On boxing day of 1996 we packed up our tiny little three cylinder Chevrolet Sprint hatchback aptly named Puny, put our two big northern dogs (Delta and Grizzly) and our wee tabby cat (Sahtu) in the backseat, and started our 7000 km, eight day trip south west to Toronto. Dean was enrolled in a nine month intensive Information Technology program at a downtown Toronto school called Information Technology Institute (iti). We had spent three years above the Arctic Circle living in Arctic Red River for one year first and then Inuvik. We had had good employment and a great group of friends but, it was time to move on and start something new.
As we rolled out of Inuvik on the Dempster Highway, in the dead and dark of winter and -35 Celsius, we were not unaware of the risk of travel for the first 800 kms of this road trip south to Dawson City, Yukon with just one gas station at Eagle Plains, about half way. The moonlight shone above us and lighted the way over North America’s most northerly and remote highway, which in fact is actually a gravel road. It was a good omen, I thought, that moon. It was sure to be a fine trip with a moon like that shining above us and leading us on.
Just to give some idea of our situation in the car. We had huge Canada Goose parkas on. Large layered mittens, a woolen toque each and Sorel boots rated to -60. It being so bitingly cold outside, our little car could not keep up. We just broke even for heat, which means, we were quite chilly for the first couple of days. Few people had cell phones back then. A friend in Inuvik had given us his cell phone in case we ran into an emergency.
Not long into the trip, we realized that our front windshield was frosting up, even though the fan and heat were turned on high. It didn’t take much to figure out that the fan had stopped working. Our focal point out the front of the car was rapidly diminishing. I wanted to turn back and get it fixed. Dean said no, we could do that in Dawson. Just then Delta and Grizzly lunged into the front seat, their heads and shoulders anyway, because they had sensed a heard of caribou moving methodically across the dim tundra. Our wee vehicle was surrounded by their graceful presence. (Like the picture below, only dark outside). We felt honoured to be in the midst of their serenity. Delta and Grizzly just wanted to give chase. On we rolled.
We pulled into Dawson City Yukon and it was -45 degrees Celcius. Nothing was open in town so we retreated to the corner of the highway and stayed in a motel there. Carefully plugging in our car so that there would be every chance that it would start in the morning. After a satisfying turkey dinner, hot shower and good night’s sleep we breakfasted and clambered back into Puny. Dead. Upon examination of the cord we found that someone had stepped on it (probably me) and with the cold, it had snapped. Useless. We would need a ‘cold start’ at $50. It worked and we rolled out of Dawson on square tires due to the extreme cold. We were Whitehorse bound with the hopes of getting our heater fan fixed. In Whitehorse, at Crappy (a playful nickname for Canadian Tire, a store we actually really liked) we were able to get it repaired. The service department stayed open late for us and were very kind.
The most remarkable thing about the rest of the trip, which we were already aware of due to several cross-country drives, was the shear vastness and emptiness of our big beautiful country. The Prairies were endless and so windy that Puny burned twice as much fuel as usual. The Prairies in the winter had white-outs and dangerous snow drifts right across the highway. Dean, my Newfoundlander, is an amazing winter driver so I wasn’t too worried, really.
We finally pulled into Toronto seven days later. Our friend Nee was home and we crashed in with him. He had found us an apartment right behind his on St. Clair. Excitedly we went to look at it. Sadly and disappointingly though, it was little more than a slum and was a serious firetrap. It just would not do. We had stupidly paid the slum-landlord first and last month rent, from afar, sight unseen. Bad idea. When we met her she tried to tell us the place was fine: rotten wood floors, drafty or broken old windows, old, dirty paint, crappy old kitchen and ancient wiring.
We told her we wanted our money back.
She and Dean were in the kitchen and I was standing in the kitchen doorway. She stamped her foot and said this is ridiculous and tried to get past me through the door. I stood my ground and filling up the doorway space said not sweetly: Where do you think you’re going? She turned around and filled out an ad for the apartment telling us that if it were to rent, we would get our money back. Next, we called the fire marshal who declared the place a fire hazard. We got our money back.
The next day we found a 2.5 story brick house with a great kitchen, hardwood floors, attic study and a fenced yard in the North Beaches at Birchmount and the Danforth. It was ideal and cheaper at $900 a month.
Dean started his program and worked like a dog, ending in nine months as the Valedictorian of his class. While he did his program, I decided to volunteer at my sister, Eva’s camp as much as possible. We ended up putting on a week-long boys’ camp which was a lot of work but truly successful and rewarding for everyone involved. I also helped with small maintenance jobs, errands, painting and cleaning duties. It was a very good summer and it was so fun to be with my big sister and at the camp again.
In the fall we bought our first little house in Milton, Ontario upon the advice of a savvy Real Estate agent and Newfoundlander with an office in Campbellville. Our side-split bungalow was on an older street with tall trees. Dean had gotten a job as a technology trainer and was traveling a lot. While he did that, I fashioned a small apartment in our basement and rented it to a nice young couple. Next, there was an offer by Dean’s company for us to move to Virginia. We sold our house to the first people who walked through and off we went to Leesburg, Virginia. Nine months later, Leo was born. We were over the moon until…but that’s another post.
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9 thoughts on “Exiting the Arctic”
Your Arctic travels in -60 weather would be a ‘bridge too far’ for me. We were in Fairfax Virginia at the same time and were pleasantly surprised to get a phone call and visit from you. Janet was particularly happy to see John (her favourite junior officer in 4 Service Battalion) and we had lots of laughs re-living our mutual time in Germany. I don’t think your son was born then?
You are a gifted writer, M, your stories come alive.
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Actually, Gord, the Arctic wore on us and we really needed to get out of there. We were in Virginia in 1999 and pregnant with our son. You were ‘chiding’ me about the incredible size of my pregnant belly as we spent several hours with you there. What I can’t remember is how we found out that you were in Alexandria while we were in Purcelleville. I guess it was email or a Christmas letter. I recall Janet’s Greek salad as one of the best things I had ever tasted and tried time and again to duplicate it. You really need to read ‘Locked Up in D.C.’ to find out what happened next….(cue ominous music 🎶)
Great article !!
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Thank you Kim. Is this the same Kim I knew in Germany??