Three months ago I arrived back from northern Canada with a destroyed liver and a battered notebook full of random jottings, scribbled post-it notes and press cuttings. The intervening months have, thankfully, seen the liver make a partial recovery, but the notebook has, sadly, remained firmly wedged between a copy of the ‘Curious Boy’s Book of Adventure’ and the even more aptly titled, ‘Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls’. As I look back over the notes that I made over those few weeks though, I am beginning to wonder if a better literary comparison might be that of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I can’t immediately recollect any disappearing cats, or talking caterpillars, but I’m pretty sure at some point between Calgary and Yellowknife I must have fallen down a rabbit-hole! I had quite forgotten what an incredible cast of characters we met during our time there.
…So, as the Walrus himself said, ‘The time has come…to speak of many things’…
My dictionary defines eccentric as…‘odd or capricious in behaviour or appearance; whimsical.’…It is a definition that should really be accompanied by a picture of Rolf Heer, without doubt the ‘Mad Hatter’ of our story. Rolf was born in Switzerland, where he trained as a forester before moving to the mountains of Alberta with a herd of goats, a chainsaw and a natty array of colourful headgear.
Today he lives in a rambling wooden stockade on the outskirts of Radium Springs, his goats occupying the penthouse suite, whilst the man himself spends his days surrounded by hundreds of enormous chainsaw sculptures. Rolf has spent over three decades cultivating his eccentric reputation, carving a unique collection of wooden faces during the summer and then taking off for months on end to spend the hard Canadian winters wandering alone across the wild backroads of Pakistan, Iraq and the Hindu Kush.
If Rolf ever decides to have a tea party I hope I get an invite…
I have to admit that before I went to Yellowknife the name of Alex Debogorski meant little to me. I had never seen an episode of ‘Ice Road Truckers’, so the man’s reputation and notoriety was completely lost on me. Outside of Yellowknife he was an international TV star, feted throughout the American midwest for his exploits in hauling 70-ton rigs across hundreds of miles of Canada’s frozen lakes. In Yellowknife though he is just…Alex, a larger than life character who once ran for mayor, speaks his mind on practically every subject and generally follows it up with a booming laugh that could start a small avalanche.
The man is a walking paradox. A father of 11, he was raised by his own father following his mother’s suicide when he was just 12 year’s old. His mother had been Cambridge educated and descended from Polish aristocracy and, had she lived, Alex’s life may have turned out very differently. As it was, his formative years were influenced by a father who learnt the harsh realities of life in the trenches of World War II and, on first impression, Alex is a man forged in his father’s image; tough and hard, with hands like shovels and a no-nonsense attitude to life. But beyond the intimidating exterior is another Alex, a devout, contemplative and literate individual who will happily philosophise on life, religion, communism and the failings of Canadian politics! He was also very quick to begin taking the piss out of our borrowed car…mainly, I think, because it didn’t have horns!
Hidden away between Willow Flats and Ragged Ass Road is the Woodyard, one of Yellowknife’s more eclectic neighbourhoods. Dating back to the late 1930s, the area today is home to an interesting collection of modern-day settlers who still hanker for a more simple way of life. Miranda Curry lives here with Kensey, the ‘lazy sled dog’. Miranda and Kensey share a tiny wooden shack close to the lapping waters of Yellowknife Bay and on the day that we met her the city council had just turned off the water for the winter.
Miranda’s story was both inspiring and tragic in equal measure. She had been stranded in Yellowknife in 2009, when her car broke down en route from Whitehorse. Undaunted by the prospect of a busted clutch, she decided instead just to stay put and settle down on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. Three years on and she was still there, teaching and playing fiddle in a local band called The Back Bay Scratchers. She was also recovering from a near fatal accident that had left her with a serious brain injury.
She had been out on the frozen lake the previous March when she had been dumped on her head, leaving her unconscious and miles from home. Luckily for her, Kensey was with her and it was him who dragged her off the ice, first waking her up and then walking her slowly back to shore. Every time she stumbled or slowed down, he would go back for her and keep her moving. I wanted to adopt Kensey there and then!
It was evident from her speech that Miranda was still struggling with the after effects of the injury, but she was making progress and I think it was Miranda’s story more than any other that brought home the real sense of community that we had found up north. Whilst she was ill they held a party during the local SnowKing Festival and raised some $1500 for her. She also told us how she would go out and return home to find food left for her. I liked Miranda a lot. She seemed to epitomise the true character of the place. She was vibrant and funny and instantly welcoming. She even invited us in for homemade banana muffins.
…I just wish she hadn’t told us that the bananas had come from a skip!
To be continued…