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Outpost: The Lost Kingdom of Grandview

Outpost: The Lost Kingdom of Grandview

Though the homestead and path to it are overgrown, the memories of the best place to stay on the Mackenzie River hold strong.
By Karen McColl
Feb 01
From the February 2015 Issue

Daniel and I stumbled upon Grandview accidentally. Sure, it’s loosely labelled in our guidebook, but we certainly weren’t looking for it. 

It was our third day of paddling since leaving the small Sahtu Dene community of Fort Good Hope, NWT, and we had been making fairly good time until some tricky sandbars forced us to make a wide detour around a couple of islands. Then a headwind picked up and with it came waves, so we decided to take a break from paddling. Not 50 steps from where we dragged up our canoe, we discovered a wide but overgrown trail leading up from the shore. I figured it would lead to yet another derelict cabin surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes but we followed it anyway, for something to do while we waited. 

“The Grandview. Where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”

After 100 metres of mild bushwhacking, the sticks gave way to a surprisingly large clearing, perhaps the size of two football fields. It was dotted with a few houses, sheds, tools and incredibly—since we were hundreds of kilometres from any road—several rusting Caterpillar machines and an old truck overgrown with vegetation. Beside the main house, there was a sign: “The Grandview. Where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”

An aerial view of Grandview from its hey-day. Photo by Kristine Bourque

It was a ghost town. Months later I learned about its ghosts: Fred Sorenson, the good-looking man, and Irene, the strong woman, both of whom died just over a decade ago. As Naomi, one of their above-average grandchildren, puts it, “Grandview will never be Grandview again without Fred and Irene.”

A small plane circles overhead. Visitors! Naomi knows that in less than an hour, her grandfather will drive his tractor up to the house and deliver the aircraft’s occupants. Who will it be this time—forestry workers? Surveyors? Family friends? She hears coffee brewing on the stove and smells something delicious baking in the oven. Her grandmother Irene calls out to her. “It’s time to dye my hair!” She and Naomi joke about putting on lipstick and make-up in anticipation of their guests’ arrival.

Naomi’s mother raised her and her brothers in Yellowknife but brought them out to Grandview each summer, when the place would become a bustling “roadside” stop on the river that served as the territory’s highway. Grandview sits 100 kilometres (three hours by boat) downriver from the closest community, Fort Good Hope, NWT. Labelled The Grandview on our map, the Sorensons’ home was built on a terrace overlooking the massive Mackenzie River. Fred built it as a logging camp, but Grandview’s legacy is for Fred and Irene’s hospitality. For nearly three decades, their reputation was known up and down the Mackenzie Valley and attracted visitors from around the world, many of whom returned again and again for good food and conversation.

During the peak of his logging operation, Fred supplied wood to every community in the Northwest Territories that had houses built on pilings.

Laura Mackenzie (nee Sorenson), who now lives in Northern B.C., says her parents chose to settle at Grandview in ’71 for its access to good timber, proximity to a pre-existing airstrip and relative flatness. Its sweeping vista over the river was a bonus. Fred logged and ran a sawmill, employing fallers, peelers and skidder operators from nearby communities.

During the peak of his logging operation, Fred supplied wood to every community in the Northwest Territories that had houses built on pilings, and provided the lumber for power poles. At that time, the river was deep enough that river barges could pull right up to Grandview’s shore and take the timber downriver to Tsiigehtchic or Inuvik or to destinations upriver. Workers would set up camp at Grandview with their families for the summer, and Irene also ran a bed and breakfast. She was a tremendous cook and fed loggers and other work crews as well as hunters and paddlers who stopped by.

McNeely says Fred once had to cut a chunk of his own bone out of his muscle and stitch himself up after an accident...

Winston McNeely met Fred and Irene shortly before they moved to Grandview. He arrived at their camp across from Little Chicago Creek wet and cold after travelling on the river. He first met Fred, who sent him to Irene. She served him and his partner hot coffee and a meal of stuffed rabbit and “everything that goes with it.” Living out an isolated bush-life as they did, Fred and Irene were known to help all who passed through, whether that meant fixing a snowmobile, providing some boat gas or serving up coffee and a hot meal. McNeely’s first encounter with the Sorensons was the beginning of a long, storied friendship that he thinks back upon fondly from his home in Fort Good Hope, at 72 years of age.

