The North becomes her
By Hélèna Katz, BA’87
I had just returned home from walking the dog when I heard a rustling sound too loud to be a squirrel. I turned to see a big black bear, 15 feet away, staring at us. If there’s one thing I never had to worry about when I called Montreal my home, it was that a bear might drop by for lunch.
I moved to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories in 2006 and now live on the edge of the bush, 12 kilometres from town. We’re near Wood Buffalo National Park, where the bears and bison roam. Sanchez, our 65-pound pooch, is quick to bark furiously at squirrels, but pretended not to notice the burly trespasser that day. I grabbed some metal pot lids from the kitchen and banged them together. The bear lumbered away, probably annoyed that the music at this particular restaurant was so awful.
I was living in the densely populated Mile End neighbourhood five years ago when I visited Fort Smith to do a travel story and met Mike. First I fell in love with the North. Then I fell in love with a northerner. Since Mike works for the territorial government and I’m a freelance journalist, the answer to the question of who would move so that we could be together was a no-brainer.
Fort Smith is a pretty community on the banks of the Slave River, just north of the Alberta border. Fewer than 2,400 people call it home.
It’s the kind of place where you get laughed at for locking your car, a weekend shopping spree requires a 10-hour drive, and stopping at a traffic light can be less common than travelling by floatplane.
It’s also a town so small that you hang a right at the main intersection to go for Chinese food and make a left if you want pizza. I can get my fix of Indian food at home since Mike has a way with curry, but forget about souvlaki, sushi or Sunday brunch.
I hadn’t realized how much I would miss bumping into familiar faces on the street and going out to grab a coffee. The peace and quiet I had so coveted when I was submerged in the cacophony of urban living suddenly felt stifling. I yearned for someone to bang on my door looking for a cup of tea—just to break the monotony.
I also hadn’t anticipated just how difficult it would be to adjust to a life that was so different from the one I had led. In Montreal I was a busy and established freelance journalist. I mentored other writers, volunteered with a local writers’ organization and was known for my sense of humour.
For nearly two years I struggled with being little more than Mike’s appendage, leaving me feeling invisible and stripped of my own identity. Without any friends of my own in Fort Smith, I felt emotionally cut off from the tight support network I had enjoyed in Montreal.
Then I realized that being defined by my man instead of on my own merits wasn’t about stripping me of my identity—it’s about others using a human marker to try to place me. In a small, isolated community where family ties are strong and survival can depend on interpersonal relationships, people need to know who newcomers “belong” with. Over time, my own iden-tity began to emerge. “Are you the writer?” complete strangers began asking after I sold copies of my books at a community crafts sale and my byline started appearing in northern magazines.
Three years later, I’ve reclaimed my identity as a writer. And the stillness of the North that was once unnerving has become my salvation—a refuge where my literary creativity flows without the jarring staccato of urban interruptions.
I still wish some of my old friends lived down the road instead of being spread across Canada, but I’m finding my place in this community. Big cities are great places for dining and shopping, but the North is now my home. I am finally beginning to feel like a northerner.
Especially on those nights when the northern lights are shimmering and the vast sky outside my home becomes a canvas for Mother Nature’s paintbrush.
Hélèna Katz has written for Canadian Geographic, Homemakers and More, and is working on a book compilation of her monthly “Letter from the North.” She can be reached at: email@example.com