Out came my old muskrat fur coat with the tawny wolf trim.
It would be perfect for the winter I would be facing. The Stikine School District, located just below the Yukon border in the far north, needed help. I agreed to go immediately during the coldest months of the year – November, 1985 to January 1986. After living on our coastal island for six years, with the most moderate climate in Canada, a Northern Canadian winter would be a shock to my system.
The fur, still rich with various shades of tan, beige and brown, hung with abundant folds. The weight of the wolf trim around the hem, at mid-calf, assured graceful lines and movement. The attached hood, bordered with luxuriously soft wolf fur, could be brought forward enough to almost cover the face against bitter cold. Wolf fur was more than decorative. Icicles do not readily form on wolf while breathing through the hairs in cold temperatures, thus preventing frozen cheeks. While not a coat of high value in the then thriving fur market, it was still luxurious enough to encourage fantasies out of Doctor Zhivago.
My heart sank as I looked over the coat. After years of improper storage, stitching on a number of the pelts was gone. Disappointed and discouraged, I visited a friend, Joyce. I told her about the muskrat coat, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I need a winter coat fast.”
“Bring it to me. I bet I can fix it.” she said with enthusiasm. That was the day I learned that Joyce had once been a practicing clothes designer and seamstress.
“You’re kidding! But the pelts have dried up. It can’t be fixed.” I said.
Over a thousand miles south of my destination, under warm, Coastal skies, Joyce coaxed, stitched, cleaned and resurrected my beloved, life-saving fur coat in time for my date of departure.
My Italian leather boots were traded for a pair of warm winter boots. My trunk was packed. I was off for a three month stint in Northern B.C.
After two months in the District’s headquarters in Cassiar, the Northerners won my heart. A young woman I hired, Leslie Swann*, and I worked tirelessly with other staff to clean up a financial knot that had almost strangled the School District.
There had been times when I thought the clean-up would be impossible. The problem had been created through the implementation of a new computer system that no one knew how to operate. Consequently, for over a year, the appropriate entries had simply been neglected. Miracle of miracles, I was able to convince Revenue Canada that it was ridiculous to fine a School District $50,000. for not submitting tax remittances. I held firm with my question: why would we encourage one set of tax payers to sue another? I had issued a large cheque that brought us up to date. My integrity held firm. They reneged on the monstrous fine.
The Ministry of Education had given me carte blanche to draw a line and start afresh. There were times I was tempted to take their offer, but having watched Joyce triumphantly bring my coat back to life and watching Leslie take such delight over the opportunity to use her computer skills, I could not give up.
As temperatures dipped as low as minus 50 degrees (the same whether Fahrenheit or Centigrade), I’d bundle up in my beloved muskrat and wolf, walk home with star filled skies dancing with northern lights overhead and marvel over the squeak of frozen snow underfoot. I felt I could reach out and touch God in that magical environment. Tears would well and quickly freeze on my lashes. “Please God, let this little School District be okay.”
A healthy offer was slipped under my office door one evening, inviting me to accept a three year contract. I quickly considered key factors: Leslie and I were close to declaring that all was well. The Northerners had astonished me with their inclusiveness. The vibrancy of life surpassed any town or village I had experienced in my travels across Canada.
I signed the contract. I could not walk away from the place that had won my heart.
After three months, the critical day arrived. Every account balanced, the last bank reconciliation was done and Leslie had the payroll system humming with accuracy. I made the most significant phone call of my career life. I called the Auditor. I asked when he could come to verify that all was well. He laughed. He thought I was joking. I beamed with pride over the fabulous staff who pitched in and worked so hard to make certain the accounting system was fully functional.
The word spread that I had signed a three year contract. Shortly after the signing, in the grocery store that was the pulse of this tiny mining town, I heard, “‘Scuse me. Do you cuddle?”
“Do I cuddle?” I asked and discovered a tiny woman looking up at me. I quickly claimed whatever decent fresh vegetables I could find before she could slide under my arm.
“Yes. Doooo. Yoooo. Cuddle?” she repeated slowly with a hint of frustration.
