In just a couple of months (one and a bit, to be a little more precise), we’ll be celebrating the release of Norths: Two Suitcases and a Stroller Around the Circumpolar World by the talented, funny, and award-winning Alison McCreesh. Her new book is a collection of postcards, one for every day of her family’s travels through six circumpolar countries: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. In this instalment of “Under the Surface,” Alison talks about her award-winning graphic memoir, Ramshackle, and gives us a glimpse behind the scenes at Norths.
Over the course of that first summer we spent in Yellowknife – the one I describe in Ramshackle – we really fell in love with Yellowknife. Not instantaneously, but slowly over the weeks and months. A combination of things won us over, the most defining being the shacks and houseboats and off-grid community-oriented lifestyle they offered. We really wanted to live that way, to be part of that community.
Prior to going off travelling again that fall, we had already decided this was home. Before hitting the road, we switched our official residence and got NWT drivers’ licences, healthcare cards and, of course, a polar bear shaped license plate. We knew that we’d be coming back.
You finally get to live in the Dragon Shack. Is there a particular creature comfort (or lack thereof) that really makes it feel like home?
It’s hard to pinpoint one detail. It was more just a combination of lots of small things that made the Dragon Shack feel so right. It was small, it was crooked, and it was cobbled together in mysterious ways.
In every way, it was the complete opposite of a sterile bungalow in the suburbs with a manicured lawn. I liked looking out the window and seeing the fire pit, the neighbouring shacks, the loose dogs and, most of all, the often surprising action taking place just outside: Houseboaters hauling all kinds of odd gear, our neighbour Cominco lying on his stomach cutting the grass with scissors, our other neighbour Peter making sculptures by stacking shiny found objects, and eventually our toddler bathing in a dish basin on the front deck.
What’s happening between the city and The Woodyard these days? What can the rest of Canada learn from this bit of history?
I’m afraid I don’t have any great words of wisdom or advice for the rest of Canada. It’s such a fine balance to preserve heritage while also keeping it lived in and constantly evolving. What we found most magical about the Woodyard was how the shacks and that general area was so alive. There were gardens growing and extensions being built and new art being added. It worked because somehow despite growth and change, in its anarchic unregulated spirit, it stayed coherent with the original vibe of the place. For something like that to work, you need a combination of factors to come together organically – it almost seems like you just have to get extremely lucky.
Once buildings or a place are officially declared heritage and become protected through some official means, then it’s hard for them to continue to evolve naturally and they lose their spirit. At the same time, if they aren’t protected by any official channel, the natural course of things can also do damage: either buildings can be too poorly maintained and torn down – or, reversely – so dramatically altered they lose their style and feel.
What’s the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked by a tourist?
‘We will die?!?’ is probably the most surprising thing a tourist has asked me.
A friend and I were out for a walk on Yellowknife Bay, pushing our babies in strollers and chatting happily. A snowmobile pulled up and two Chinese tourists jumped off. They spoke very limited English, but they managed to convey their fear of impending death. We eventually pieced together that they had been out snowmobiling with a tour group, but had somehow become separated from the others. Now, as they explained, it was going to get dark, they were lost and they would die of cold. All potentially valid concerns further out on the lake, but we were very close to shore. So close they could have called a cab to pick them up. So close to town that they could have walked back to their hotel within 15 minutes. You could see the main road just a couple of hundred metres away.
A phone call later, we had them reunited with someone from their tour company. Rarely have I been thanked so profusely.
What’s the weirdest question you ever asked (as a tourist)?
I think failing to ask questions when I travel is actually one of my big failings. I suppose I’m always afraid of asking a question that is too weird or seeming like a dumb tourist. Of course, when you don’t ask you don’t learn and you do things that are dumb… and you look like a tourist anyway. Lose-lose. In my recent travels, two examples of questions I should have asked were: What does that sign in Finnish on the bathroom door mean? Are there any polar bears out that way?
What did you learn about yourself that summer in Yellowknife?
That summer confirmed what I mostly already knew: It’s the people that make a place. Sometimes, when you are travelling, you meet people and bond super quickly, in regular life though, that can take a while. That summer I really realized the value of staying somewhere for an extended period and of building relationships. I suppose I learned that having a great circle of friends was more important to me than active ever-changing travel and adventure.
To us, Yellowknife felt like home and we understood that we wanted to build on that rather than just bounce on from one place to the next. Of course, when we first came to that conclusion, were thinking we’d spend a year maybe two in Yellowknife. It’s now been almost 9 years.
Norths builds on the theme of travel and exploration you established in Ramshackle, except this time you’ve got your son along for the ride. Without giving away too much, what was the scariest thing to happen to you, as a parent, on that journey? And what gave you the most joy?
Scary might be a slight overstatement, but there was a particular train journey in Russia that was definitely draining and nerve-wracking from my mom-perspective. We waited too late to book our tickets, so when the time came we had no options. We ended up with top bunks in a sleeper train for a six-hour trip. Our bunk was very high and very narrow. There was barely any guardrail to speak of and it was too close to the ceiling for me to be able to sit up. It wasn’t actually night time, so our almost two-year-old wouldn’t sleep. He kept squirming and getting restless and was like a little eel in my arms. I could barely move due to the lack of space, but being so little and nimble, he could move fast and easily. I was perpetually terrified he would topple off the side of the bunk… and it as a long way to fall!
One of the best days was probably the very first day we spent in Greenland. The second leg of our plane journey was cancelled so we were stranded in an airport for 48 hours. It was the airline’s fault, so they put us up and gave us meal vouchers. We called it our ‘All-Inclusive Vacation North of the Arctic Circle’. The weather was glorious and sunny and the scenery was breathtaking. We just walked and explored and enjoyed having absolutely nothing to do. Just wandering near the airport, we saw muskoxen, a reindeer and an arctic hare. It looked a lot like Nunavut so it felt reassuringly like home in a way, especially after two months in Russia. We ate ridiculous amounts of Danish pastries at the Airport Cafeteria and generally had a great time!