Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Adventure in Aklavik

Every time I told someone in Inuvik I was going to spend a day in Aklavik, a 15-minute plane ride to the west, the response was: "Why?"

"It's a swamp there," said one store clerk. "There's nothing to do there," said the gal at the visitor centre, who grew up in Aklavik. "Nothing there but mosquitoes," said an artist from Aklavik.

Undiscouraged, and because the airfare to Aklavik is the only affordable ticket in the Delta, I went anyway. After completing half of the "Aklavik Walking Tour," as outlined in the tourist brochure, I started to think all those people were right — there is nothing to do in Aklavik.

The museum is long since closed; the Restaurant & Gas Bar is no more; the General Store is out of business; even the Community Gazebo is boarded up. I spent quite a bit of time taking pictures in the cemetery that houses the famous
 Mad Trapper's Gravesite, which is, quite frankly, an overgrown swamp swarming with more mosquitoes than I've ever seen in one place at one time.

On top of that, I hardly saw any people. And it was cold. And cloudy. I was starting to wonder how I was going to fill five more hours before my return flight, when I decided to go to the Post Office. I figured if anyone would know what I could do in this town, it would be the postmaster.

She told me I'd picked a bad day to come to Aklavik because pretty much the whole town was away at Shingle Point (a two-hour boat ride to the north) for Summer Games and whaling. BUT ... there was a craft store around the corner that the owner would open up for me if she was home. She was. "There's a tourist here who wants to see your craft shop," the postmaster said into the phone. I walked to the shop; an older woman answered my knock at the door: "Are you the tourist?"

Yup. I am the tourist.

Annie C. Gordon in her shop
Annie's store was small, and I felt compelled to purchase something as we chatted. I told her I was disappointed there was nothing much to do in Aklavik — not even a place to sit and have a cup of tea. "Do you want a cup of tea?" she asked, then took me next door to her house, where she fed me homemade bread with a cuppa. Her husband Danny was also at home, and the three of us spent the next two hours or so chatting and laughing. Then Annie took me for a drive around the village, before dropping me back at the Post Office.

By then the sun was out, the mosquitoes had died down (although I still had to apply "bug dope" as if it were hairspray or cheap perfume), and the clouds had lifted so I could see the beautiful Richardson Mountains in the distance. I found a sunny rock by the river where I could sit and watch the birds — and the occasional boat — zip by. I walked around some more, took a ton-o'-pictures and, in the end, had to rush to get to the plane in time.

It ended up being a memorable day. I'm glad I didn't give up on Aklavik — as the village motto says, "Never Say Die."

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Conundrum solution

First sunset
Based on my own observations, a bit of research and some logical thinking, the answer to the conundrum I posed last week is that, at this time of year, the sun sets and rises over Inuvik in the north. The first sunset after two months of 24-hour sun happens slightly to the northwest. A few minutes later, the sun rises a tiny bit to the northeast.

Every day after that, the sun sets a bit further to the west and rises a bit further to the east —until the fall equinox, when the sunsets are as close to due west, and the sunrises as close to due east as they get. After that, the sunsets and sunrises start moving southwest and southeast, respectively. The final, early-December sunset before a month of 24-hour-a-day darkness, is almost due south (but a tiny bit west).

Friday, 15 July 2011

A Conundrum

July 15, 12:30 a.m.
Something I've been thinking about whenever I gaze out at the sun in the middle of the night ...

According to the National Research Council, the sun will set over Inuvik — for the first time in two months — on July 21 at 2:22 a.m. It will rise again 19 minutes later.

We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So ... when it sets and rises in virtually the same spot on the horizon, is that east or west?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Three More "Restaurant" Reviews

One is a bar, one is the rec centre and one is the Legion — but they all count as "Places to Eat in Inuvik," according to the Inuvik Tourism Centre. And two of them are surprisingly good.

The first time I went to the Twisted Ladle, aka the concession stand at the Midnight Sun Rec Centre, there were no tables. They had been taken out for the TRC event and hadn't been replaced yet. But I found one around the corner, in a hallway, and pulled up a chair to eat my chicken quesadilla. It was fantastic! So ... atmosphere 0, food 10!

A few days later, I accidentally went back to the Twisted Ladle with my new friend Mary. We were already at the rec centre, having just painted some walls for the upcoming Great Northern Arts Festival. (More on that in a future blog.) I was on my way home, but Mary asked if I'd go to brunch with her and, since we were already at the rec centre, it made sense to eat there. We both had Greek omelettes with home fries. Again, the food was amazingly good. This time, too, there were tables — those long, wooden ones they have at summer camp. So ... atmosphere 2, food 10! (Expensive, though ... $15 for the omelette, ditto for the quesadilla.)

Also in the atmosphere 2, food 10 category is Café 220, better known as lunch at the Legion. It looks like ... well ... a Legion. But again, excellent food. I only had corn chowder because the lunch that day was a full-on roast chicken dinner, and I didn't want to eat that much at that moment. (It looked, and smelled, really good,
though.) At $5, I'd say that soup is probably the best deal in town. Cheap and filling and yummy! I will go back and have the chicken another day when I'm hungrier.

