Inuvik

July 21

Inuvik

I have managed to turn a three-week holiday into 4 blogs, and a two-year portion of my life into two blogs, so now I’d like to cram a four-year stay in Inuvik into ONE blog.  Just for the hell of it.

When we landed at the airport in Inuvik in the summer of 1977, K. was a beautiful happy one and a half year old, and D., spirited and full of life as always would soon be celebrating birthday number three.  We were met by W.’s new supervisor who made a big fuss over D. (because that’s always what she demanded and got) and then he asked us how old our other little girl was.  Both of us looked at K. with his angelic smile and long blonde curls and decided he was well past due for that first hair cut.

Our new home was an end unit in government row housing.  There must have been a dozen or more four-plexes one after the other, all painted different colors, all in various states of disrepair.  Right away we dubbed it rainbow valley.  We had been told we’d be moving into the NEW row housing (which was on the other side of town and much more modern), so here already was disappointment number one.  These places were old and small and there were doors everywhere.  In fact I counted the number of doors that first day – there were 12 – 14 if you count the double doors at the front and back entrances.  And that didn’t include closet doors.  There was a small entrance way with a storage room to the left, and the kitchen on the right.   All the major appliances were jammed into this space, including the washer and dryer and there was a kitchen table and six chairs.  We would joke later that I could do 90 percent of my housework standing in one strategic spot in the kitchen.  The kitchen cupboards were painted lime green and the floor was checkerboard white and turquoise tiles.  The walls were yellow.  It made me a little dizzy.  The living room had a dark blue carpet, mint green walls, and three pieces of overstuffed furniture covered in a wild orange, rust, green and yellow-flowered pattern.  Only two of the pieces matched, although the third one came close.  The drapes were gold.  There were radiators all over the place,  but because of the time of year the heat of course wasn’t on, so the banging and clanging involved in the heating process was something we wouldn’t be aware of for a couple more months.   There was a door to a hallway, another door to another hallway to yet another door which led to the outside on the other side of the unit.  All green.  Then  came the stairway (some kind of pukey green carpet on that) leading up to a small landing with doors in every direction – three bedrooms and a linen closet and the bathroom.  More freakin’ green everywhere.  To this day the sight of anything painted green makes me slightly nauseous.  We were promised that all kinds of renovations were scheduled for our unit, and we actually believed that.  Man, it took us a long time to clue in to the demented ways of the territorial government housing people.  But we did learn, eventually. In a couple of years they did paint the whole place white and we got a rust colored carpet that went with our gross furniture, and I got rid of the lime green cupboards on my own.   It was not exactly the accommodations we had been lead to expect, but each child had a bedroom, one of which was large enough to convert half of it into a great play area.  I always felt a little claustrophobic on the main floor, but I never once forgot to empty the dryer.  And after we removed about six doors and stored them in our crawl space under the house, we seemed to have a whole lot more room.

K. & D. with popsicles on the chesterfield from hell.

Just for fun, here’s a picture of my grandchildren.  Can we all say deja vu??

Inuvik itself was an awesome place to live.  There were a couple of big grocery stores, a hotel (with a restaurant!) schools, a library, churches, an arena, a pet shop of all things, an actual craft store, a bakery, board walks, a hospital.  It was practically civilized!  We had roads to drive on!  And we bought a little blue Volkswagen that I was thrilled to drive around all over the place.  Our utilities were now provided by the utilidor – a network of above ground pipes enclosed in slippery steel.  We warned D. to never go up on top of them because it was dangerous and she could fall off.  She used to go out onto our back porch and scream at the kids who climbed onto them and over them to get down before they killed themselves.  Such a sweet child.  W. had dabbled in wildlife photography when we moved north, and here his skills in that department soared.  We actually began a small business and sold many of them.  Can’t say we made a fortune, but it was a lot of fun.  This is also where he decided to be Joe Inuk and create his own dog team.  Which to his credit he actually did.  He got a bunch of pups and built himself a sled and trained himself and his dogs so well that he actually once took his mother for a dog sled ride.

