Gameti is a small village in the Northwest Territories with a population of about 320 residents. Formerly known as Rae Lakes (there are a number of communities in the Territories that have returned to their traditional Indigenous titles), it’s a traditional trapping village located in the North Slave Region. Gameti was to be the last stop on my author tour of the Northwest Territories. My accommodations were going to be the very school where I’d be speaking: Jean Wetrade Gameti School.
The day I left for Gameti was also the first time it snowed since I’d been in the North. Despite the temperatures being sub-zero throughout the winter, snowstorms were rare. Most of the time I was there, it was so sunny I had to wear sunglasses. Deborah and Brian Bruser gave me a ride to Air Tindi, the small airline running the flight.
My chariot awaits.
I’m not typically a nervous flyer, but to get to Gameti, you travel in a small plane (in this case, a Twin Otter that seats no more than a dozen). And when booking my ticket, my web search for their phone number might have revealed a number of news stories about Air Tindi flights where doors had ripped open or emergency landings had to be made. Others who had flown in the Northwest Territories recommended bringing Gravol for my trip, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this flight. Brian was concerned about my weak winter gear – a frequent point of conversation during my trip – and worried they might not even let me on the plane. (Some of the smaller planes require passengers to have surival gear, in the event they have to make an emergency landing in the middle of nowhere.)
Waiting in the airport with me were the five other passengers on my Air Tindi flight: four young teachers and a mysterious bearded man (who later turned out to be the car service guy at the Gameti airport). The teachers had just been in Edmonton for a conference. The acting principal, Jessica, was at least four years younger than me, and all the teachers were originally from Ontario. (Teaching in the North provides not only opportunity but pretty good compensation, provided you can hack it in remote Gameti or similar communities.) In addition to their luggage, they were carrying boxes of Pizza Hut.
‘The first time we flew into Gameti,’ Shelagh, another teacher, remembered, ‘a bird flew into the airport and smashed against the glass door. It was lying on the ground, sputtering for a few minutes and no one did anything. They just laughed, brought their kids up to look at the dying bird. And I thought, what did we get ourselves into?‘
The flight itself was loud and cold. I wore my coat and hat for the entire trip and earplugs were pretty much a necessity. If you’re afraid of heights, Air Tindi is definitely not the way to fly: you don’t rise above the cloud cover at any point. You really get a sense of how much nothing is out there when flying over the Northwest Territories. Well, not nothing, but uninhabited space: just pine and scrub brush and frozen lakes. The flight also provided a good view of the other transport option to Gameti: the ice road. The ice road was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Six hours’ worth of driving across a roadway cleared along a frozen lake. No service stations, no cell service. Flying seemed like the better choice.
Rides from the airport to Gameti were a hot commodity, but luckily another teacher picked us up and Jessica settled me in my digs for the evening: the school library. I set up a cot and sleeping bag in the library stacks, and had free run of the gym, exercise equipment, kitchen. Jessica left to unpack as I set up my cot, but offered to show me around town later. Try as I might, I couldn’t pretend (a) it wasn’t really strange to stay overnight in a school alone, and (b) this wasn’t really a childhood dream coming true: sleepover in the school library!
When Jessica came back, we walked a loop around the small community of Gameti. At this point in March, it was almost entirely a town of women and children. The town is predominantly Tlicho, and most of the men are either on the trapline or working the mines for weeks at a time. Despite having fewer people than many Toronto apartment buildings, Gameti seemed to have a fair share of social problems. Two stray dogs started to stalk us during our walk, but they seemed friendly enough. Apparently there are a lot of stray dogs in town. The town is also dry (no alcohol is allowed), but many of Jessica’s stories about some of the Gameti residences ended with the phrase, ‘but then a drunk guy broke in and wouldn’t leave, so they had to move.’ The RCMP visits every once in a while.
The students at Jean Wetrade were pretty good shots.
The school itself is half Tlicho teachers, half Ontarians of European or Asian background. The school, Jean Wetrade, has a motto: ‘with the strength of two people.’ The idea is to teach the students both the traditional Tlicho ways, as well as the white man’s education. If, like me, you could sneak into the school’s gym, you’d see that in the archery targets that were foam beavers and foxes. (Just one example of that ‘strength of two people’ in action.)
In the evening, I ‘hacked’ into the school library’s computer. Sadly, the library’s DVDs were locked up somewhere. (I was really hoping to watch the first season of Blossom.) I dragged an exercise bike from the gym and tried to exercise while both listening to podcasts and becoming fully aware how much I felt like Desmond from Lost. After midnight, I snuck out (careful not to let any of the stray dogs into the school) to see if I could get a good look at the Northern Lights, but it was too cloudy. There were, however, a few trucks and cars circling the town, seemingly throughout the night, which more than weirded me out. Side-effect of sleeping alone in the school library.