Above the Arctic Circle

All Saints Cathedral- Aklavik

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 home in Aklavik

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.

Dogs I Have Known and Loved

Dubbie as a pup
I’m holding Dublin at the cottage.
Dublin in the snow
Dublin at 17 years old.

I was terrified of dogs until I was ten years old. I always wondered why, and one day, several years ago, I asked my elderly mother what she thought the reason might have been. She considered the question for a few moments, and then told me it might have been something that had happened to me when I was about a year old. My parents had taken me to visit some friends of theirs who owned a big German Shepherd. They had left the room for just a few seconds, when they heard me wailing and came into to find me flat on my stomach with the big dog’s paws on my back. The dog was either being playful or (more likely) showing this little “scene-stealer” just who was boss. Naturally, ever after that I gave dogs, big or small a wide berth. Until I was ten years old.

By the time I had my tenth birthday, my father, a naval officer, had been posted to Aklavik in the Northwest Territories. The home we moved into there had a dog and a cat whom we “inherited” from the family who’d just moved out. They were moving to the “outside”, as people up there referred to anywhere south. Just about everywhere was south of Aklavik which is on the Peel channel of the MacKenzie River, about fifty miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Since I had to cohabit with a cat and a dog, I had to get over my fear quickly. “Corky” was a golden haired cocker spaniel with a very gentle disposition. As a matter of fact, the poor fellow was harassed by PussPuss, the cat, into grooming her whenever she wished. If he refused she would swat him with her paw. Occasionally, she would even ride around on his back. I think he was much relieved when PussPuss had to be put down after contracting distemper. I really came to love that dog. He seemed to know how to comfort me when I was upset and he loved chasing a stick. He also joined in the husky howling chorus when the evening curfew horn sounded. Sadly, we had to leave Corky behind when we were posted out of Aklavik. He would never have been able to adjust to traffic after living in the north.

My next close encounter with a dog was when my husband and I lived above a garage north of Toronto. “Shandy” came into our lives accidently. We had been hearing a whining noise outside our apartment. Bud went down to investigate and found a dog, about a year old, that looked a bit like a German Shepherd, but was a slimmer build, blond in colouring with black around her ears, on the tip of her tail and around her mouth. We kept her overnight and then searched the newspaper ads for lost dogs. Finally we took her to the local dog shelter and asked them to call us if anyone claimed her. After a sleepless night, we gave Bud’s father a call and asked him if he would be interested in owning a dog. He’d had a wonderful dog called, Rinty, growing up and so he was very interested. We then returned to the shelter and paid for the dog’s keep. I named her on the way home, not realizing how appropriate her name was until later. “Shandy” evidently refers to a lively, mischievous character as well, of course,to a combination of beer and gingerale.

Shandy had an unfortunate habit of chasing cars, probably because a car had let her out and sped off. It happens often, sadly, because some ignorant and cruel people seem to think that farmers have a continual need for stray pooches and that dropping a dog off on a country road is preferable to leaving them at an animal shelter. Obviously, some people forget that cute puppies eventually grow into adult dogs. Eventually, we broke Shandy of her car chasing and took her home to Bud’s father, who just loved her. She was a good companion for Bud’s parents and lived to the ripe old age of 13.

Bud and I were not in a position to own a dog until we had our own home in the country. Again, we became dog-parents accidently. We had two little boys and another baby on the way. I used to walk our sons down to the local cheese factory to buy treats (and cheese of course). There were apartments above the cheese factory and one of the renters had a lovely border collie dog who had just had a litter of puppies. Boys and puppies have a natural attraction to one another. We were invited to “see” the puppies who were the offspring of “Sparky”, the mother, and the dog that belonged to the owner of the factory. One black puppy, the rascal of the litter, took a particular shine to me and the boys. He began following us down the road when we made the return trip home.
Mama Sparky came right after us, grabbed the pup in her mouth and marched him right back home. It became a game for the pup and each time we went to the factory we would be followed part way by the pup and mama. Finally, with Bud’s agreement, we brought “Jet” home with us.

Jet was a great playmate for the boys, but he was also, as they called him, a “berserker”. Jet would tackle any animal that invaded our property, especially groundhogs. He had one fight that was very violent and I had to ask a neighbour to help me get them separated. Jet had a very badly slashed nose as a battle wound. Another time he chased a groundhog up a tree. He chased squirrels, mice, cats, anything that would run or fight. He even attempted to face down some escaped horses and a few dogs larger than he was. Doing so on our property was one thing, but on someone else’s property was a whole different story. You see, he had inherited one bad trait from his father, he liked chicken. That habit, you see, brought about the death of his father. We didn’t want Jet to expire from a bullet. Once he trotted back home with the carcass of our neighbour’s chicken. Another time Bud went to find him in the neighbour’s feather-covered yard just as Jet rounded the corner of the barn with the chicken in his jaws. It took him awhile to get over the shock of being discovered red-pawed, but Bud persuaded him to break that bad habit. Jet lived to be 15 years old, died of natural causes and was buried in our home pet cemetery.

