Baker Lake RCMP Officer Dmitri Malakhov fishes at Ferguson Lake

Finding Canada’s centre

When we discovered our nation’s geographic middle was not where everyone thought it was, we had to go there. The spirit of Canada guided every step.

By Meagan Campbell

I’m standing on Arctic tundra at the exact centre of Canada, wearing a stranger’s jacket, bearing a pebble from Parliament and whooping with glee with a helicopter pilot, a videographer, two Inuit guides and a dog named Diesel. Amid a metropolis of mosquitoes, I dig a Canadian flag into the moss at the coordinates and set down a canister, dated July 1, 2016, as a geocache.

My assignment was to reach the centre of Canada, and here I am: 62.3° north, 97° west. A commercial airline, bush plane and chopper have flown me 1,334 km north of Winnipeg. Although the nearest community of Baker Lake, Nunavut, boasts a sign naming it the geographical centre of Canada, locals don’t know who put it there, and another billboard reading “Centre of Canada” stands at the midpoint of the TransCanada highway in Taché, Man. To determine the exact centre of the country, I asked the president of the Canadian Cartographic Association. Discovering that it falls in untracked tundra meant Maclean’s simply had to go.

In June 2015, I sent an email to Boris Kotelewetz, a bush pilot in Baker Lake: “Hi there, I’m a journalist from Maclean’s magazine, and I have a very unusual question.” I asked Boris, owner of a charter company, Ookpik Aviation, to help me travel to the nucleus of the country, on a shoestring budget, to launch the countdown to the 150th anniversary of our nation. “I don’t know if you fully realize what you are getting yourself into, Meagan,” Boris wrote to me. “It’s a hell of an idea if you can manage to pull it off.”

After a year of planning, Boris, 75, agreed to fly me and photographer Nick Iwanyshyn in his Otter bush plane—and to absorb the flight costs himself, including the fuel. “It’s like the Canadian spirit is asleep somehow and we need to wake it up,” he later explained. “I think we have the greatest country. They need to be reminded.” Also: “You bugged me long enough about it.”

Boris Kotelewetz loved the challenge to get us to the centre of Canada; ‘I don’t know if you fully realize what you’re getting into’

Baker Lake’s airport has one gate; its residents share one postal code. The community, population 2,140, is 91 per cent Inuit, primarily employed in the mining industry. Most people live in subsidized housing but the town is not a reserve, as Nunvaut has none; the whole territory belongs to the Inuit under a land claim. Dogs or mixed-breed wolf-dogs are chained to houses. Residents fish for char, trout and grayling, chiselling through 2.5-m ice in the winter. In July, children play outside after midnight in 22-hour sunlight, and sometimes go rafting in bathing suits on the lake’s icebergs.

After Boris moved to Baker Lake from Ottawa in 1966 to deal art for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which bought crafts from the Inuit to sell to Canadians and Americans, he became so close with the locals that his boss, wanting more emotional detachment in employees, said Boris couldn’t stay. “Watch me,” he replied, and built his own house, married an English woman who has since passed away, and graduated from “the school of hard knocks.” He befriended members of the Group of Seven, who visited the region to paint. He later became a pilot, transporting geographers and mineral prospectors. He was a man of the land, recalling a 21-day journey on snowmobile from Baker Lake to Yellowknife. He chatted about woolly mammoths at lunch. He told me cities remind him of termite mounds. “I need to be around the creatures I share this planet with,” he said.

Loading the bush plane the morning of June 30, I panicked. I’d lost my plaid flannel jacket, my strict patriotic dress code. I scrambled to a boutique up the road, where manager David Ford said he didn’t sell the style but owned one himself. He left the shop, taxied me to his house—in a neighbourhood called Chinatown, for its eastern location—and produced a jacket from his workshop.

Maclean’s Meagan Campbell aboard the Otter, in a borrowed plaid jacket

Map in lap on the plane, Boris buckled himself into his passenger seat. Also on board with us: Nick, a Mountie in his iconic red garb, two guides in their sixties named Joan Scottie and Hugh Ikoe, and Diesel, a dog trained to bark at grizzlies. Pilot Alan Gilbertson briefed us, sealed the doors and declared, “All right, let’s go fly.”

En route to Canada’s heart, we scanned veins of water, skins of ice, brains of rock. “You see where you are?” Boris asked. “Keep this with you.” For the 50-minute flight from Baker Lake, I stopped cheese-grating my bug bites with my fingernails and digested the beauty below. The tundra resembled cracked tectonic plates. Lakes emerge in between, and icebergs converge like the Cheerios effect.

