while someone else drove. Now I was in control, and the feeling was exhilarating.

Finally we got up to the ridge above Jackfish Lake. Without warning, I looked to my right and saw nothing but some tiny trees four hundred feet or so below. But the path was solid and well maintained. I at no time felt as if I was in any danger. We stopped the quads and took in the view. Ron lit up one of his trademark captain black cigars, and I crawled on my belly to the edge of the cliff, sticking my nose out over the edge. Across the valley were even taller mountains. Ron told me that a local helicopter company takes people up there on the twenty first of June. From that height , you can watch the sun swing around the entire horizon without setting. However, tonight the sun was settling low at the end of the valley. Fortunately, sunsets last for hours this time of year, so we decided to head down to Jackfish Lake.

The town has developed the lake beautifully. Ant the end of the road they have a few campsites with fire pits. There is an unobtrusive path leading down to a well maintained dock. A battered canoe and a small zodiac were tied up, free for anyone to borrow. There were also two observation decks built into the side of the hill, where parents could sit and watch their kids swim. The water was crystal clear. A school of minnows was swimming below the dock, and two loons were out on the lake.

Climbing back on the quads, we roared up out of the valley and stopped to take in the view of the town before heading home. Lights were coming on in the twilight. The Mackenzie river snaked southward and northward as far as the eye could see, and the silhouette of the Mackenzie mountains loomed above the river, their jagged peaks finally free from cloud cover that had obscured them all week. I didn’t bother to bring my camera, and at the time I wished I had. Now I know it would have only slowed me down. The most expensive camera available would not have done the views justice. We were gone only two and a half hours, but I would gladly toil for another six months in the store for a few more hours such as those.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A trip to the outside

When Pierre Burton lived in Dawson city as a child, he said that people referred to anywhere south as the “outside.” If you weren’t cooped up in Dawson for six months of winter, you were “outside” in the rest of the civilized world. While it is not quite that bad here in Tulita, I can say that seven months in the same small town can get to you. I have felt the first hints of cabin fever, and although I could always get on the internet or turn on the TV, after seven months you need a change of scenery.

We left for vacation of July 7th. 07/07/07. The luckiest day of the year. And I was inclined to agree. I had just spent six weeks running the store, shorthanded. I was burnt out to say the least, and in the last few days before we left, I started to not care that things were less than perfect at the store. My one useless stock boy had buggered off, and the cashiers were showing up late and leaving early. But none of that mattered. I couldn’t even sleep the last few nights. I had finally recaptured that feeling one gets in the run-up to Christmas when one is six. But this was going to be better than Christmas. Christmas is a mere day. I was looking forward to three weeks in the civilized world.

Leaving Tulita is no small feat. One must first board a plane at the airport and fly twenty minutes north to Norman Wells, Imperial Oil’s bastion of the north. Unlike every other nearby community, Norman Wells is a fairly new town. It was founded in the 1940s because of its oil reserves. The Americans built a pipeline to help the war effort. From there you catch a Canadian North flight to Edmonton, with a half hour stopover in Yellowknife to go through proper security. It is clear that the Canadian government doesn’t care what you bring north of sixty on a flight, but god help you if you try to bring anything back.

We got a ride from the Norman Wells airport with Larry, owner and proprietor of one of the local hotels. As we were driving into town, I noticed that the van wasn’t kicking up a cloud of dust.

“What do they use on the roads around here?” I asked Larry.


“Oil?! Like, crude oil?”

“Oil. It’s better than dust.”

Anywhere else in Canada, if your furnace tank leaks, Environment Canada will come dig up your front lawn and leave you with a $20,000 bill. In Norman Wells, they spray it on the roads.

It was so strange to be somewhere other than Tulita and to know I would be without responsibilities or deadlines for the next three weeks. I picked up a copy of the Globe and Mail. It was the first time I had seen a newspaper that wasn’t at least a day old in seven months. Nicole often brings me back newspapers when she travels to Yellowknife. I hoard them like gold and often read every column and section. Even papers that are a month old have interesting stories. Our store gets only one paper a week. It’s a northern publication called News North, and even that arrives a day late. Sure we have the internet, but it’s not the same as seeing the news in black and white.

We ate at Larry’s hotel (which also has a small restaurant). It was the first of too many meals out. Our flight to Edmonton left at three. We boarded a 737 without even going through a metal detector. It’s still a strange feeling in this day and age.

I thought that my return to civilization would be a bit of a shock. More than one person had warned me that the pace is often too much for people who have spent a lot of time in the North. To me, it was as if I had never left. But it was strange to see a group of people and not know the names of any of them. Working at the store, I know the names of almost everyone in town.

