Her name stands out amongst the streets of Churchill, singularly lengthy and unpronounceable to the unfamiliar. It has a poetic ring to it — change “th” to “Þ” and she might have stepped straight from the pages of a saga. Next to names like Munck, Franklin and Kelsey, it is a unique name, a name without connotations of failed expeditions like Franklin’s, but no less evocative of adventure — one can hardly hear the name without wondering who she was. But this is not the name of a Viking warrior-woman — no warrior at all, in fact, but a woman most renowned for her peacemaking and diplomacy.

Thanadelthur was a Chipewyan (Dene) woman, captured as a young woman by the Cree, who traded at York Factory. Her life as their prisoner gives her the name Slave Woman in the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company — someone was perhaps too lazy to spell her name. All the same, the respect she earned within the Company was, it seems, great. James Knight, then chief factor at York Factory, spoke highly of her ‘courage and resolution.’

Her escape is a feat often described in a few sentences: a sketched outline, as she fled with another woman, endured the hardships of wandering lost through the boreal forest, the death of her companion, her arrival at York Factory. It is told impersonally, even vaguely, but the events are such as make up the most colourful adventure novels. If ‘Kidnapped’ had taken place in North America, this is what it might have looked like. Tensions between the Dene and the Cree were high, and complicating things, the English and the French were fighting their own wars — and trading firearms to the Cree. What Thanadelthur made of the Cree at the fort, I have not learned, but although in safety and free from captivity, she was still far from her family and no doubt yearned for something familiar. Perhaps that was part of the reason for her enthusiasm to join the Company’s expedition.

Knight, it seems, swiftly turned Thanadelthur’s linguistic skills — she spoke both Cree and Dene — to the Company’s advantage, and at a moment when they were especially needed. She accompanied a party of fur traders and Cree up the Churchill river, with the intention of making peace with the Dene for the sake of trade. Thanadelthur, persevering despite the hardships that her party endured, then put her diplomatic abilities to the test: when a party of Dene were found murdered, she convinced the Cree to wait for her while she went to find her people. They waited in the fear that their traditional enemies would take revenge. She instead convinced them to return in peace, and to smoke the pipe of peace with the Cree, setting aside their fighting and establishing a truce.

The rest of the story is short — after her efforts to make peace, Thanadelthur returned to the fort, becoming involved with the plan to build a fort on the Churchill River. In 1717 she fell ill, and died shortly after, remembered by James Knight in a grieving journal entry. The fort that had been planned was built that year, near where the town of Churchill stands.

All of this is what I have read, in books, online, in museums. There are so many aspects of her life that catch the curiosity, draw an observer irresistibly towards her story. As I read each brief piece, I formed my own image of her, accurate or not, admiring if inexpert. In the end there were more questions in my mind than answers, questions that required more than a history book to resolve (though one of those would be helpful in its own way). If anyone has written a song of her, painted her picture in a mural, told her story in any way but a dull one, I will be happy. We should know her name, but we should meet her face-to-face.


Ivory Stories

There is no grand architecture, no eye-catching exterior. It is a simple museum in a single room. Even the name is outdated, noticeably old-fashioned: the Eskimo Museum. No one would call it ostentatious. It is surprising, though, and there is more to it than its drab appearance suggests.

Each wall is stacked with glass cases of carvings, and in the middle of the room, two kayaks run beside a stuffed polar bear. More stuffed animals, posters, and rocks fill most of the room. The carvings can be realistic (incredibly detailled ivory birds perched in their cliffside colony) or whimsical (a walrus playing hockey). All of them vary in style, and though many would immediately be recognised as Inuit Art, others are less usual, such as the priest carvings, which look almost like classical busts, aside from one, whose fashionable green sunglasses set him apart! There are carvings of everything that the carvers would have seen in daily life, with some themes coming back more frequently than others — perhaps the hunt is most common, as well as the mother of all sea mammals.

