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

Page 9: Aklavik

Reindeer Herds

One thing different about Aklavik was an interesting addition to our customary northern cuisine. Venison was occasionally available, not from deer, but in the form of reindeer meat. This delicacy was available after the Reindeer Station's annual cull of the government herds north of Aklavik. The last time I had eaten venison was during the war, when Dick was stationed at Arundel in Sussex. The Duke of Norfolk's deer herd roamed the park surrounding his family seat, Arundel Castle, and was regularly culled. Since there was not enough for the meat to be officially rationed, it could be purchased without sacrificing food ration coupons, and made a useful addition to our wartime diet.

The Mackenzie delta's original herd of three thousand reindeer was imported from Alaska. It took six years, from 1929 to 1935, for them to accomplish the journey to the 6,600-square-mile reindeer reserve on the east side of the Mackenzie River, about fifty miles from Aklavik. The government hoped that the herd would provide not only a source of food for the natives but also a means of employment. Laplanders were brought over from Norway to train Inuit who wished to become herders. In 1951 the first herd had become three, comprising 5,600 animals, tended by about twenty-five Inuit and a few Laplander herders, the latter descendants of the original Laplanders who had trained the first Inuit herders. The residential school took a class of ten or so Inuit boys to the yearly roundup in July so that they could see the work involved and perhaps become herders themselves. After this annual roundup venison would be on sale in the Hudson's Bay Company store in Aklavik, and it made a pleasant change in our diet. It was a very lean meat and needed careful cooking, but was quite delicious.

There is almost no physical difference between the reindeer and the caribou. This created an unsolvable problem when, in January 1949, a Native was tried for illegal possession of reindeer meat, knowing it to be such, and selling it as caribou meat. The Aklavik contributor to Notes of Interest reported on the trial, which was naturally of great interest to the people of the delta. After various witnesses for and against had contradicted themselves, the government mammalogist demonstrated that the only way to distinguish between the two species was by precise measurement of the distance between the rows of teeth. Consequently, the accused was acquitted, and a general warning was issued to hunters to be careful what they shot - and presumably to try to avoid the reindeer reserve when hunting for game.

Jill with friends

Fun and Games

The children enjoyed having more friends to play with. During the winter, when it was difficult to play outside, they invented games to play indoors. One such game, inspired by their earlier trip outside to visit Grandma in Ottawa, was to pretend that their small tricycles were cars. The floor plan of the house was suitable for this game, as it was possible to ride in a circle right around the ground floor, through the kitchen, hall, and living room, as many times as they wanted. One bright idea was to pretend they were getting gas for their cars. The gas pump was the large soda-acid fire extinguisher in the hall, and they duly attached its hose nozzle to the back of one of the cars. Unfortunately, they forgot to remove it when they drove off. The extinguisher fell over and immediately began to gush clouds of foam. There was no way possible of turning it off once the chemical reaction had begun. An urgent call for help brought Dick, who with some effort managed to detach the inextinguishable extinguisher from the tricycle and rush out of the house with it, still spraying and spewing like mad. A couple of passers-by were intrigued - people usually rush into a house with a fire extinguisher! In spite of much washing and scrubbing I never did get the stains completely off the hall walls; I resorted to hoping that it would be repainted in time for the next occupants.


Some things were very different indeed in Aklavik, particularly one that was to affect the future of the town: the peculiarity of the soil on which Aklavik was built. It was frozen solid, except for two months in the summer, when it melted to a depth of six inches or so. As the permafrost - the moisture in the soil - froze and melted in succeeding cold and warm seasons, the surface of the earth would heave, and the floors of the houses could not help but move up and down in sympathy. Big jacks were installed in our basement; they were used to raise or lower the joists above, helping us to cope with the problem of uneven floorboards.

On their regular visits, the Royal Canadian Corps of Engineers (RCCE) inspectors used a simple but effective technique to test whether the floors of the army buildings were level. They put a table-tennis ball on the floor and watched which way it rolled. They could then decide whether the jacks in the basement needed to be wound up or down to level the floor. Eventually, after judicious winding, the ball did become stationary. By the time the engineers next visited, the whole process would invariably have to be repeated.

Another addition to our basement furnishings was a sump pump. This was useful when it was necessary to get rid of water seeping into the basement from the melting permafrost.

These perennial problems with the silt on which Aklavik was built led eventually to its being replaced as the local centre of government. In the new town of Inuvik, on the eastern side of the delta, it was possible to compensate for the difficulties of permafrost. Inuvik's gain was Aklavik's loss: the town now has a much smaller population, of only about seven hundred.

All Saints Cathedral, "The Cathedral of the Arctic," Aklavik.

All Saints Cathedral, interior.

All Saints Cathedral

An architectural highlight of Aklavik in 1952 was All Saints Cathedral, the Anglican "Cathedral of the Arctic." Built in 1939 to replace the original 1919 building, it resembled a typical English parish church. The interior contained a remarkable number of church furnishings that had been sent from England as gifts. Many had some historic value as well as being objects of beauty in themselves.

Epiphany of the Snows, altarpiece in All Saints Cathedral.

Above the altar hung a painting, Epiphany of the Snows, which seemed extremely appropriate for a church in the far North. It was a nativity scene painted by Violet Teague, an Australian artist. The Madonna, in a long Inuit-style ermine parka and mukluks, holds the baby Jesus, in ermine parka, pants, and mukluks, on her lap. Bringing gifts to the Child are, not middle Eastern magi and shepherds, but northerners. On the left, a Nascopie-Cree from the Ungava Peninsula presents a live beaver, a Hudson's Bay Company factor offers white fox pelts, and a Royal Canadian Mounted policeman in dark furs represents protection. An Inuit in a caribou-skin parka, bearskin trousers, and sealskin boots offers two walrus tusks, and behind him stands an Inuit woman from Baffin Island, with a baby in the hood of her caribou-skin parka, her gift not visible. Two sled dogs, a malamute and a husky, and two reindeer are present instead of the usual sheep, cattle, or camels.

Baptistery windows, All Saints Cathedral.

The three colourful stained glass windows in the baptistery were donated by Inuit members of the congregation. The left one, with a seal in its lower portion, was given by Susie Wolkie in memory of her husband, Fred. The middle window, given by Fred Carpenter in memory of his wife, Lucy, shows a polar bear, and the one on the right, donated by Charlie Smith in memory of his wife, Lily Sarniak, pictures the three wise men, one dressed as an Inuit, with a sled dog below.

During our time in Aklavik, Canon Colin Montgomery, brother of Field Marshal Bernard ("Monty") Montgomery, was the priest responsible for the Anglican mission and the Cathedral. It is sad to say that this church, with its fascinating display of adapted and adopted northern elements, was destroyed by fire in 1972. I do not know whether any of the contents survived its destruction.


Our posting to Aklavik was a completely new experience. Living in the real land of the midnight sun was wonderful. Unfortunately, our stay there did not last very long. In January of 1953, six months after our arrival, Dick was promoted and posted. In keeping with the army's gypsy way of life, we were soon on our way.

This time it was south to "fresh fields and pastures new," to what was to be a new experience, for me although not for Dick: life in an army camp. Camp Shilo, on the prairies of Manitoba, would reveal yet another aspect of Canada - although not quite as different from "ordinary" life as our unique and fascinating northern postings had been.

Camp Shilo, Manitoba, 1953: Ian, Jean, Chris, and Jill.

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