When my dad was a kid, he lived in a shack with seven brothers and sisters—and without running water. When he played road hockey, his friend would arrive by dog sled. Growing up, my dad’s store smelled like fur; there’d be hundreds of pelts on the old trading post’s counters. Once, he was shipwrecked on Great Slave Lake after a wicked storm. He dove down into the sunken boat in frigid September waters to get a can of beans and froze for five days on a tiny rock sticking out of the lake, only rescued after using the boat’s old sail to flag down help.
Me? I can’t get the Y-bones out of a jackfish fillet. My home is always toasty warm. I’ve never shot an animal. In fact, I spun out of control once after braking on an icy highway for a plump ptarmigan crossing the road. Still, we are both self-proclaimed Northerners.
Does that disparity make me a fraud? Thinking about what my great-grandpa did to make a living—barging to the North and trading supplies on the shore of the lake with prospectors—and then myself now, sitting at a desk on the 8th floor of an office building, I can’t help but feel a fake, talking the talk but never having walked the walk.
But then I go south and my university peers are shocked when I tell them about the midnight sun and our regular power outages. To them, I’m a sort of pioneer. “No Starbucks?!?” Is that the modern equivalent of the reactions southern relatives of fur traders and prospectors had: “What do you mean, a shack in 50-below?”
I can’t help feeling a silent hierarchy in the North. It’s like
everybody’s got to meet a certain set of criteria—you own a canoe, have either befriended or made your rug out of a wild animal, or cut and collected your own firewood—in order to walk around confidently with the label of ‘Northerner.’ And for me, any feeling of inadequacy in that department hits me right in the gut, because it’s such a huge part of my identity—especially when I go south into what can sometimes feel like a different world.
It’s hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it comes from hearing my dad and his friends—who did their business in honey buckets and drank homebrew—talk about the North like it’s gone, like an old friend who’s passed away. The yarns are sprawling and lively right until the end, when the teller affirms, in a burly, booming voice, “Yep, times just ain’t the same anymore,” followed by a swig of rye. The listeners nod, take a sip in agreement, in tribute. And I take the burden onto my back, feeling uncomfortable, like I haven’t lived up to that ideal.
The North was a different place back in my dad’s, my grand-dad’s, and my great-grand-dad’s day. It was unregulated territory; you made your own rules. Even though it successfully hid for a while from the world’s fast-moving development, it couldn’t hide up here forever. Now, much of the North is connected to the outside by road, all of it by air and communications technology. Life, for the most part, has gotten easier, more comfortable. Naturally, each generation gets softer.
I realize it’s all about perspective. Sure, my challenges are lesser than my dad’s were, but living up here is still mighty different than life down south. All the peculiarities of life in the North, what makes it so different and so magical, are why I’ll always come back and always be proud of where I come from. And even if I can’t fly my own bush plane or survive out on the land for weeks at a time, I’m still a Northerner. How do I know for sure? Because I love the tinge of airsickness I get in my uncle’s Cessna 180, since it means I will soon be landing at my old wooden cabin on Consolation Lake; I don’t panic when the power goes out in -40 C—I actually relish it—because that means we get to light every candle in the house and gather around our fireplace, saved for only those occasions; and I’ve discovered my ideal hangover cure is jumping into any old lake around me.