The carvings most often seen in the south are animals, sometimes people, usually standing alone as though ready to have their portrait done. These are at the museum, but so are so many more, between decorated antlers, baleen silhouettes, and the long, dramatic scenes illustrated on a piece of walrus tusk. These are stories in the form of sculpture, and legends stand alongside domestic scenes or hunt. One depicts a man standing in surprise and amazement, to see his first airplane flying overhead. It is strange to see the igloo half-finished as the man stands distracted by the sound of the engines. The style is traditional, but the theme is clearly modern.

This is what makes the museum extraordinary, to my mind: it does not draw such a sharp distinction. The museum is short on interpretation, though the curator gives a very informative talk to new arrivals. I am used to everything being explained, and though some objects have signs beside them explaining their origins or the story behind the form, there does not seem to be such a strict order to things. A visitor can find their own way through, and there is always someone who can answer questions, but no dividing line between Tradition and Modernity, just as the introductory talk explains that they have not made that separation between Myth and Truth. It is a recent collection — dating back to the 1930s for most of the carvings, with some objects from the Dorset culture — but without dates, there is a sense of each one belonging to all time. Whether something is art or artefact does not matter, only what it says and the story it tells, nor does the question of nature or culture, as the animals and geological specimens can attest. There is even a trilobyte, and a chessboard that has igloos as rooks.

Among the carvings, everything is small. That is the effect of a long history of moving about — things are portable, save for those intended to stay in one place. The carving materials are mainly stone and bone, but there are also traded materials like clay. One carver even made two of his teeth, which he had had extracted, into figures, which are now at the museum. The walrus ivory may be the most remarkable, and its colour makes it ideal for polar bears, ice, terns and other things seen around here. In one case, the tusk is a lake or a pond, and a delicate, elegant loon is catching a fish. Its dive barely disturbs the surface, and when it flies away with its catch the motion is quick but understated. It is a scene that must happen often here. This one does not have people in it, nor the same action as many of the others, but it is quite appealing.

The museum is understated, but it will keep having more to say. At each visit I have learned something new.

Small Town Newcomers

I mentioned before that the majority of the Centre was made up of people from other places. It is an interesting situation, here, where the town is predominantly aboriginal — Inuit, Cree, Dene or Métis — and the residents of the Centre form a community unto itself. This region has never been a static one, and the first three groups above have been using it for thousands of years. Later, the Enlish and French fought over it, and the Métis became a new group with old roots. Nowadays tourists, seasonal workers, and researchers add their names to the mix. But the Centre is far outside the town. There are seasonal workers here, as well as residents, and they are from all over, many of them still learning what life in Churchill is like. I only visit town occasionally — I still do not know much. The dynamic is different and most of us do not have a long history here.

But — in a way it is encouraging, to be among other temporary guests. Even those who have moved here for a longer time share a common origin — they are from somewhere else. The bookkeeper, for example, is from Boston, and known the same places that I do, which is a comforting reminder of the city I love. The volunteers are welcoming, those who have been here before, and the new ones are ready to share stories of their travels.

Thrown together from Canada, the US, Germany, France, Britain, and Australia, volunteers and visitors and staff alike have their reasons for being here, which involve curiosity and love of the icy landscape. They are a quirky lot, but so am I. Someone remarked the other day that it is a good place to be weird. It is, and nowhere else before have I had sing-alongs and swordfights in the same night. The recent Earth Watch group joined in the pool games and climbed the snow hill to watch the aurora with the volunteers and me.

So while I have not had the experience of living in Churchill, I have gotten to know a place much different from my usual. It is a meeting point for stray nerds, who know they must leave eventually. When one of the volunteers departed on the train the other day, we all began missing her at once, as staying in touch isn’t the same as seeing her every day. Maybe she will come back to Churchill in time, but will any of the rest of us? I can only hope.

