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

Page 7: Aklavik (continued)

Living There

We discovered very soon that the inhabitants of Aklavik were full of the usual northern kindness, goodwill, and good cheer, and they soon made us feel very much at home. We found ourselves much enjoying the new (to us) life of a small town in contrast to that of the very much smaller settlement of Fort Providence.

When we walked through the town, I was interested to see that the inhabitants wore a different version of northern dress from those of Fort Providence or Yellowknife. The fashions in parkas were quite different from what people wore in the Slavey settlements further south, around Great Slave Lake.

The women wore longer, ankle-length parkas; the men wore hip-length ones with smaller hoods than the women's. Over their long caribou-skin parkas the women wore brightly coloured patterned cotton parka covers. These were trimmed with colourful rickrack and plain braid, sewn in rows above a gathered flounce that formed the hem of the garment. In the large parka hood, which was trimmed with beautiful fur, women sometimes carried a blissfully comfortable baby, whose little face could be seen peering happily over its mother's shoulder. This style of dress was very attractive and colourful. Some of the older women had tattoos on their faces, but this seemed not to be the fashion among the younger women.

The streets of Aklavik were, of course, unpaved, and consequently quite muddy in rainy weather, but this seemed quite natural to us after our years in Fort Providence. However, we fully appreciated the convenient boardwalks running alongside the streets, which made it much easier to walk in rainy, muddy, or snowy weather.

Earlier in the century the Anglicans and Roman Catholics had each locally established a mission, a church, a hospital, and a residential school for the children of families living outside the town. For Aklavik families, the federal government provided a day school, which had an excellent staff headed by a cheerful and energetic principal, "Moose" Kerr. "Moose" was a northern nickname usually given to anyone who was tall and long-legged, and Moose Kerr was both. He was a real asset to the community, and as a tribute to his good work, the present school bears his name.

A large Hudson's Bay post supplied Aklavik's shopping centre. An RCMP detachment, commanded by a sergeant, provided law and order to the town and the surrounding delta country, and an RCN detachment, the proud possessors of the only snowmobile in town, represented the Navy.

Government administration building, with grave of the Mad Trapper at left.

The government administration building - the sub-district office of the Department of Resources and Development - was located on the main street, with the Signals station nearby. Just around the corner, in a row of houses looking on to the river, was the residence of the assistant commissioner, who was head of this government office.

The Mad Trapper

Perhaps Aklavik's chief tourist attraction nowadays (in 2003) is the grave of the famous Mad Trapper of Rat River. The story of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper, is part of the history of the town and a part of Signals history too. Johnson had been springing or removing traps set by other Rat River trappers, and he wounded one of the two RCMP constables sent to question him about these incidents. After a long chase in severe winter weather, he was shot in an exchange of fire with the search party who finally found him. Included in the volunteer search party as adjuncts to the RCMP were two Signals staff, Q.M.S. Frank Riddell and Staff Sergeant "Heps" Hersey.

The Mad Trapper's grave, we were told, was beneath the lone fir tree beside the government administration building on the main street. The full fascinating and graphic story of the search party's long pursuit in bitterly cold weather is available on the NWT and Y Web site.

CHAK: the Friendly Voice of the Arctic

The Signals radio station was at that time the most northerly year-round station of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System. One of its substations was in Tuktoyaktuk, on the coast about thirty miles east of the Mackenzie River's outlet into the Beaufort Sea.

One of Dick's responsibilities was to maintain the operation of the local radio station, CHAK, "The Friendly Voice of the Arctic." The station was located in a very small building on the main street, not far from the Signals radio station and the government administration building. It had been built in 1947 by WO1 "Red" MacLeod, who was then in charge of the Signals radio station, and his staff of five. It provided Aklavik and the surrounding delta country with entertainment, education, local weather reports, and news. Perhaps most important of all, it relayed messages between the reindeer herders, and the trappers out on their trap lines in the Delta, and their families in Aklavik. This particular part of the territories is the third-best area in Canada for muskrat trapping, with eighty thousand skins being taken in one season. After the ratting season opened on March 1, the town usually emptied of most of its citizens as the Natives and their families left for their traplines. The day school marked time during this period, as many of its pupils left with their families to help and to acquire trapping expertise.

CHAK was a very valuable resource for its listeners and was much appreciated by the inhabitants of the delta. A committee of local townspeople, chaired by LACO Hunt, provided the programming for the station and acted as announcers and presenters.

Aklavik: permanent married quarters, with Signals radio station behind houses.


As in Fort Providence, houses had been built along the riverbank facing the river. Our new abode was one of those houses, and we were pleased to find a convenient boardwalk running along outside the front-yard fences. In this setting I saw a resemblance to the houses facing the sea on the "front" of an English seaside resort.

Our PMQ had been built in 1949 to the same CMHC plans as our house in Fort Providence. But this time, instead of facing the bush, our living-room windows looked out on the Mackenzie River.

But the biggest difference between these two PMQs was that the new house was already furnished. This we very much appreciated, as it saved us the considerable amount of time and trouble it would have taken to pack our family furniture, goods, and chattels and have them loaded on a riverboat for transport downriver to Aklavik - and hope that they would arrive before we did.

The furnishings provided were ideal for a young family: good, solid maple Gibbard furniture in the colonial style, and in a pleasant mellow golden shade too. Pretty flower-patterned curtains were at the windows and the whole house appeared both welcoming and practical.

There was one slight drawback though - in the kitchen equipment. The pots and pans were of a size suitable for an army cook. However, we had been warned of this by the outgoing tenants, so I had taken my own, somewhat smaller, utensils with me.

What we wished to retain of our Fort Providence furniture we had had crated and sent to storage "outside" via the usual barge and train route, but we did have a few indispensable bits and pieces sent on to Aklavik. These included my small portable sewing machine, a reliable iron, a food mixer, a diaper pail, a small crib, our eiderdowns, a box of books, and, I think, our wringer washing machine (I cannot remember if one was supplied with the house). All of these items duly arrived quite soon by river, on one of the barges that were pushed downriver by the busy tugs.

Mackenzie River, with the Richardson Mountains in the distance and Chris and Jill in the foreground.

From our front windows we could watch the rapidly flowing water of the summer river gradually change to the solid ice of winter. During the short summer season we could see a constantly changing congregation of vessels: Inuit fishing schooners from Banks Island, the regular river workhorse tugs and barges that had started their journey on Great Slave Lake, and the small local boats powered by "kickers." After winter came and ice had formed on the river, children playing on the riverbank had to watch out for sleds and dog-teams; guided by their drivers, they would suddenly veer from their route along the frozen river and race up the bank towards the delights of town.

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