It's the first thing you'll come to when you cross into the North: a tidy building in a clearing in the forest. Congratulations, you've reached the 60th Parallel Visitor Centre. Welcome to the madness. By Katherine Laidlaw.
The first person I see is a discontented Swede. Two jugs of water weigh down her arms and a white bandana holds back her pink hair; binoculars dance around her neck. Her camper has 30 kilometres of gas left and the next gas station is 83 kilometres north of here. Welcome to the great white North. “But what can you do?” she says, resigned to her fate.
Her fate is to spend the night here, at the 60th Parallel Visitor Centre campground – the gateway to the Northwest Territories. I meekly offer her a cup of tea and my spork, but she declines, saying she’s got everything she needs in her RV. She’s on holiday with her husband. “I’ve never been to Canada,” she says. They’re both retired, so they flew from Stockholm to Vancouver, rented a camper van and hit the road heading north.
"North of 60" has long held a special fascination, drawing visitors to the magical divide where the provinces give way to the territories. Tourism is the third-largest industry in the NWT, behind mining and construction, and last year, about 10,000 people stopped at this visitor centre to say hello and pick up the free certificate that makes official their traverse across the 60th parallel. To many, this is the Canada they’ve dreamt about their whole lives. And here, at the entrance to the North, a little blue house on the side of the road is the portal to that dream.
It’s also where I’ll be working for the next five days, smiling from behind the counter, a friendly Parks employee and a fly-on-the-wall observer. How I spent my summer vacation? Putting the coffee on, writing “Arctic Adventurer” certificates, and providing answers ranging from “yes, that’s a muskox” to “no, this time of year isn’t the best for catching the Northern lights.” The North’s residents are a transient bunch, and its visitors are no different. I wasn’t sure two years in the North was enough to qualify me to work at the border, but I was willing to give it a go.
The guru at the gate is Garth Mackie, a lifelong Northerner who’s worked across the territory for years, including stints at Diavik Diamond Mine and running the Twin Falls campground just up the highway from where he now sits in his office chair. He’s nonplussed when I tell him why I’ve arrived at the centre – no one told him I was coming. “You can camp for free,” he says, waving a thin hand, all blue eyes and teeth beneath his faded blue Edmonton Oilers toque. Later, he drives his quad over to my site and unloads a trailer of firewood. After his initial hesitation, he now seems eager to have a camper staying put for a few days.
Once the owner of the legendary Hay River bar The Zoo (and, he says, an ex-champion broomball player), Garth lives out at the border in the summer and does contracting in the winter. On the side he books concerts; he talks wistfully of a failed attempt to bring Randy Bachman to Yellowknife and is mulling plans for a John Fogarty show. I ask him if he has a gun out here. Nope, he says, just a slingshot. He says it’ll be all “David and Goliath” if he meets a bear.
With Garth, who’s wiry, bald, and has a gold hoop earring in his ear, everything is a story. An offhand comment about firewood leads to a tale about when the woodpile started rotting last year at Twin Falls, so they gave away the wood to carloads of happy campers. A tourist’s question about whether there’s gas at Indian Cabins, a tiny settlement just south of here, sets him off on a story about the now-departed Swedes: Apparently, another traveller brought a jerry can of gas to the centre to repay an old debt and Mackie passed it along to the stranded couple.
The first morning of my new job, Garth has to go in to town. He takes a gold key from his key ring. “This opens absolutely everything in the park, every lock. Put it somewhere safe.” And then, just like that, the gatekeeper of the Northwest Territories is me.
I expect a deluge of Tilley-hatted RVers and adventurous young road-trippers, so I straighten up the Hay River tourism brochures, smooth out my grey Parks uniform, and wait. Time ticks slowly by and big-rigs hurtle past, leaving dust streaming from their tails. I inhale the smell of fresh lumber – the building still smells new, even though its $1.2-million overhaul was completed two years ago. I spin around in my office chair, daydreaming. The taxidermied animals on the walls seem to take on personalities – the muskox stretches out its hind leg like a ballerina; a black bear climbing up the centre post peers down at me, keeping a watchful eye; the two caribou near the ceiling gaze indignantly, as though asking how on earth they got up there in the first place as their antlers graze the ceiling.