Naomi and others describe her grandfather Fred as “a man’s man.” He was strong, tough as nails and always working in jeans and a plaid shirt. McNeely says Fred once had to cut a chunk of his own bone out of his muscle and stitch himself up after an accident while he was out on the land. “He showed me that piece of bone,” the 72-year-old recalls with a chuckle. Fred could also be harsh. One time, McNeely was drinking whiskey with Fred and a traveller who had accidentally burnt down Fred’s smokehouse while he was doing some work at Grandview. When the visitor went to pour himself a second drink, Fred grabbed the bottle. “You want more?” He growled. “Well—get your own.”

“If Grandview is renowned for anything, it’s for my grandmother’s love.” 

Naomi’s mother, Kristine Bourque (nee Sorenson), admits her father could be difficult to get along with, but he always had a smile on his face. He was very particular, she says, a trait she thinks rubbed off on all his children. Naomi says Irene tempered Fred perfectly. 

“If Grandview is renowned for anything, it’s for my grandmother’s love,” says 35-year old Naomi, who currently lives in Nelson, B.C. Irene was the “epitome of ‘kind.’” 

The Sorensons weren’t originally from the North, but they made it their home. Fred was born in 1926, Irene in 1927, and both grew up in Saskatchewan. They got married in their early 20s and lived in Northern Alberta before moving to Inuvik with their children in the ’60s, when the government-planned community was still being built. They moved up the Mackenzie River to Arctic Red River (Tsiigehtchic) and then to various logging camps farther upriver before settling at Grandview with their two youngest children, Ramona and Roald. Their four older children, including Laura, went to a residential school in Inuvik and came to Grandview during the summer.

In their first house at Grandview, Irene cooked over a woodstove and used a moss-covered hole in the permafrost to keep things cold. Laura remembers her mother sometimes having an extra 15 or 20 mouths to feed with all the men working at her Fred’s sawmill. 

Irene Sorensen, the strong woman boasted by the welcome sign at the homestead. Photo by Kristine Bourque

The Sorensons’ first house burnt down in the ’80s, so they built another home that eventually had a gas stove and fridge and a generator for doing things like watching TV, but they never had plumbing. Water was pumped from the silty Mackenzie and left to settle in huge barrels or hauled up as ice in the winter. They never purified it, as far as Naomi remembers. Communication was by radio, which she says was always played at full volume so it could be heard from outside the house. There was a small garden, and at one point Grandview housed up to 100 chickens. Fred hunted and trapped, but they also brought in supplies by boat, plane or snowmobile at least once a month.

“It was a hard life,” says Laura. Living off the land at Grandview was Fred’s dream, she says, and despite the hardship, Irene stayed by his side.

Demand for lumber slowed down in the ’80s after the Dempster Highway was built and more supplies started being transported north by road, so that’s when Fred turned to trapping full time.

“It was a hard life,” says Laura. Living off the land at Grandview was Fred’s dream, she says, and despite the hardship, Irene stayed by his side. Winters could be lonely, with few workers or visitors and a difficult three-hour snowmobile trip to the nearest community. Irene would leave occasionally in the winter to visit her children and grandchildren but usually didn’t stay away from Fred and Grandview for more than a few weeks.  

The Grandview guestbook is said to have been filled with names of people from Germany, Japan, and the United States, but I’ll never be able to track the hotel’s farthest-flung visitors, because the guestbook was lost in a house fire.

Larry Dyke visited Grandview a couple of times in the ’90s when he was doing erosion studies along the Mackenzie River as part of his work with the Geological Survey of Canada. He can still remember one of the “remarkable” roast beef meals Irene served. Staying there was like “suddenly becoming a member of the family,” says the now-retired 67-year-old from his home in Ontario. Fred demanded it: “He’d pound his fist on the table and say, ‘Eat!’”

