Next morning while Susan took the boys out for one final dog-sled, Neville and I drove into town for a look around. We ordered coffee in Inuvik’s only cafe, Cafe on Mackenzie, and sat looking out at the dark street. The full moon shone bright above the lights strung across the main street spelling out Merry Christmas, while a shooting star hung above a sign flashing first 10:54 then -18C. Car headlights lit up the white road. People, hunched under heavy clothing hurried between cars and buildings. It was the best coffee we’d had in Canada so far and I told the man behind the counter. He smiled and looked away.
In the silent gift shop next door I looked over the beautifully carved soapstone sculptures. Forbidden to touch the delicate stone, I had to ask the assistant to pick up each one so I could get a closer look. If I made a comment she replied with, “Mmhmm,” but gave me no information other than the price.
“Do people go crazy here in the winter?” I asked.
“They’re used to it,” she replied.
“What do they do?”
“Some people go up to their cabins and go hunting. Do you want these gift-wrapped?”
On our first day, when we dashed into town to find lunch, we sat down on the hard plastic seats in the eating area with our KFC wraps while the locals around us gave us mildly curious sideways glances. In the post office, I asked the man behind the counter how much to send a postcard to Australia.
“One dollar,” he answered with the barest hint of a smile.
Walking around Inuvik it was as though I were followed by a small child who, tugging at my clothing, kept asking, But why are the shops open at night-time? It’s not night-time, I told it, over and over.
But it did feel like I was in a post office at night, and now, having posted my card I had to go back out into the dark. No one wants to be outside in the dark. We want to be inside, where it’s light and warm. Shelter is the only thing that can protect us from the air. But it’s not actually the shelter, but the heat inside it. If this were to shut down, that air would slowly but surely seep in through the pores of the building and find those huddled inside. Perhaps it is this that takes everyone’s attention. Perhaps it’s not that they’re unfriendly so much as distracted. If you were trapped in a building under siege, you would have no time for pleasantries. Pleasantries belong in comfort and ease, two things that cannot exist for long in an Arctic winter.
Everyone seemed drawn in on themselves and I wondered if they were only like this in winter. “Not the cold but the oppression” is how Barry Lopez describes it in his book, Arctic Dreams. Warmth and light draw people out of their houses and out of themselves, but that lethal cold, I felt, and the instinct to withdraw when the dark of night descends kept the people of Inuvik turned inwards. I wondered whether if I returned at the height of summer, when there is no night, people would be more open and friendly.
“We don’t sleep much and get all pumped up on adrenalin,” Susan told us excitedly, about the days of endless sunshine.
That sounded to me like some other kind of hell.
Before going back to the Chalet, we drove down to the Ice Road for another look in the now dim light. High above the frozen water-line sat a ship. It was once used in seismic data collection as part of research into the feasibility of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean. Since 1990 she has sat beached above the banks of the Mackenzie river and Ben, one of the volunteers at the Chalet, told us in the summer it is known as being a notorious crack den. He also told us that Inuvik had the highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse per capita in Canada. I couldn’t find statistics to back this up but the fact that in tiny Tuktoyaktuk (Pop: about 950), on the coast at the end of the Ice Road, there is a centre where people can find help for alcohol abuse, speaks of a people desperate for escape. Suicide rates are higher than in southern parts of Canada as are rates of smoking and teenage pregnancy. The findings of a government committee into the health of Canadian youth in the north found “Substance abuse problems in [these] communities are deeply rooted and of long standing. People are beset with feelings of hopelessness, despair and impotent rage. From this comes violence, suicide and sexual abuse.”
As we waited at the airport we watched two police officers in flack jackets shepherd two men in handcuffs onto a plane. As we flew out, I looked down on the chain of frozen lakes and rivers and wondered what could make me return.
Before we left for the cabin, I’d asked Susan about going snowmobiling as the boys were keen to have a go.
“Well, we could snowmobile up to the tundra to see the reindeer herd if you like,” she said in her southern drawl.
And so at midday next day, nine of us, our family of five, volunteers Ben and Hans, Susan and Bjorn, set off on snowmobiles down the road and onto the ice road. Featured in a season of the TV show, Ice Road Truckers, the Inuvik ice road is the Mackenzie River. It freezes over in October and is then groomed and maintained for vehicles to drive on it up to the Arctic Ocean. It was in its final year of operation when we were there as a land road had been almost completed that would provide access to the coast year-round.