Before long, Elsie Bouvier, a short, 66-year-old Métis woman with long grey hair clipped atop her head, wanders in through the back door and begins sweeping. It’s her first day working at the centre, too. She’s a part-time staffer, hired by Garth, with a penchant for bird-watching (“Is that a bunting? I think it’s a bunting,” she’ll say, pulling out her well-worn field guide). Elsie remembers a time when there wasn’t a highway like the one travellers arrive on today – just a dirt track, at best. “I don’t know if they appreciate it, you know?” she says. “It’s not like it used to be.”
Elsie is originally from Fort Simpson, though she’s lived in Hay River for years. She was married to a barge worker named Ernie before he died. “He was a river-boat pilot and I was standing on the shore, hair out waving like a mermaid,” she says wistfully. When I tell her it’s a beautiful image, she erupts in laughter. “What a story, eh! I wasn’t on the shore. But we did meet there.”
Then, finally, we’re interrupted by visitors: four burly Americans with brush cuts, piling out of a spiffy white Ford F-150. They stomp into the centre, two of them greeting me with stern nods. The other two don’t speak. They’ve just come from a bear-hunting trip in Alberta, the leader, Tom Taylor, explains. Sitting up straight, I smile and offer them coffee and brochures. They indulge in the java and poke around the centre. I ask what they’ll do with the bears they killed. “I got one with a nice blond face, we’ll get that one standing up. And the other one we’ll make into a rug,” Taylor says.
I struggle for more small talk: “Are you guys brothers? You have matching jackets.”
“He’s my wife,” one quips.
“If he keeps it up, he’s going to be taking a swim once we get to Twin Falls,” Taylor tells me before they march in a line out the door.
Seventeen teachers twitter around the centre on a Friday afternoon. Garth is back from town and we’re both manning the desk, but we seem to be outnumbered. “We’re going camping! We’re going to invade Twin Falls with full force!” says a young woman as she grins between the polar bear’s paws for a photo. Then she bounces up to the counter and examines the NWT Parks map on the wall. “How far is it to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary?” Oh god, I think, as my anxiety from elementary-school trivia competitions creeps up my spine. I invent an answer – um, 20 minutes? “Doesn’t it take more than three hours to get to Fort Providence from here?” she says accusingly, eyebrow cocked. Busted.
Before I can placate her with an official certificate, the quietest and scrawniest teacher approaches the desk, coffee cup in hand. “Do you know anything about a metal pole anywhere near here?” he asks. I stare at him, confused. He continues: “Supposedly it was planted in the ground by this guy named Muscany, and supposedly no one can take this metal pole out of the ground. I guess you have to take a quad ride to get there? Near Hay River?”
I look across the desk, baffled. Is he talking about … Excalibur? Garth pipes up. “Sounds like an urban legend to me,” he says, nonchalant. “I’m kind of a history buff,” the teacher responds. “It’s obscure, I thought it was worth asking. Muscany means bear poop in Cree.” He wanders outside. Another teacher approaches. “We live in Cold Lake, Alberta,” he says. “We don’t always get out too much.”
Later that night, as I’m creeping stealthily back to my campsite, clutching a whistle to stave off my bear-anoia, Garth waves me over to the firepit. He’s got company – Leon, a handyman-turned-hermit with a sooty face and neon-orange coveralls; Andrew, a young trapper who’s eschewed his parents’ life in town in favour of roughing it in a cabin along the river nearby; and Riel, Elsie’s son, a mine-worker on break. They’re celebrating, sitting on logs around the fire, rolling their own smokes and passing around beers. Today is Andrew’s birthday – he just turned 30. I also learn that he’s a YouTube phenomenon. His videos of life in the bush, starring himself and his black lab Charlie, have apparently received more than 1.5 million views.
Elsie eats wild goose in chunks, sprinkling salt onto each expanse of meat. Leon shouts out stories over the fire, recounting the time a black bear stormed into his cabin and he barely awoke in time to shoot it and save his son, who was sleeping just out of the bear’s grasp. Soon, he’s recounting the first time he was arrested, for stealing drugs from the evidence room in the Hay River courthouse. And then, as he gulps down more “sips” – what these bushmen call booze – his eyes well with tears. He recounts a scene from just the other day, when he shared a kiss with his ex-girlfriend in a parking lot in town. “It was the hardest thing I ever done,” Leon says, “pushing her away after feeling her lips touch mine. I don’t want to screw up what she’s got going.”