We made some of the best friends we would ever have during our stay there.  At that time there was a Canadian Forces base in Inuvik, and I was asked to join their lady’s baseball team.  I had a uniform and everything and they stuck me out in right field where I would cause a minimum of trouble.  I was pretty good at bat, but the worst fielder in the league I think.   We got our black lab while we lived in Inuvik – Wintoba’s Alaskan Crusader.  Good grief.  We called him Toban.  This is also where I started to draw and paint.  After a lot of experimenting I decided acrylics were my favourite medium.   It was another self-taught endeavor and my efforts surprised everybody, including myself.  I had an artist friend look at my stuff and he told me to just carry on, don’t ever take lessons.  If I did, I might lose that natural originality and je ne sais quois.  That’s artistic gobbledygook for ‘even though your stuff is totally wrong in every way, there’s something about it I like.’  I did lot’s of arctic scenery and pictures of Inuit people and children and even some of animals, although those always ended up having way too elaborate expressions on their faces to be believable.  I painted pictures for everyone in both our families for Christmas gifts.  I would never consider now doing such a crazy thing, and burdening poor unsuspecting people with artwork that they might find not even close to their personal taste.  My mother and my MIL turned out to be my biggest fans – MIL still has two of my paintings – one of a man driving a dog team and the other of a hunter’s shack – hanging in her living room!  I don’t know whether to be flattered or depressed by that fact.

We got two paid-out vacations a year, which were originally supposed to be to your place of hire (which would have been Toronto) but they changed that to mean the closest large city, which in our case turned out to be Edmonton.  So twice a year we forked out the extra cash and flew from there to Ontario.  We had learned that our trips home helped to keep us all happy and sane.  People were able to fly up and visit us a lot more easily here as well.  Most memorable visits were from W.’s parents, and my sister and her husband.  They both still talk about W. going out on the back porch with a big hunk of frozen caribou to saw off a slab for a roast for supper.

Many people remarked over these four years about how well our two kids got along with each other.  I guess we were just blessed in that respect because they really never had any huge disagreements about anything for very long.  D. continued to be a live wire who entertained, and K. kind of kept her grounded.  He continued to be a loveable happy child, easy to get along with and as deep and focussed as D. was flighty.  I guess it’s true that opposites attract.  They used to play together for hours.  They also had lots of little friends and now got to go to birthday parties and on play dates.  We started them in skating in the winter and took them on lots of camping trips up into the MacKenzie delta in the summer.  For over a year I babysat two little girls for a friend while she worked at her government job.  When D. went off to kindergarten, K. and April went to preschool together, and Lori went down for her nap.  I was practically a free woman for a couple of hours every day.

We used to go down the main street on the boardwalks with the kids on their new tricycles, D. with little Lori standing on her back runner, and K. and April taking turns on his bike, either driving or riding and me with the dog on a leash.  Our own little parade.

W. still went away on trips, but they were usually short and became few and far between.  This part of the NWT was very different from being above the tree line, and for four years he didn’t get lost once.  Hallelujah.

Cambridge Bay

Cambridge Bay

I haven’t been in any great hurry to carry on in a chronological fashion and describe our first few years in the NWT.  In fact, I think I’ve been deliberately putting it off.  For the first year or so I kept a kind of diary, mostly because I needed to pour my heart out and vent and there was no one there to listen.  When I read it now, it breaks my heart.

When we landed in the Arctic, D. was 14 months old.  I was 5 months pregnant.  W. was thrown into a crazy job in a strange place where white people were a very small minority and the culture was all new and different to both of us.  We lived in government housing, a three bedroom bungalow that would have been suitable for a much less harsh climate.  Our furnace ran constantly but our windows were always iced up.  Water had to be delivered by truck and pumped into a huge tank in our back entranceway.  Until we got used to conserving it, we ran right out of water two or three times.  There was a ringer washer which I had to figure out how to use, and a dryer that was in constant use because the clothes that went into it were still soaked.  A sewage truck had to come and pump out a holding tank under the house.  The vent for the sewage tank would sometimes get clogged up and the smell would permeate every room in our house.  Someone would have to climb up on the roof with a kettle of hot water and unclog it.  I did it once myself in the latter stages of my pregnancy because no one was around to help me and the smell was making me sick.  I suppose I could have fallen off the roof and killed myself and our unborn baby, but that was something I didn’t even think about until the deed was done.

