The taxicab sits under the streetlight in the middle of the night in the middle of the afternoon. A.m. is mostly p.m. at this time of year and p.m. mostly a.m. Darkness is a virtual 24-hour constant. The engine in the cab is running to keep the heater working, and the exhaust makes giant white clouds, as if the machine were talking in a hurry in the cold. Chattering.
The driver also is chattering.
"I took a fare one time to Aklavik on the ice road," Rudy Rapo says. "A storm was beginning, but we didn't have any problems. I got to Aklavik and then I had to come home. I could see the storm was picking up, but I figured I'd be home in an hour...."
The temperature outside the cab is—30°C (-22°F). Some days it's-40°C or-50°C. The cold is dry, almost antiseptic. There is little or no wind. There is no humidity. There is no slush. There is not even an extraordinary amount of snow. This is the cold that you would find inside a freezer. The door to the refrigerator has been shut. The light is out.
January 27, 1988
"So I started driving home," Rapo says. "I had an Eskimo with me to help in case I got stuck in the drifts. I could see there could be trouble, but pretty soon I was too far out to turn back. The lights started to get dimmer and dimmer. The car stopped. The alternator was frozen solid...."
Wolves can be found two or three miles from town. And brown bears. Black bears. Moose. Caribou. The trees are from a child's bad dream—dwarfed, misshapen pines, shadows in the dark. The woods end on the far side of a hill outside town. No woods. No trees. Just snow. This is the end of trees in the northern hemisphere. The tree line.
"I started walking," Rapo says. "The Eskimo and I. We walked 36 miles in 18 hours. About halfway we saw a light on the horizon and we thought we were close to town. Saved. The light was the moon. We kept walking. Thirty-six miles in this kind of cold. My feet were frozen like cast iron. I lost all the skin on both feet. It was a miracle I didn't lose the feet...."
The town is Inuvik, situated at the far edge of the Northwest Territories at the far edge of Canada. The Arctic Circle is 125 miles to the south. The DEW Line, the Distant Early Warning system at the top of North America, is 90 miles to the north. The magnetic North Pole is to the east, so compasses are useless. The actual North Pole is 1,700 miles away. Polar bears and Soviet submarines and Santa Claus all can inhabit the imagination at the same time.
The Winter Olympics? Check the map. The Winter Olympics may be in Calgary, 1,400 miles south; winter is here.
The town is a huddle of wooden buildings on the eastern shore of the Mackenzie River delta. The population is approximately 3,500, a mix of Indians, whites and Inuit, brought together around the potbellied stove of modern technology. If all of Canada is a collection of settlements connected to each other by an extension cord stretching through the wilderness, this is the longest stretch.
The call of the wild mixes with the jinglejangle of advertising on cable television. Jack London meets Oprah Winfrey. "We'll be watching the Olympics," bush pilot Fred Carmichael says. "Sure we will. People up here are informed. The trappers out in the bush are informed, probably more informed than the people in the cities. Those guys all have radios. They listen all the time. They'll be working at night, skinning their animals and listening to the radio. They know everything that goes on. They'll be listening to the Olympics."
The town came into being in the mid-'50s, when the government decided to establish a base for the development and administration of the Western Arctic, not to mention a listening post near the Soviets. The name Inuvik was chosen from the language of the Inuit, who also are known as Eskimos. It means Place of Man.
This was a different sort of frontier development from the beginning. The most important part of town was always the airport. "What other town of 3,500 people in the world has a 737 land every day?" asks Dick Hill, a 25-year resident and former mayor. "This is a place of many anomalies. You have only 45,000 people in all of the Northwest Territories, an area about half the size of the United States. You have all this space and not many people and you never feel isolated. You know that plane is coming in every day. You're always that close to the rest of the world."
Flight 659, Canadian Airlines International, leaves Edmonton at 8:15 in the morning and arrives at Inuvik at 12:45 in the afternoon, with intermediate stops at Yellowknife and Norman Wells. "If you watch that plane land enough times, you'll see just about everything you can imagine being taken off or put on," a man says from behind the car rental counter at Inuvik Airport. "Food. Furniture. Sick people going to the hospital. I used to see these big boxes being loaded sometimes for the return trip. I never knew what they were. Someone finally told me they contained dead bodies, going south to be buried because the ground was frozen here."
Forty years ago the few residents of the area were captives of the winter. They would have to wait for the ice to break on the Mackenzie for fresh supplies to be delivered. They would endure and endure and finally be rewarded. The plane is now an everyday reward. A necessity.
"I grew up on a trap line near Aklavik," says Cece McCauley, chief of the local Dene Indians. "In the spring a little boat would come up the river, and everyone would run to the banks to see what they could buy. I never ate a tomato until I was 21 years old. Apples. Oranges. I remember going to Edmonton for the first time and seeing oranges in this tremendous pyramid in the stores. How did they do that?"
The Mackenzie is still used for commerce. When the river is frozen, ice roads are plowed on it: 75 miles to Aklavik (Place of the Brown Bear) and 120 miles to Tuktoyaktuk (Place Where the Caribou Crosses). When it is not frozen, it is used for the delivery of larger goods from the south by barge. A road also has been added, the Dempster Highway, 450 miles of crushed rock to Dawson in the Yukon, one truck stop somewhere in the middle.
All of this makes the long link stronger. The Olympic torch can be flown into Inuvik on flight 659 and paraded through town—no different from Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg. The stories of the gold medal winners and losers can be read in the morning newspapers from Edmonton and Toronto on the same day, in the afternoon in the Arctic. The satellite dish not only brings in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations's TV shows to the local cable system but also the ABC station from Detroit. Watch the Olympics? The people of Inuvik will see more versions of the Olympics than people in New York City.
