world Learn­ing from the land above the Arc­tic Cir­cle.

Elle (Canada) - - #Storyboard - By Christina reynolds

I’ve made it half­way to heaven. Yes, that’s a bit of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but I can as­sure you it’s an ap­pro­pri­ate one. The spot that has been given this lofty nick­name is the pin­na­cle of a moun­tain 200 kilo­me­tres north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. It’s a bit of a scram­ble up spiky bedrock tors to get right to the top, but I am re­warded with an oth­er­worldly view through a nat­u­ral rock win­dow. It may not show you heaven, but the view back down to earth is pretty hard to beat: vel­vety green peaks sep­a­rated by deep V-shaped val­leys, some with strik­ing patches of pur­ple, sage, or­ange and yel­low. It all some­how looks both del­i­cate and se­vere.

I hiked to this sig­na­ture spot in the Yukon’s Iv­vavik Na­tional Park this past sum­mer with the man who named the peak. Mervin Joe is of­fi­cially a Parks Canada cul­tural re­source man­age­ment tech­ni­cian, but he is also known as the un­of­fi­cial mayor of Sheep Creek—the park’s base camp, which is about a six-kilo­me­tre hike from where we’re stand­ing. Joe, an Inu­vialuit from the com­mu­nity of Inu­vik in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, came to work at the park in 1993 and has been com­ing back ev­ery year since. One day, while guid­ing youth campers on a new route, he found him­self tak­ing a ra­dio call at this spot. When asked where he was, he replied, “I don’t know, but we must be half­way to heaven by about now.” The name stuck. Since then, he es­ti­mates, he has done the hike about 30 times. “I like to show it off,” he says with a grin. “Cloud, rain, snow, peo­ple—it’s dif­fer­ent ev­ery time.”

Thirty times might not seem like a lot un­til you re­al­ize the fly-in sum­mer hik­ing sea­son here is only from mid-June to early July. Only 113 visi­tors made it to this park in 2015. Aside from a few fel­low hik­ers and a dozen or so rafters making a 130-kilo­me­tre jour­ney down the park’s Firth River, the clos­est peo­ple to us in this 10,000-square-kilo­me­tre ex­panse are those who oc­ca­sion­ally pass 40,000 feet over­head. Part­way up our hike, we hear a jet and can see its faint out­line as it trav­els across the clear sky. “Usu­ally there’s a jet trail, but not to­day,” says Joe. I won­der if any pas­sen­gers are look­ing down at us—not re­al­iz­ing there are a couple of hu­man dots look­ing up at them as they whiz by over­head.

There are no marked trails, which is why you need a guide. As Joe and I tra­verse alpine ridges and sad­dles, we some­times “side-hill” to fol­low trails made by Dall sheep and por­cu­pine cari­bou. The 200,000-strong herd of cari­bou, which mi­grates through the re­gion in the spring, leaves dozens of in­ter­twin­ing path­ways along the steep moun­tain slopes. Park staff es­ti­mate the “trails” are 80 per­cent main­tained by an­i­mals and 20 per­cent by h

bhu­mans. For one break, we stop in the “sheep’s bed­room”—a spot where the rocky paths are dot­ted with oval in­dents that are just the right size for a curled-up ovine. At this point I re­al­ize Joe has been whistling the same tune over and over, so I ask what it is. “It’s a gospel song called ‘Go Rest High on That Moun­tain,’” he says with a glint in his eye. “That’s ex­actly what we’re do­ing right now!” I ex­claim as we both start to laugh. Rest­ing in a sheep’s bed with the sun warm­ing my back and a breeze that’s keep­ing the mos­qui­toes at bay is in­deed heav­enly. I’m not in any rush to move. There’s so much to take in, and with 24-hour daylight, I have all the time I need. ut there is ob­vi­ously a lot more to ab­sorb here than the vast, unglaciated land­scape. In 2014, Parks Canada be­gan invit­ing a cul­tural host on each trip. Lo­cal el­der Billy Archie, from Aklavik, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, who had not been to the park area in decades, joins my group of a half-dozen hik­ers and shares his sto­ries of grow­ing up on the land as well as more an­cient oral history tales. “My an­ces­tors used to talk about how woolly-mam­moth meat was so ten­der,” he says one night af­ter din­ner. “You can’t cap­ture some of th­ese sto­ries in books.” Camp cook Judy Se­lamio also shares her ex­pe­ri­ences of hunt­ing and fish­ing near Aklavik—and what it was like to first learn English at age 12.

