Land of No Tomorrows
The old, gray-haired trapper seated opposite me was called slim. “I’m not lying when I say it gets cold here,” he remarked. “In my cabin once it was 70 below, so I wanted to start a fire and heat the cabin fast. I put a match to some gasoline, but it wouldn’t burn. It was too cold. So I started a fire with wood on top of the gasoline. After a minute or two it burned fine. That’s a fact.”
An Unusual Place
“A lot of strange things happen,” said Hank, a friend of slim’s. “The natives farther north call this the Land of No Tomorrows. After you’ve been here a while you’ll understand why.”
We were sitting in the hotel at Yellowknife. It is a small town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, near the heart of one of the most interesting regions in the world.
Gold seekers were gathered in small groups about me, discussing claims believed to be rich in the precious metal.
Trappers in worn moosehide coats talked about the chances of catching fur-bearing animals during the coming winter. Here and there and Indian sat beside his fat wife, watching but saying nothing.
A Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman in his handsome uniform walked past us on his way to the local land office. It all seemed like the old West of the United States in the middle of the last century.
I went outside with Hank and Slim. It was one o’clock in the morning, but it was still daylight. This was mid-July, the time when in the North there is no light.
We walked about the streets of the little town, which was surprisingly modern for this wild-looking part of the country. It was hard to realize that in the entire area, nearly half as large as the United States, there were only 17,000 people – whites, Indians and Eskimos. This is only a little more than the numbers of people who work every day in on of New York’s largest office buildings. It was hard to believe, as I walked about without a coat, that 18 inches below me the earth wall always frozen.
I mentioned this to Hank. “That frozen ground can be a real problem,” he answered. “It’s even difficult to dig a grave. First we have to build a fire in order to melt the soil. Otherwise a shovel would be useless. In summer, when its’ warmest, somebody tries to guess the number of people who’ll probably die in the coming months, and we dig the graves for the year,”
We wandered to the older part of the town, built along Great Slave Lake, which stretches off into the distance. Water planes, specially designed for the region, rested quietly on the lake, waiting to carry passengers farther north. A rowboat passed silently near the shore.
In an Indian village not far away I could hear the cries of dogs, probably greeting the sun which was now beginning to shine brightly again. Unlike most dogs, the ones in this region, being very much like wolves, cannot bark; they can only howl.
Although the hour was late, townspeople were driving about in their cars. The lack of darkness seemed to make regular hours impossible. Men often started playing golf at midnight. A baseball game played a few days before had begun at four o’clock in the morning. No one, it appeared, ever goes to bed.
The same lack of regard for regularity apparently applied to wintertime, too. “But you can’t do anything bad in Yellowknife,” remarked Slim. “In summer there’s light all night, and in winter you leave tracks.”
A Trip on the Lake
The next morning I was to go with Hank to see an trapper who lived in a few miles north of Yellowknife. I wanted to talk to this trapper about some land which one of the town’s mining companies might buy.
A long canoe with a powerful motor was waiting for us on the lake. It was a boat ordinarily used to carry heavy loads. An Indian guide brought the canoe to shore, and we got into it.
The lake was perfectly smooth as we started our journey. Along the winding shore great rocks appeared now and then. Beyond them lay the muskeg – that strange, soft soil which, with scattered trees and bushes, extends for miles towards the Arctic Ocean.
When the canoe reached the shore, I got out and walked the shore, I got out and walked a few yards in the muskeg. Suddenly, to my surprise, my foot sank down four or five inches. Then, from the ground near my foot, a thousand mosquitoes flew up into the air. I returned to the canoe in a hurry.
The bright sky suddenly became cloudy; the glassy surface of the lake changed into big, white-topped waves as a terrible storm began. The rain felt like continuous streams of water pouring over me. The canoe rocked back and forth and up and down. An icy wind made me tremble. I was beginning to get an idea of what winter weather was like in the North, although winter was still a few weeks away.
The storm ended at last. The sun shone again among the fast-moving clouds. “I suppose it’s the weather that makes people here so different from those on the outside,” said Hank “It draws us together, like a flood or a war.”
He wiped the water from his face. “This is probably one of the most desolate places anywhere, with some of the worst weather conditions in the world. You don’t get a second chance with nature. One little mistake – half a mile in the wrong directions , or a badly made fire – and you’re finished.
“There are a hundred good reasons why all of us should leave, and there’s no really good reason why we should stay. Yet we stay on and on, and when we finally go outside we’re always in a hurry to get back.”
This became noticeable to me as time went on – the feeling of difference between the people of the North and the Outside. Men leaving the Territories for a few days talked sadly of their going as if they were departing for war. The natives spoke of those who had gone to live Outside as if they had died.
The trapper’s cabin which was our destination appeared ahead beside a clump of small trees. The trapper, a lanky individual, greeted us warmly. In a cloth-covered tepee his wife, an old Indian woman who was almost totally blind, was smoking fish for the Eskimo dogs watching hungrily nearby.
An army of mosquitoes rose up from the surrounding musup from and came down on us. We went inside the smoke-filled tepee and stayed until we found breathing almost impossible. I understood then the reason for the Smokey smell of the tappers and prospectors in the region. It was the sign of a man who lives in the wild North country. The Smokey smell tells you he has been near a wood fire to keep the mosquitoes away.
