Yellowknife: Then and Now

 By Isabel Wade


I spent the first seven years of my life in the Arctic, which is now the bellwether for the climate disaster facing our planet.  In 1948, the town of Yellowknife where I was born was a barely populated dot in the Canadian Shield, about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It is this place, with its rugged, rocky landscape and its frigid winter weather, that shaped my consuming interest in nature and led me to a lifelong career as an environmental planner and activist. Since leaving Yellowknife, I have lived in numerous cities, each with its own environmental challenges and changes, and at the start of my 8th decade, I am moved to look back at some of these locations and trace my journey through them, then and now.

Yellowknife:  Then

Mammoths were what first drew humans to the Arctic about 45,000 years ago.  Much later, it was the glitter of mineral deposits that pulled them in. When my parents arrived in Yellowknife in 1946, the Gold Rush was in full swing and the town was already a thriving post of 1000 residents, mainly men, most of them dreamers and fortune seekers. Housing consisted of log cabins for the lucky and tents for the others, both of which periodically burned in a flash due to an errant spark or two from the wood stoves that provided the only heating.  My parents lived in a tent when they first arrived and later moved to a log cabin.

Residents who avoided a fire still had to cope with other challenges. There was no running water and there were no flush toilets. People secured water for drinking and bathing from snowmelt in the winter and from the lake, via bucket brigade, in the summer. Outhouses serviced most Yellowknife residents in the Old Town, where the majority of Yellowknife folks lived in the early days, including my parents once they had abandoned their tent. These usually overflowed by spring, and their contents ran down the hill toward the lake, a periodic rivulet aptly known as “Shit Creek.”

Despite the rather primitive housing, Yellowknife grew quickly. By the early 1950s, it boasted 5000 residents. The burgeoning town even had a few hotels and several churches, unusual for such a remote location. Most people living in Yellowknife in the ‘40s and 50s were interested primarily in gold–either in finding it or plugging into jobs linked to mining. The rest of the local economy was tied to the provisioning of mine workers and their families.

My father worked at two or more of the big gold mines and also prospected for gold on his own. Sometimes, however, he did not work at all, due in part to his fiery temper and in part to his drinking habit.

My mother worked at producing children: five of us were born between 1947 and 1952. As the family grew, my parents moved from the primitive home in the “Old Town,” to the “New Town” where there was running water and space for a vegetable garden, a critical asset in a place where all food had to be imported from distant places.  Looking back later, as a mother who had access to diaper services when I needed them, I couldn’t imagine trying to keep a clean, dry supply of diapers for more than one child in the winter with only a hand-cranked washing machine and no dryer. Actually, I can’t conceive of having more than one child, which is where I stopped my own production line. Observing  my mother’s struggles led me to think more children would be a burden. 

In my own childhood, I wasn’t really aware of the challenges of getting food on the table for a family of seven or living in a severe climate. Yellowknife was simply home, icicles and all. We made our own fun, with nature as our playground:  snowball fights, sledding, ice skating, making “angels” in the fresh snow powder. Among our most cherished winter adventures were dog sled rides on the enormous expanse of white ice concealing Great Slave Lake or other smaller lakes near town. Among our greatest delights were those times when curtains of luminescent green and sheets of other floating color moved across the sky, transforming the star-sparkled night.

We were keenly aware of the power of the northern climate. Our household heat was provided entirely by wood. When it was minus 15F degrees outside, someone had to get up several times during the night to add wood to the stove. One too many shots of scotch consumed by the fire-tender meant that the ice fairy would visit us during the night, and in the morning, if the inside temperature of our house had dropped below freezing, we would wake up with our eyelids frozen shut, a problem we could only solve with warm washcloths. When I was a child, these incidents seemed more amusing than challenging.

Helping with food production was another kind of fun, especially for me who was already obsessed by plants. Like most families in town, my mother kept a garden. I can still remember squatting on the ground in the vegetable plot,  smelling the freshly turned soil while pulling up carrots and radishes, wiping the dirt off on my pants, and biting into the taste of paradise.  Even potatoes with a dash of salt seemed like a delicious treat when they came right out of the ground.  Special varieties of seeds, acclimated to the long sunlight hours of summer, were hot trading commodities. The vegetable bonanza lasted a short 8-10 weeks but canning preserved the extra produce and the jars served as inspiration to us for next summer’s growing efforts.

