Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Northern Living Series:
Jean Polfus // Tulı́t'a, Northwest Territories

02 / 15 / 17

In our forth interview for the Northern Living Series we hear from Jean Polfus, a postdoctoral fellow, who studies caribou while living in Tulı́t'a, Northwest Territories along with her husband Joe and their newborn son Tristan. Here she shares her experience of living in a small, fly-in community in the heart of Canada's true north, touching on life with 3 hours of daylight, northern childbirth, and Dene celebrations...

Background: I was born in northern Wisconsin, USA. My parents fostered a love for the surrounding mixed northern hardwood forests and we spent a lot of time outdoors skiing, canoeing, camping and hiking. As a family, we always loved winter and appreciated all the special activities that the changing seasons bring. After finishing high school, I moved to New Hampshire and Montana for my undergraduate and graduate school and slowly continued to make my way further and further north. I studied caribou in northern British Columbia for my masters research and then moved to Tulı́t'a-  a fly-in community with a population of 500, in the middle of the Northwest Territories just below the Arctic Circle – for my PhD research. I think I have always been drawn to the unique ecosystems and wildlife of the north. Working on applied conservation issues in northern Canada has given me an appreciation for the complex ways that landscapes, people, and wildlife are inextricably and compellingly intertwined in the north. I would like to continue to explore and study the intersection of these issues throughout my career.

Of course, it also helps that I enjoy winter. I’ve always felt a special thrill going outside in -40 and feel privileged to have the chance to experience winter in a way many people never will. I am also compelled by the beauty of the north. My mom is an artist (you can find her work here:, so my sister and I were always encouraged to express ourselves through drawing, painting, or pottery. Following my move to Tulı́t'a I started to pick up photography as a way to document my life and share the amazing beauty of the north with my friends and family. I approach art and science as explorations of the natural world that arise out of the process of observing patterns in behavior, space, and time. I strive to capture the allure and grandeur of northern landscapes. Over the past several years I have come to appreciate the increase in attention that comes with carrying a camera. I love the moment of discovery when a seemingly normal object suddenly becomes noteworthy. In the north this means noticing the way light reflects off snow, finding unique ways to capture the northern lights, and attempting to photograph wildlife. As my technical skill has improved, it has also become easier to use photography as an outlet for artistic expression.

On Seasonal Influence: Tulı́t'a means “where the waters flow together” in Dene language because the town sits at the confluence of the Great Bear and the Mackenzie Rivers. The Mackenzie River (Dehcho in Dene language) and its tributaries make up the largest watershed in Canada. Each day approximately 2.6 million gallons of fresh water, accumulated from five Canadian provinces and territories, flow by Tulı́t'a each second on their way north to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Thus, the Mackenzie impacts and dominates the landscape and its seasonal changes have a significant influence on our lives.

The most striking seasonal changes on the Mackenzie are freeze-up and break-up in the fall and spring respectively. The river’s state both allows and prohibits transportation. In the winter an ice road crosses the 9-12 feet of ice on the Mackenzie and is our connection to Yellowknife in the south. In the summer barges run up and down the river bringing in heavy supplies like cars and houses!

The shoulder seasons can feel kind of isolating in Tulı́t'a because travel on the river is not possible. Freeze-up is a slow process. Ice first forms along the banks and around the middle of October we start to see small floats of ice flowing downriver that have broken off the shore further upstream. Soon the entire river is a moving mass of floating ice. Everyone in town keeps tabs on the flow of ice. You have to be very lucky to witness the quiet moment in November when the ice stops moving. Then the river freezes solid very quickly. In fact, someone will often venture across the river the day after the ice stops.

