Northern lights and Arctic magic

Gordon Legge August 8 1983

Northern lights and Arctic magic

Gordon Legge August 8 1983

Northern lights and Arctic magic



Gordon Legge

They come from great distances, like modern-day explorers, pilgrims seeking Canada’s final frontier—the boundless North. Some arrive in campers, which seem to waddle along the spruce-lined, dusty gravel highways. Others disembark from buses, uncramping their legs amid a cloud of diesel exhaust lingering in the air. Or they pour off giant jets and climb aboard tiny, prop-driven planes— distant cousins to the early bushcraft that opened the North. They are the tourists, who until recently were as welcome to many northerners as a horde of mosquitoes in the bush. But now, as the North searches for a stable source of income to offset the unpredictable fluctuations of the natural-resource industries, the Northern travellers are encountering a new respect.

The welcome mat is out with good reason, because although the total number of visitors to the North dropped slightly during 1982, at the height of the recession those who did travel still spent more than $100 million in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

And the visitors’ money was “most welcome,” noted the Yukon government’s annual report on tourism, “since the closure of virtually all the territory’s operating mines relegated tourism to an unaccustomed role as the leading sector in

the Yukon economy.” Now the energetic new tourism minister, Bea Firth, 37, will try to double the Yukon’s $51-million share of the travellers’ spending within the next few years. And the situation is similar to the east, where the N.W.T. government expects the territories’ travel industry to draw $87 million by 1987.

The Yukon last year had 365,000 visitors, most of them tourists. Two-thirds of them were Americans, for the most part on their way to and from Alaska.

About one-quarter of the visitors are from other parts of Canada, and the rest come from much farther afield, primarily West Germany, Switzerland and Australia. The N.W.T. counted 106,000 travellers last year, only 13 per cent of them Americans, and three per cent other non-Canadians. But wherever they come from, the travellers generally have one thing in common—a quest for their own adventure in a land where the choice is almost endless: from scaling the enormous ice-shrouded

peaks of the St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon, to a stroll along the boardwalk in Dawson City searching out the ghosts of the Klondike gold rush; from canoeing down the churning, cascading Nahanni River in the N.W.T. to a walk across the naked, desolated, windswept whiteness of the North Pole. Some tourists make the journey to round out a lifetime of travelling the continent or just to be able to tell their friends they have done it. But many travel to the North just to find the solitude that fills

the soul after days of wandering through the wilderness.

Some tourists like Jeannie Thomas, 34, the executive assistant to the chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission in Ottawa, find high adventure in the Arctic. On June 29 Thomas, along with 11 others, left Broughton Island on the eastern edge of Baffin Island for a two-week hike through the famed Pangnirtung Pass. They spent the first day sledding across the melting, slush-covered ice aboard an Inuit kamotik, which flipped over at one point. “The only thing I thought of was that you have three to five minutes to live in Arctic waters,” says Thomas. But she survived and on July 1 celebrated Canada Day with the others high up the mountain pass. Toasting the country with brandy, they tied a Canadian flag to a staff and waved sparklers as snowflakes fell around them. Afterward, they played Eskimo games. “I always wanted a chance to go north,” she said. “If you go on a holiday where you are lying on a beach, you often think of problems at the office. Up there, that is all replaced by the problems of heaving your foot over the next boulder.” Ultimately, she said, “you become much more in touch with the beauty _ of this country and how § lucky you are to be living ^ in it.”

2 Other visitors are like a Nancy Stride, 65, a Toown adventure ronto widow who has spent the past 10 summers at Bathurst Inlet Lodge near Cambridge Bay, N.W.T. The lodge, a naturalist’s haven, is owned by Glenn and Patricia Warner. Glenn, 50, is a retired RCMP sergeant who first experienced the area by dogsled in 1964. He opened the lodge, a remodelled Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post, in 1969. Even though a week at the lodge costs $2,250, he has only turned a profit two out of the past 14 years. His guests have included Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Gov. Gen. Edward Schreyer, former Lib-

eral cabinet minister John Turner and Ann and Peter Getty, the wife and son of United States millionaire industrialist J. Paul Getty Jr. Still, everyone is treated equally, and people like Nancy Stride, who has brought three of her grandchildren to the lodge so far, are enchanted by the time they depart. “You become very deep friends with both the Warners and the Inuit when you repeat year after year,” she said. “You grow into a place like this, and it’s terribly hard to let go.”