Towns in Northern Canada were test sites for DDT as an experiment to eliminate the clouds of mosquitoes that lurked around seeking bare skin and warm blood every spring/summer.  No one seemed to be aware that the newly-introduced DDT pesticide might not be good for localized food production and public health.  No one stopped us children from running behind the DDT sprayer ‘for fun’ when spraying DDT became an annual practice in Yellowknife in the 1940s and 50s. Without much knowledge of pesticides (Silent Spring by author Rachel Carson was not published until 1962), town residents never considered that spraying poison to kill bugs might also harm children. Nor did anyone think that the drift from the DDT spraying that landed on home gardens might be a problem.

In those early years of Yellowknife, the man-made beach at the edge of the lake posed another environmental danger. Once the ice disappeared in early June, swimming became a most popular activity, but swimmers had to deal with leeches, which infested the lake, as everyone who had to pull these squishy ‘blood suckers’ off their skin could testify.  I won the family contest for most leeches removed in one day.

The real problem with swimming at this artificial beach was recognized much later. The sandy shore constructed by humans consisted, actually, of tailings from the largest mine: finely crushed rock rich in chemicals and heavy metals, including arsenic. Many children developed unusual rashes every summer, but few people seemed to put two and two together and realize that the beach might be toxic. 

Like a rash that begins a little at a time, my family’s difficulties began to spread, one crisis after another. Somewhere in my child’s mind I became aware that my parents’ relationship had serious difficulties. One problem was alcohol abuse, an issue shared by many in the North.  With nothing much to do during the long winter evenings and too much celebration when the sun returned during summer nights, many people drank to excess.

Yet children have ways of coping with even the most obvious signs of disintegration around them. No food in the house meant an adventure for my sister and me: we’d go to the store with no money and see what food the kind proprietor would give us. In trying to keep our parents sober, we invented an amusing game of “hide the bottle” which helped us forestall drunken yelling matches. In the heat of such arguments, household goods such as items from my grandmother’s lovely silver tea service were often thrown and broken. Despite the chaos and the dented and broken items, we managed to keep ourselves entertained in ways that had, I feel, valuable benefits in later life. 

My older sister and I realized later that our birth order (we were older than the three boys) and our experience of  organizing our gang’s entertainment activities and trying different ways to keep our parents sober helped develop our sense of women as leaders. We found creative ways to fight off the bears and wolves of our worries and developed processes to make decisions like who would be King or Queen for a day. The ‘free play’ inside and outside definitely shaped all of our siblings’ approach to problem solving and helped us achieve success in our work as adults.

My life in Yellowknife ended suddenly with Mother’s suicide in March of 1956, the day before my sister Beth’s 9th birthday. Mother’s mental health had been in decline for months, and probably years. Serenity was not our family dynamic, what with Father’s ‘employment problem’ and the fact that a new baby arrived almost every year. Father’s alcohol abuse and unemployment cost him his children, for even before Mother’s death, as she was spiraling into depression, we were all placed in foster families.

The day my mother died I had, I recall, a brief moment of happiness as the school bus passed our house. I looked for her through the kitchen window and thought that I saw her.  The hushed phone call with the devastating news of her death that came later that day made me wish I could have stopped the bus to save her. No one told us how she died or discussed it until years later.  Perhaps that is what planted my lifelong sense of people as transient in one’s life and led me to develop certain emotional barriers for many years.

Less than a month after Mother’s passing, my sister and I were sent to Ottawa at the request of my aunt. My brothers followed, joining another family a few months later. I did not return to Yellowknife for more than 60 years.

Yellowknife:  Now

I made my return trip in 2016.  The Yellowknife I found that year was dramatically different than the one I had left when I was a child. It had been incorporated as a city in 1967 and now had a population of around 20,000. There were paved streets, flush toilets, and a beautiful Heritage Center. It had served as the government center and capital of the Northwest Territories since 1970. Its main industry was still mining (but of diamonds now instead of gold) and fur trading. Today, however, a pipeline is under construction and people make money from the production and sale of energy (hydro, gas and renewables), and tourism.

Sadly most of these industries, other than renewable energy and tourism, present significant challenges to the northern environment. There has been no progress on remediation of past pollution caused by gold mining. And caribou, a primary food source for the First Nation groups around Yellowknife and the Territories, is seriously in danger.

[To be continued–this is an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress.]

Dr. Isabel Wade is an environmental planner whose career has focused on urban ecosystems and the enhancement of public open spaces.  Among other achievements, Wade launched the Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco and co-founded the National AIDS Memorial Grove project.  She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services Wade lives in San Francisco and Glen Ellen, in both of which locations she is an avid gardener.


Published by tamimansary

Author, lecturer and teacher, grew up in Afghanistan, grew old in America, bi-cultural to a fault: author of West of Kabul, East of New York, Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, The Widow's Husband, and Games Without Rules, The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan.

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