With our luggage checked, we wandered around the airport, waiting for our flight to St. John’s. At one point, a businessman who was walking in front of us suddenly stopped and spun around.

“Hey Michael! How’s it going?”

Nicole and I jumped back and stopped. It was only then that I noticed the tiny Bluetooth headset resting on his ear. We both kept walking and laughed to ourselves. Later, a security guard whizzed past on a segway scooter. The future arrived while I was away.

Our flight to St. John’s was hellish. We somehow ended up in the emergency exit seats. They don’t recline, and since we were in the aisle and middle seats, sleep was all but impossible. There were seventeen empty seats in first class by my count, but the stewardess would not let us sit there.

“I’m sorry sir. I can’t upgrade you to first class.”

I wasn’t asking to be “upgraded” to first class. I just wanted to sit there and sleep for a few hours. But I let it go.

We arrived in St. John’s on Sunday the 8th at ten thirty local time. Nicole’s dad and sister were there to meet us at the airport. Her mom was home cooking up a massive “sunday dinner.” Besides a turkey and glazed ham, we had potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage boiled up with salt beef, and too many other sides to mention.

The next morning, five of us climbed into a new Daewoo car for an 11 hour drive across the entire island of Newfoundland. Our destination was Rose Blanche, a small fishing village on the south west coast, near Port-aux-Basques. It is the ancestral home of the Light’s Family, and it is where Nicole and I bought a small house with some of our savings from our first year in the north.

The drive was eventful to say the least, but I promised not to record any of it. These are my future in-laws, after all.

We arrived at our house at nine-thirty that night, just as it was getting dark. Having never seen the house in person, it exceeded all of our expectations. Nicole’s cousins came over and we had beer and pizza. Then we spent the night talking and checking out the features of the house.

The next day was mostly spent visiting relatives. First cousins Dave and Dianne. Then Aunt Marie and Uncle Willie, then cousin Tanya and Aunt Geraldine. And finally, Aunt Rose, who is actually Aunt to nobody. As Farley Mowat wrote in his book, Bay of Spirits, “Aunt” is a title bestowed on respected women all along the southwest coast of Newfoundland. She welcomed us into her house, which was lined with pictures of her children (one of whom is now a doctor). She offered us a drink of whiskey, noting that the doctor had told her a small drink was good for her now and then, as long as it was mixed with water.

“I like to mix mine with ginger ale though,” she said with a false whisper and a big grin.

Although seeing old friends was fun, by the end of the day that feeling of Christmas returned. I had been out visiting relatives when I really wanted to be home, playing with my toys. Only this time, the toy was my home.

The next morning we left for the east coast again. We stopped for a night in Corner Brook to look up old friends, most of whom were not home or had moved on.

The next week in St. John’s was uneventful. We spent our time visiting tourist attractions and going to the mall. I bought a few shirts, but even flush with cash I was unable to bring myself to spend 25 bucks on a shirt or 50 for a sweater. Fashion in the north tends towards the practical rather than the stylish. What I did buy was books. About 15 by the end of three weeks. I walked through Chapters, grabbing anything that looked interesting. It was the one pleasure I refused to deny myself. At one point, while carrying about seven books, a customer stopped me and asked me if I worked at the store. I guess he needed some help.

On Monday the 16th we went downtown to see the White Stripes concert. Although we had floor tickets, and although we started out very close to the stage, the notion of standing for two hours amongst a bunch of pierced and colorful teenagers didn’t appeal to us fogies. Luckily, Mile One Stadium has a restaurant up among the private boxes. We got two seats with a prime view of the stage. Jack White looked kind of small, but we could hear him fine and the beer tasted good.

The next day we flew to Nova Scotia. We spent a lot of time visiting family and friends, and there was more shopping. It was over all too quick. On the way back to the north, we stopped for a night in Edmonton and spent an afternoon at the West Edmonton Mall, once again buying almost nothing.

I will admit, it felt good to get back to Tulita. That really surprised me because I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here when we left. Too much of anything (or anyplace) is a bad thing. Now I’m ready for another year.

After having spent a year in relative isolation, I’ve compiled a list of things you should not take for granted:

1. Family and friends
2. Bookstores
3. Cold beer with family and friends
4. Long drives to nowhere in particular
5. Fresh meat and vegetables
6. Newspapers (especially the weekend edition)

Everything else you can probably live without.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Flash Happy

When we went on vacation in July, Nicole and I were in an unusual position. For the first time in our lives we had cash, but we didn't need anything. In the past year we had learned that living in the north wasn't exactly roughing it when it comes to getting day-to-day needs, meaning we didn't need to stock up on any items. We could only bring back what we could fit in our suitcases. I didn't want to spend money on expensive clothes that would only be ruined by days at the store. My one major purchase (besides a suitcase full of books) was a new digital SLR camera.

