It was autumn in the Yukon and I was walking along the edge of the Dempster Highway, about 100 kilometres north of Dawson City. This gravel road wends its way for 736 kilometres up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. It’s a place where few cars pass and even fewer amenities are available. The vivid reds, yellows and oranges of the tundra in fall colours framed the road. Tiny trees and lichen looked like a carefully woven tapestry.
I stopped for a moment and looked down the road towards the place where the land meets the sky. A powerful sensation suddenly rose up from the ground and my feet, travelling up through my body. In that instant, I felt the power and force of nature and a deep connection with the land. I was a part of nature — at one with the land.
I returned home to Montreal, the place where I was born and raised. But the North never left me. I kept looking for excuses to return. I came up with a masters thesis topic that took me north again in fall 2003, this time to Hay River, a community of 3,600 in the southern Northwest Territories. I met Mike in July 2004 when I went to nearby Fort Smith to research a travel story about Wood Buffalo National Park.
We kept in touch. Our first date in February 2006 was an expensive affair. Forget the wine, flowers and romantic weekend. During Mike’s eight-hour drive down to Fort McMurray to meet me, his truck slid on some ice on the winter road and scraped the bark off a tree. The cracked windshield was replaced in Fort McMurray and the dented passenger door was straightened out in Hay River. Between the repairs, gas and hotel in Fort Chipewyan, the bill for that date was more than $4,000.
First I fell in love with the North – then I fell in love with a Northerner. After spending five months subsidizing hotels, airlines and gas stations, I moved from downtown Montreal to the outskirts of Fort Smith in July 2006 to be with Mike. This pretty town of about 2,400 people sits on the banks of the Slave River, just a stone’s throw from the Alberta border. Residents are a mix of non-Natives, Chipewyan and Cree from the Salt River First Nation and Smith’s Landing First Nation.
I moved from a busy neighbourhood that had stores galore to a government town with two grocery stores, a pharmacy, a post office, a college, a museum, a Bank of Montreal branch that looks like it’s in someone’s house, a few shops, a hotel and two restaurants.
Fort Smith is the kind of place where people laugh at you for locking your car, there aren’t any traffic lights, and drivers have perfected the art of waving to friends and acquaintances without taking their hand off the steering wheel. When you come off the highway, you hang a right at the main intersection (marked by a four-way stop) if you feel like eating Chinese food and make a left if you want pizza. Even the somebodies are anybodies; my massage therapist is the wife of the MP for the Western Arctic and the former town librarian is married to the deputy premier.
Mike and I live 12 kilometres from town in an area known as Bell Rock. I moved from one of the most densely populated Montreal neighbourhoods to a house that is a four-minute walk to the nearest neighbour. We live on three acres of land at the end of a dirt road, and there’s nothing but bush behind us.
There aren’t any sidewalks, the water truck shows up every Thursday morning to replenish our supply, and the septic tank needs to be cleaned out once a year. We also have to cart our own trash to the dump and pick up the mail at the post office because there’s no door-to-door delivery.
I miss buttery croissants, Sunday brunch and those little yellow Mexican mangoes bursting with flavour that I loved to buy at fruit stores in my old Mile End neighbourhood. But I no longer hear one urban neighbour doing endless renovations while another has a late-night party in their backyard. I have finally found a place that brings me closer to that sense of intimacy with the land I once felt on a quiet stretch of highway in the Yukon.
“The Dempster Highway, north of the Arctic Circle, and about 15 km south of the Yukon–NWT border.”
Photo by Christopher Buddle
“Fort Smith” and “Woodchuck” Photos by Tom Buttle, travelpod