Tuesday, April 29, 2008
If you are online tonight, you still have time to vote. Lots of good reading to be found.
I woke up just before my alarm, around 6am on a Saturday morning, to catch my flight to Paulatuk. I was offered a seat on a charter by a resources start-up called Darnley Bay Resources. Myself along with two reps from the company arrived at the airport a bit after 8. Of course the plane was nowhere near ready to take off. The pilots had rolled in just before us.
Although they did their best to get the plane going, the pilots were at first unable to find someone qualified to drive the fuel truck. Welcome to a small town on a Saturday morning.
The mining guys shuffled impatiently and checked their watches. Representatives from the community corporation who were there to help the community did the same. This was funny because they were actually the owners of the airline, and they had no more power to speed things up than anyone else.
We took off about 45 minutes late. But then again lateness is just an idea created by people with watches. In the North, you’ll get there when you get there.
I was able to see the tree line once we got in the air. An hour later we came down through the clouds above the frozen Arctic Ocean. A string of dots lay on the treeless coastline. Welcome to Paulatuk.
They picked us up in a big shiny 15-passenger van and drove us three minutes to the school gym. From there I bid my friends adieu and set out on foot to see the town. The sun was out and it was just a bit below zero. At 10:30 on a Saturday morning, everything was quiet. There were no real signs of life except for the sled dogs tied out on their leashes.I was drawn to one old building overlooking the water and spent a few minutes taking shots from different angles. Just about every other building in town was standard government housing. A hundred years ago, Paulatuk had whalers passing through. This one building may have seen wooden sailing ships docked out in the bay.
One old man I spoke to that morning by the name of Charlie Thrasher said he himself was a descendant of the whalers that came north to make their fortunes.
As soon as I told him I was from the paper, he asked me if I was getting it right. He didn’t specify what “it” was. He also told me that global warming is “bullsh*t” and pointed out all the snow around town to prove it. He said this is the latest spring he has ever seen, and he was most certainly well past 60.
Paulatuk has suffered through a lot of unusual blizzards this past April. It is usually to cold and dry to snow very much this far north. Although Mr. Thrasher might see more snow as evidence against global warming, it is more likely proof of climate change: more moisture moving in from the south and temperatures warm enough to allow it to snow.
The mining guys were in town to ask the community’s permission to drill on their land. Paulatuk is home to one of the great mysteries of the geological world. The Darnley bay anomaly was discovered in the 1950s by INCO Mining Corporation. The Geological Survey of Canada also knew of the anomaly. Although they never bothered to mention it until the 1990s, when Darnley Bay Resources staked the mineral rights.
It sounds like something from a Stephen king novel. The anomaly is a “blip” in the earth’s magnetic and gravitational field. It means there is a large, dense body somewhere below Paulatuk. The mining company is betting that it is mostly nickel and other metals.
82-year-old Leon La Prairie, the company president, is determined to get a drill bit down there to see what the heck it is. He was working for INCO back in the 50s when the anomaly was discovered. La Prairie chatted with residents and shuffled around the gym, leaning on his cane. At the end of it all, he got approval to do the test drilling.
Before the community voted, we were treated to a meal of caribou stew, caribou soup, and straight-up boiled caribou. It was good. At least the stew was. I wasn’t in the mood for soup, and the boiled caribou was more for the elders.
The mining company also brought Tim Horton’s donuts, which are a real treat up here, even if they are a day old. In the North, most communities make “traditional” or “Eskimo” donuts. These are a sweet, light, fried bread. There was a plate of these sitting next to the caribou stew. I ate three. Tim’s could take a page from Paulatuk’s recipe book.
The other thing the mining company brought was oranges. Two whole cases, to be exact. This was probably at the suggestion of an elder, or someone who occasionally travels to remote northern communities once every few years. People traveling to the North seem to think that kids are going to go wild for fresh fruit, or that they only get it at certain times of the year. I’ve read stories about barges coming up the Mackenzie at the turn of the last century. They would bring oranges and give one to every child in every town. I hate to break this to everyone, but it’s not 1942. They’ve got papaya and mangoes down at the northern store. Give the kids their donuts.After the meeting there was a lot of hustling to get back on the plane and back to Inuvik. We had to go track down the pilots, who were sleeping off Friday night at the hotel. I was a bit concerned with the water they were guzzling on they flight back, but the landing was flawless. I slept most of the way. I wish I had more time to talk to the elders, and round up a few more stories, but you’ve got to take what you can get up here. I just hope next time I can get up there in the summer.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The road to Tuktoyaktuk mostly follows the path of the Mackenzie River. It took us three hours to get there. For the first half hour we were stuck behind a large dump truck, presumably hauling a load of gravel to Aklavik.
