At the inn in Yellowknife, they could be just any little family: father, mother, small daughter, having breakfast. The restaurant is a brown plastic place, where ageing and hung-over white waitresses serve pancakes so big they flop over the plates’ sides, and slop coffee with a shaky hand into thick cups. They shuffle on their crêpe-soled shoes, squeezing between tables, their butts sometimes almost in your breakfast. The family sits in a booth.
I’d spent two weeks paddling a canoe down the Coppermine river into the Arctic Ocean. The dissonance between then and now, there and here, is almost physically painful. Places like hotels and airports and bars are the messy, ugly interstices of the Arctic, where cultures collide and disturb one another. The shift from serenity, silence, clarity of light into these compressed, explosive outposts is poorly tolerated by whites and natives alike.
Outside these outposts, the imprint of thousands of years of aboriginal settlement is slight, a scattering of human and animal bones on shale and the thin tundra soil. A close reading of the Arctic is a reading of far-flung bones: caribou antlers, musk-ox skulls – mother and baby side by side. A perfect circle of ten bowhead-whale skulls covered in a foot-thick layer of peat. Bone fashioned into knife handles and harpoons. Graveyards ancient and modern. Inukshuks stand like guardians on the horizon, rocks piled into human shapes, marking a route or signalling a food cairn.
The debris of white people’s intrusion is aggressive and offensive: a cache of rusting 150-year-old cans of food in a stone cairn on a hillside in the high Arctic, oil drums full of fuel tossed on beaches, plastic peanut-butter jars and liquor bottles. Even orange peel takes forever to decompose.
Our passage down the Coppermine river was observed only by wildlife: collared lemmings, moose, caribou, horned larks and gyrfalcons, a wolf pacing our canoes from a high ridge. One day, six Americans were dropped by a floatplane for a spot of fishing, but we were mostly alone, two canoes attended by swarms of blackflies, and angry terns, and flotillas of whistling swans.
On the final day after 200 miles of solitude, we were unsettled by the gradual sighting of fishing shacks, then low-slung houses, and finally the shabby beachfront of the Nunavut village of Kugluktuk. We slept on the beach beside the Arctic Ocean, and the Inuit children played past midnight in the sunshine because they could. I flew back down to Yellowknife before flying north again to the High Arctic. Yellowknife is the last outpost of the south and the first of the far north, or the other way around depending on your perspective. It is a rough frontier town of 18,000 people, the centre of government for the Northwest Territories, lying 600 miles north of the nearest city (Edmonton, Alberta), on the shore of Great Slave Lake. It is where people based further north, in villages or mining camps, come to re-provision, do their laundry and banking, and drink.
Breakfast at the inn in Yellowknife is my first restaurant meal after two weeks in the bush. The room is full, hot, smoky. People don’t talk a lot; this is a fuelling stop.
The other patrons are mostly red-faced white people, a few Dene, fewer Inuit. Prospectors, a smattering of tourists and the family in the booth. The woman is a sweet-faced, tiny Inuk in pink slacks, a black sleeveless sweater, with glasses, carved whalebone jewellery, shiny black hair cut nicely around her face. Her cheekbones are a flat, sweeping curve. She is soft-spoken and vivacious, smiling at her little daughter who is bouncy, and laughing excitedly. The man is white, large-bellied, working his way grimly through fried eggs, hash browns and sausage and thick white slabs of toast, saying nothing.
The mother sips her coffee and smiles sweetly at the tired waitress. It is ten in the morning, a sunny, cold summer Saturday in Yellowknife.