A Crossroads Town
They look like meercats, standing up on their hind legs with their front paws resting on a chainlink fence, glistening silky fur covering their long slender bodies, eager snouts and teeth ready to gnaw on anything that moves. At 10 weeks old, these future sled dogs haven’t learned their manners yet. In a practiced maneuver, Susan Fleck opens the gate to the puppy pen and ushers me in, then squeezes through before any of them escape. And then they attack.
The Mackenzie Highway put Fort Providence on the map when it was completed in 1960, connecting Yellowknife to the south
Yapping and wriggly, they pull at my snowpants, my coat, my scarf, my mittens, even my hair when I bend down to pet them. One finally yanks a mitten right off my hand and bounds away.
“Oh, you always snatch things,” says Fleck, laughing; she calls the pup over and retrieves my mitt.
“They’re pets to me,” she says as the other puppies swarm her, their attention diverted. “To Danny, they’re a hobby.”
Across the yard, Danny Beaulieu’s in a different pen, getting the adult dogs harnessed for a practice run along the trails he grooms every week in and around Fort Providence, NWT. It’s a lifelong hobby: he grew up on the trapline along the Taltson River, which runs south from Great Slave Lake, in the ‘60s, had his own team in the ‘70s, and he and his first wife raised their children in the bush. In the ‘90s, Beaulieu sold his dogs—“for personal reasons,” he says.
He thought his serious mushing days were over until his youngest son Daniel decided to get a dog team four years ago. After six months, Daniel junior gave up, and Danny took them on himself, broke them in, and when he got transferred to Fort Providence from Yellowknife in 2011, he and Fleck founded Stepping Stone Kennels. Their newly-adopted town hadn’t seen any races in 30 years when Stepping Stone hosted their first one three years ago in March. In December that year, they held a one-day race where mushers from the South Slave and Yellowknife could try out their young dogs. Since then, Fort Providence has hosted regional championships every March, fun races in April, and last January, they held trials for the Arctic Winter Games.
Stepping Stone Kennels doesn’t usually offer dogsled tours, but like everyone else in town, they also won’t say no to guests. When I meet them on that November morning, there’s not enough snow on the ground to take out the sleds, so the dogs pull a wheeled cart on their practice run.
“Three hundred dogs in the parking lot of the Snowshoe Inn. You can imagine what that’s like.”
It’s peacefully quiet, the wind sharp and frigid against our faces as the dogs follow their own tracks alongside the river. It’s Saturday, and hardly anyone else is out. But on race days, the community of 700 turns out to cheer on the starters, who come in from Fort Resolution, Hay River, Yellowknife, northern Alberta and northern Saskatchewan.
It makes sense for them to gather here. Fort Providence’s spot on the banks of Canada’s longest river, which flows northwest from the southwestern tip of Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea, and its location along the highway connecting Yellowknife to the south, make it a natural meeting place.
“Three hundred dogs in the parking lot of the Snowshoe Inn,” Beaulieu says at the end of the run, raising one eyebrow. Around him, his dogs bark in delight. “You can imagine what that’s like.”
The Snowshoe Inn is the first address you’ll see when you enter town from the highway, up the street from the church and around the corner from Stepping Stone Kennels. The cornerstone of the community, it stemmed from Snowshoe Crafts, a project Memoree Philipp launched from her kitchen in the early ‘60s. Over the years, the young teacher and her husband, Sieg Philipp, who set up diesel power stations throughout the NWT, built it up into a 35-room hotel, a restaurant, a bar, and a gift shop, straddling both sides of Deh Cho Drive. The buildings are clean and regularly maintained, but they haven’t changed much since the ‘70s: there’s wood panelling on the walls and red carpeting in the hotel, and the restaurant is more of a smalltown diner, complete with greasy burgers and milkshakes.
“The Philipp family, it’s always been their sight to do what’s best for Fort Providence,” says Linda Croft, who now manages the hotel. “That’s why they haven’t sold the place: they haven’t found the proper person to continue running it [that way].”
