By JOEY TIMMERMANS
A group of 17 L.V. Rogers high school students and two teachers ventured to Fort McPherson, North West Territories last month as part of the North-South student exchange.
I do not think anyone knew what they were getting into when they signed up for this exchange, but each and every one of us came home with an incredible life changing experience and a truly amazing story to tell. I am here to tell mine.
Flying in on the icy landing strip in Fort McPherson, there was a feeling of excitement in the tiny charter planes. Some of the first comments made were on the stunted growth of trees, it felt strange seeing forest with trees under ten feet! Another thing that I noticed was that breathing was actually difficult, like my lungs would not accept the air. The temperature was -22 C.
Seeing the students from Chief Julius School again was like meeting old friends. They greeted us with warm smiles and asked us for our first impressions. To us, Fort McPherson was one of the best places on earth and it stayed that way throughout the exchange. That night we ate a typical northern moose meat dinner followed by ski-dooing.
In Fort McPherson, the whole town can be travelled on foot. The Snack Shack is one of two places to eat in town and a little store they call “The Northern” is their superstore. But by far, our favorite place in Fort McPherson was Margaret’s local craft store. She is an elder and artesan who greeted our group with a friendly smile and said it was great to see new faces in town. She told us how happy she was that we came to her craft shop, then delightedly went on to explain the meaning of her crafts and how she started a business out of her home. We all enjoyed speaking to Margaret and getting to know her.
Surrounding Fort McPherson there are several small cabins built by community members for the purpose of hunting, trapping and family campouts. Spending a night at one of those cabins was a highlight of our trip. We snowshoed for 2 ½ hours in deep soft snow, leaving our legs burning that night. We collected tiny chunks of frozen sap from trees which could later be boiled and mixed to form a medicinal drink used to soothe sore throats. We ski-dooed for hours on frozen lakes. We learned the local tradition of making homemade slushies.
Underneath the fresh powder lay a gold mine of what the Gwich’in First Nation’s people call “sugar snow” which is grainy snow that we collected and mixed with juice flavoring. Slushies are probably not good for you if you eat four in a row, but it might be the last time I ever see sugar snow again, so maybe it was okay.
That night, the northern lights came into sight at two o`clock in the morning. It was the most amazing sight I have ever seen. A glowing splash of greens and blues illuminated the sky with ribbons of light flowing above us. They left our exchange group speechless.
The next few days we participated in the Fort McPherson Winter Carnival. The dance was when it really hit me, how fun and different the Gwich’in culture is. Nearly the entire hamlet was in attendance. As you can imagine, the Nelson students had no idea how to dance any of the routines, but we were all welcome to participate. The square dance was loads of fun. You could always see a Nelson student step out of line, turn the wrong way or even get so confused they would start spinning circles until a laughing local stopped to get them back in order. I did not see a face without a smile throughout the dance. Many dancing competitions were held. Some of the Nelson students entered in dancing contests, and even managed to win prize money in a jigging competition.
My favorite activity from our experience was dog sledding. My mother used to tell me of her experience dog sledding and read me stories of the Yukon Quest. The beautiful white huskies were playful and friendly. Just four of the muscular dogs per team pulled us along through a narrow trail. It was amazing to see how they were born to run. The dogs would run straight forever unless given other instruction. Once you let the brake off, your eager team took off immediately.
After staying in a community with some of the friendliest people on Earth, seeing the northern lights, being pulled by a team of dogs, and even dancing in front of the whole town, I learned how lucky I am to have seen one of the many different cultures of Canada. As Wade Davis writes “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” This was never truer than our experience in Fort McPherson.
Joey Timmermans is a Grade 9 student at Nelson’s L.V. Rogers high school.