There is much to learn, of the history and geography, of the languages and the stories of this land. I would love to keep learning it. And every discovery that any of us makes, no matter how ordinary to those who know, is greeted with enthusiasm by the others here. That, I think, is what is best about the dynamic of the Centre, as curiosity is encouraged for the sake of simple enjoyment. And that is what is most exciting about being a newcomer.

The Bay Road

Is there anything more exhilarating than an open road? And is there any better time to drive it than sunrise? If so, I have never discovered what these are.

I have never loved driving. In the city it is a nerve-wracking, stressful and uninteresting experience. Other cars, usually caught up in their own need to get to work, appointments, and engagements on time, are on every side, and the start-and-stop nature of the simplest trip makes it a mere frustration. Besides, I don’t like to drive unless I have to, and the bus or my own feet will get me nearly anywhere in the city. This is both a convenience and a choice, as cars are neither my favourite means of transport nor a clean one.

Here, it is different for me. The road is freeing as opposed to constraining, leisurely as opposed to rushed. The landscape is wide and uninterrupted, with snow and ice as far as the eye can see. I could have stopped at the shore of Hudson Bay and stared forever. As it was, I probably did run the risk of distraction as I tried to take it all in while watching the road.

It is a potholed, icy, gravel road covered in snowdrifts. Somehow it has become my favourite country drive. I found the only music station the radio gets (the country music one) and let it join me on the ride, not listening intently, just enjoying the sounds of songs over static.

On one side, I suppose, there would be the start of tundra, and in some parts there is forest, or rock-strewn terrain. But right now there is snow on both sides and when the Bay is visible, it is all ice, broken into jagged hills by the pressure as it moves. There was never a more ready canvas for a sunrise!

When I spoke to the staff at the Centre about living here, I commented that they must have a long drive to work. They laughed and told me yes, they did, but it was the best drive they knew, along the shores of Hudson Bay.

I think I’m beginning to see what they meant.

Students Of Life

The company here is unique, something I will write about at greater length later, but the trait we all share is a fascination with and excitement about the north, leading us to go to Churchill in winter. Although the researchers would be here either way, the only reason I am required is that other people are also staying here, making the wish to go north in winter something far more widespread than I had ever realised. As well, I had not realised that people my grandparents’ age would be among them, and that is why the first Road Scholar group was, in an unexpected way, quite a lesson in travel.

Before working here, I had never heard of Road Scholar or Elderhostel — but many of these people had been on several trips with them, from tours of Niagara Falls to hikes in the Andes. It is amazing how adventurous old people can be. They could tell stories all day, then head for their lecture in the evening with curiosity as infinite as the stars.

I should mention as well that they were kind to me. When they arrived, I was still starting out in my job, and they were friendly to me, especially when they realised I was able to chat about Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.

The morning weather-and-coffee chats were informal times when I told the group of any changes to the schedule, and they ate breakfast while watching the snow. Once, while I was conversing with a couple of the women, one of them said something that explained much about their group.

“You girls have so much opportunity,” one of them told me. “It wasn’t like that for us, so we do it now.” Her words made me think of my grandparents — I remember my Nana talking about having to leave her job after becoming a mother. If she had been my age today, would she be doing the job that I do now? The group that visited was mostly female; there were two men, one of whom was there with his wife. These women all have their own reasons for joining the programme, but many of them said that they were there to do such a trip while they still could. They wished to see the auroras, and before it was too late, they were determined to travel to a place where they would. None of them had given up on seeing the world, and many have since written to the email list about their next travels. Opportunities that I take because they are there, they take knowing that they have not always been, at least not for them. For them, not having travelled before was not a matter of bravery but chance, and in taking the chance they have now, they have been brave in a way that one who has always had that chance may not see at first.

Seeing these people, who in their older years are still active and adventurous, and hearing in their words no resentment, but a certain urgency — a now-or-never note — gave me great admiration for their willingness to act. They came here for different reasons, but all in pursuit of dreams.

Sometimes all you have to do is decide you are ready.

