UpHere Logo

Stories For A Long, Dark Winter

Stories For A Long, Dark Winter

Shapeshifters, a haunted hotel, the echoes of past wars—here’s what happens in the North when the sun goes down.
By Daniel Campbell, Laura Busch
Oct 14
2015
From the October 2015 Issue

I remember walking up on derelict cabins shrouded in ever encroaching brush along the shores of the Mackenzie River. Signs of existence—a beer can here, a chair there—scattered throughout, begging the question: when was someone (…or something) last here? Surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of uninhabited wilderness, these abandoned cabins could only be reached by boat, or Ski-Doo in the winter.

I’d arrived there by canoe in the summer, and the midnight sun filled the shadows no matter what time it was. Yet I couldn’t help but think of the long months of darkness to come when winter sets in, and what a ghostly sight these cabins would become as they sat there alone.

There are untold stories throughout the North, and tales whispered of what happens in the dark and on the land. The Dene, Métis and Inuit have their ghost stories, as do the settlers who arrived over the past hundred or so years. But what’s a story worth if it never gets told?  

Some Inuit believe that once a person encounters spirits, it is important they tell others or risk losing that memory—even their lives. By sharing the stories, victims of encounters with spirits might begin to recover from the trauma of hauntings. With that in mind, dim the lantern and read on. 

(Stories have been edited and condensed.)

Phantom shootings

Old battles still fought at the Rabbitskin River

Bob Norwegian, now living in Fort Simpson, NWT, grew up in the bush on the Rabbitskin River, in between Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River. His family lived peacefully in the area for generations, but the river’s violent past never seemed to go away.

“At Rabbitskin, through the centuries there were a lot of battles that took place. It’s almost a like a Little Bighorn of its own (laughs). My Uncle Leo, he’s passed away now, he was about 85-86 years old. Anyway, in his time when he was younger, he said that there used to be phantom shootings. Just muzzle loaders firing. It was only heard during the early spring when the ice was breaking up, and there’s not a soul around—just the immediate family there. There’s nobody else out in the bush there. You would hear two to three shots, it almost sounded like a shotgun, but you could describe a muzzleloader shooting as a different sound. It’s a gun from old times, from a long time ago. They put a cap in it. The cap is like a small .22 bullet. That goes off and then a split second later the black power catches and that explodes. Like ‘tat BOOM! Tat BOOM!’ You can’t really tell where it’s coming from. Our home base is right at the mouth of this Rabbitskin River and the Mackenzie joins on to it. You could hear shooting upstream or down below. 

“In the spring of 1935, when Uncle Leo was about 15 years old, he was hunting ducks way back out in the bush there. There was still a little bit of snow on the ground. Wet snow. And he’s walking around and he can hear ducks quacking back in there. He says ‘I’m sneaking through it. I’m sneaking through it.’ All of a sudden just on the other side, it’s just a little lake, a couple of shots went out—BOOM BOOM—and the ducks took off. And all of a sudden another shot went. And you know how when you take a shot at the ducks and they sort of sway because of the gun, when the bullets go by? He said they did that. ‘Who in the Sam Hill is that?’ he says. The lake wasn’t that big, so he said, ‘I’ll walk around and see who scared my ducks away.’  So he walks all the way around and there’s no human tracks. There’s no nothing out there.

“And Uncle Leo would ask his grandfather and say ‘What is that?’ He would say ‘Oh, that’s people from the past. A long time ago.’ I guess the way he explained it is that it’s a different dimension. You could hear them still alive here and there and shooting, but he said they’re not here. It’s not scary, that’s not the way we look at it anyway. It’s what we call phantom shootings.”

Lee and Kate

A mischievous sprite and the cashier at night

Lee Kirby is the dining room and lounge manager at the Westmark Inn in Dawson City, Yukon.

“When I first arrived in Dawson I was told about Kate, the ghost that lived on the second floor of the main building of the Westmark Inn. At first I didn’t believe anyone, but as time went on it became clear to me that ghosts are real and Kate was indeed living on the second floor. 

“At first it was the weird sense you get when you walk by an open room and could swear that you saw someone in the room. Once the lounge opened, it appeared that Kate wanted to get to know me. Within the first week she would turn the pop gun on when I was cashing out, usually sitting right in front of it. After a few times of this happening, I started to talk to her. This only encouraged her and then she wouldn’t turn it off until I picked it up and smacked it against the bar. 

“One night I was grumpy and yelled at her to stop pissing around. The gun immediately turned off and I felt this whoosh of cool air and she was gone. I thought that was it, but a few nights later as I was cashing out, there was a loud bang against the wall behind me. I thought it was a wrecking ball it was so loud. I jumped out of my seat, and looked at the wall, but saw nothing. I went back to my cash-out and there was another loud crash that made me jump again, just in time to turn and see the mirror fly off the wall, smack the table in front of it, bounce off and hit the wall again and thud on the floor. 

“It should have broke but didn’t. One of our maintenance guys looked at it the next day and said that there was no way it could have done what I said, as there was no damage to the mirror.

