Down North
A Dependent's Notes of Interest
© Jean Watts 2002

Page3: Ft. Providence (continued)

Our finished PMQ seemed positively palatial in contrast to our smaller temporary refuge. Built to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation standards it had two floors and a basement and was the tallest building in the compound. The top floor comprised two large bedrooms, and the ground floor had three rooms plus a kitchen and a bathroom. There were two useful enclosed porches, one off the kitchen leading to the back door, and one off the hall between the inner and the outer front doors. On the ground floor three rooms and the bathroom opened into a hallway leading from the kitchen to the front door, and the living room also had a door to the kitchen. In the basement, two small rooms opened off the main area, one with shelves on which to keep the year's supplies of food, the other containing the oil tank for the furnace.

Our front door, our sewing room, which we also used as a guest room, and one dining room window looked onto a view of the river. The living room, with windows on two sides, looked out on the bush and the one or two Native cabins at our end of the settlement. One dining-room window and the kitchen windows faced the compound, looking towards the single quarters and, beyond that, the radio station with its high masts. If I happened to be working at the sink beneath the kitchen window at the appropriate time of day, I was ensured a interesting view of the morning parade along the boardwalk from the single quarters to the two-holer.

Before our arrival, Dick had spent some time in Edmonton on an obligatory meteorology course at the Department of Transport (DOT) near NWT&Y HQ. He had also been busy at the railway yards. As fall was rapidly approaching, it was a matter of some urgency for him to check the freight trains with the yardmaster, to find out whether the boxcar in which our furniture was being sent from Ottawa had arrived. It still had to make a further rail journey to Fort McMurray in time to get to Hay River. There it had to be loaded onto a barge in time to reach Fort Providence before the river froze for the winter. I don't know what we would have done if it had missed the boat. The next possible date for its arrival was the following June, after the break-up of the ice on the river!

Once we received our furniture, which had indeed been successfully loaded on the very last boat from Hay River before freeze-up, we were able to move into our newly built quarters. Things were much easier then, although, as we were to find out, perhaps seldom quite so easy as they were "outside."


We obtained our water from the Mackenzie River, whose water was fast-flowing, pure, and unpolluted. It was interesting, but disheartening, to discover that in the winter it was a far from easy matter to get enough water up from the river to fill the 500-gallon tank in a corner of our basement. The procedure involved connecting several lengths of fire hose, 400 feet in all, to reach from the basement water tank, across the front yard and the road, down the steep riverbank, and about 90 feet out from shore, to a waterhole that had been dug through the ice to the water level. The next step was to take a small gas-powered pump down to the river and start this up to force water along the hose.

A full tank would last us about three weeks. Unfortunately, filling the tank became more and more difficult as the weather got colder. A suitable hole had to be dug some distance from shore through six feet of ice. The pump had to be started in the warmth of a building before being carried down to the river edge, and the water froze in the hoses whenever the underpowered motor stopped working, which it did frequently. Then the hoses had to be disconnected and hung to melt and then dry out in our basement, and the whole procedure would have to be gone through all over again.

After one effort on a day when the temperature was -10°F (-23°C), the final result was one glass of water! Dick decided that modern technology was unable to cope and that it was really easier to chop a hole in the ice until he could reach water. Then he would bring it up to the house two pails at a time, using a shoulder yoke.


After the ice got thicker and more difficult to break through in order to make a hole deep enough to reach the water below, we finally ended up with an empty 45-gallon oil drum in a corner of the kitchen in which we melted ice that Dick had cut from the river. The water was, of course boiled and then cooled before drinking.

It was possible to use the washbasin, bath and toilet to their normal "outside" extent only when the basement water tank had water in it, that is, until cold winter weather arrived. If the water tank was empty no water flowed from it to the water heater in the basement and water therefore had to be heated on the kitchen stove. When we got to this last stage it was possible to use our bathroom only for tiny baths, standing in the baby bath set in the bathtub, which at least made it easy to empty!

The whole water problem was compounded by the behaviour of our septic tank, which had been built to CMHC's southern standards. As winter advanced, it filled up and froze! (The mission's septic tank had been insulated with hay, and it performed perfectly throughout the year.) To solve the toilet problem during these winter difficulties, Dick moved a chemical toilet into the basement, emptying the bucket when necessary down the two-holer used by the single quarters lads.

Jill demonstrates pumping oil


Heat was provided by an oil furnace fuelled from the tank in a small room off the main basement. The tank was filled by pumping oil from one 45-gallon oil drum at a time with a hand pump.

Oil storage tank

In September 1949 a tall 500-barrel tank was erected in the compound to hold all the oil from the barrels that were received in the summer. After its erection the boys tested it by pumping river-water into it. Alas, it leaked! But this particular ill wind did blow our family some good, as we were able to use the testing water to fill our water tank!


Every summer the staff had to unload, transport, and empty the oil drums brought in by barge, and take the empty barrels back to the docking area to be picked up by the returning barges for refilling. The only means of transporting the barrels was the station truck, sometimes with a borrowed cart from the mission farm attached as a trailer - and, of course, the muscle-power of the station staff. It was a very warm, sweaty, and mosquito-ridden business.

The subject of oil inevitably leads me to remember the cold spring day on which our so-far faithful furnace was reluctant to start. Referring to the manual supplied with it, we were not amused to find that the maker's advice in this predicament was "Contact your local dealer"! Fortunately, that ever-resourceful station mechanic, Bob McKenzie, and Dick between them managed to solve the problem, although poor Bob suffered singed hair, eyebrows, and moustache in the process.

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