In Search Of Mystery Birds

On the matter of tramping through the forests in the snow, I had a rather good excursion some days ago, with one of the volunteers. Someone had said that the had seen a gyrfalcon in the rocket range, and another in the woods near the quinzhee, so we took up our cameras and went out walking.

I have always loved raptors, and the gyrfalcon seems emblematic of the north. They are graceful and hardy birds, remarkably fast and agile like the rest of their kind. The Inuktitut word is kiggavik or kiggaviarjuk. They are found around the Arctic regions of the world, and into the southern latitudes as far as the US, though I do not know how often they are seen. Around here, they are apparently year-round residents, and this is a promising notion for the prospect of seeing one eventually.

We spent only an hour out in the woods, but it was a fine ramble, mostly spent in the woods and the snow — it is deeper in the forest, of course! There is a frozen lake or swamp between the Centre and the woods, but this is much more exciting than it sounds, as it is only about two feet deep when thawed. Still, it makes for better walking than the forest, being smoother and hard ice rather than inconsistent snow which by all rights requires snowshoes.

Bringing snowshoes might have been wise, but we did not. There is a snowmobile trail through the forest, and we strayed only a little, until we could stand waist-deep in the snow and look around, mostly immobilised. The forced patience was likely a good thing, for I have never been much of a birder due to an unruly restless nature. After a few minutes in the snow, we would move on to the next stop, and so we continued for some time. We saw nothing of falcons, gyr or otherwise, but there were a great many ptarmigan tracks which we found on our way back to the Centre and which were all crossing one another in the snow as if not too long before we arrived there had been some bustle of activity among the birds. They did not show themselves, but the tracks were so clear that the forest must have been full of them earlier that afternoon.

Interestingly, a few days later when some of the Earth Watch team went out on the ice, the same volunteer joined them, and she told me that they had found a feather, and blood on the snow — the feather having belonged to a gyrfalcon. Whether it had been hunting or fighting they could not say, as it was a large feather and not one that it would normally lose in a hunt, according to Science (or the one science staff member there!).

I wonder what happened to it, and where the rocket range bird lives. More than a polar bear, I want to see one of these. Whether or not I can capture a photograph.

Trapped By Snow

The second blizzard since I came here ended yesterday. In fact, it nearly prevented a group from leaving, as no one was sure whether or not the flights would leave, and even if they did, there was a definite risk the roads would be blocked by drifts of snow! The drive to town is ordinarily only half an hour, but in such weather as we have had, it takes an hour at least, and so we had a very tense time of it while waiting to hear whether the bus would finally be able to get through.

It is strange — I spend far more time outdoors in the city than I do here. There are rules surrounding going out, due to the dangers involved and the fact that it is, to me, unknown territory. I must not go alone, and I must bring a radio in case of trouble. Then there is the clothing. I am a lover of comfort, and no clothing is more uncomfortable than boots that weigh three pounds each, snow pants that turn one’s legs into a single rustling column, and mittens which reduce the motion of a hand to nearly nothing. Vanity must be forgotten, and easy movement forgone. The great consolation, however, is that there is no need to wear a net, nor insect repellent, and this is fortunate!

Still, the cold keeps us inside for much of the time. An hour outside is enough to freeze the face — on a windy day walking one way is comfortable, the other, unbearable. It makes any chance to go outside seem special — an event. Today, I ventured out near sunset, and walked on the frozen lakes. There was snow so hard-packed that it feels like solid ground, and snow in the forest so deep-piled that I sank past my knees. The wind had made ridges and curves and rivulets of snow, and I have no doubt it changes its character with every blizzard, rubbing out paths and scouring any clearings. I am sure I saw some ptarmigan tracks, but these were almost obscured.

The only exception to the warmth-and-comfort rule, so far, has been auroras. We are all quick to dash out at the sign of the northern lights, and the cold can be written off as a mere pleasant discomfort.