The Mackenzie Hotel has two eating places — Tonimoe's Restaurant and Shivers Lounge. I have yet to go to Tominoe's but I've been to Shivers three times now. The first time, I just went for a glass of wine ... now I know what Pine Sol tastes like ...

The second time, I tried a different wine (thumbs-up) and had dinner with another new friend, Marie-Claude. Fries were good but the chicken burger was bland, bland, bland. Third time, I went with three other new friends (I've made more friends in Inuvik in three weeks than I have in Ottawa in 10 months!) — Samantha, the local newspaper editor/reporter; Sheena, the yoga teacher/greenhouse manager; and Amy, a speech therapist at the hospital/yoga classmate. A different wine again (thumbs-up again) and pretty good chicken wings. So overall, atmosphere 8, food 5 at Shivers.

There are still six dining establishments on my list — and four of them scare me. But what I've learned in Inuvik is that you can't judge a diner by its décor ...

Monday, 11 July 2011

TRC Reflections — Part 2

At the end of the final day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Northern National Event in Inuvik, a teenaged boy took the microphone.

"Commissioners, I'd like to invite you to a birthday party," he said, before taking the hand of Commissioner Wilton Littlechild and leading him - and a procession of residential school survivors - to a full-on cake-and-candles celebration.

Like thousands of other residential school survivors, Chief Littlechild never had a birthday party when he was a boy. Children at residential schools weren't allowed to celebrate their birthdays. To this day, some survivors don't even know when their birthdays are.

So on July 1, as Canada was whooping it up with Will and Kate, the TRC was hosting a "Special Birthday Ceremony" for residential school survivors in Inuvik.

As we entered the party room, each of us got a cupcake with candle and a birthday card. Before long, we all lit our candles, someone dimmed the lights, and the performers onstage led us in singing "Happy Birthday to You" - twice in English, before members of the different nations sang in their own languages: Inuvialuktun, Gwich'in and Slavey.

While some party-goers were clearly excited by the celebrations, others shed tears. This birthday party marked the end of an emotional week, four days of reliving past hurts while renewing long-lost friendships, alternately feeling the
pain of the past and the joys of newfound hope amid cultural celebration. This particular soirée, like the entire TRC event, couldn't help but be bittersweet.

When it came time to blow out the candles, I noticed a number of the now-elder (or at least middle-aged) birthday boys and girls putting a lot of thought into their wishes before they closed their eyes and blew. Then ... lights up, some musical entertainment and dinner.

The main course at the community feast that night was spaghetti and meatballs - the chef told me he figured that's what would be on the menu at a birthday party!

The TRC shindig was the second ceremonial birthday celebration I've attended in Inuvik. The first happened a week earlier at a Gwich'in pre-TRC gathering on the banks of the Mackenzie River. At this party, an elder, a youth and the head of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, together, cut a birthday cake before we all joined in with a sing-along Happy Birthday and yet another feast.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Yoga in the Greenhouse

Nothing grows in Inuvik. For gardeners familiar with the zone system (in which Victoria is Zone 8 and Ottawa is Zone 4, for example), Inuvik is Zone 0. The only things that grow here are stunted willow, birch and spruce trees, a few Arctic grasses and wildflowers ... and, surprisingly, dandelions.

The town is built on permafrost, meaning only the top few centimetres of soil thaw in summer; below that, it's frozen solid year-round. You can't plant flowers, fruit or herbs - and tomatoes are definitely out of the question.

But you can't keep dedicated gardeners from growing so, 12 years ago, a group of green thumbs got together and convinced the town council to recycle an old hockey arena rather than tearing it down. Today that old rink has a plexiglass roof and is a Community Greenhouse, open May to October every year.

It's an amazing place that houses 74 four-by-eight-foot garden plots that residents rent out for about $100 a year. Every gardener commits to volunteering 15 hours each season to keep the greenhouse going - with such duties as filling water barrels, turning the compost, running the gift shop, mixing fertilizer, that sort of thing.

In addition, volunteers tend plots designated for the Food Bank, elders or youth groups.

When I first arrived in Inuvik, three weeks ago, I took a wander through the greenhouse and saw lots of little plants sprouting. I said hello to the lone gardener who was working on her plantings.

Earlier this week, I re-visited the greenhouse. This time, the place was a jungle - and a hub of community activity. Rhubarb, strawberries, lettuce, chives, basil, peas, arugula are now in full production. Tomatoes, zucchini, beans, potatoes, dill, peppers, cucumbers are well on their way.

First visit
Gardeners galore were there sharing seeds, giving each other advice and catching up on gossip while weeding, watering and harvesting. I ran into a few new friends and met a few more.

Three weeks later
And that's how I ended up back at the greenhouse last night for yoga class. The gal who manages the garden side of things (Sheena Greenhouse, as she calls herself) is also a yoga instructor, who was about to hold her first yoga class in the meeting room that overlooks the greenhouse. She invited me to join in.