“Only with people I know well.” I hoped humour would take some sternness out of her demeanor.
With the perfect timing of a UN Peace Officer, a man rushed up to her and said, “Hey, Mary, Queen of Scots, how did you do at curling last night?”
Before Mary could answer, I burst into laughter, “Oh…I get it! Do I CURL??!!”
The man nodded, “Mary’s a great recruiter. She just hasn’t figured out why her accent gets her into trouble.”
Nothing was impossible for the hardy adventurers who had made the North their home. Hi-Tech was a car radio that worked as long as there was no mountain in the way of the signals. There were many mountains.
For me, the best survival kits were the ones that walked on two legs. They fed some important skills to this newcomer:
- It’s advisable to unplug the car before driving away from where it was plugged in: (For my faraway friends, vehicles are plugged in when the temperature is significantly below freezing. A block heater sits in the engine, keeping it warm enough to start. Thus the heater is plugged-in.) I drove to the store one day dragging 10 feet of electric cord behind my vehicle. A young guy waved me down, grabbed the end of the cord and said, “Looking for a plug-in?”
- Don’t be outside the town limits without a jar of peanut butter: Peanut Butter does not freeze so it is an excellent source of instant protein if you become stranded or the highway cafes are too far apart.
- Carry matches and/or a lighter in a ziploc bag: Not only does a fire provide warmth and a signal, it also is key to keeping you psychologically secure with a sense of well-being. Yes, I would love to attract all those animals who would also appreciate the warmth.
- If you slide off a bridge into the water, after you climb out, roll in the snow immediately: The snow will stick to the wet clothing and act as an insulator to keep your body heat from escaping. (Many northern bridges, having no sides, would become very slippery during winter.)
- If you have to shoot a grizzly, aim for the hump: If I was face to face with a grizzly, I would go into cardiac arrest. A good aim is a moot point.
- If you see anyone hitchhiking or stranded in any way, stop: The law of the North is to help anyone. Don’t worry about whether or not the person is a mass murderer or a lunatic. If loose in the North, everyone knows them, where they are and what they ate for lunch. There are so few people around that everyone knows something about everyone else. When short on gossip, some would feel responsible to do something outrageous to provide a new story.
- If Glenn asks you for a date and you say “no”, he’ll park his truck in front of your place, thus giving one and all a false impression of an overnight stay: I will admit that Glenn was the first to warn me. If he was ever inclined to ask me out, I was too fast for him to catch me. More likely, I was too straight for him to outwit. He had a steady relationship with cannabis.
- If anyone learned that I was heading out of town, they were to slap a “handicapped” sticker on my Bronco: I had a flat tire in my driveway one day. Being mechanically challenged, I declared it an Emergency Zone and put out flares.
- The first important date to remember is delivery day for fresh produce: Most days, I arrived at the store too late. Instead of steaming my vegetables, I often gave last rites.
- Anything you do in the South, continue to do here. Ignore the snow. Advice from a Rhodesian, I thought Dave Pewsey was joking. However, he was a strong supporter of the winter golf tournament that was played on the airport runway with coloured golf balls. I rode my 10 speed trail bike year round, especially to give my German Shepherd neighbour, Hedley, a good run. Larry Otto, a locum doctor, rode his bicycle from home to home as he made his calls throughout the year.
Thirty six months lived in a remote mining town named Cassiar – a tiny town full of people from all over the world. Three years of exploring Yukon and Northern British Columbia allowed me to build incredible memories, uniquely shared with Northern people, and kept safe in loyal hearts.
Punctuate that last sentence with a salty tear. A unique, indefinable emptiness flows from any article about Cassiar. You see…Cassiar no longer exists. Asbestos was banned by the United States and the mine shut down forever. In 1992, the town was closed. As required, the mining company restored the town site by giving it back to nature. Cassiarites again became people of the world.
I hope someone still wears my muskrat coat with the wolf trim that I left for others to use.
*Rest in peace, Leslie. Thanks for your incredible help. I could not have managed without you. (Leslie died in a car accident along the Alaska Highway in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I will provide the exact date if/when I am able.)