For the first hour there wasn’t much to see. The road was solid ice covered with drifted snow. It was very clean. I recall flying past an empty can of red bull, and the elbow of a stove pipe. There was no other litter.
There were hills to the left of us, trees and low shrub to the right. About an hour in, I saw something that seemed to stand out against the plains. Nicole dismissed it as small tress or shrubs at first, but as we got closer we realized it was a herd of reindeer.
Reindeer are domesticated caribou. There is little difference except in temperament and color. Reindeer are much more docile than caribou. A man on a snowmobile was leading the herd.
As I was standing up on a snow bank, snapping pictures of the reindeer, I turned and noticed an animal running on the other side of the road. At first I thought it might be a fox but after Nicole saw the pictures, she told me it was a wolverine.Note: Correction. On closer inspection of the phots, it was a fox.
When you look at a map that shows the tree line, Inuvik is right on the edge. In fact we had to go about an hour and a half north before we realized we were above the tree line.
One might think that thee tree line is just an idea, or that the end of the trees is a much more gradual process. It was, from what I can see, almost an invisible line. There is literally a point where the trees suddenly peter out to nothing. I was in a hurry to get home when I noticed this, so I didn’t stop for a picture. Maybe next time.
It wasn’t easy to tell when we left the delta and drove out on the Beaufort Sea. We kept checking our GPS. The frozen shoreline became apparent after a while. It was different that the hills in the delta. The road is build offshore, on the ice. The road is bright blue when it is not covered with ice. It is a strange, frostless ice full of cracks. Driving on the ice was smoother than driving on the gravel of the Dempster, with very few “potholes.” But it was wavy in places. When a truck was driving towards us with its headlights on, it bounced up and down ever so slightly so that it looked as if he was flashing his high beams at us. Occasionally you would hit a crack in the ice.
Tuktoyaktuk was visible long before we reached it. Near the edge of town you can see two “pingos,” which are distinct hills that are formed through the thawing of permafrost. I had seen at least a couple on the way up. They are impossible to miss on an otherwise snow covered tundra. I would love to see the tundra in the summer. In the winter, it is not much to look at. Perhaps that is why pingos are so loved among the people of tuk. They provide natural scenery. The area just outside of the town has been set aside as “pingo national park.”
Tuk looks like so many other northern towns, with a lot of the same government housing. I’m sure it would be pretty in the summer, and it does have its scenic parts. I ran into Sister Faye, someone I had only known as a voice on the phone. Nicole and I were up exploring the old churches in town. Sister Faye was going into “Our Lady of Grace” Catholic church to start up the furnace. She said that they now only use this church for Christmas, Easter, and confirmation. On this day she was getting ready for confirmation.
Sister told me to walk right into the church, and to check out the Anglican church as well, which was a small log building near the Catholic church. She said they always keep them unlocked.
I walked into both. The Catholic church was beautiful on the inside, with ornate woodwork and painting. The Anglican Church, true to its protestant roots, was more humble. It was all I could do to stop myself from pulling the rope in the porch that led to the bell.
There was a tiny, fold up pump organ near the altar of the Anglican church. It was the size of a large suitcase, and it hand a handle on the top. It looked old. I suspect it might have come up on a whaling ship. It looked as if it were designed to be used on a ship, brought out for Sunday mass no matter where the crew might be. Then again, it might have been ordered out of the sears catalogue in the 1940s.
I think I became fixated on the ship idea because there is a large wooden sailing ship not far from the church. It too is owned by the church, and Sister Faye told me that they will be having the ship and Our Lady of Grace painted this summer. The Anglican church is mostly bare logs, and except for the window trip it looks as if it has never seen a drop of paint.