It was a great class in an unexpected venue. With every deep inhale came a lungful of humid, soil-and-fertilizer-filled air. With every exhale, we breathed out new CO2 to
feed the plants. And the light that floods in, day and night, nurturing the garden beds all summer long also gave a boost of energy to us yogis as we, appropriately, practised our tree poses ...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

TRC Reflections — Part 1

John Banksland, wife and grandson
As residential school survivor John Banksland was onstage telling his story, a heckler on a bicyle rode up to the outdoor podium. "Take a few more years," he yelled at Mr. Banksland. "You'll get over it."

Mr. Banksland continued talking, drowning out the heckler, until a huge RCMP officer and one of the Canadian Rangers on duty led the unwelcome guest away.

When the applause over the man's removal had died down, Mr. Banksland said: "This guy says, 'give 'em a couple of years.' We've had 130 years of this stuff. It's time to change."

A woman sitting near me started crying quietly, then weeping loudly. "Go away," she cried between sobs. The man on the bike had triggered some memory for her, or maybe it was a reaction to all the people who had told her to "get over it" during her lifetime.

This incident occurred during the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Northern National Event, within the first hour of the four-day gathering.

Rosie Kagak
I was at the event for my own interest, but also to cover it for the Globe & Mail. At this point, I started to wonder if I could do it, if I could cope with this level of emotional intensity for four days and do my job. I was already choking back tears. It was so hard to witness this woman's pain.

Meanwhile, Mr. Banksland continued speaking. He said today was the first time in his life - "and I'm 69" - that he'd had the courage to wear his traditional clothing. He talked about his life at residential school in Aklavik. He spoke of the beatings, the shaming by the nuns, the loss of his language, the loss of his connection to his family, including the brothers and sisters who were at residential school with him. He talked about the change that needs to happen to help residential school survivors heal.

"It's time to start thinking of yourself as a person not as a number. My number was Number 29 in Aklavik, and that was all I was identified as for a while. It's time to realize we are people. We are not a number, we are not a statistic."

Compared to what I was to hear during the next few days, Mr. Banksland's speech was tame.

Judy Anikina-Kaglik and her daughter
At the beginning of Day 2, I spent half an hour with two "green jackets," the Health Canada workers who were onsite to make sure everyone had help coping with their emotions ... including the media. Most of us took advantage of that support, feeling sheepish because we're supposed to be tough, cynical journalists. "You're also human," said one of the green jackets.

I somehow managed to listen and cope and do my job. After I'd handed in my story to the G & M, I attended the rest of the TRC event as "a civilian." I didn't even try to pretend to be tough after that.

A priest listens to Agnes Mills
I have never witnessed so much pain; I have never heard such horror stories about man's inhumanity to man ... make that man's inhumanity to children. It's bad enough to think of someone beating or molesting another adult, or tying someone up, or telling a guy his mother is a "dirty Indian." But these were children, little ones as young as 4, tiny kids who couldn't understand why they were taken away from their families in the first place.

One of the saddest stories I heard was from a woman whose older brother used to sneak her candies when he passed her in the schoolyard. They weren't allowed to speak to each other, but she would whisper, "Where did you get them?" He told her to shush, to keep walking as he slipped the candies into her hand.
Aggie Angulalik

Years later, after her brother had died, she learned the truth. "I never knew how you came to get those candies," she said out loud in the sharing circle to her late brother. "But now I know they lured you with candies and they hurt you ... "

Sunday, 3 July 2011

A Sightseeing Walkabout ...

Inuvik doesn't have many tourist attractions, per se. The one that appears most commonly on postcards is the "igloo church," or Our Lady of Victory Church, as it is officially called. It was built by volunteers over a two-year period, with its grand opening in August 1960. The last time I was here, I went up into the cupola to get a big-picture view of the town.

These houses, called "Smartie Houses," for obvious reasons, are located at the south-east end of town, near where I'm staying. They are one of the first things you see as you enter the town. Rumour has it, there are a lot of Newfoundlanders in Inuvik, so if this reminds you of St. John's ... that's why. My cousin's house is in a fourplex like this one but not so brightly coloured. These houses were originally built as military quarters.

This is the new "Super School," now under construction. It is massive and, when it opens in fall 2012, it will replace the two schools - elementary and high school - now in Inuvik.

Here's something interesting I discovered the other day - the produce truck. I was craving fresh fruit and vegetables when I happened upon it at the other end of town.
The fellow who runs this truck-shop drives from Inuvik to the Vancouver area, fills up his refrigerated transport trailer with all the fresh produce you can imagine, then drives back to Inuvik. Round-trip, it takes him three weeks, and he stays until he sells everything in the truck. He's been doing this, year-round for 26 years! Thanks to this trucker, I have been enjoying blueberries, kiwi and carrots for days!

I'm not sure this counts as sight-seeing, other than you never know what sights you will see walking around town. This lone leg was just lying on the road one day ...