The Northwest Territories has been fortunate so far during this pandemic. The spread of the virus was contained early, following comprehensive measures put in place by public health and government officials that were fully adopted by communities.
Residents in the Northwest Territories were also blessed in another way—the abundance of wide-open spaces mere minutes from their doorsteps. Friends and families could still get out for skis or snowmobile rides together, while remaining an appropriate distance from each other. Even minutes from downtown Yellowknife, they could pull their fish nets and fillet inconnu and whitefish and burbot from Great Slave Lake, sharing a few laughs and revelling in the relative normalcy of a covered-face-to-covered-face conversation.
In the late spring, sub-zero temperatures kept lakes frozen and snowmobile trails packed with snow, preserving an infinity of pathways out into the wilderness. Families got away and spent their weekends at cabins and bush camps late into April, building snow forts, tobogganing and ice fishing together. At night, as kids toiled away at their remotely-assigned school work in the radiant heat from their woodstove, mom, dad, grandpa or grandma prepared a fresh-caught dinner.
Jessica Deleary, a Yellowknives Dene First Nation councillor, spent most of April with her spouse and their four kids at their cabin, roughly a 20-minute trip from her home by snowmobile. “It was just us, all day, every day, since this started, pretty much,” she said.
Deleary, who lives in Dettah, a short drive from Yellowknife, said being away from the constant barrage of news on social media provided a nice break.
“Life at the cabin is so much slower and peaceful,”
“I got to enjoy spending quality time with my family, doing puzzles and showing my daughter how to bead or cut dry meat.”
Over time, the family developed a daily routine, with the kids getting involved with important domestic tasks. They would wake, wash up, help with breakfast and then start chores like melting ice or going to the lake for drinking water, chopping wood, and starting the generator. “There was just a sense of responsibility for the kids,” she said, adding they learned bush skills, while schools had closed for the year.
Deleary appreciated the calm and quiet of the cabin, acknowledging that she feels lucky she has access to a cabin. “I think that was a really nice feeling knowing that we have somewhere safe to go to.”
Spring in the North is typically a time for families and friends to get together. Although it’s not unusual for families or harvesters to get out on the land in spring, the current situation has allowed some residents to reconnect with the land and their families in a deeper way.
In Colville Lake, a community of 170 that’s only accessible by air, residents were making the most of the social distancing opportunities afforded by being outdoors. “I think there are some people who have worked all their lives and never really had a chance to do this much, so this provides a lot of time for them to spend time with their families,” said David Codzi, president of the local First Nation’s land corporation. In early April, he guessed more than half of Colville Lake’s residents were out at their cabins or bush camps.
By May, the jet stream made its first visit North of 60, bringing warm temperatures that caused ice roads and snowpacks to melt away. But soon enough, new paths into the wilderness will open up. And with 24 hours of daylight for weeks or months at a time, people in the Northwest Territories can’t wait.