Auld Lang Syne
“How would you like to have a baby crossing the Northwest Passage in a rubber boat?” my husband asked. It was his way of adding novelty to our planned excursion—something to distinguish our crossing from the historical crossings of the past.
“Amundsen did it in 1906, the RCMP in 1944, and we could do it in 1972 in our 16-foot Avon rubber boat. That would get people’s attention to our message—the fragile ecology of the Arctic. We can make a movie. You can write stories.”
Over the years I’ve written many books about the North, from There’s a Seal In My Sleeping Bag to There’s A Raccoon In My Parka. But There’s A Baby In My Rubber Boat never came to pass.
A couple of years later, with the Canadian Coast Guard dropping our supplies every hundred miles and with the enthusiastic encouragement of “Emperor of the North” Stu Hodgson, we set off down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean. Although ice conditions were favourable that year, David, my husband, aborted the expedition halfway across the fabled Northwest Passage and we divorced. He went south. I stayed North—and lucked into the best 20 years of my life, winging or boating my way to every community in the NWT and Nunavut, except Grise Fiord.
In 2018, after decades of writing about other people’s attempts to cross the Northwest Passage, I finally booked my own expedition on the cruise ship Ocean Endeavour. Unfortunately, too much fast-moving, melting ice played havoc with the Endeavour’s schedule. Other ships were already stranded. We laid over in balmy Yellowknife, instead. While my companions toured the town, I went looking for former friends.
I found Muriel Betsina, a Dene friend, plucking black ducks and cooking them on a grill beside her house in Ndilǫ. Muriel was just as I remembered her from when I last saw her 30 years earlier at her trapping cabin in the bush. We hugged and shared stories. I didn’t know it then, but a year later, Muriel would pass away. From Yellowknife, my companions and I continued north over the Barrenlands, then crossed over the ice-choked Northwest Passage to fuel our plane in Cambridge Bay. We flew east to Pond Inlet where we finally boarded our ship. It was a delight to meet old friends who were now resource staff on the Ocean Endeavour. Aaron Spitzer, my former editor at Up Here, and Inuit culturalist Susie Evyagotailak were both on board.
Meeting our ship in Pond Inlet brought back other memories. We waited for the zodiacs at an open grassy spot on the beach where, during Christmas 1987, the elders had built a traditional sod house to teach the young how they used to live. I abandoned the Sauniq Hotel to spend Christmas in that sod house (as I wrote about in Up Here’s November/December 1988 issue). In the dark of the long Arctic night I tended the traditional qulliq, slept in caribou furs, and got engaged to the housing superintendent, Frank Schober. I persuaded Frank to hang Christmas lights around the sod as well as a nearby grounded iceberg. We were married two years later, though my writing career ended the marriage a decade later. He wanted to relocate south. “Your North is not my North,” he said. But I couldn’t leave, not then. The North has always been my true love.
Thirty years after that Christmas, while the other Ocean Endeavour passengers were taking a tour of a new sod house, I walked around the community looking for anybody who might remember the ‘Girl in the Yellow Hat,’ as I was called in those days. I remember the teenagers at the time were amazed that I would leave the comforts of the hotel and the dancing in the community hall to spend Christmas in a sod hut. Too chilly, they said. The seal oil was too smelly. The caribou fur was too scratchy. Three decades later, I poked around, had a coffee at Tim Hortons, and signed my books at the new library. Finally back aboard the Endeavour, we headed west through mostly open water and the marine wildlife sanctuary of Lancaster Sound, stopping in inlets on the south side of Devon Island to zodiac to the shore and look for old huts. But ice and time prevented further attempts through the Passage. Instead, we headed north to Grise Fiord—my second hoped-for destination. In zodiacs, squeezing through the congestion of icebergs, we got to within binocular distance of this tiny community. But a wall of sea-ice prevented our landing. Perhaps, too, the polar bear waiting on shore.
As I ventured through the North, for perhaps the last time, I was struck by how much I treasure the land, the adventures, and the people whom I have met since I first ventured up here all those years ago.