The call of the wild mixes with the jinglejangle of advertising on cable television. Jack London meets Oprah Winfrey. "We'll be watching the Olympics," bush pilot Fred Carmichael says. "Sure we will. People up here are informed. The trappers out in the bush are informed, probably more informed than the people in the cities. Those guys all have radios. They listen all the time. They'll be working at night, skinning their animals and listening to the radio. They know everything that goes on. They'll be listening to the Olympics."
The town came into being in the mid-'50s, when the government decided to establish a base for the development and administration of the Western Arctic, not to mention a listening post near the Soviets. The name Inuvik was chosen from the language of the Inuit, who also are known as Eskimos. It means Place of Man.
This was a different sort of frontier development from the beginning. The most important part of town was always the airport. "What other town of 3,500 people in the world has a 737 land every day?" asks Dick Hill, a 25-year resident and former mayor. "This is a place of many anomalies. You have only 45,000 people in all of the Northwest Territories, an area about half the size of the United States. You have all this space and not many people and you never feel isolated. You know that plane is coming in every day. You're always that close to the rest of the world."
Flight 659, Canadian Airlines International, leaves Edmonton at 8:15 in the morning and arrives at Inuvik at 12:45 in the afternoon, with intermediate stops at Yellowknife and Norman Wells. "If you watch that plane land enough times, you'll see just about everything you can imagine being taken off or put on," a man says from behind the car rental counter at Inuvik Airport. "Food. Furniture. Sick people going to the hospital. I used to see these big boxes being loaded sometimes for the return trip. I never knew what they were. Someone finally told me they contained dead bodies, going south to be buried because the ground was frozen here."
Forty years ago the few residents of the area were captives of the winter. They would have to wait for the ice to break on the Mackenzie for fresh supplies to be delivered. They would endure and endure and finally be rewarded. The plane is now an everyday reward. A necessity.
"I grew up on a trap line near Aklavik," says Cece McCauley, chief of the local Dene Indians. "In the spring a little boat would come up the river, and everyone would run to the banks to see what they could buy. I never ate a tomato until I was 21 years old. Apples. Oranges. I remember going to Edmonton for the first time and seeing oranges in this tremendous pyramid in the stores. How did they do that?"
The Mackenzie is still used for commerce. When the river is frozen, ice roads are plowed on it: 75 miles to Aklavik (Place of the Brown Bear) and 120 miles to Tuktoyaktuk (Place Where the Caribou Crosses). When it is not frozen, it is used for the delivery of larger goods from the south by barge. A road also has been added, the Dempster Highway, 450 miles of crushed rock to Dawson in the Yukon, one truck stop somewhere in the middle.
All of this makes the long link stronger. The Olympic torch can be flown into Inuvik on flight 659 and paraded through town—no different from Toronto or Montreal or Winnipeg. The stories of the gold medal winners and losers can be read in the morning newspapers from Edmonton and Toronto on the same day, in the afternoon in the Arctic. The satellite dish not only brings in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations's TV shows to the local cable system but also the ABC station from Detroit. Watch the Olympics? The people of Inuvik will see more versions of the Olympics than people in New York City.
The main street is Mackenzie Road. On it, where Distributor Street intersects, is Inuvik's only stoplight, the one place that has any kind of traffic. The Hudson Bay store—where furs are bought and Cheerios and Twisted Sister records are sold—is on Mackenzie Road. The elementary school is on Mackenzie Road. The library is on Mackenzie Road. Our Lady of Victory church. The Eskimo Inn. The post office. The Mackenzie Hotel. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police office is just off Mackenzie Road.
"When television first arrived here, we didn't have much to show," says Hill, who occasionally works for the station. "We would have tapes sent up from Edmonton, and we would show them a week later on our station. This only took care of about two hours a night. There was a large amount of time when we didn't have anything to show. So we just pointed the camera out the window, at the front door to The Mad Trapper bar on Mackenzie Road. That was the show. We'd just leave the camera on and go home.