Thursday, September 19, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Legends of the North

The ladies in the lobby Saturday morning were a bit jealous to hear that we were going to be staying until Tuesday. Bobbi, who had come out with us on both the bus and tundra buggy tours, admitted that when her friends had booked the trip, she had first thought, "What the hell are we going to do Churchill for five days?" And now? I asked her. "Now I wish I could stay another five days."

It's a beautiful part of the country, and the remoteness and harsh winters only add to the appeal for the majority of the residents. I could easily see myself working in hospitality in Churchill, or even moving here for a period of time, but I don't know if I could ever really 'live' here.

Living in Churchill requires a tremendous amount of self reliance and independence, and as a guy who doesn't change his own oil (hell, I don't even like changing the taillights; those lenses are finicky and expensive!), I can't help but think I am just not cut out to be a Churchillian.

In contrast, take my cousin Parker. He has lived up here for 21 years now, and in addition to being the town's Manitoba Hydro representative and needing to be on call nearly constantly to replace power poles knocked down by storms or errant vehicles, he and Belinda also own the local cable company, and manage and are part owners of the Tundra Inn, the Tundra Pub, and Tundra House Hostel. In the wintertime, he relocates to his cabin, 7-8 hours snowmobile ride into the bush, to renovate and upgrade it and to work the extensive trapline he has up there.
I also happen to think it takes a special kind of someone to come to Churchill from the literally opposite side of the globe and carve a life for themselves out there. Belinda came to Canada on walkabout after a turn as a nanny in the UK, worked in a couple of touristy spots, and ended up curious to just how far 'away' she could get from the typical experience. Now she runs a hotel, sews moccasins in the native style, and is about as good a person as you can imagine to have looking after you. And this is coming from someone travelling with both his wife and his mother!

The picture above shows Parker and Belinda standing with the fur replica she made of him for an arts competition called Legends of the North, because, as she put it, "he's my legend, so, yeah."

Too right.

People have a tremendous opinion of Parker in Churchill, due in no small part to his staying out on the job for something like 36 hours during a full-on white-out December blizzard in order to keep power flowing to the town some years back. He downplays it, in a sense because he really did have no choice; he was the only hydro man in the area at the time. But people recognize and appreciate not only the dedication, but also the skill and humility.

To me, Parker's legendary status is derived from the manner in which he has acclimatized himself to living in a part of the world that most of us would dismiss as inhospitable for most of year, and to the fact that in a worst case scenario (say, a time travelling mishap), he could live in the bush with absolutely no technology pretty comfortably for quite some time, whereas I would be food for something else in a manner of hours, if not minutes. Still, getting to and from the bush in the dead of winter is not without its challenges, even for him. Thus, the snowmobile.

I know plenty of Albertans with snowmobiles, but these are largely recreational items; leisure craft, toys. Parker showed us the new snowmobile he purchased for this winter, and I was astonished at how many additions and modifications he needs to make in order for it to be useful in the bush.
National Park compliance sticker.
Hatchet, for clearing brush from the trail.
Extra big storage bins, in lieu of a trunk.
Heated hand covers, so you can wear reasonable sized gloves while driving.
Mud flap and a hitch, for hauling a sledge that might have 600 lbs of skins on it.
GPS, with both the trail waypoints and cabin programmed in, since a sudden whiteout could make even inertial navigation difficult!
Additional high intensity lights for better trail visibility.
An extended windscreen, which is pretty much standard issue for all the snowmobiles we saw in Churchill.
Just to give you a sense of the loads Parker can be dealing with, this is a picture of about half of all the martens he got in one season, plus some wolves for good measure. Imagine hauling all that out of the bush on foot! The other people are Jimmy, the fellow Parker bought the trapline from, and Jimmy's wife Betty.
Parker also showed us some of the kit he uses for drying and stretching skins, like this wolverine skin he recently finished up.

It's a fascinating window into a life I can barely comprehend, and can't imagine being less suited for. Still, even the glimpse is more than many Canadians will get, and I'm really grateful for a chance to look past the legends, and get a peek at the True North.

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