Friday, November 16, 2007


Back in the days when I owned the local hotel, the Igloo Inn, we tried our best to promote tourism. It was a lost cause, of course, but we gave it a shot. We had two rates; the "tourist rate" was about sixty percent of the "government rate". Whenever the government would make a booking they would, of course, ask for the government rate.

"You got it!" was always the cheerful response.

* * * * * * * *

In August of 1989 I was guiding a couple of newly-weds from Chicago on a fishing excursion aboard the Fort Hearne. This day we were hiking up the Tree River to the big falls, fishing along the way. It was a hot afternoon and the hike was a long one.

By mid-afternoon we were within sight of the falls when my sport asked, "Is the water in this here river fit to drink?" I assured him that the water of the Tree River, like the water in all the other rivers in the arctic, is pure and tasty. He dipped several cups of ice-cold water out of the river and drank them down.

We continued to walk upstream along the grassy bank, and had not taken a dozen paces when we both spotted … a big and very dead moose, covered in slimy green algae. I’m sure we would have smelled the critter had it not been fully immersed in the water not twenty feet from where my Chicago dentist had filled up on the "pure, clean" water of the Tree River.

He didn’t ask for my advice for the rest of the trip.

* * * * * * * *

In 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a contract with the Meteorological Service of the Department of Transport to provide weather observations from the small and more isolated settlements where the federal government had no presence. Twice a day, we would call one of these posts on the HF radio and the post manager would transmit his observation to us. We would then send the observation, using Morse code, on a low-frequency link to Cambridge Bay. They would then put the observation on "the network" via radio-teletype. It was a convoluted system, but it seemed to work reasonably well.

Friday’s and Saturday’s observations were always a little problematic. The post manager and his wife were fond of their rum, and if a slightly incoherent voice proclaimed the sky to be clear, the wind calm and the visibility unlimited, we could pretty much deduce that a "party" was in full swing and nobody had even bothered to look out the window, let alone go out into the cold to check the sky and the thermometers.

The post manager, a Scot of course, was well-known around the north. He had joined the Bay in the thirties and had developed a number of clever and innovative strategies to cope with the isolation of those early years. After one look at his new surroundings, he immediately wired home for a set of golf clubs. They arrived a year later. On the ice in front of the settlement he would bat around a red-painted golf ball, keeping track of the fairway strokes until within a prescribed distance of the hole, and then retire to the living room of his house. There, over glasses of HBC over-proof rum, the putting would take place.

Every year the annual re-supply ship would off-load a few hundred copies of the Glasgow Times. These our intrepid Scot would arrange, in chronological order, in a corner of the kitchen. Every morning, over his coffee and porridge, he would read the paper. Situated as he was in the wild Canadian arctic, it mattered little that the paper was precisely one year old.

* * * * * * * *

Nowadays, especially in the north, we often hear that kids "have nothing to do", and that is why they get into so much mischief.

When I was a kid, growing up in Montreal, we had no organized activities, other than Cubs and Scouts. If we wanted to play baseball, somebody would always find a bat or a piece of two-by-two and a ball of some kind. Usually, there was a vacant lot nearby, or the street that had served as a hockey rink a few months earlier would become our baseball diamond. No adults were involved, it cost nothing and the games went on non-stop starting when school was out until it got too dark to play.

Baseball and road hockey were the primary pastimes, but a nearby long-abandoned gravel pit was also a playground, and there we built rafts and caught bull-frogs to our heart’s content.

I don’t recall ever being bored. We never saw a policeman in our neighbourhood. The worst "vandalism" might consist of TP-ing someone’s yard or raiding a fruit tree, though I must admit that I don’t recall even that ever happening.

Our days were fully occupied by school, homework, household chores, un-organized sporting activities and hobbies. On weekends we had part-time jobs. If we sat around for more than five minutes my father would find some unpleasant (and un-paid) job for us! Six days a week I delivered 50 copies of the Montreal Gazette, a morning newspaper. Most days I was out of bed by 5:00 am and exhausted by our bed-time of 9:00 pm. On Sundays we worked at the local bicycle shop or hunted the golf course for balls that we could clean up and sell for a quarter apiece.

When you hear a northerner say that kids ‘have nothing to do", they are referring to the kids who are always in trouble with the police. These are the kids who have proven that they don’t want to do anything. They don’t go to school, aren’t expected to help out around the house, don’t make an effort to get a job, and have no constructive hobbies. Maybe if they had parents who were good role models and had some expectations for their kids, they wouldn’t get into the trouble they do.

"The kid’s have nothing to do" really means "I wish my kids would stay out of trouble. Someone should see that they do. Someone should teach them some values. Someone should help my kids to behave. Someone should set an example for my kids and see that they succeed. Why isn’t someone doing something about this?"


Photo: The author, my mother and youngest brother, Lake Hughes, Quebec c. 1958. Obviously, kids in those days did not demand designer clothes and running shoes!

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