Be­ing able to spend time in this park with the Inu­vialuit—which means “real peo­ple” in Inu­vialuk­tun—isn’t just a happy accident. The groups that co-man­age the park make a con­certed ef­fort to give visi­tors and lo­cals this time to min­gle—and to en­sure that Inu­vialuit have job op­por­tu­ni­ties. Al­though there are many part­ners in­volved in th­ese ef­forts, Nel­lie Cournoyea and Diane Wil­son are two of the key lead­ers. Th­ese women are far apart in age and ex­pe­ri­ences, but in the three and a half years since Wil­son moved to Inu­vik, they’ve formed a unique work­ing re­la­tion­ship and a friend­ship. Wil­son, 37, who grew up in 100 Mile House, B.C., and has worked in Van­cou­ver, Hal­i­fax and Ot­tawa, is the Western Arc­tic field unit su­per­in­ten­dent and over­sees Iv­vavik. Cournoyea, 75, is from Aklavik and has been chair and CEO of the Inu­vialuit Re­gional Cor­po­ra­tion (IRC), which co­man­ages the park, since 1996. She’s also the for­mer premier of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, a land-claims ne­go­tia­tor and one of the most re­spected and pow­er­ful lead­ers in the North.

“I was in­tim­i­dated as hell when I first went to her of­fice,” re­calls Wil­son. “But I was hon­est with her. I didn’t pre­tend I could do this job with­out a lot of as­sis­tance. She just said to me, ‘Let me know what I can do to help.’”

The two women of­ten talk three times a week about ev­ery­thing from ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties at the park to in­fra­struc­ture, and es­pe­cially staffing, as it’s hard to fill po­si­tions in the North. “You kind of need ‘MacGyvers’: peo­ple who can fix things with duct tape when needed, drink tea and talk with the com­mu­nity and be pa­tient if a sys­tem goes down and they don’t have email for a few days,” says Wil­son. Th­ese dis­cus­sions aren’t al­ways in the of­fice, like the time Cournoyea asked Wil­son to help her se­lect fab­ric for sum­mer amau­tiit (parkas) she was com­mis­sion­ing lo­cal women to sew for the IRC gift shop. She loved Wil­son’s pur­ple-and-white-print amauti and wanted some­thing sim­i­lar for the shop.

“It helps to spend time to­gether in the com­mu­nity and have on­go­ing dis­cus­sions so it’s not just ‘them and us,’” says Cournoyea. One of her top pri­or­i­ties is im­prov­ing life for the youth in her re­gion. “Part of that is to give young peo­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to get out on the land and talk to them about what sparks their imag­i­na­tions,” she says.

Her com­ment makes me think of Rachel Hansen, a young Inu­vialuit mother of four and in­ter­pre­tive guide whom I met at the park. When she was grow­ing up in Inu­vik, she told me, she didn’t even know what a na­tional park was, let alone that there was one nearby. But in 2006, af­ter com­plet­ing a oneyear crim­i­nal-jus­tice pro­gram with a fo­cus on teens at Inu­vik’s Aurora Col­lege, she saw a poster for a Parks Canada po­si­tion and landed the job. Ever since, she has been guid­ing youth camps in the park for Grade 8 and high-school bi­ol­ogy stu­dents and other visi­tors (like me). Hansen has grown so at­tached to her un­ex­pected ca­reer that she now has a tat­too of blue Arc­tic forget-me-nots—her favourite flower—on her right fore­arm. As we hike to a spot called In­spi­ra­tion Point, she tells me how her eye of­ten wan­ders across the nearby Firth River to the still un­ex­plored and un­named peaks just on the other side. “It’s like a Christ­mas present just wait­ing to be un­wrapped,” she says. It’s that ex­cite­ment and an­tic­i­pa­tion that keep her here. “I’d love to get to Paris and Lon­don, but it’s also amaz­ing to ex­plore my own back­yard. I get to know a place really well that very few peo­ple get to see.” The pos­si­bil­i­ties here, like the view, are al­most lim­it­less. n

Half­way to Heaven’s rock win­dow; the route to the top (left); a sum­mit selfie (right)

The land­ing strip at the rus­tic Sheep Creek In­ter­na­tional Air­port

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