I found the snowmobiling hard from the outset. I’d never even ridden a motorbike before. It was pretty simple, just hold the throttle down to go, press harder to go faster, but the ground was hard and rough, and at times I bumped so hard I feared I’d fall off and I had to go fast to keep up. Although Susan stopped at intervals to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, I still feared being left behind and getting lost. At first I was right behind her, but when we rode down onto the ice road, which was much wider, the others were able to get ahead of me. The constant noise of the engine meant you could hear nothing else, I was breathing fumes from the exhaust at my left foot the whole time, and it was cold. It was bitterly cold. The exhaust outlet happily kept my left foot warm, but that vicious cold bit hard at the rest of my extremities. Despite the hand and foot warmers, the thick socks, gloves, mukluks, and beaver fir mitts, they still rapidly grew cold. The thumb of my right hand, stuck out on its own, pressed against the throttle, became painful and then went numb. I tried to endure it but just couldn’t and signalled for help. Hans ran up and we changed gloves, him giving me his warmer inner glove and and extra hand warmer which he told me to shove into the thumb of my glove, right against the skin. That worked, but the constant worry about my fingers and toes would not leave me.
It would take two hours to get to our destination, we’d stop for lunch there, and then two hours back; we’d be out for about five hours in -30 degrees. I wanted to just relax and enjoy the experience, it was once in a lifetime, something I’d always wanted to do, but the anxiety wouldn’t let me. After about an hour, we stopped on a lake to gather everyone together. By this point I was desperate for the toilet.
“How much further, Susan?” I asked.
“We’re just over half-way,” she replied.
“I really need the toilet,” I said. I got the only reply I expected.
“Well your gonna have to just take off whatever clothes you need to and squat down behind the last snow-mobile.”
The others drove off the lake and up onto higher ground leaving Neville and I alone. He helped me pull off my thin wind-cheater, heavy coat, and down jacket, so I could then undo my overalls, pull them down and expose my bare arse to the frigid Arctic air. My yellow piss drilled a hole in the ice next to my snow-mobile and I laughed at the thought that it would stay there now for several months. Then it was back on with the layers and we joined the others.
The snow-coated trees gave way to stunted snow-coated bushes which grew more and more stunted until the landscape opened out in one breathtaking 360 degree expanse of ice right to the horizon in every direction. We stopped our snowmobiles and wandered, turning our heads from the tiny full moon hanging just above one horizon, to the hard orange edge of the sun just above the opposite one. Olav told us this was a mirage, the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air, cruelly teasing. The sun had disappeared below the horizon two weeks ago; it wouldn’t return for another two. At intervals across the expanse, fish had been pushed tail down into mounds of snow, frozen markers to show the way, and we now followed these, pushing on to find the reindeer.
After a short time we came across a small cabin with smoke pouring from its chimney. I hoped we were stopping here so we could go in to thaw out, but we just sat waiting on our snowmobiles while Susan disappeared. This, it turned out, was the reindeer herders’ hut where they live some of the time. Susan had gone to ask them where the reindeer were. She eventually reappeared, remounted her vehicle, and we were off again.
The light had already begun to dim when we came up a rise to see a vast grey blur in the distance, a thin fog hanging above it. 3000 reindeer huddled in a mass, grazing on the straggly bits of snow-covered growth. They are wild, but the herders protect them from bears and arctic foxes in exchange for their meat which is sold in Inuvik. As we sat huddled around the fire that Bjorn had hastily and skilfully conjured on the ice, one of the herders rode up on a snowmobile, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Susan introduced us as her visitors from Australia who’d recently come from 30 degrees above zero.
“You’re lucky there’s no wind today,” the herder said with a short laugh. “Wind is cold.”
As the cold seeped up through the reindeer pelt I was sitting on, through five thick layers of clothing, and frigid air poked at every part of me that faced away from the fire, my mind stalled trying to imagine the cold being colder, tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in a polar wind. And leaving us with that thought, the herder sped off down to the reindeer and we soon heard, one, two, three, four cracks of the rifle.
Susan had packed several toasting irons with cheese and tomato sandwiches and we sat toasting these over the roaring fire. She then handed out paper cups and produced a thermos of hot chocolate. And it would have, should have been, cosy, all huddled around the fire with our hot lunch, but the light was fading fast and the cold pressed at my back and all I could think was that I still had to survive, with all fingers and toes intact, the two-hour ride back to the Chalet. Having finished eating, Susan stretched herself out by the fire and smiled.