“Small things. Like one blind would move when I would leave the room for a couple of minutes. That went on all the time, and I enjoyed her mischievous ways as she was never hurtful.

“A couple of years after this there was a large group of East Coast tourists in the lounge having a grand ol’ time singing dirges. They started singing an old Irish ditty. A table was sitting in the middle of the group, but no one was touching the table. There was a glass of wine in the middle of the table, and as the group hit the chorus, it must have been Kate’s favorite song, because the glass shattered sending wine all over the place and just about everyone was at first shocked, but then cheered Kate and continued singing. 

“Unfortunately, Kate got quite upset once the main offices were moved upstairs a few years ago. We rarely see Kate anymore. She makes an occasional appearance, as she seems to have an affinity for our chief maintenance engineer. He had to stay in one of the rooms on the second floor for a bit of time at the beginning of the season. Kate would turn on the TV in the middle of the night [the remote was on the other side of the room], turn on the taps in the middle of the night, and drop small things like keys.  

“We all believe that she stopped being such a presence because there were too many people around, with the coming and going of the offices. She liked the bar, but I believe she resided in the hallway of the rooms adjacent to the lounge. We don’t have any background on her. We think she may have died on the property, but that can’t be corroborated. We call her Kate because we have a ‘Kate’s Suite’ on the floor where she ‘lives.’”

How to break a hex

And other lessons from the trapline 

As told to Laura Busch, by a man who requested we keep his name and community anonymous

“When I was growing up, I never really believed the old stories. I was one of those ones who would say, ‘But how could that happen?’ So, even though we hear all these stories about the medicine man who could do this or that, I didn’t really believe it until it happened to me. Now, nobody is going to change my mind. 

“I believe it all started out of jealousy. I was always a good trapper—my father was a great trapper, and he taught me, so there I was, this young guy who was maybe doing a bit better than some people thought he should. 

“So, one spring me and my cousin went to see this old guy who had a trapline not too far from mine to see if he was going to town ahead of us, because we were waiting for a plane and it’s springtime and we don’t have a radio. There was hardly any beavers so we thought maybe he’d be going back early and he could send our plane early. Anyway, we went to see him and he said no, but he said, ‘On your way back down the river, I have beaver traps and if there’s any beaver caught, could you shoot them to make sure they don’t get away?’ Well, there was one small beaver we seen on our way by and I told my cousin to shoot it and he did when we got close, but we didn’t even stop. 

“Anyway, when we got back to town, I was sitting in the game warden’s office and [the old guy] came in and had two Polaroids and throws them at the warden and says, ‘Look, this proves he stole a big beaver out of my trap.’ Well, the picture showed that a beaver got away from a trap, but there was nothing to indicate it was a big beaver. So now, the guy is out drinking and telling everybody that I was stealing from his trapline. 

“Eventually, I had a lawyer send him a letter saying, ‘If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to sue you for defamation.’ One day, I was having coffee and he comes in yelling and slaps me, so I take him outside. Right when he was about to grab me, I hit him—smack!—and knocked him down. I let him get back up but he kept following me. So I hit him again and broke his nose, so he quit. He was a big guy, too. Maybe six foot and 250 pounds. Me, I’m only 135. 

“When I’m out on the land by myself, sometimes I have dreams. Now, usually I would have dreams about how many animals are gonna be in my traps the next day or how good I’m gonna do this coming winter. But that year, I dreamt I wasn’t gonna do very good, but I didn’t know how bad.

“Before we went out to the trapline in September we were in Hay River at the Hudson’s Bay there and my wife was buying stuff and I was just standing around waiting for her when all of a sudden this old guy came. I couldn’t understand him very good because he couldn’t speak English very good. But he was telling me he came for a meeting and the bus left him and now he didn’t have any money to buy something to eat. And I didn’t have much money but I gave him $5—back then it was enough to buy a meal—and he was happy and left. 

“So, we went out to the bush and right away it wasn’t good. An owl got into our stuff and they took all the lard and spilled some flour and other things. Someone had stolen some of my traps too and I only had seven left. Now, for me, lynx were easy to catch so I started trying to catch lynx. Every five days I would go out and check and you could see the tracks where the lynx had been at the trap but didn’t get caught. This went on until December and I’d caught a few mink but no lynx. So, I brought my family back to town and a few days after Christmas I borrowed a Ski-Doo to go check the line. I got to the last trap and had to walk a ways up this trail to check it. I could see from the tracks that a lynx came right through here, but he went right up to the snare and it looked like he just stood there looking at it, then he turned back, jumped off the road and come up the back side to look at the snare from there. When I seen that, it’s just like I woke up. I thought, ‘There’s something wrong here. Something very wrong.’ Because, most of the time, lynx are easy to catch, or they might jump over the snare or go around it, but they won’t just stand in front of it. 

“So I got back to the cabin and was going to bed and started thinking, ‘Who can help me?’ And I went through everybody I knew, living or dead, just like a Rolodex. And then I thought about that old man in Hay River. There was nobody else there, so I started talking to him out loud. I said, ‘Okay, I helped you when you needed help, now you help me.’ And I kept saying that over and over. ‘I don’t know who you are, but help me.’ That night I had a dream. My dream was basically somebody in Fort Resolution had to die before I could catch anything. 

