2017 Great Northern Canada Writing Contest Winners

above&beyond, Canada’s Arctic Journal, is proud to bring our readers the stories chosen as winners of the 2017 NorthWords Great Northern Canada Writing Contest.

This year, Amélie Aubrey-Smith of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, receives First Prize for Water Flows North: a short story about a young man’s search for direction and home.

Libby Whittal Catling is runner-up for her story My Sweat Lodge Prayers, about coming to terms with who she is in this world.

New sponsor for the writing contest is Down to Earth Gallery, donating cash prizes of $500 to the winner and $250 to the runner-up.

Judge Barbara Miron is a retired college instructor who has spent 30 years teaching, editing and encouraging writing in northern communities.

For more information on NorthWords, visit

Amélie Aubrey-Smith

The sound of roaring water erupted in Brandon’s ears as he stepped out of the car. Mandatory, they had said. It would be a part of environmental science class. To his left, Brandon heard Clara emerge from the car. He saw her disgusted look as her feet hit the sandy ground. Apparently, this town had been an ancient seabed millions of years ago.

For the past couple of months, Brandon had asked himself what he had done to end up here. Of course, he knew, but why did he have to be sent here? He could have been sent down south to one of those rehabilitation centres. To his sorrow, he was sent here to Fort Smith.

Clara, along with a few others, was now out of the car and staring down the hill. “Are you guys seriously going to make us walk down and then up that hill?” complained Clara to one of the chaperones. Clara didn’t receive an answer, just a warning look.

The hill that led to the river was long and steep. Brandon tried to imagine his mother’s elderly, grumpy neighbour walking down this hill and couldn’t help laughing. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any respect for older people. It was just that particular old man.

People were walking up the hill with kayaks on their back. There were a lot of people out. Brandon thought that maybe there was an event happening. He had reached the beach. He felt the cool water touch his toes. Two girls who looked younger than sixteen passed him. Both seemed to have a good understanding of where they were going. Brandon followed them. The girls might have seen him, but they didn’t seem to care.

Brandon heard the rapids before he saw them. David, the counsellor, had said something about those rapids being called the playground. The two girls were now heading towards the rocks near the rapids; Brandon didn’t want to get that close. After observing the girls, he concluded that they were the kind of people who did not get into trouble. Unlike Brandon, those two girls probably hadn’t experienced many hardships.

The sun touched the water. Clara and the others had now caught up. All around, Brandon saw people. Lots and lots of people — the fact came rushing to his head. A five- and six-year-old were making a clay castle. An older couple was sitting on a towel watching the kayakers, and the two girls were now jumping into boats. All the people that Brandon saw had some sense of what they were doing, and he stood there lost. That was Brandon’s reality; he didn’t know where he would be or who he would be next year.

His childhood had started in Inuvik. He left with his mother to Dawson, and he lived in Whitehorse for a while. Brandon had also lived in Yellowknife, Norman Wells, Aklavik, and now Fort Smith. He got sent to the South Slave because of what happened. Brandon constantly asked himself why he felt so lost; his mind concluded it was because he had no place to call home.

It was David who had brought up the idea of coming down to the rapids. David was currently setting boundary rules and expectations for this excursion. Everybody would have to participate in one activity to get the credit for coming here, David explained as Brandon half listened.

Brandon chose the swim race. The goal was simple. All that he had to do was start by the far-left end of the rocks, get in the water, swim through a rapid they called the hole, get out of the wave train, and touch the rocks opposite of where the race started. Brandon knew he could swim, so he decided that the swim race would be the ideal activity.

Brandon adjusted his lifejacket. People, including the two girls from earlier, were getting into the water. Everybody was in the water now, and the race rules were read over again as a reminder. “Okay, everybody! Are you ready for the 2017 Paddlefest annual swim race? Take your marks, get set, go!” yelled some guy holding a microphone.

Brandon slipped into the water. It was chilling at first. However, it soon became refreshing after he took a couple of strokes. Looking up through the water, Brandon swam to what he thought was the hole. As soon as he entered the rapid, he regretted his decision. Brandon was pulled under the water. The hole was a rapid that recirculated the water that spun around it, making it somewhere to easily get stuck in. Brandon was experiencing that effect right now. He felt as if two hands were holding him, keeping him under. He couldn’t see anything, just pitch black.

Brandon was panicking. His mind jumped from thought to thought. He wondered if this is what his father experienced while drowning that terrible night four years ago. Brandon didn’t want to end up like his father. He decided then and there that after he got out of the rapid, he would move back up North with his mother. Brandon’s mother needed him. He would be her home, and maybe he would find his.

The water circulated Brandon out of the wave train. He gasped as soon as he hit the air. Brandon was only under the water for 10 seconds, but that was enough for his mind to become flooded with thoughts.

On the way back up the hill, Clara complained for five minutes straight. Brandon was too busy thinking to care. When everybody reached the car and got in, Brandon took a seat. As they were leaving, David turned on the radio. Brandon left the rapids with the tune “Home” stuck in his head: “Home is wherever I’m with you.”

Amélie Aubrey-Smith is a born and raised strong-minded northern girl, who can be often found reading books and writing stories and poems. She lives in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, and spends her spare time writing for her school newspaper or enjoying activities such as cross-country skiing, paddling the Mighty Slave River, and cooking.