In airplane lingo, “touch and gos” mean rolling the wheels along the ground to see if it’s safe to land. At the centre of Canada, it was not. “There are some big rocks in there, Boris,” the pilot warned via headset. “What do we have here?” he said out loud. “Here’s some with some potential. It’s a little lumpy on the one end . . . That looks like it’s somewhat doable . . . no, that looks soft . . . how’s everyone holding up back there?”

Joan was tucked into fetal position, her knuckles bulging from clutching the seat. Diesel wheedled into Hugh’s lap. I winced as a wing nearly skimmed the ground. Boris was cucumber cool.

Impromptu Plan B was to land 35 km north at an abandoned mineral exploration camp. The Starfield Resources operation shut down in 2005, prospectors leaving their backhoes, barrels and baked beans behind. (The company’s abandonment and restoration plan for the site stated in 2005, “all wastes, material or used equipment will be treated as required or removed from the site as soon as is practical.”) Depressing shelters, sprawling roads, mouldy fridges, soggy Harvest Crunch in boxes: “Look at the mess!” Joan cried, having grown up on this very land before its exploitation. “This was home. We lived here. We hunted here.”

Guide Joan Scottie inside the Baker Lake Lodge

Abandoned, or “orphaned,” mines are a common phenomenon in the north, as companies avoid the expense of removing equipment and toxic waste, including arsenic and cyanide. While Natural Resources Canada considers better solutions, clean-ups currently fall to taxpayers. The “custodial department” of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has $2.4 billion in cleaning to do as of 2014—more than the anticipated cost of improving housing for the 39 per cent of Inuit living in overcrowded conditions.

I expected to settle for this junkyard as my final destination, maybe walk a minute south to lay the geocache on the ground. But Boris wouldn’t concede. He flew back to Baker Lake with the pilot and Mountie (Boris knew all four officers in town and invited one to accompany us), where he would call a friend at an operational uranium mining company, Kivalliq Energy Corporation, to shuttle us to our exact coordinates the next day—by helicopter.

Bizarrely camped somewhere between Mother Nature and modernity, we carried bear spray and a rifle in case of grizzlies and wiped Diesel’s snout of bloody mosquito bites, but also lounged on Ikea beds in the shelters and drove down to a lake, in an abandoned truck Hugh had hot-wired, to get water and catch trout. Joan, 68, with few remaining teeth, snacked on her packed crackers with cheese dip and later snapped photos of her dinner plate for Facebook. “I have lived two lives,” said Hugh, her 65-year-old brother. “At first I lived a very primitive, Stone Age life. Now I live a very technological life. We’re stuck in the middle.”

Hugh Ikoe, an Inuit guide living in Baker Lake, Nun., talks about his experience in residential schools while waiting in a shelter at an abandoned mineral exploration camp near Ferguson Lake, Nun.

As children in 1962, the siblings were “picked up” in the Kivalliq region, shortly after Farley Mowat published a book about Inuit starvation in the area. Though the government originally assigned numbers to each “eskimo,” Joan and Hugh were named under a later system dubbed “Project Surname,” which substituted names for numbers. Hugh and Joan were placed in a residential school in Churchill, Man., and Hugh was forced to go to college in Winnipeg, then assigned to work as a machinist. “I ended up in a place called Guelph,” he said. He married a woman from Connecticut and had a daughter, who returned to the States with her mother when Hugh returned north, then moved to Georgia for the weather. “How can you say it’s too cold in Connecticut?” Hugh asked her. “Your father was born in an igloo.”

After residential school, Joan—who also had a daughter, but never married— returned to Baker Lake, worked with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in the ’80s, and later became the manager of the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association. She currently guides Canadian and American tourists part-time on caribou hunting and trout fishing trips, while Hugh does maintenance for the town’s public works department. Before reuniting in Baker Lake, they’d lost touch for 20 years.

Somehow, I doubted a helicopter would come. When I reached Boris on satellite phone that night, he said, “This is your guardian angel speaking.” He had indeed arranged for a chopper to fetch us the following morning, on Canada Day, but by 1:30 the next afternoon, nothing. We hid from the mosquitoes in shelters, thankful at least that blackfly season had not yet begun. The Arctic tundra, with pools of still, nutrient-rich water, incubates the worst mosquitoes in the world. Billions are born per day, spanning 25 species, and since they have few mammals to feed on, they mercilessly blizzard the ones they find. “Insect harassment” can directly kill caribou calves and indirectly kill herds by distracting them from eating and migrating.