Eventually, talk turns to a man arrested a couple years ago for shooting his brother as he sat across the table from him in his cabin. Riel covers his face with a tea towel, leans away from the fire and pukes. Elsie packs up her goose and decides it’s time to go. Riel walks to the car and Elsie hops in the driver’s seat, a tiny woman at the helm of a massive silver pickup. “Honk when you get to 32!” Andrew calls – his cabin is 32 clicks down the highway. And with that, this unlikely group of border ruffians disperses for the night.
The next morning, all that remains of the previous evening’s antics are some charred logs. Garth makes me bacon and eggs and I’m wolfing it down as Andy Depner and Michelle Hammell stride excitedly into the centre, her a willowy redhead and him with a glowing mane of curly hair. “I came home and said – do you want to drive to Yellowknife this weekend?” Depner says. They pointed their car north from Wainwright, Alberta. “That was five days ago and now we’re here.”
“Well then, you guys definitely need official certificates,” I say, and Hammell’s eyes light up. “We read about the certificates! Neither of us have ever been this far north before!” The pair’s excitement is palpable. I tell them what someone told me when I first moved to Yellowknife. “If you dip your feet in Great Slave Lake, they say you’ll always find your way back to those waters. The North makes lifers out of people.”
“Think we’ll see some Northern Lights?” Depner asks, before climbing back into his SUV, jerry can swinging jauntily from a rope on the back. They honk goodbye, leaving smiles on my face and Garth’s.
I think of an older couple we saw a couple nights before, slicked with rain, nearing retirement and gloriously giddy to be on an adventure. “It’s on our bucket list, that’s why we’re doing the trip,” the man had said, peering over his round spectacles with a grin. They’d set off in their camper van for a six-week road trip from Sherwood Park, Alberta, said his wife, who was sporting a blond bob, a camo hat and a deep green jacket that looked ready for battle. Their smiles didn’t fade when we told them the route they’d planned, along the Liard Highway, would be a less-than-conventional journey. “The road is open but travel is not recommended,” Garth read to them from a website.
“We’ll just go slow,” the man said. “Just pack my bottle of wine! I’ll be fine!” his wife exclaimed. Before long, talk turned to spruce-hen fritters – “put ’em in batter and deep-fry ’em, mmmm …” – a sure sign of hungry travellers. The two headed back to their camper for the night.
Finally, on my last day, I’m reminded of how small a place the North really is. A lumbering man in jeans and a jeans jacket – the proverbial Canadian tuxedo – stands beside his little wife, who’s peering over her black spectacles at the names in the guestbook. “VanderVeen?” she wonders aloud. “I say VanderVeen because if they’re from Saskatoon, I’m related to them. Maybe they’re a teacher.”
The man and Garth get to chatting, and coffee talk turns to the good ol’ drunken days in Hay River. “You owned The Zoo?” The man bellows. “Maybe you’re the sucker who kicked me out! I used to go there to watch all the guys fight with their little girly fists.” His wife rolls her eyes. “You used to go there to fight,” she says. After the couple leaves the centre, I ask Garth, “Did you know those people?” He replies, “I do now.”
Later, when Roger Russell, his son-in-law Andrew Mackie and Mackie’s two sons straggle in, they’re weary. They’re towing a U-Haul behind their car for Russell’s son, who’s moving back North from B.C. Russell’s got a true Northern story – drove up on a lark after university and never looked back. He and his wife Leah are now fixtures at the Gold Range Hotel bar in Yellowknife every weekend, whirling around the dance floor. He talks dreamily of the early days in Yellowknife, and he’s delighted his son is coming home. It takes me a while, but we finally figure out that Roger is the dad of one of my friends in town, the sister of the man who’s making his homecoming on this trip.
The two young boys, though, are less keen to talk Northern lore, and once they tire of the playground out front, they fixate on the big-screen TV hanging next to a stuffed lynx on the wall. “Can we watch TV?” one asks. I explain that all we’ve got is a video about the Dempster Highway. This seems to satisfy them, though, and they sprawl out on the centre’s white leather couches and wait. I wrestle with the remote controls, hoping to achieve competency on my last day – because if you can’t turn on a TV, what can you do, really?
Finally, after resigning myself to my uselessness, the video flickers on and, in the heat of the moment, I throw my arms in the air in a triumphant fist-pump. Garth, who’s witnessed my entire struggle, just laughs. “Maybe I’ll just have to hire you someday,” he says, handing me his business card. And with my last task complete, I’m ready to hit the road again, certificate tucked under my arm, making it official.