And though the Snowshoe Inn sponsors most of the hamlet’s bigger events, it’s not a monopoly. Independently of the Snowshoe, Croft has mentioned plans—with help from Susan Fleck—to organize a family-friendly music festival to replace the Mackenzie Daze, an annual summer folkfest that faded away two years ago. Fort Prov is now asking for it back. “People seem to be coming out of their shells,” says Croft. “There’s a fresher, newer, younger mindset coming into the community. With all of the youth that graduate, a lot of them go away and come back, and they bring those ideas and that persona with them.”
When it opened in November 2012, the predictions went every which way: the new bridge would bring in more traffic and jobs; crime would go up; it would destroy the town; it would breathe new life into it.
When it was settled in 1863, Providence was the first subarctic community that didn’t stem from a trading post—its Dene name, Zhahti Koe, means “mission house.” The Hudson’s Bay Company eventually caught up to it in 1868, tacking on “Fort” to the name, and bringing traffic from the barges and riverboats that travelled up Great Slave Lake.
Our Lady of Providence, the Oblate church built in 1899, marks the southwestern corner of the hamlet. On the outside, it’s a whitewashed, elegant building with sky-blue trim, and two electric-blue picnic tables out front to match. Yet inside, with its vaulted ceilings, stark white walls and wood panelling, it’s bright and drafty—and most days, completely empty. Except for Christmas and funerals, when a couple of woodstoves are fired up, the building isn’t insulated well enough for winter services, so they’re held in someone’s house. But that doesn’t shake anyone’s faith.
“The spiritual life of people here is very rich,” says Father Wes Szatanski, who’s lived in Fort Providence for the past seven years. Often, he says, services incorporate traditional fire feedings, and this summer, he and members of his congregation plan to visit nearby islands where local spiritual leaders are buried, to tend to the graves.
But one of the most touching memorials is at the very edge of town. Just past the church, there’s a gravel path that swoops downhill, past the boat launch and swimming hole, and back uphill toward the cemetery. There stands a large rock engraved with hundreds of names, a memorial for victims of a tuberculosis epidemic that swept through the North in the 1920s and '30s—the same epidemic that sent orphans across the Northwest Territories to Fort Providence for residential school.
The Mackenzie Highway put Fort Providence on the map when it was completed in 1960, connecting Yellowknife to the south—except for one small gap. For decades, a ferry shuttled travellers across the Deh Cho, its schedule prone to weather delays and, in spring and fall, break-up and freeze-up.
The bridge that now spans the Deh Cho and made the ferries obsolete had been talked about as far back as the ‘50s, endured several delays and false starts, and, in the end, took five years and $202 million to build. When it opened in November 2012, the predictions went every which way: the new bridge would bring in more traffic and jobs; crime would go up; it would destroy the town; it would breathe new life into it.
A year after the grand opening, many locals shrugged and said the town hasn’t changed much—except in the past, whenever the ferry was delayed, people would hang out at the Snowshoe Inn or the Big River diner, which is closer to the bridge. And now, Big River Service Centre is open 24/7 in the summers to accommodate late-night travellers.
Here’s another tip: If you know you’ll be travelling through Fort Providence, call the Snowshoe Inn restaurant a day in advance and order a dozen doughnuts. They’re baked, not fried, and they’re some of the best doughnuts you’ll ever taste
But Chris Mitchell, who took over management of Big River last July, says he’d like to see visitors stay longer than for just a cup of coffee. “There’s potential,” he says. Promoting local artists is one step. In addition to the gas station, diner and convenience store, Big River’s got a small crafts store—and he says the artwork they sell, such as Wayne Sanderson’s soapstone carvings and Emma Squirrel’s needlework, are world-class.
Then there’s Dene Fur Clouds, a local business that gets online orders from around the world for their high-end luxury scarves, headbands and hats made of sheared beaver fur. You can watch them being made in the store itself.
When I called up Nancy Bonnetrouge, a knitter and manager at Dene Fur Clouds, one day, I told her we’d never met in person because I’m only ever in town on weekends, when the store is closed. So she gave me her cellphone number. “You call ahead,” she said, “and if we’re around, we’ll open the store for you.”
Here’s another tip: If you know you’ll be travelling through Fort Providence, call the Snowshoe Inn restaurant a day in advance and order a dozen doughnuts. They’re baked, not fried, and they’re some of the best doughnuts you’ll ever taste—especially when you’ve been on the road for hours.