On nothing but Boris’s word, we waited. We squatted in a shelter as Hugh explained why he couldn’t return to life on the land. “The one thing about civilization, it’s addictive,” he said. “There’s things we don’t have to worry about anymore, such as starving to death.” No, but even in this industrial ghetto, I did worry about abandonment. At last, some point after we’d lost track of time, the buzz of mosquitoes was drowned beneath the thundering sound of propellers. Squinting at the sky, laughing in disbelief, I watched a chopper descend.

“Zero zero foxtrot Longranger, lifting Ferguson strip for the centre of Canada.” In aviation dialect, our helicopter pilot reported his activity through the radio as we took flight on Canada Day afternoon. He lowered close to the coordinates and snuggled the aircraft into the dirt. Our own GPS led us in zigzags, so the pilot dismounted his onboard device with the coordinates punched in. We continued by foot, counting down in feet: 400, 200, 70, 20, five, four, two . . . At a mossy patch between two shallow bogs, beside a caribou hoof print, I shouted “Zero! zero feet! We’re at the centre of Canada!”

It was 22° C and almost 180° flat, a place where caribou migrate through and grizzlies occasionally roam. Mosquitoes swarm despite a subtle breeze. Marshy puddles spilled into my boots. Walk 4,658 km east, and I’d be in the Atlantic Ocean. Head 4,658 km west, and I’d meet the Pacific. My arrival was a testament to Canadian generosity; Calm Air gave 50 per cent discounts to Nick and me to get to Baker Lake; RCMP officers in Ottawa let me fill the geocache by scavenging for a rock and snipping blades of grass off the lawn of Parliament Hill, as well as filling a vial of water from the Centennial Flame; city councillors in Taché, Man., met me at A&W, chauffeured me to the longitudinal centre and scooped mud for the cache. The country conspired to help, down to the three staff at Canadian Tire who determined, in the case of no wind at the centre of Canada, that steel wire would stiffen a flag, as astronauts did on the moon. In the geocache, a note explained the mementoes, including a key to a lock hanging on a bridge above the Rideau Canal. Hugh and Joan join our hands in a prayer circle: the pilot who prospected on Inuit territory, the journalists who dropped in from Toronto, the residential school survivors. We stand at the centre of Canada and give a prayer of thanks to our country.

The pilot flew us to one of Kivalliq Energy Corporation’s exploration camps “just in time for supper,” he announced upon touchdown. Hugh asked the manager about their encounters with caribou, and Joan groaned at the sight of an electric fence, designed to keep out grizzlies, but also dangerous to other animals, and both siblings accepted plates of shepherd’s pie. The cook, Jimmy Kelly, recalled a previous visiting Inuit woman who had swept the kitchen floor with a bird’s wing. “That was her Swiffer,” Jimmy said. Chief operating officer Andrew Barry explained his decision to help us. “When Boris called, I thought, ‘We’ve been to the centre of the Sahara, the centre of the Amazon. There’s no reason we can’t get to the centre of Canada when it’s right there.’ ”

Back in Baker Lake, I attempted to say thanks. I walked to Chinatown to give back David’s jacket, but he invited me fishing with his wife instead. He said the wind would be chilly, so I ended up learning to fish, wearing the jacket I was trying to return. I couldn’t join them for supper because I needed to hunt down Hugh to pay him and Joan an honorarium, at which point Hugh gave me a ball of muskox wool. I gave the flag we raised at the central coordinates to Helen, Boris’s niece, who’d answered my incessant calls to Ookpik Aviation. She stuck it in her garden.

“Meagan, you need to promise me something,” Boris told me. “You promise me you’re not going to call me the next time you have a hare-brained idea that I can’t say no to.” Agreed. He kept a collection of stones, including a 1.7-billion-year-old fossil showing where raindrops had hit the ground. At the central coordinates, I’d picked up a single stone, the reddest I could find. It belonged to him.

In Toronto, an email arrived. I’d known the sender for four days.

Hello Meagan,

I trust by now you are settled back in your familiar world and that your flight to Toronto was more comfortable than the Otter and helicopter. Life here is less stressful now that you are gone, as I have no one to worry about and to guard and protect.

I have taken the rock from the centre of Canada, that you left in my care, and flew it to a mineral exploration camp 160 miles northwest from here. There is a Geological Survey of Canada group of geologists there doing mineral mapping. They will analyze the rock for a variety of things and report on its significance to Canada. You may then wish to display it in a more worthy place, rather than my care.

Your Guardian Angel (retired),

Reporter: Meagan Campbell
Editor: Colin Campbell
Art director: Stephen Gregory
Director of Photography: Liz Sullivan
Digital production editor: Amanda Shendruk
Photographer: Nick Iwanyshyn
Videographer: Nick Iwanyshyn
Video editor: Nick Iwanyshyn
Video producer: Liz Sullivan

Published: July 14, 2016