“Couldn’t you just lay here for hours?”
By the time we reached the herder’s cabin again it was completely dark. Again we stopped while Susan disappeared. A small pile of severed forelegs lay on a patch of bloody snow; Susan had gone to ask the herders if she could have them for the dogs. I watched the smoke still pouring from the cabin chimney and felt like crying.
When I saw the lights of Inuvik in the distance I thanked God that we were almost there, but we rode on and on. Finally we rode down and onto the ice road where Susan stopped everyone and hopping off her snowmobile indicated that we should line up next to each other. She walked up and spoke to each of us in turn so she could be heard over the engines.
“We’re gonna be kids again,” she said with glee.
And remounting her snowmobile, she dropped her hand and we were off and racing. I pressed my thumb as hard as I could on the throttle, more because I just wanted it to end than out of any desire to win, but I was quickly left behind. As we approached the turn off I slowed to make the corner. The others had already ridden up the slope and were stopped at the top. As I went to ride up and join them, my snowmobile stopped, and no matter how hard I revved it, it couldn’t gain any traction on the ice. I waved my hand to signal that I needed help. No one moved. I went to get off the vehicle so I could walk up to them, but as soon as my foot touched the ground it started to slide out from under me. I sat back on the snowmobile and waved both hands furiously. Still no reaction. Then they all remounted their snowmobiles. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It was like in dreams when you’re trying as hard as you can to call out or stop something and you just can’t. And then they were gone, and I was left sitting in the dark, completely alone.
I turned to look behind me and up and down the ice road; all was still. I crossed my arms on the handle bars and rested my head on them. “They’ll come soon,” I thought, but seconds had become hours and no one came. I felt myself shrinking as the dark and cold pressed in on all sides. Then a small truck came driving down the ice road and, to my horror, turned to drive up our road. I thought they wouldn’t see me and I’d be hit. I gave the snowmobile another vicious rev, but it wouldn’t move. The truck pulled up alongside me and a man got out. “I’m stuck,” I said redundantly, almost apologetically. And as the man was trying to push the snowmobile forward, the gang reappeared. Bjorn strode down and taking hold of the vehicle, yanked it hard to the side. Then he indicated I should ride back, circle around and then gun it up the slope. I did and roared across the ice and up onto the road speeding faster than I had all day, turned into the Chalet, pulled up next to the others and killed the engine. Then I climbed off, stamped up to my husband and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest before running inside and slamming the door. It was petulant, it was unreasonable, it was embarrassing and it was an overreaction to what was probably not even five minutes left sitting there, but the tension of those hours of trying to stay warm, trying to keep up, sheer exhaustion, and, I suspect, a primordial sense of vulnerability in such a hostile environment, bubbled over and my poor husband became the target. Because of the headlights on the snowmobile they couldn’t see me waving, and the noise of the engines meant they couldn’t hear me screaming, he tried to explain, over and over.
After much swearing, crying and recriminations that no amount of reassurance from the bewildered man could stem, I calmed down enough to realise that what I really needed was a drink, and we set off for town in silence.
Our flight from Whitehorse to Inuvik was a “milk-run”. At Dawson we had to leave the plane while it was refuelled, giving us the chance to feel what minus 40 (Celsius) felt like. That brittle air caught in our throats. We photographed the road and ran back inside. We landed in Inuvik at 1pm, the lightest part of the day. And it was light, but a weird translucent light, a predawn light, amplified by the all-white landscape that reflected it back on itself, a clear, pale blue.
Inuvik, high up in the Canadian Arctic, is home to around 3000 people. By the time we arrived in mid-December 2016, the sun had been set for two weeks. It would lurk just below the horizon for about three hours each day but it would be another two weeks before it rose again.
We were collected by Susan, who runs the Arctic Chalet with her husband Bjorn. She whisked us, with barely time to catch our breath, on to our first adventure. Judi was tall, thin, wiry, and full of energy, but her good humour could quickly tip over into petulant impatience.
“So we’ll get you ready to go out dogsledding after you get some lunch in town,” Susan said as we drove away from the airport.
“Are we going up to the cabin tonight?” I asked.
“Yes. Is that ok?”
