Tuesday, April 29, 2008


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.


Rob Nicholson said...

I like the picture of the sik sik. I couldn't get them out of the warehouse when I was there. Good times.

George Lessard, The MediaMentor said...

In the North... the colors and designs of old buildings like the one in this post... often will give away their original owners... the style and color of this one makes me think that it was probably a Roman Catholic missionary building... less windows.. a slightly different roof line and the color red instead of green... usually indicates the Hudson's Bay company...