Tulita means "where the waters meet" in the local language. Here you can see the cold and crystal clear waters of the Bear River merging with the muddy waters of the Mackenzie. There is probably a 10 to 15 degree temperature difference between the waters. There is supposedly good fishing on the border of these two waters, although you need a boat to fish there.

The slopes of Great bear rock as seen from the air.

Another part of the rock. The swath cut through the trees in the center of the picture is the winter road.

Bear rock from the airport.

This picture was taken at the dump. This doesn't show how incredibly big these ravens are.

The Mackay Range mountains are a dominant feature of the landscape around Tulita. The first picture was taken from my yard. The second from the airport above town. I'm beginning to wonder when I'll get tired of taking pictures of this scene.

Bears in their natural habitat. (I wish).

Ursus aviation is the local charter company. Their motto is: "Don't be fooled by the orange and brown paint job or the orange shag carpeting in our planes. We do regular engine maintenance!"

Believe it or not, Mac the dog can fly. I have proof in these two pictures.

A chance picture I took one Sunday morning. That's the old Hudson's Bay warehouse where we keep our furniture.

Images of the Norwetta heading south on the Mackenzie. Customers pay upwards of $5000 for a week-long one-way trip up the Mackenzie.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Dangerous Creatures

Last Thursday night I took the dog for a walk on the beach. It was getting late, and I had already driven up to the dump to get some pics of the bears with my new camera. But when I returned, Mackey was jumping around at the door, which is her way of asking to go out for a walk. So I took her down to the beach.

It was an uneventful walk, as far as I could tell. But when I got her back to the house, Nicole noticed something.

“Mackey has a splinter in her tongue!”

Mackey was sitting on the floor, looking up at us. Her tail was wagging and her tongue was hanging out. Sure enough, I could see a bi-colored splinter stuck in her lolling tongue.

“That’s not a splinter. That’s a porcupine quill.”

She was still looking up at us, apparently unaware that she had a huge spike in her tongue. I coaxed her onto the coach,. Then I tried to pry open her mouth and grab the quill. Her happy demeanor was quickly replaced by the scrunched up face of a resisting little child. As soon as I stopped she would resume panting and tail-wagging, her tongue hanging out as if to show off the quill.

The quill looked smaller than most I had seen. It didn’t seem to be in her tongue too deep, and she did not appear to be in pain. Yet I was beginning to worry. I had heard that quills slowly work their way into the skin. I had also heard that they have barbs like fishhooks that make them difficult to remove Throughout this whole ordeal, Nicole was very helpful. She mostly held Mackey’s head still and said things like, “Just grab it! Just yank it out!” Of course dog drool isn’t exactly sticky. It has what you might call lubricating properties. Any time I did manage to grab the quill, it slipped out of my fingers.

At this point, I did what any college educated person is bound to do when action isn’t working. I switched to research. A quick Google search of “porcupine quill in dog mouth” brought up all sorts of helpful links. They all showed disturbing pictures of dogs covered in quills and said things like:

“A few porcupine quills in a dogs face can usually be removed by the owner, but quills in the mouth will probably require a trip to the vet so that the dog can be sedated.”

I got up form the computer in disgust. A trip to the vet would probably cost us at least five hundred dollars. We would have to borrow a kennel, make arrangements to get her on the plane, make arrangements to pick her up. All because the damn dog had decided to see how a porcupine tastes.. I felt like an American parent who has learned their child has done something stupid and will need an expensive trip to the hospital.

The problem, I decided, was that Mac kept pulling her tongue into her mouth whenever I tried to grab the quill. If only there was some way to make her stick her tongue out.

I went to the cupboard and grabbed the extra large jar of peanut butter we had mailed to ourselves last year. I spooned some into a bowl, and then jammed my fingers into the mess.

“Here Mackey!”

Now instead of pulling her head away, her little tongue was darting in and out like a piston. This didn’t make grabbing the quill any easier. Neither did the great globs of peanut butter stuck to my fingers. At eleven o’clock, we gave up and went to bed.

In the morning, the quill was still there. Because she didn’t appear to be in any pain, we decided that there was no rush. Nicole made plans to call the vet for advice. We thought that maybe they could send up a mild sedative that would allow us to get the quill out.

As we were getting ready for work, Mac came in the bedroom and jumped up on the bed. She was lying on her back with her mouth open. Nicole and I looked at each other, and within seconds, she had grabbed the dog and I had grabbed the quill. It came out very easily, and Mac didn’t even flinch.