In contrast, break-up can be a much more dramatic event. There are often bets placed on the date that break-up will occur. For the past several years this has happened around the middle of May. Long-time residents of Tulı́t'a know to watch for subtle changes in the river that signify that break-up is imminent. Often the water level rises quickly along the banks right before the ice first breaks. We also wait for reports from up river, because the break-up moves progressively downstream starting in Fort Providence and then making its way to Fort Simpson and Wrigley before reaching Tulı́t'a. The moment the ice starts to move everyone rushes to the beach to watch! You can watch my time-lapse video of the Tulı́t'a break-up in 2015 here: Huge chunks of ice, the size of buses and houses, crash into each other. Big sections push up onto the shore and in the process, demolish anything in their path. Massive driftwood logs of cottonwood splitter like toothpicks under the ice’s force. Last year, particularly huge pieces of ice were pushed way up the banks. These pieces took weeks to slowly melt away. I took pictures of the last remnants of the ice at the end of June!

On the longest/ shortest days: The climate in Tulı́t'a is typical of the subarctic, with long, cold winters and short, warm (and occasionally hot!) summers. Winter lasts from about the end of October until May. Our mean temperature is -27ºC in January and 16ºC in July. On our hottest days it can reach 30ºC and -40ºC days are not uncommon in the winter (though long stretches of cold are decreasing with climate change). The region contains permafrost as well, some of which has been melting in recent years leading to big washouts along the banks of the Mackenzie River. Precipitation is low and restricted by a rain-shadow in the Mackenzie Valley which generates milder climates than those to the east and west. Tulı́t'a is located at about 65 degrees latitude, just below the Arctic Circle. On the shortest day of the year we have 3 hours 23 minutes of daylight (sunrise 11:43am and sunset 3:06pm). And at the other extreme our summer solstice sunset is at 1:42am and then it never really gets dark with the sun just slipping below the horizon to reappear at 3:16am.

On Dene Culture: While it is amazingly beautiful in the north, a major benefit to me is the chance to live in a place that very few people will ever have the opportunity to visit and to learn firsthand about Dene culture. Dene people have lived in the Sahtú region for millennia. The landscape is filled with placenames that connect people to their history and describe important historic events, cultural practices and relationships between different components of the ecosystem.

Living in Tulı́t'a has allowed me to learn more about colonial history and the complex political and cultural context that continues to shape and impact indigenous people’s lives today. I feel very humbled to have the chance to enter the community as a student and to listen to elders speak in their own language about the places they come from – places that are tied to their families in a way that is difficult for me to internalize as a descendant of European immigrants. The constant use of Dene language at all community events reminds me that I am just a visitor in this northern homeland. I continue to have so much to learn about the close relationship between people, the landscape, the language, and the animals.

Northern research is inherently collaborative. I am lucky to have the chance to live and work with people who have generously shared their knowledge to benefit our caribou research. Over the past four years I have experienced significant personal growth that goes above and beyond the academic degree I was seeking. My mentors, including Walter Bayha, Frederick Andrew, Leon Andrew, Michael Neyelle, Gordon Yakeleya, and Morris Modeste, introduced me to new ideas, shared their language, and invited me with them for trips out on the land. Their expertise provides such important background and context to the projects I am involved in. I continue to strive to amplify the voices of my Dene collaborators and hope to help build community capacity so that the next generation of ecologists working in the Sahtú region come from Tulı́t'a, rather than from the outside. I feel very lucky to have the chance to live and work in such an amazingly remote and culturally vibrant place.

On Grocery Shopping: The main challenge is the cost of travel and obtaining goods and food. Food prices are ridiculously high (check out this CBC North article about the cost of flour in Tulı́t'a last year! One of the things I miss the most is access to fresh vegetables and fruits. There is a limited selection of perishable food, and though the variety has improved in recent years, many items are still often bruised or damaged following their long trip north. It is also hard to get things like nuts, special cheeses, spices, or organic food. My husband and I are both lucky to travel quite a bit for our jobs, so we often use most of our weight allowance on the flights to bring back food (each person is allowed 60lbs on the flight into Tulı́t'a). This past summer we had a small garden for the first time and grew lots of cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs which were wonderful! We hope to expand our garden in the future.

