The endless sunshine of seventy Arctic summers and the harsh winds of seventy Arctic winters have darkened and wrinkled her face and grayed her long dark hair. Seventy years of happiness and hardships are etched into her skin. Yet for her age, her five-foot frame is incredibly agile, her arms still strong, and her hands quick with a knife. On the eastern shore of the Mackenzie Delta, Alice is at home. On a good day her husband John and friends bring six or more large fish to her table every three hours—from early morning until midnight. And with skill acquired from her ancestors, and honed on countless white and coney fish, she cleans and prepares each one for drying. She hangs the fillets on bare wooden beams in the smokehouse, or outside to dry under the unending light of twenty-four hour days.

While she works, Alice laughs easily, smiles often, and talks fondly about the times when dozens of families would come to this spot in the summer to amass dry fish stores for the long winter. Today many of the fish Alice smokes are sold in town, a reality that troubles her. She worries that too few people still have the desire to fish in the bush, or even know how to do it. She remembers the long marches through the snow with dog teams from her childhood—marches where both man and dog were fueled by fish dried during the short Arctic summer. But, she says, times change and these fillets are worth twenty dollars a piece in town, so she chases away any jays, ravens, or weasels that get too close to the drying fish.

When enough fish have been smoked, the weather turns foul, or Alice is ready to return for the weekend’s bingo tournament in town, John packs up the fish, rifles and dogs and helps Alice into the boat. The forty-kilometer trip back to Inuvik takes nearly two hours—during which time the boat passes a handful of other bush camps. The camps are built from old school buses, logs, scrapwood, storage trailers, or Hudson Bay Company trading posts. Like many of the twenty-five thousand lakes in the Mackenzie Delta, these camps are perched on banks nearly three meters above the surface of the muddy river. The beaches are covered in large tracks from errant grizzly bears and wolves. Ducks, geese, swans, eagles, loons, gulls, cranes and mosquitoes continually fly overhead.

The delta is Canada’s largest, and the second largest delta in the Arctic. It has been growing along the southern coast of the Arctic Ocean since the retreat of the last continental glacier nearly ten thousand years ago. Its muddy depths are made from the deposition of the eroding Rocky Mountains and the soils of northern Canada. The delta is still growing; thick mud and sediments create and wash away new banks every day. Hidden beneath this mud are natural gas deposits and mammoth tusks.

Since the river rises drastically in spring and fall, there are almost no permanent docks along the banks. Instead, many of the boats in town are tied to one another in nautical knots that end with one boat lashed to a small branch driven lightly into the mud. When Alice’s boat arrives, its berth is no different. After docking, they locate someone with a driver’s license and a few minutes to spare and soon Alice, John, and the week’s bounty of fish are loaded into their truck and on their way home. Unlike the log cabin and canvas tents of the bush, their home in town is a prefabricated aluminum apartment joined to dozens of others and raised on stilts above the permanently frozen soil.
The city of Inuvik sits on the eastern edge of the expansive Mackenzie Delta. It was built in the 1950s when the only other major settlement in the region was constantly threatened with flooding. Its construction was also fueled by the need for a permanent settlement to act as a gateway to the Arctic’s rich mineral and petrol resources and a physical mark of Canadian sovereignty above the Arctic Circle.

When not in camp eating fresh fish and caribou, much of Alice and John’s food, like most in Inuvik, comes frozen, canned, processed, overripe, over-priced and from far to the south, symptoms of the communities’ remoteness and of the cultural assimilation policies of the not-so-distant past: policies that forced southern culture, religion and behavior on the northern aboriginals. Today there are movements afoot to help the residents of Inuvik enjoy a fresh and healthier diet. Nearly ten years ago, an indoor community garden opened in the town’s old hockey rink. It provides plots for citizens to take advantage of endless summer days to grow their own produce. Meanwhile nonprofit groups advocate for healthy northern diets through outreach and education.
Alice’s relationship to her drinking water is also different in town. In the bush John obtains fresh drinking water directly from nearby lakes; in town it must pass from the tap through a water filter to remove some of the abundant heavy metals that come north with other industrial air pollutants. The proximity of the town’s waste water treatment, labeled on maps as the “sewage lagoon,” reinforces the need for personal water treatment.

Inuvik is also troubled by an overabundance of youth gangs that roam the town’s few streets—streets that, at least in summer, are home to a few dozen friendly homeless residents struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. And yet, Inuvik is still a community with incredible pride and generosity. It sits in a region familiar with change and challenges—defined by seasonal, rather than daily sunsets and sunrises, blistering winters and blinding summers, abundance and scarcity. With global climate change and new pressures for its mineral and fuel resources, the town and delta have an uncertain future. The millions of migrating waterfowl, hundreds of fish species, scores of marine mammals, moose, wolves, bears, caribou herds and uncountable insects that depend on the delta need to be recognized as resources more valuable than the gas and oil locked beneath it; and the thousands of northern people and their communities around the delta and Arctic coast need to be recognized and respected as more than tools for national sovereignty.