Stewart and Rita Pierce, a retired couple, are part of still another class of northern tourists. They left Panama City, Fla., on June 1 in a 1979 Dodge pickup truck with a camper on the back. After zigzagging their way across the continent, they drove up the Alaska

Highway, through the Yukon into Alaska. They then crossed back over the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City in the Yukon. “There were steep drops with no railings on the roadway, and it was misty,” said Rita Pierce, as they watched the midnight gamblers in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, the only bar with a stage show and legal gambling casino in Canada.The Pierces passed campers in the ditch and a car with its flashers on abandoned along a narrow, mountainous stretch between Dawson and

Tok, Alaska. Apparently, a couple in their 70s had rented the car in Whitehorse but became paralysed with fear halfway through their trip. They flagged down a motorist, hitched a lift back to the Yukon capital and caught a flight home. But the Pierces enjoyed every moment of their trip. Said Rita: “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” The enthusiasm of travellers like the Pierces is encouraging the governments of the Yukon and the N.W.T. to launch ambitious new programs—with assistance from Ottawa—to lure more tourists north. Compared to the massive, multibilliondollar natural-resource

projects that have become synonomous with the North, tourism requires little in the way of capital investment. But it is labor intensive and relatively reces-

sion-proof. It can be operated on a small scale, and, with a modest investment, there are almost immediate payoffs in terms of employment and income—not to mention possible social benefits, if handled properly. “It is an industry for which we have the raw materials,” says the N.W.T. minister of economic development and tourism, Arnold McCallum. “Spectacular, beautiful and untouched scenery, unusual wildlife, great rivers and lakes. The northerners themselves are diverse people with a fasci-

nating history, world-renowned arts and crafts and lifestyles all their own. This combination can make for a uniquely satisfying vacation experience, given proper services and facilities for tourists.”

But there are obstacles, not the least of which is the North’s image as a tourist destination. McCallum says that southerners think of a wilderness “populated only by icebergs, polar bears and a few Eskimos.” And certainly there are problems for tourists, such as the long distances and the high cost of food and travel. Unpredictable weather in many parts of the North makes travelling an adventure for the adaptable but a pain in the timetable for the demanding. Accommodation is almost nonexistent in some places or inadequate if it does ex-

ist. The North’s reputation for friendliness may be unequalled but it sometimes has an unflattering reputation for service. And besides, the residents themselves do not always agree about the importance of tourism to the community.

As with most benefits, there is a price to be paid. Conservationists are concerned about the damage that may be inflicted on the North’s fragile environment. Hector MacKenzie, president of the Yukon Association of Wilderness

Guides, is already seeing signs of overuse in some areas. But he favors tourism, provided that it is managed properly. “I am in the peculiar quandary of being concerned about the wilderness while I’m involved in a commercial venture that is taking increasing numbers of people into the wilderness,” says MacKenzie. “It is very difficult to resolve.” Others express concern about the impact tourism may have on the native people. They worry about the risk of creating mini-Hawaiis, with local residents grubbing for every buck the tourist brings. “It’s fine to create employment,” says Bezal Jesudason, owner of High Arctic International Explorer Services Ltd., which outfits northern explorers from its base in Resolute, N.W.T., “but it’s wrong to go after every Kablunak [white man] as if he’s filthy rich.” In short, properly managed tourism could give the North a stable source of revenues and employment, increasing its self-sufficiency. Improperly managed, it could simply add another dimension to the plundering of Canada’s northern riches.

For those living outside northern Canada, the North is usually viewed as a monolith with a single identity. Visitors soon discover, however, that the North’s personality is as varied as its geography and its people. The two territories that comprise Canada’s North may superficially resemble each other, but appearances are deceiving. Even their histories in tourism have little in common. The first tourists arrived in the Yukon shortly after the end of the fabled gold rush of 1898. They were wealthy members of the upper class who journeyed through the Yukon on the more than 250 stern-wheelers that once plied its lakes and rivers. A second stream of tourists arrived after the Second World War, driving along the newly completed Alaska Highway. Although many sections are paved today, at that time it was a treacherous road, noted for its dust clouds and head-on collisions.

Today, the highway is well maintained, its edges aflame each summer with an explosion of purple fireweed. And while it is still a major attraction and favored route for modern travellers, the Yukon is trying to broaden its existing tourism base, particularly in four areas: winter travel, wilderness attractions, the convention business and so-called “destination” centres. The fourth category is exemplified by a project of Carcross businessman Stanley Tooley, who is getting nearly $100,000 from the incentive program toward the $485,000 total cost of restoring and renovating three Klondike-era buildings— a general store, railway station and