It was getting dark again by the time we began dressing for the expedition. Neville, our three sons, and I were provided with heavy jackets, thick overalls, beaver fur mitts, and mukluks because nothing we owned would be warm enough. After a quick briefing, during which we were told to yell “chee” if we wanted the dogs to turn left and “chaw” for right, and not to let go of the sled under any circumstances, we were led out into the dark where five dog teams stood, or rather jumped and pawed impatiently, harnessed and ready to go. I stepped onto mine, Joe, one of the staff, pulled the anchor out of the snow, and with a frightening jerk, the dogs pulled me into the night, down and onto a frozen lake. Judi went ahead on a snow mobile with Kiera, another staff member, and Joe following behind, also on snow-mobiles.
It would take about two hours to reach the cabin. It was like a roller-coaster ride, but with more bumps. A foot pad worked to slow the dogs and you could stop them by putting all your weight on the brake, but they were strong. At one point I hit a tree root and was thrown off into the snow, but still held tight to the sled. At another I lost my balance, the sled slipped from my grasp and the dogs took off. All of this with only head torches for light in a vast cold darkness on the edge of the world. We bumped roughly along paths between snow-covered trees before barrelling down and into the open again as we crossed yet another lake. I wondered what the vast rumbling was I could hear in the distance and found out later that it was the ice cracking and groaning beneath us.
As we were pulled inexorably up another rough trail, the one thing that all who travel in the dark and cold crave finally came into view: the golden, warm glow through the windows of a cabin. As Kiera and Joe unharnessed the dogs and chained them up for the night, we hurried inside to the blazing wood fire. The floor became wet with the snow from our boots and jackets. Pairs of mukluks lined up by the fire to dry.
A tall man with rosy cheeks appeared and welcomed us to the “Arctic Loon” cabin. Bjorn was originally from Norway, but has lived in the Arctic for more than thirty years.
He’d been busy getting the wood-fired hot-tub going so we could do the traditional Nordic thing of sitting in the hot-tub, hopping out, rolling in the snow, then quickly hopping back in the tub.
The cabin was completely off-grid so cooking was done on a gas stove, the fridge was gas-powered, light was delivered by a gas lantern plus portable battery lanterns, and the cabin was warmed by a wood-fired stove in the living room and an oil heater in our bedroom. In the kitchen there was a container of water with a hand-pump attached for drinking water, and another for hand-washing. The toilet was a “honey bucket”, separate ones for solid and liquid, although the boys were directed to the verandah out the side for their liquid waste.
After dinner we put our swimmers on, were given a robe and a towel each, then braved the run down the steps and into the very hot tub. Where our hair got wet it instantly froze. The boys took turns jumping out, running off the verandah and throwing themselves in the snow, and, with high-pitched shrieks, making their way as fast as possible back to the tub, trying not to slip on the water that had already frozen on the steps. We thawed out with hot chocolate before turning in for the night, a night which had actually begun at about 3pm and would end at around midday next day.
The dogs needed two hours to digest their breakfast before they could pull us back to the chalet, so to fill the time we strapped on snow-shoes and went out for a walk in the pale light.
A trail led up behind the cabin, which we now saw overlooked a large, frozen lake. The light glowed pastel pink and blue, illuminating the brilliant white of the snow-coated fir trees and the vast, flat lake below. I found the snow-shoeing hard going so soon turned back, reasoning that there was only more snow and trees to see and we’d see that on our way back to the Chalet. With the others gone on I was left in the absolute silence. No birds, no wind, no sound of machinery. I had experienced complete silence in mountainous desert in the rain-shadow of the Himalayas but that silence stretched across the barren landscape, old and timeless. This Arctic silence was a muffling of sound. Anticipation was held within it because it was temporary. Summer would eventually come to thaw this landscape and for a few months life would return to break the silence. I stood still and listened; all I could hear was my breath.
By 3pm we were underway back to the Chalet. It was better to be travelling in the light, but it was much, much colder. At the cabin, the thermometer outside read minus 28. When we sledded down onto the lake the temperature dropped further. The toes on my left foot began to hurt and then they turned numb. At one point I accepted that I might just have to lose them and tried to distract myself by imagining the procedure at the hospital. In the end I raised my hand to signal that I needed help and we stopped and Joe ran up to me. Susan followed.
“Ya know, if you’re really gettin’ frostbite, you need to take off your boots, sit opposite someone and put your feet in their armpits,” Susan said, while Joe, ignoring her, produced more foot-warming sachets and I took off my mukluks and stuck a sachet to my sock. All I wanted was to get back to the Chalet as quickly as possible, not sit on the ice with my bare feet in someone’s armpits.
“Come on we’re wasting time,” she then added.
When the Chalet finally came into view, I could have wept with relief.