This photo is of the interior of All Saints Cathedral in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, where I spent my 10th to 12th years.
Above the Arctic Circle
I was a navy “brat” and when I was ten years old, practising for my very first ballet recital, my father announced that we were posted to the Northwest Territories. My heart sank. I was sure I would be the next Anna Pavlova and now I would miss my debut to move 2, 592 miles away from Ottawa. I doubt that the National Ballet missed me and for my part, I am so glad that I didn’t miss the adventure of my life above the Arctic Circle.
Our preparation to move including putting most of our belongings in storage. Mom and Dad had received a long letter from the current commander of the northern naval facility listing all the things that we should pack to be equipped to live in Aklavik such as long underwear, lined trousers, heavy socks and warm sweaters as well as a good supply of mosquito repellant called 6/12. Mom and Dad crated up two huge wooden boxes of our supplies that were to be shipped to Aklavik by barge. We packed up our car and drove across Canada to Edmonton where we spent a few days with relatives and then took a Pacific Western flight on a DC3 to Inuvik (then known as East 3).
Inuvik was just being built when we got there. The buildings all had to be raised up above the permafrost on large pillars which were pounded into the permafrost by very noisy pile drivers. We were not able to fly immediately to Aklavik as the float plane we were to travel in had “blown up” in the harbour which probably meant that the engine had blown something mechanical. So we had to stay in Inuvik until another plane was available. There are only three ways to get to Aklavik (even now). You can reach it by plane anytime (depending on the weather), by ice road in the winter (frozen river) or by barge in the summer.
Aklavik is the northwesternmost settlement in the Northwest Territories, on the Peel River Channel of the MacKenzie River delta, below the Richardson Mountain range. At the time we were posted it had a population of about 1600 people, mostly Invialuit, Gwich’n and Metis. Aklavik was settled around a Hudson’s Bay Trading post by two founding families – Pokiak and Greenland in 1912 and grew in number due to the excellent trapping, hunting and fishing in the area.
The Federal government was concerned in 1953 that the flooding and erosion would make the settlement ultimately untenable and so decided to establish a new “model” northern town in Inuvik. However, due to the efforts of my grade 7 teacher and principal of the Aklavik Day School (as it was known then) A. J. (Moose) Kerr, a tall red-headed determined fellow and his committee, the hamlet of Aklavik did not disappear when half the population re-located. Due to their efforts Aklavik lives on and is thriving with a brand new school named after Moose Kerr, a Fur Factory, a crafting guild and has produced many parliamentary figures, musicians, and artists.
We finally flew to Aklavik in a six seater airplane – enough for our family of five and the pilot. I had been horribly airsick in the DC3 which was a milk run that stopped at every airport on the way north, but I was too excited looking down over the amazing Mackenzie Delta with sparkling blue lakes as far as our eyes could see to notice the motion of the plane. We landed in Aklavik at the beginning of June, near the closing of the school year. The naval officer my father was replacing brought the station jeep and took us on a tour of Aklavik. At that time Aklavik had a very rough runway, large petroleum tanks on the banks of the river, a bakery, a Hudson’s Bay Store, two residential schools one Roman Catholic school and one Anglican, an RCMP headquarters, a Royal Canadian Legion, a gift store that sold magazines and comic books as well as other things, a tourist home, two churches, a radio station CHAK (established in 1946), a Native Hall, a Northern Affairs office and a post office. Other than a few jeeps and in winter dog sleds and enclosed snowmobiles, there were no cars. We did a lot of walking on the boardwalks that went around the buildings. In the springtime the boardwalks were necessary as the mud was thick and boot-sucking.
Our new home was a small two bedroom house with the only basement in Aklavik. In the basement was a huge water cistern and room to store the all important beer supply for the naval base. The drinking water for the house was in a metal tank with a spigot and every day a huge block of ice was dropped into the tank to which was added a chlorine tablet. The toilet facilities were inside but they were not flushable and were emptied once a week. We had a refrigerator, but our meat was stored in an outside box which remained frozen in the winter.
Our family had to get used to many new ways of doing things up north. Our bedroom windows were always covered with heavy blankets to ward out the winter cold and the summer midnight sun. Our clothes had to be ordered by catalogue, as well as our Christmas presents and they would arrive by barge in July. Most of our food was dried – potatoes, onions, carrots etc. and reconstituted with water. Any fresh fruit and vegetables arrived by plane from Nome or Anchorage, Alaska. Milk was a daily mixture made from powdered milk which we learned to like (sort of). In summer we all wore shoes but our mukluks were worn inside and outside in the winter.
Parkas were a necessity and so one of the very first things Mom did was take us all to the local seamstress to be measured for our parkas and mukluks. That was an experience. The venerable woman who measured us used a string with knots in it for each of us. For our mukluks she simply stood us on a piece of paper and drew around our foot with a pencil. A month or so later we all had new winter clothes. Mom’s parka had a zipper, but we children had to take our parkas off over our heads. When we got to school we would slip the hood of our parkas on a clothes hook and back up to take them off. In the winter we all wore two scarves, one over our mouth and one over our forehead. We also had heavy fur mitts on braided woollen strings that held them on over our knitted mittens. During the winter months we walked to school in the dark and home in the dark. There were no snow days off.
Despite the remoteness of Aklavik, we had a lot to do. I joined the Junior Axillary of the Anglican Church, Brownies and the church choir. I loved singing in the choir. The younger members of the choir wore red cassocks, white surplices with ruffled white collars and small red caps. The older members wore black cassocks and white surplices. We dressed in the church bell tower and I remembered being fascinated at how quickly my Gwich’n and Invialuit friends could braid their long black hair and tie their braids with red ribbon. We had choir practice once a week and I loved learning all the beautiful hymns. In the church some were sung in the native languages and some in English. The church was especially lovely, having stained glass windows and the incredibly moving painting of the nativity behind the communion table. It was painted by a woman artist (I wish I knew her name) especially for the church and sadly photos are all that is left now, as the church burned to the ground on Palm Sunday in 1974.
One of my most treasured memories is of the spectacular Northern Lights. I remember leaving church after the evening service and walking home under the celestial curtain of bright crimson and deep green. It waved and crackled overhead in a light show no July 1st fire crackers display could rival. It was magical, as so much of that amazing experience up north was. I don’t think the thrill of dancing in my ballet recital at the Capital Theatre in Ottawa would have compared to the thrill of watching the dancing colours of heavenly splendour almost every winter night.
Our Aklavik home. Mom would type her letters home in the front porch during the summer, but in winter it was frozen solid with ice on the inside walls.