paddle-wheel warehouse. His idea took shape in February this year. By May he was beginning construction, and on June 6 he opened for business with a combination general store, lunch and entertainment package for tourists taking bus excursions to Whitehorse from the Inside Passage cruise ships docked at Skagway, Alaska. In the process he has created an entirely new market. Admits Tooley, 35, a former supervisor with Northwest Telephone: “Without the tourism development people, there’s no way we could have gotten this far.” Another Yukon businessman who has performed wonders in a short time is Michael Brine, 48, a former banker from Toronto who gave up everything for a homestead in the western Yukon in 1970. Just over a year ago he purchased Dezadeash Lodge on the edge of Kluane National Park from a German army officer. The lodge was closed, “doomed to die,” says Brine. But he started working with local wilderness guides and last winter put together a cross-country ski package that brought skiers in from as far away as Ontario. This summer tourists have been arriving from as far away as Austria to take advantage of the wilds and go fishing, hiking and canoeing nearby. Brine, whose calm demeanor betrays the many years he spent studying Eastern religions in the Far East, offers unconventional hospitality. “When people first arrive, they won’t smile at you. They won’t look you in the eye. That’s the challenge. When they leave here, they should feel a little bit better than when they arrived.” His wife, Yvonne, a registered massage therapist, offers massages after the evening sauna, and there is carrot cake and herbal teas in the restaurant, classical music over hotcakes and eggs in the

morning and a Saturday night bash that brings in musicians from the surrounding community, not to mention his own staff bagpiper. Says Brine: “The Klondike motif has been flogged to death. It’s not the only string in the bow. The potential is the Yukon.” Tourism officials in the N.W.T. are just as optimistic about the potential for their region, although their industry is in its infancy. In 1959 about 500 people visited the territories. Last summer the total was close to 50,000, roughly equal to the population of the entire territories. To keep the numbers growing, the territorial government announced

last week that it is embarking on a fiveyear strategy centred on the concept of “community-based tourism,” which will permit each community in the N.W.T. to decide to what extent it wishes to chase the tourist dollar. The plan is based on a pilot project undertaken in the Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung, beginning in 1981. An initial study found that while the benefits of tourism there had been minimal, the problems associated with tourism were many. But bringing the industry up to modern standards is a slow process. Three years ago a planeload of tourists from France arrived with vouchers for tea in an igloo, and with assurances that throughout their stay large quantities of “domestic” wine

would be available for consumption. Not only had someone failed to tell the tourist operator that the Inuit replaced igloos with wood-frame houses (most are cedar-panelled) a couple of decades ago but that Pangnirtung is a “dry” community—no alcoholic drinks are permitted anywhere.

While the Inuit have complained about tourists walking through their homes uninvited, they also worried about the lack of jobs for their children once they were finished school. As a result, the community of 950 took a close look at the pros and cons of tourism and opted for a five-year program aimed at attracting a modest flow of visitors to the town. It created a community tourism board and adopted the motto “Watch us grow.” If plans proceed on schedule, in 1986, the end of the five years, there will be as many as 36 new part-time jobs created to build tourism facilities and 48 others to operate them.Tourists are expected to spend $600,000 on accommodation, food, guiding fees and arts and crafts during that period. Already, the board has hired a community host, designed and laid out hiking trails and planned an Inuit summer camp (circa 1930s) where tourists can view the Inuit lifestyle as it once was.

Some Northern officials argue that tourism conflicts less with the traditional lifestyle than work in a mine or on a ship. Says Katherine Trumper, a business development officer with the territorial government in Frobisher Bay: “A lot of people stress the social costs of tourism, but to me it is just part of a trend that began 200 years ago

when the whalers first started coming.” Indeed, the new brand of tourism permits the Inuit to continue their traditional hunting and fishing economy while earning money to pay for a modern lifestyle, encompassing snowmobiles and Sony Walkmans, which represents modern life in the North. Says Sakiasie Sowelooapik, 27, a Parks Canada warden who sits on the tourism board: “There are not many jobs in the North

today. The hamlet committee operates it the way the people want.”

Still, there are those who are mistrustful of the government’s intentions or who worry that it may proceed too fast. “They could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” says Skip Voorhees, owner of Special InteresTours, a Medina, Wash.-based firm that has been running high-priced, low-volume tour packages across the North, including the North Pole, since 1978. “I really don’t think bureaucrats realize, for the most part, what can happen. If they get too greedy, they are simply going to destroy their livelihood,” says Voorhees, who has spent much of his life as a recreational marketing consultant. “Arctic Canada has so much more to offer than Arctic Alaska. It amazes me that it has not been discovered yet.”

But those who have discovered the North are not always eager to share their experience. “It’s different up there,” says singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Almost every summer since 1971, Lightfoot has returned to northern Canada to spend three to five weeks canoeing. “I love getting back to basics and I love the animals,” he says. “But most of us don’t make a big deal about going there because we like to keep a lid on it.” The notion of going where few people have gone before also appeals to hiker Jeannie Thomas. But at the same time, the fact that few Canadians have seen their North also saddens her. “For most of them,” Thomas says regretfully, “the North is a vast unknown.”

Leslie Cole

Sandra Souchotte