It took us quite awhile to grieve over Jet, but I was looking up ads for dogs a long time. One day, our daughter, came home with the news that her friend had just got a border collie pup from a farm about thirty miles away and there was still one left of the litter. Of course, we went to see it. The address was a pretty farm that was a few miles west of a kennel that raised black labs.
After we met the small border collie mother, the owner took us to find the last pup. He was sitting under an old car in the garage. Having seen all his sisters and brothers disappear, this one was not about to share their fate. Finally “Rambunctious”, as they had named him, was coaxed out from under the car. He was a cross between border collie and black lab, though the farmer’s wife said she had no idea how that had happened. Obviously mama had gotten under the fence around the kennel down the road or daddy had managed to get over it. However it had happened, Rambunctious was re-named “Dublin” and came home with us.

Dublin was the most intelligent dog I have ever known. He responded to at least one hundred words and learned how to sit, stay and come very quickly. He was not another Jet, however. Dublin was a lover, not a fighter. He had an on-going romance with the neighbour’s dog,Rip, a jack russell, even after he had his operation. She often stopped by for a dog biscuit. Bud called her the “Toll Queen” because every time he went for a walk with Dublin, she was waiting for her dog biscuit at the side of the road. When it came to showdowns with other dogs or animals, Dublin preferred to exercise the greater part of valour. I think he just figured fighting was a losing proposition and avoidance was his best course of action. As Dublin grew, he resembled a small black lab with a head that was smaller in proportion to his body. However, he obviously used all his brain cells. He learned to go and get my slippers and if he only came back with one, all I had to do was point to the foot without a slipper and he would go get it also. We would hide bits of dog biscuit around the living room and he would find each one on command. He played dead when we pointed our finger and said “pow pow”. Sometimes though his tail would be moving so we would say “hey, your tail is moving” and immediately it would stop. He knew which was his right paw and which his left when we asked him to shake one or the other. He was a great companion and lived for 17 years.

While we had Dublin, when he was about six years old, our neighbours jack russell had puppies sired by a border collie down the road. Of course, we went to see them. One of the puppies was a black and white ball of fluff who kept her brothers and sisters in line. Our neighbour called her the “devil’s daughter” because she was so bossy. I fell in love with her and we adopted “Panda”. Panda was a lovely pup who grew up to look like a border collie with very short legs. I think she was convinced we had “dognapped” her because she continued to visit her mother next door even after all her brothers and sisters were gone. Whenever her mother, Rip, came over for her biscuit, Panda’s deep border collie bark would change to the high pitched yip, yip, yip of a puppy. Poor Rip was half the size of Panda, so when she saw Panda charging joyfully towards her, she backed up with an expression of doggie alarm that was truly comical. She didn’t stop coming for that biscuit though.

Panda was a joy. She was very affectionate and although she still ruled the roost, she allowed Dublin to be number one dog in our house. She and Dublin were a great deal of fun to watch. They often argued over the same toy and vied for our affection and attention. Dublin, however, outsmarted her often, by feigning interest in a toy to distract her from us and then while she took over the toy he would cuddle up to one of us. They would often chase the same stick. One time they grabbed the opposite ends and tried to go around a tree trunk, each coming out with half the stick. We had some wonderful laughs at their antics. Panda, unlike Dublin, was a bit of a berserker when it came to squirrels. She would sit on the living room bay window sill and begin to bark whenever the squirrels dared to climb one of the trees in our front yard. They would scatter when she launched from the front step. She loved playing frisbee and could jump to amazing heights after them. Once she even climbed part way up a tree. We loved that little dog. Unfortunately we only had her for four years. She was hit by a car coming back from visiting her mother one winter night and sadly, Bud found her on the way home from work. We were heartbroken.

It took us a long time to get over losing Panda. Now there were two graves in our pet cemetery. The year of the ice storm we found a jack russell wandering the road. We tried to make enquiries, but to no avail, so we took her in. We named her “Belfast” , “Bel” for short. She was very cuddly, but not a traveler. Whenever she was in the car she got very carsick. Other than that she was a good companion for Dublin. We found her around Christmas and had her all during the ice storm. At night, with electricity, we all bundled up in sleeping bags in the warmest room in our house and the two dogs settled down there with us at night. It got very chilly. At one point when the electricity was restored, our oldest son saw a sign at the local gas station/convenience store which indicated that someone was looking for their jack russell. We sadly returned Bel to her owners.

This experience convinced us that it was time for us to get another dog. We read an ad about a border collie/boxer mix female and decided to go and check her out. She was staying at the home of some people who rescued dogs. She was not a rescue dog, but the result of a “mistake”. Evidently, someone had a boxer they wanted to breed for boxer puppies, but a border collie got to her first.
Those border collies are obviously no slouches when it comes to doggy romance (ambitious too). Anyhow, we fell in love with “Ceilidh” right away and adopted her. I think poor Dublin’s nose was out of joint for quite a while, but he and she eventually became buddies. Ceilidh is a lovely girl, very gentle and playful. She is definitely border collie in appearance with her silky long coat, fringes on her legs and white bib but she is taller like a boxer. She is 5 years going on 6 now and loves to play with anything she can. We had some bumpy roads to begin with as she took a long time to house train, but she seemed to learn how to come, stay and sit by observing Dublin. She’s a good watch dog but uses her border collie bark only when she needs too. We are very fond of her and can’t imagine life without her.

I often think gratefully of Corky. If it hadn’t been for that sweet dog, I might never have learned the joy of canine companions. How unfortunate that would have been.

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