Back at Yellowknife that night, I ate supper in the hotel restaurant. I was waited on by pretty girls who had come from other parts of Canada to find husbands. Woman here, as in the Old West, are not plentiful. Later Hank and I were joined at our table by a French-Canadian prospector.
The prospector told us he was leaving the next morning to look at some gold claims in a new area to the north, not far from a town called Coppermine. Hank smiled as the prospector went out the door. “He says he’s going north toward Coppermine. But he’s really going east or south or west certainly not where he says he’s going. A prospector may be your best friend, but he’ll never tell you where he is really going, because he doesn’t want anyone to follow him.”
Visiting the Indian village
For a few weeks I stayed in Yellowknife, taking short trips into the surrounding country and talking with inhabitants. I flew to Fort Rae, the largest Indian community in the Northwest, about 80 mile away. Resting on gray rocks above a lake were the little cabins of the Indians. Nearby were their cloth-covered tepees with smoke rising from the tops.
I want with an Indian interpreter and a young Mounted Policeman to inspect the rocky village. As we approached one cabin, a half-dozen dogs with ropes tied to their necks rose up snarling. Then they leaped at us wildly, trying to break the topes that held them back. I walked past them carefully. “If you look closely, you’ll see the dogs are all tied the same way,” explained the policeman. “They’re just far enough apart so they can’t fight each other. But they’re close enough so that two of them can fight anything or anybody between them. If a wolf attacks one dog, the dog next to him can jump on the wolf fast. That way the wolf has to fight two dogs at once.”
Man Against Beast
In a nearby cabin I paid my respects to the chief. He was a dignified figure whose face was dark, calm and aged. My guide read him a message from the chief of a distant Indian settlement. It said that the caribou had arrived and asked the chief at Fort Rae to send hunters.
The chief looked out the window at the young men fishing in the lake from their canoes. “I’ll send the young men in their boats,” he said. “My bones are too old to ride in a boat, and I can no longer hunt the caribou.”
He told me how the Indians of the Territories depend on the vast herds of caribou. The flesh of the caribou serves as meat; the hides become clothing; the sinews become strings for nets and snowshoes. When the caribou fail to appear, the Indians go hungry.
Later, while talking with some of the older men of the tribe, I asked what was the wisest animal of the North country. “It’s the wolverine,” one of them answered. “He is all evil and as wise as a man. Last year I caught 400 fish and wished to store them somewhere, for 400 fish with last many days. I found some of the white man’s metal pipes, and I knew these would make fine supports for a platform on which to put my fish.
“The platform stood higher than my head, and I thought no animal could climb those pipes. But the wolverine, with his sharp teeth, bit holes in the pipes. Then he climbed and bit holes higher and higher I’ve seen of men cutting steps to climb great mountains. In this way he reached the top. Of my 400 fish he left me only six.”
Sunshine at Night
We flew back to Yellowknife. I ate my dinner with friends and talked for a long time. Then I became sleepy and went to the hotel. The sun was shining brightly. In a nearby house I could bear the sounds of a party. A car went past with a merry group returning from a game of golf. I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock in the morning.
I knew then why trappers living alone must carefully mark the end of each day on calendar or a piece of paper. If they did not do this, they would lose count of the passing days. I also realized why a minister, during a long stay in the North, sometimes arrives by mistake at an empty church on Tuesday instead of Sunday. For time becomes curiously uncertain, and minutes and hours lose all their meaning.
I understand now why Eskimos call this strange country the Land of No Tomorrows, for today never ends.
Trapper, a man who traps, or catches, wild animals for their fur
70 below, a temperature of 70 degrees below the zero mark
Gasoline, a thin liquid used to make engines of automobile and other machines run
Arctic Circle, a line running east and west on the map. North of the line is the region called the Arctic.
Claims, land listed in government records as belonging to someone
Moose hide, leather made from the skin of a moose. The moose is a large animal that lives in the forests of Canada.
Mounted policeman, a policeman who rides a horse
Eskimos, native people living on the arctic coasts of North America
Frozen, hard, like ice, because of the cold
Dig, make a hole or hollow place in the ground by removing earth; break or turn up the ground.
Shovel, an article used for moving earth, sand, coal and snow.
Water planes, airplanes which can land on water.
Howl, give long, sad cries
Golf, an outdoor game played with a small, hard ball and a set of clubs
Canoe, a long, narrow boat with sharp ends.
Muskeg, and Indian word meaning “land of little sticks” The story describes the kind of land that is called muskeg.
Mosquitoes, small flying insects. An insect is a tiny creature with six legs.
Mosquitoes bite people and animals.
Outside, a name used by the people of the Northwest. Territories in speaking of all places outside, or away from, their own region.
Desolate, without people
Destination, the place to which one is going
Clump, group of plants growing close to one another
Lanky, tall and thin
Tepee, a round tent which comes to a point at the top.
Smoking fish, treating fish with smoke to preserve them
Prospectors, men who search for gold or other precious metals
Restaurants, a place where people pay money to eat meals
Inhabitants, the people who lives in a particular region
Interpreter, a person who explains the meaning of a conversation to someone who does not understand the language being spoken
Inspect, examine carefully or closely
Snarling, showing the teeth and making threating sounds
Dignified, worthy or honorable; with a serious manner
Caribou, large animals hunted by the Indians in Canada.
Herds, large groups of animals
Sinews, string-like bands in flesh or meat
Wolverine, a flesh-eating animal with thick fur.
Calendar, a list of the days, weeks and months of the year.