On Shopping In General: There are only two stores in Tulı́t'a, so running out to pick up a non-staple item we might need is usually out of the question. We have to spend a lot more time planning ahead than we ever had to when we lived in the south. This means trying to stockpile little things, like the brands of soap, toothpaste, and shampoo we like, and arranging transport for big heavy items like dog food and outdoor gear. Shipping charges are extremely expensive and, in fact, very few stores will ship goods via the mail to Tulı́t'a (, for example, doesn’t offer shipping north of Yellowknife anymore). We are always on the lookout for free shipping offers and stores that will ship anywhere in North America. Trips out of town often include a significant spending spree as we purchase items that aren’t available in Tulı́t'a.

On Childbirth: Another challenge in the north – and one that I don’t think many Canadians are aware of – is that women are not allowed to give birth in small communities. I just had a baby in November, so I experienced firsthand some of the difficulties with being sent away from the comfort of your own home at 36-37 weeks pregnant and subsequently managing life with a newborn in an unfamiliar city. I gave birth in Yellowknife, but women in remote communities are also sent to Inuvik or other larger centres that have hospitals. Thankfully my husband was able to travel to be with me, and he and our dogs made it to Yellowknife just a few days before I went into labor (our son was born two weeks early). However, many new moms are relocated during one of the most vulnerable time of their lives without their partners or families because the territory does not pay for the travel costs of medical escorts for childbirth. We were very privileged to be able to rent a house in Yellowknife following the birth of our son so that we had a little time to get our bearings and we also benefitted from the support of family who came to help out. Now that we have a new baby it has also been logically tough to figure out how to transport all the things we might need for our son’s first several months up to Tulı́t'a.

On New Year's Eve: December 2015 was the first time that my husband and I had stayed in Tulı́t'a for the winter holiday break. It was really amazing to experience the deepest and darkest days of the year in the community. We found that the holiday season hosted perhaps the most vibrant community events of the year. In particular, the New Year’s Eve drum dance and fireworks were really impressive. Drum dances happen throughout the year and involve Dene drummers who sing and play traditional songs while the community dances in a circle. Outsiders are always welcome to join. On New Year’s Eve the entire community of 500 people seemed to be packed into the community centre for the dance and, as the minutes counted down to midnight, the drumming picked up and soon there were 4 or 5 rings of people dancing faster and faster in a circle! It was amazing to be a part of the event. Outside fireworks went off at midnight with the aurora putting on a fantastic show of its own. I remember going out onto the Mackenzie River after the fireworks to take northern light photos and still being able to hear the drums beat over the ice and snow as the celebrations continued.

Besides drum dances, there are many other traditional events in town throughout the year. Some of the biggest are Dene hand game tournaments. In the game, players from two teams (teams are usually composed of 5-10 members from the same community) take turns trying to guess the correct location of objects concealed in the opposing player’s hands. Both sides have drummers. There are many different hand signals that the teams use to guess which hands the other players are hiding their objects. As the stakes rise the drums’ rhythm increases making the matches very exciting to watch.

On Air Travel: Travel to Tulı́t'a is prohibitively expensive (flights from Yellowknife are upwards of $1600 round trip) so it is difficult to visit family and friends. The remoteness can feel isolating at times, but it is also refreshing to have the chance to live somewhere with so few people. We use skype and video chat a lot to talk with friends and family!

On Skijoring: My favorite activity of all time is skijoring! I grew up cross country skiing and skied competitively through university so skiing has always been a big part of my life. I also love dogs. Sometimes I think that skijoring is what I was born to do! We have a black husky named Stella who we got from a rescue organization in Winnipeg. She is a natural sled dog – when you put the harness on her she is all business and does an amazing job pulling. You can tell how much she loves it too – she is just so happy that her humans can keep up with her for once! I feel so lucky to be able to ski right from my front door. I love to explore new routes. Last winter I followed skidoo tracks up into the forest across the river where some people from town were cutting firewood. I found a meandering frozen stream that opened up into a series of beaver ponds. Each trip I would push my trail further and further. Dappled sunlight on snow with skis swishing and dog paws padding softly along a trail are some of my favorite winter moments. You can watch some videos of me skijoring here:

Thank-you so much Jean! You can find more from her here:

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thank-you for sharing.