“I went back to town and we all went back out to the cabin together. A few days later, a guy came around and said, ‘Oh, did you hear this old man died in Fort Resolution?’ The next day when I visited my traps, I caught my first lynx that year after trying for more than three months. Five days later when I went to go visit the traps I told my wife, ‘I’m going to bring five lynx today.’ And she just laughed at me. So, when I come back she come running out and said, ‘So? Where are they?’ And I says, ‘Right here in the sled.’ January and February are the hardest time to catch lynx because it’s cold. But I caught 24. And I didn’t make any changes, it was the same bait and everything. The next year I caught 102. The year after that I caught 105.

“What I believe happened is that trapper, the jealous one, put a hex on me. And he could have put something out in the bush for me. And I believe that whatever I got [to break it] was from that old man who died in Res. That’s what I believe.”

A woman’s best friend

Or why you shouldn’t have tea with your dogs

As told by Bob Norwegian 

“My grandmother told me this story. There’s an old gentleman—well actually he’s a half-brother to my grandfather—that used to live at Rabbitskin River near Fort Simpson. His old wife, she died in 1940 of tuberculosis. 

“When my grandmother got married in the earlier years, she got to know that old lady living next door there. They always loved their dogs. They were real good sled dogs and all that. She was always fond of her one dog. It was black with a white collar.

“One morning in the fall time, it had snowed a little bit, about half an inch, and nobody could come in or anything. The river had frozen already. All of a sudden the old lady runs into my grandmother’s house. Her eyeballs are almost hanging out of her head. She runs in, and tells my grandmother, ‘Boy, a really strange thing ever happened to me this morning. I made some tea, and was sitting in the back room sewing. All of a sudden somebody came through the door. So I thought somebody must be passing through with a dog team. They came and sat inside there. So I came around and there was somebody dressed in black, with a white shirt.’ 

“The way I picture it is he looked like a Hutterite. You know, black suit and a white shirt and maybe a cowboy hat. This person was wearing a ‘chapeau,’ an Al Capone hat type of thing—and it was down on his face.

Illustration by Beth Covvey

“So the old lady said, ‘Oh you must have just came in.’ The person never said anything, he was just sitting there. So she said, ‘I’ll warm up some bannock and give you some tea.’ So she poured the tea and put it beside him. 

“She said she looked outside there, and it didn’t seem like her dogs were barking or nothing. Usually when a strange dogsled comes in, the dogs will start barking. Well, she said she didn’t give it any thought and went back into her room and put her sewing stuff away. She was going to go back and have a cup of tea and visit with the person, whoever it was. 

“Well she went back into her room but it sounded like the person went back outside—like he’d closed the door behind him and went back out. So she said, ‘Oh okay, maybe he’s going to go unharness his dogs.’ So she comes back to where the man was sitting, and the tea was drunk. 

“She opens the door, looks out, and there’s a little snow on the doorstep there. It looked like a dog walked in her house, and left again. You could see its tracks right there. And then the old dog, the lead dog of her dog team—the black dog with the white collar—is walking around outside taking a piss now and then among the other dogs. So she looks down again, and she says, ‘This is his tracks I’ve seen.’ 

“So she runs out and went over to my grandmother and my grandmother came over to witness it. The old lady said, ‘Yeah, the dog walked in my house and drank tea and left again.’ That was one of the strangest things that she says she’s seen. That was her own dog that visited her. The dog changed itself into a person for that old lady, and when the person left it was actually a dog that went out.  

“So the oldtimers would say, ‘Don’t love your dog like a person. It’s not a good thing.’ In those days the dogs were more or less hybrid. Part wolf. They were wild. So you don’t fool around with those animals. Even to this day I don’t practice that. I don’t have animals in the house.”

The bad-luck hunter

A cousin can’t shake his namesake’s curse

Jordan Konek is originally from Arviat, Nunavut, but now lives in Iqaluit, working as a video journalist with CBC North. He also runs Konek Productions, a film production team based in Nunavut.

“I have a cousin who’s named after my grandma’s sister. When he was born she said, ‘You’re not allowed to go hunting anymore. I don’t want that lifestyle anymore.’ Naming is important to the Inuit way of life. Whenever someone gives birth to a child, the parents name the newborn someone they are related to. That person can tell the newborn what their lifestyle is going to be like. It naturally begins to happen in their lives as they grow, even if they don’t know what their namesake said. It also works if that person is passed on. 

“So whenever we go hunting with my cousin there’s always bad luck or something going on. When we bring him, we don’t catch anything. One time we went out geese hunting with him, and my friend shot a goose, and it went down, and my cousin asked to go pick it up. When he went to go pick it up, the goose flew away.

“Another time I went out caribou hunting with him and my grandmother. I shot the caribou 20 times. Literally 20 times. There was guts falling out, and the jaw was down. I was trying to hit it in the brain, but the caribou wouldn’t die. 

“Whenever we go hunting with him it’s always something. It’s a cultural belief that there’s spirits still around; that they’re making their namesake live the life that they want.”