We were both very optimistic in the beginning and really and truly believed that this was going to be a great adventure, and that we’d have few problems adjusting.  For the first time ever we were cut off from family and friends – that in itself was a huge adjustment.  Isolation took on a whole new meaning.  Especially for me.  W. was gone to work every day, and off on various trips, and even when he was home he went out drinking with the guys until all hours.  I was friends with some of their wives, mostly government workers or teachers but it was such a production to visit anyone that I eventually just gave up trying.  As my pregnancy progressed it also became too risky to be wandering around in the ice and snow with a one year old who could get frost-bitten cheeks and fingers and toes.  W. never seemed to clue in to the fact that I wasn’t sociable because it exhausted me.  Maybe he thought I liked staying home with a one year old 24/7 and not going to work full-time.  It got more and more difficult to tell him how I felt.  I spent my time looking after my daughter, cleaning and cooking and teaching myself how to bake bread.  Mostly I was bored out of my skull.  So I taught myself to knit and crochet. I made hats and scarves and sweaters and even attempted socks.  Then I made a quilt. I read everything I could get my hands on.  I invented games and stories and intricate play areas.  When I got really bored I moved all the furniture around until I had exhausted every conceivable arrangement.  Whenever W. left I’d spend a couple of hours crying and feeling sorry for myself.  I missed my family, I missed my car, I missed shopping and eating out, and going places and DAYLIGHT.  By Christmas I was the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life.  W. said it was hormones.  I was too down to disagree with him.  It was our first Christmas away from family and the stupid mail strike had finally ended but everything was so back logged that everything we ordered for Christmas was either late or cancelled.   I wasn’t too concerned about D.’s gifts not arriving from Sears because she was too little to know the difference.  But her dad got on a plane and flew to another community with a bigger Bay store and came back laden with gifts for his little girl.  We put up an artificial tree and made a big deal out of Christmas morning – maybe more for us than for her.  We were invited out for Christmas dinner and to a Christmas party at the D.E.W. line, and also to a New Year’s Eve party at the curling club.  So it’s not like we didn’t go places, but when we did W. fraternized with the guys and I talked to their wives about babies and recipes.  W.  still went out lots on his own.  Sometimes I was just happy not to have to deal with him.

I had a month or so to go before my due date.  Arrangements had been made for me to deliver the baby at the nursing station with the help of a mid wife.  For some reason or other, after we got past Christmas things didn’t look so bad for a while.   Maybe part of it was knowing that my pregnancy would soon be terminated.  I was never very good at being pregnant.  That healthy happy glow thing eluded me completely both times.  Add to that the fact that W. stopped going on trips because he didn’t want to be away when the baby came.  I was actually able to leave D. with him and go out to a baby shower, and a girl’s coffee get together, and even to do some shopping at the Bay on my own.  Funny how little things you normally take for granted can make such a difference in how you feel about life in general.

It was a week into February before I went into labour at 4:00 a.m.  W. woke up with a start and went into overdrive, waking up our friends who were going to look after D, phoning the mid-wife, helping me (for the first and last time during my entire pregnancy) to put on my boots.  All the while he was fussing I kept protesting that we had all kinds of time.  There was no need to get everyone else up at this ungodly hour.  But as usual he wasn’t listening.  So there I was at 6:00 a.m. in a nursing station bed with bleary eyed people surrounding me waiting for something to happen.  They all wandered off and probably had a nap somewhere.  W. just stayed hyper for the next six hours.  Our son was born at one minute after noon.

In my pre-baby blatherings I had decided that it would be nice to have two little girls, and I had several girl’s names picked out and written down.  And a boy’s name, just in case.  The baby looked exactly like D. had when she was born – little round head, big round eyes, lots of dark hair.  I was sure they’d made a mistake and it was another girl.  When they left me alone to rest I picked him up out of his little bed side crib and undressed him and checked for myself.  At the time it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do just to make sure.  Then I fell asleep with him in my arms  and cuddled up against me.   I often wonder if that’s one of the reasons he was such a happy content baby, so different from his sister.  I’m sure that immediate bonding and closeness must have made a difference.  Being whisked off to a nursery and left to cry all by yourself has to be a much more traumatic beginning to your life.

So baby K. has a birth certificate from the NWT.  Although of course he’s not a baby anymore,  he’ll always be my baby. (GAG)  No English and French on this one – it’s English and Inuit syllabics.  I stayed one night in the nursing station and went home the next morning.  People at home that I talked to on the phone in the next few days were all agog about the whole thing – what was it like not being in a hospital with a real doctor, and what if something had gone wrong – wasn’t I scared?   Was I sure the baby was okay?  I got tired of reassuring everyone that everything was fine.   What a liar.  Things were not “fine”.