Mark Nixon, also formerly with the Geological Survey, says—and so do others—that Fred made incredible smoked fish. McNeely says it was different than traditional dried fish because Fred soaked it in brine before he smoked it. “Oh and it was ever good,” he says.

Weeds threaten to overcome the Grandview sign and its promises of greatness. Photo by Kristine Bourque 

Nixon knew of helicopter pilots in Norman Wells who would adjust their schedules just so they could squeeze in a visit with Fred and Irene during their shift. The Coast Guard also regularly parked the vessel on shore and came up for a coffee and to trade something for fish. Naomi loved visits from the ships. 

“It was a big deal for us kids because we got to go down to the ship and take a tour,” she recalls. “And of course the chef would always have treats for us.”

It was hard work, too. When visitors arrived, Irene started cooking, and Naomi was often at her side. Then there were the less pleasant chores, like doing laundry with a ringer washer and cutting the grass with a push mower, which Naomi hated because twigs and rocks would always jab her calves. 

Naomi and her brothers had their share of fun too, berry picking, beach combing, tunnelling in the piles of sawdust and running through the bush. Dyke remembers pulling up on shore one day and seeing the children splashing gleefully in the frigid river in flimsy summer clothing, oblivious to the cold. Whether it was spent swimming, scavenging, doing chores or entertaining, Naomi says the day often ended by watching Betamax movies on Fred and Irene’s TV. “Over and over again we watched Cannery Row and Cat Blue.” 

“We really miss them up there,” McNeely says. The couple had been honorary members of his community’s Métis organization.

It’s been a long time since anyone has cuddled up on the couch at Grandview to watch a movie. Judging from the piles of scat Daniel, my travel companion, and I saw, the old homestead sees more visits from bears than people these days. Willow and alders have obscured the once-famous view from the property and while some of the cabins are in decent shape, the machinery doesn’t look like it will ever push earth again. Only the piles of sawdust on the far side of the clearing give the impression that someone could have been working there yesterday; they’re stale and the place is empty.

Not far from the main house is a small, white-gated cemetery marked by two faded wooden crosses and tombstones. Irene and Fred both died in their early seventies—Irene of a brain aneurysm in 1998 at Grandview and Fred of a stroke three years later while staying with family in Yellowknife. They had been married 50 years. Their daughter Kristine told me people showed up at Grandview en masse to pay their respects at the Sorensons’ separate burials. “The shore was lined with boats.”

During their almost 30 years at Grandview, Fred and Irene became fixtures in the region. “We really miss them up there,” McNeely says. The couple had been honorary members of his community’s Métis organization.

As I wandered the property, the sound of wind blowing through Grandview’s tree tops was overpowered by the occasional hum of a small wind generator whirling up to speed. It’s mounted, along with a solar panel, on the roof of the main house. Although the windows and doors were boarded up, I was able to peer through one of the higher windows into someone’s well-kept living room. Laura told me later that this house was built for Fred not long after Irene died and a house fire destroyed their old place.

Another house on the property belongs to Laura’s youngest brother Roald, who spent the most time at Grandview, growing up and into his adult years. His house is left open for people who need it—and travellers  like Stanley Mulvany, a kayaker who passed through a few years ago, appreciate it. 

“I found a note on the table dated the previous year inviting travellers to make themselves comfortable and to leave them a note,” Mulvany writes in his blog. “The house was spacious and clean. The two bedrooms had the beds made up as though we were expected.”

Kristine and Laura haven’t been back to Grandview in years. Neither has Naomi, but she wants to visit soon, even though she knows it might be difficult. So much will have changed in the 10-plus years since her last trip. Grandview was obviously well loved at one point, but now it feels like an outdoor museum slowly returning to the earth. 

Daniel and I could have spent hours there exploring, but the weather was subsiding and it was time for us to go. 

On the way back down to our canoe, we followed a wider trail that must have been the main path for hauling supplies up from the river. We passed four long, wooden scows sitting side-by-side in the willows. I’m sure Fred built them just as he and Irene built all of Grandview. 

Knowing what I know now, it seems unnatural that we left Grandview tired and hungry. But we were, after all, decades too late to enjoy Irene’s roast beef and Fred’s stories.