The main street is Mackenzie Road. On it, where Distributor Street intersects, is Inuvik's only stoplight, the one place that has any kind of traffic. The Hudson Bay store—where furs are bought and Cheerios and Twisted Sister records are sold—is on Mackenzie Road. The elementary school is on Mackenzie Road. The library is on Mackenzie Road. Our Lady of Victory church. The Eskimo Inn. The post office. The Mackenzie Hotel. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police office is just off Mackenzie Road.
"When television first arrived here, we didn't have much to show," says Hill, who occasionally works for the station. "We would have tapes sent up from Edmonton, and we would show them a week later on our station. This only took care of about two hours a night. There was a large amount of time when we didn't have anything to show. So we just pointed the camera out the window, at the front door to The Mad Trapper bar on Mackenzie Road. That was the show. We'd just leave the camera on and go home.
"One night I'm watching, and Regina, who is a dwarf who had been in some trouble around here, comes out the door of The Mad Trapper. You can tell she sees someone she doesn't want to see, because she hides at the side of the building in a hurry. Into the screen comes this big guy from the RCMR. He goes right to where she is hiding and picks her up by the back of the neck. Carries her away. Just like that. I saw it all on TV Live. It was the best television I ever saw, and no one was even manning the camera."
The one-camera television show is gone, a victim of technology, and The Mad Trapper also is gone, a victim of the economy, but the every-day, every-night lure of Mackenzie Road remains. This is where you go. This is where you have to go. There is no place else. Especially in the winter.
Housewives shop on Mackenzie Road and try to keep a budget despite prices that may run as high as $5.62 Canadian (about $4.30 U.S.) for a-two-liter carton of milk. Kids from the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School play on the metal slides and jungle gyms during recess in the—30° C temperature as if they had antifreeze in their blood. Bureaucrats call Ottawa, dialing direct from government offices. Tourists take pictures of Our Lady of Victory, the Roman Catholic igloo church, the only igloo in town, built of wood, not ice blocks, with an electric cross on the top. Townspeople talk in the cold about the problems of alcoholism, domestic strife, poverty, unemployment, boredom and adjusting to this modern life.
"We still get trappers who will come here and rent a room and then bring out fish that they have brought with them in a bag," says Hildegard Willkomm, co-owner of the Mackenzie Hotel, where there is a Dodge City sort of bar called The Zoo. "They will start scaling the fish on the coffee table, cleaning it right there, then eating it raw. I will go up and tell them to stop. They will ask me what's wrong. They say they will pay for any damage. They don't understand. They are from a different life-style."
The bulk of the town is residential and basic. The houses are built on stilts. The ground never thaws deep enough to let one dig a cellar, so wooden pilings are driven into the permafrost, and the houses are built on top. They are no-nonsense structures that mostly resemble beach houses. Some are painted in pastels that stand out against the darkness and the white snow as if they were run on batteries. Lime-green houses. Pink houses. Lavender. Antlers are hung outside over many of the front doors. The rest of the animal is often indoors in a freezer.
Sewer pipes and water pipes and utility pipes also cannot be placed underground, so they are put together inside one long tin box that snakes through the town. Each house is attached. The contraption looks like something out of a bad science fiction movie at first sight, this tin box traveling everywhere, but it seems normal after 15 minutes: That? Oh, that's the sewer pipe. Why do you ask?
"Everyone has the image of us up here freezing in the dark," Hill says. "That's not exactly the case. We're a small town more than we are anything else. We just happen to have nine months of winter."
There are some people who come here and cannot stand the darkness and the cold. They are gone in a hurry. There are some who are drawn to it, the outdoors somehow screaming inside of them, making them come here. There are some who are born to it. Who think it is absolutely natural. Who never could leave.
Snowmobiles cut through the night sounding as if they were outboards in the middle of summer. Dog teams can be seen every now and then. Trappers are flown to remote locations by ski-plane. Traffic on Mackenzie Road. All of this activity on the edge of the wilderness. A touch of Kansas above the Arctic Circle.
"When I was the mayor, I tried to create a park along the Mackenzie." Hill says. "I said that this was a resource, that we shouldn't build next to the water. I was thinking of a park, say, like the one in Boston along the water. I was voted down. The big argument was, 'Why should we have a park? The whole world where we live is a park.' I couldn't fight it."
The rose-colored line on the horizon that appears once per day to indicate that the sun still exists will grow wider and wider in the coming days and weeks. The sun itself will begin to appear. It's as if it is trying to reacquaint itself with the residents. It will stay for a few minutes today, a few more tomorrow, a few more on the day after that. Eventually, in June and July, it will become an around-the-clock resident—24 hours of sunshine, everybody awake for as long as possible, parties everywhere, kids on the streets at midnight, aluminum foil placed over the windows so one can sleep.
This will happen in the future. The darkness is here now.
"They tried downhill skiing here once, built a rope tow and everything," says Harold Cook, a government employment counselor. "It didn't work. Too cold. Your nose would be frozen by the time you got to the top. There were problems just starting the engine to the towrope. Didn't work at all. Cross-country was much bigger here. Always. I was on the Canadian cross-country team. We had a big meet here every year. The Top of the World championships....
"The Americans showed up at our meet one year—this was the early '70s—and they really didn't have the newest cross-country technology. They were all wearing those bulky down parkas. We were wearing this light Danish fishnet material that kept you pretty warm. We wore it under T-shirts and went out to practice. The Americans thought we were crazy. They didn't know how we could practice in the cold like this. We told them the secret was ice cream, that we ate a lot of ice cream....
"The next day," Cook goes on, "the Americans were all out there eating ice-cream cones. Thirty below and they were licking those cones. Silliest thing you ever saw."
The Winter Olympics? The Winter Olympics may be in Calgary.
The winter is here.