Memories of a Northern Life
by Paul Strome
I am an optimistic, energetic, 65 year old, retired teacher of 31 years who has lived, worked, or travelled in EVERY province and territory in Canada. I have been an environmentalist all my life thanks to my Mom and Dad who educated all our family about the seven grandfather teachings: respect, love, humility, wisdom, bravery, truth, and honesty.
Our family lived along the east coast of James Bay in a small community called Fort George (Chisasibi) from 1941-1955 while Dad was a Hudson Bay factory post manager and my Mom was the regional nurse. The community was composed mainly of Cree with a few Inuit and some non-natives. When we moved to Winnipeg in 1955 my parents continued to teach the three of us boys critical morals and ethics that have served us well throughout our lives.
Environmental issues have always been discussed around the dinner table. Much later in life, when I worked for the DEWline (Distant Early Warning Line) I witnessed numerous environmental breaches involving every kind of lubricant, antifreeze, aviation fuel and hazardous chemical used in it’s operation that you can think of. A few short years later, when Dewline sites were closed because they were deemed unnecessary, those stockpiles of drums, buried heavy equipment and other hazardous materials were dug up, contained properly, loaded onto ships and sent south for appropriate hazardous material disposal which cost the U.S. government at least $360 million and hundreds of man years.
When I worked at Nanisivik Mines Ltd. at the north tip of Baffin Island 26 miles down the road from Arctic Bay, I was part of the solution regarding the handling of hazardous materials that were shipped south. There had been numerous small mountains of contaminated chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, copper sulphate and lime that had been spilled all over the tundra right above a local water source. The really great part of my job was to identify, collect, label, package and then ship them south to be processed appropriately. I was able to get the entire outside storage area cleaned up. Empty drums were organized as a base for heavy parts so that the snow of winter wouldn’t bury them. We were able to ship thirty or more sealift containers south to be dealt with appropriately, no matter what they were filled with.
I was also, however, witness to a tailings lake that is still there and is lethal for anything that enters the lake. Why was it never cleaned up? The managers of the mine could have reversed the flow of the tailings pipes and run a pipeline 3 miles downhill to the seaside port at the fjord where the ships pulled right up to the shore. The tailings could have been loaded onto ships and taken south for proper processing, but they weren’t.
I first arrived in Gjoa Haven, NWT in 1979 when the population was about 500 souls. Of these 480 were Inuit and the rest were non-native. I taught for three years in Kekertak Ilihakvik (Island School) and I taught the Adult Education Program for two years. While I lived in Gjoa Haven I travelled extensively across the land; I interviewed numerous elders with a translator; I was an active member of the NWT Hunters and Trappers Association, and I planned, supervised, and executed an exchange trip with Simcoe, Ontario. I still stay in contact with numerous Inuit and non-Inuit in Gjoa Haven. The whole area became part of the Territory of Nunavut on April 1, 1999.
My wife, oldest daughter and I moved south to Rankin Inlet in 1984 where both my wife and I taught in the Maani Uluyuk Ilihakvik. In 1986 I transferred and taught at the Kitikmeot Regional Education Center while my wife continued to teach in the elementary school. I taught technological studies, science, mathematics and English during the week, but spent as much time as possible out on the land or on the water hunting, fishing and exploring. I have always been amazed and impressed at the attitude of Inuit regarding environmental issues. They were intelligent and foresighted enough to ensure their land was returned to it’s original state prior to the Dewline site ever being built by including a clause to that effect in the original legal agreement. No matter what school I taught in, I was the Outdoor Education staff representative as well as the staff sponsor for the Environment Council and the Outers’ Club staff representative. I was the person who organized the canoe trips, hiking, climbing and rappelling, dog sledding and outdoor education training sessions.
When I moved south from Rankin Inlet to Milton, Ontario, I searched for three or four months for an appropriate dog sled provider. I eventually found Chocpaw Expeditions which is owned by Paul and Margaret Reid of South River, Ontario. For the next 13 years I organized dog sledding trips for teachers, students, family and friends with Chocpaw, and was never disappointed in the quality, professionalism and friendliness that all of their staff exhibited. My views on dog sledding and outdoor education were captured in this blog, posted in 2010. They agree in large measure with more recent published studies, e.g. How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway.
I have been absolutely blessed to have others in my life who share the same heart and are willing to risk almost everything to make our adventures happen. My Dad and Mom laid the groundwork for most of my feelings regarding the outdoors and my values about accepting of others. They took me camping from the earliest days I can remember. Dad showed me a kazillion things; the most practical was how to make fuzz sticks to light a fire easily. Mom showed me how to make bannock with raisins. Dad taught me how to fish, which meant I was able to teach my daughter Erika how to fish later on in life. She caught her very first fish when we were in Yukon, Alaska, NWT, and British Columbia in 2000.
Spending a week on the tundra on Montreal Island south of Gjoa Haven, hunting and fishing with our wives for a week and living out of tents bathed in 24 hours of sunshine was another emotional high. As the staff sponsor of The Woodlands School’s Outers’ Club I organized the training and the hike up Mount Washington that was a life changing event for all the staff, parents, and students who participated.
Kayaking down the Horton River in the NWT with six other environmentalists/ adventurers/explorers for two weeks enabled us to watch baby Peregrine Falcons, a silverback male Grizzly bear eating berries on the riverbank, muskoxen grazing on the tundra, and a female Grizzly with her two cubs within a hundred yards of us. We had seen many caribou on this trip but nothing surprised us more than the caribou that walked right into our camp on the afternoon prior to our pickup. We gave thanks to the animal for giving up it’s life to feed us and I gifted tobacco in it’s honour. We had an amazing stew and steaks that evening and fed the wolves with the remains.
I attended and participated in many Inuit drum dances which I absolutely loved. Women would arrive in their amoutiks, kamiks and caribou clothing. The older women would gather together in one area away from the door so they could support each other when it was their turn to sing. I experienced a shamanic spiritual connection every time I was part of a traditional Inuit drum dance, and traces of the feeling always lasted for days. That’s one absolutely amazing thing that happens whenever I have participated in spiritual ceremony – a fire keeper at sweat lodges, drum dances, or pipe ceremony – the profound, heartfelt emotions run deep and true.
When an old arctic explorer friend of mine asked me to join them to hike the Chilkoot Trail with my two daughters it only took me nanoseconds to respond in the affirmative. My girls were 14 years old and they had been involved in many of my hiking, canoeing, climbing and rappelling trips, so they knew what to expect, for the most part. What they weren’t ready for was the 7 days of driving, 14 hours a day in order to get to Skagway, Alaska from Milton, Ontario.
They overcame all the immense challenges they faced; ended up in the best physical and emotional shape they ever had been until then, and made everyone else in the group immensely proud. Erika caught her first fish on this trip. The bond between Allie and Erika grew because of the month we spent together. They got to see and help out with the First Nations and Inuit celebration in Moosehide which is a few miles downriver of Dawson City.
We celebrated for four days with Navaho, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, Sioux, Tlingit, Tutchone, non-natives, Niskas, and others and in the 24 hour daylight. It was truly a novel and amazing experience. The three of us volunteered our time in some way or other for the set up, operation, and take down of this very special celebration that happens only every two years. We got to know some VERY special people, listened to First Nations stories and many drum dances, played many new games and participated with people from many new tribes.