The people you meet

It was the summer of 1993 and my father, a prominent Winnipeg psychiatrist, received a phone call from a lawyer in Yellowknife asking if he was available to appear as an expert witness for an upcoming trial. Dad, who was always up for a challenge, agreed to fly up north for a weekend.

“I flew to Yellowknife and on the plane met a famous Canadian general, Major-General Lewis Wharton MacKenzie.” MacKenzie is known for establishing and commanding Sector Sarajevo as part of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. “Ironically he was on the cover of Time magazine that month and signed a copy for me. It was nine at night when the plane landed, and it was still bright outside.” In the summer months the Northwest Territories has daylight for almost 18 hours. “That night I literally had to put garbage bags on the hotel window to keep my room dark at night.”

East Arm of Great Slave Lake, 2013. © Jeff Hipfner/NWT Tourism

The next day my dad took a two-seater plane to the small community of Tuktoyaktuk to examine the lawyer’s client and prepare for the upcoming trial slated in a few months. Tuktoyaktuk is an Inuvialuit hamlet located in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories at the northern terminus of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. That night upon returning to Yellowknife he sauntered along Long Lake Beach with the sun still shining brightly in the sky, beachgoers were sun tanning, playing volleyball and the lake was buzzing with water skiers.

In mid-January my father returned to Yellowknife accompanied by my mother. They booked into The Explorer Hotel, situated a few steps from the Yellowknife Veterans Memorial and Northern Frontier Visitors Centre and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Along with a restaurant, the hotel has a 24-hour fitness centre, and a lounge. Additionally, a business centre, a meeting room and a 24-hour front desk are on site.

My father, a long-distance runner, went for a jog the next morning. Dad bundled up in his warmest clothes, two pairs of long underwear, hot shots, two layers of sweaters, a balaclava, a glacier guide down parka, battery operated electric socks and a pair of Nike sneakers. Perched on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife is literally on the edge of the wilderness. It was -33 Celsius and sidewalks, roads and trails were packed with snow and ice. My dad started his run with a jaunt through streets founded during the 1930s Gold Rush, then added some hills and distance by running down a lonely highway surrounded by lake-dotted tundra and forest and finished on 50th Avenue, home to the city’s business district and many shops.

Later that day they flew in a five-seater plane to Tuktoyaktuk. “The town had no hotels and the court proceedings actually took place in a school gym,” my father recalled. That night my parents stayed with a family in the area who cooked dinner for them. My mother noticed they didn’t lock the door and asked why. The explanation was that they knew almost everyone in the community and there was virtually no crime in the area. As of 2016 only approximately 900 people live in the small community. Tuktoyaktuk is predominately Inuit/Inuvialuit with a tiny non-Aboriginal population.

Docked floatplanes are a common sight in Old Town. © Gerold Sigl/NWT Tourism

While working on this case my dad met Hollywood director/ writer turned Yellowknife lawyer Les Rose. Early in his career Les had written the famous Canadian film, “Paper Back Hero”. Later he’d moved to LA where he wrote and directed films with major Hollywood talent like Tony Curtis and Donald Sutherland, but Les wasn’t happy with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and felt his true calling was the Great White North. Already armed with a law degree, Les decided to start a law practice in the Northwest Territories as a defense lawyer. Over 10 years Les and my father became quite good friends.

On the third day of their working vacation, my dad went for a jog in Old Town. It was -37 Celsius outside. His run started at Overlander Sports and then he turned left onto 50th Ave, ran past Pilot’s Monument and onto MacDonald Drive. “It was surreal; while I was running, I could see docked floatplanes.”

That evening my parents watched the Aurora Borealis. My mother described it as “dancing, glowing patterns from the heavens lighting up the northern sky.” My parents, always keen on adventure, watched the brilliant light spectacle from Aurora Village in the heated viewing areas while enjoying hot chocolate.

During the fourth day of the trip my father woke up early for a long run. He jogged along a trail which took him around Frame Lake, a freshwater body located between the city’s down­town section and a larger residential area. My father remembers, “I jogged the trail from The Explorer Hotel to the Hospital. I wanted to run the loop but was told there had been bear sightings on the gravel part past the hospital, so I didn’t want to chance that kind of an encounter. The view of the lake was breathtaking.”

That night my parents went to see a show at the hotel lounge. The R&B vocal group performing was the New Platters. The original band, The Platters was one of the preeminent doo-wop groups of the mid ’50s rock ’n roll era. That evening they watched them play their classic hits: “The Great Pretender,” “Only You,” and their unique rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. Afterwards my parents had the opportunity to hang out with one of the original members, Herb Reed, who signed photos for them and took a bunch of Polaroids. This was a time before selfies. “It was a thrill to meet one of my teenage crushes,” my mother blushed, recalling the moment.

On my dad’s third trip to Yellowknife my best friend and I accompanied him, and we stayed at my dad’s favourite stomping ground, The Explorer Hotel. While my father worked during the day, we wandered the city with our Sony Walkman’s strapped to our heads. That afternoon we took a bus over to Centre Square Mall which is one of the Northwest Territories’ largest shopping centres. The mall had about 20 to 25 stores and a nice mixture of different shops. We purchased T-shirts with the slogan, “Welcome to Yellowknife”.

In the 2000s, my father stopped travelling to the Northwest Territories. His practice pushed him in different directions, but he’ll never forget his time there. “I met so many great people in the Northwest Territories. The scenery is magnificent, the communities are down to earth, and the people are some of the kindest you’ll meet anywhere. The relationships I made I’ll keep for a lifetime. For anyone wanting to visit, I highly recommend it.”