W. was away all the time it seemed to me.  He’d have occasional fits of guilt where he’d make an effort to spend time with me and his kids, but mostly he was off somewhere doing what ever it was he did.  One day in a fit of depressed rage I cut off all my hair.  W. really liked my long hair, but that particular day it was annoying the hell out of me and I hacked it all off.  He constantly told me that D. was becoming an undisciplined little brat and that I was way too easy on her.  She was almost two!  Two year olds are supposed to be brats!  Stick around and be a parent yourself, you asshole!   I started ordering a ridiculous amount of stuff through catalogues.  Cases of disposable diapers in different sizes, a new blender, baby clothes, toys, a curling iron for my new hair, all kinds of craft supplies.  W. had bought a snow machine, and I was a little afraid of it, but determined to make use of it.  One day I created a sort of baby carrier out of scarves and I can’t remember what else.  I strapped it to myself, plopped K. into it, got D. all bundled up, zipped my parka over the baby and took us all out for a snow machine ride.  It was quite a long reach to the controls because I had D. sitting facing me and the baby between us.  We drove over to visit my friend Trudy, and D. put her hand up and pushed on the throttle and we ran over her garbage barrel.  She was watching us out of her front window, and we both laughed hysterically about that for days.  I attached the baby sleigh to the back of the machine and that’s where I carried my groceries.  We went to a newly formed moms and tots three mornings a week.  Whenever W. came home it was like we were speaking different languages.  I didn’t care what he was doing at work, and he got tired of hearing about the lives of my friends and their children and what I had watched on tv and the latest thing to arrive at the post office.  We both took up curling (if you could even call it that – the ice was tilted and bumpy) but I hated his competitiveness and he thought I couldn’t take anything seriously enough.  My gawd, it was hardly the Olympics and the ice was so bad that we started to count rocks that bounced off the boards on their way to the other end of the ice.

One of my entries in my ‘diary’ says ‘ I think our marriage has kind of gone for a shit since we moved up here’.  Then I just blather on about how angelic baby K. is and how cute D. is and how many words she can say and all the places I’ve gone on our snow machine and what all my friends are doing.  And how W. has gone off on yet another stupid trip, this time bear hunting or something as equally asinine.  And how I haven’t felt the slightest bit depressed about it this time at all.   Two weeks later, I am convinced that I must be a widow.  How ironic, that when I finally make up my mind to snap out of my big funk and get out and do things and stop acting like a zombie who can only wander around doing laundry and picking up toys, that my husband has gone missing.

First they’re a couple of days late, then three, then four.  Then a week.  We are worried sick.  Two Inuit guys from the hunting party finally turn up and go immediately to the RCMP to report that my friend Joyce’s husband Ed left the group a week ago to head home on his own. They all tried to talk him out of it, but he took off, and now they have no idea where he is.  The rest of the group stayed together, but there have been several white-outs and they’ve been storm stayed much longer than expected.  W. had mechanical problems with his machine and they’ve had to leave it behind.  They are running out of food.  The two guys who returned tell the RCMP where they think the rest of them are, and they send out a plane which spots them easily about a hundred miles out and headed home. Included in the group are Trudy’s husband and young son.  We hug each other and cry when we find out they’re okay.   When they finally arrive, W. has a weather-beaten face that his daughter doesn’t recognize.  He has grown a beard, and worn holes in the knees of his long underwear.  He is dirty and hungry and sick with worry about  Ed.  He thinks people will hold him responsible.  He tries to explain that Ed just got tired of the hunt and took off.  How could they have made him stay, short of tying him up?  Eventually a rescue plane finds him, way off course, hungry and delirious, and flies him home.  He becomes a bit of a celebrity about town, has newspaper articles written about him, and does some radio interviews.  Amazing, how being an idiot can win you some notoriety.  W. is still blamed by a lot of people for how things went wrong.  Joyce stops speaking to me.  I don’t understand any of it.  I’m just happy that W. is back and a bit wiser, and seems for a while to be more appreciative of his little family.

Our marriage has one more big crisis to weather before we get the hell out of Cambridge Bay.  And lots of little ones.  I suppose it’s not much different from any one else’s rocky road when you have small children and you’re trying to be good parents and still have some semblance of a life and sort out who you are now that you’re all grown up.  I’m sounding like a ranting crazy lady, but I think in lots of ways that’s what I was starting to become.  And it’s all too much for one blog, so stay tuned for part two.

Newborn, at the nursing station.

One week old.