Julie Leibrich

PO BOX 2015

Raumati Beach

New Zealand





Wednesday, 12 September 2007



Dear Friends,


I want to tell you about my trip to Yellowknife , which was the best of journeys.  I feel like an explorer who has returned from a great adventure to some far frontier – even though I travelled in comfort, by plane and car. Please forgive the group letter approach but it is the only way to write this up quickly, while it is still fresh in my mind.


This was a journey on so many levels.  To go back to somewhere that had been very special to me, to see again a place which I knew would have changed dramatically, to meet up with people from the past. Also to explore new things, meet new people, see new places. 


It was the strangest thing – I didn’t realise until I got to Yellowknife that another reason I had gone back was that I had left part of myself there a long time ago.  I may leave that level to personal conversations between us, but let me tell you about what I did and saw and found…


First of all, I travelled with my friend Ann Goodwin who was the perfect travel companion.  I will be sending this email to her as well, so I don’t want to embarrass her, but she was fun, adventurous, easy going, witty, optimistic, interested in everything.  We enjoyed both silences and conversations.  And best of all – she wanted to be the driver!  Our trusty “Nissan Pathfinder” (with thanks to Ann’s daughter Rachel and partner Ian) took us 4,500 kilometres on our journey from Edmonton to Yellowknife and around and back.

I was thinking yesterday, as I have been enjoying a kind of spaceless, timeless recuperation at home, how amazing it is that we travel across the world in a flash and act as if that is normal.  Of course it’s not.  It’s mind blowing.  I see bits of myself fly off into the slipstream as the plane soars through the sky.   How sensible travel was, when people went by boat and took six weeks to get to the northern hemisphere from New Zealand .


I’m glad my holiday began with a few days in Edmonton with my friend Eileen Hirst, whom I met in Yellowknife , 35 years ago.  It was a great way to begin the journey.  A lovely reunion, catching up, sharing photos of now and then, seeing Eileen’s new flat, exploring shops, relaxing, and going out for wonderful meals together.  I have never tasted steak as good as “ Alberta ’s AAA” at The Keg!  





And I’m glad I didn’t fly directly to Yellowknife .  Ann joined me in Edmonton and we travelled by road to Yellowknife .  We took 3 days to get there and 5 days to get back.  These trips – up and down – were quite different. The first, a build-up of the excitement, the second the winding down and reflection on the days before.  





Going north was full of adrenaline – the excitement of getting to significant places – milestones.  The first big one was Mile Zero of the famous Mackenzie Highway , which leads to the far north of Canada .







We met the most amazing people on our trip north, like Ray and Mildred McKenzie.  We were looking for breakfast in Grimshaw just as the National Truckers Meeting was sitting down to pancakes, syrup and sausages.  Anyone could buy a $7 ticket ... so we did.  And that’s how we met Ray and Mildred – close on 90, married for 70 years, and telling us about their rodeo days as if they were last Sunday.  He was still a bronco champion and she, queen of the barrel race.  

Further north, we saw a black bear (actually,  I only saw its bottom as it scampered away).  Can you spot the bear? 





We stopped for petrol or coffee at places with romantic names like Peace River, Indian Cabins, Paddle Prairie, Providence , Rae. 




We met lovely people, like Verna Chalifoux, an Inuit, born in Yellowknife the same year I left. 

And Amanda and Farrah Key – two young girls running an isolated roadhouse, at Indian Cabins, miles from anywhere.  Amanda had come north because holding down eight part-time jobs in the city was just too much!

We eventually crossed the 60th Parallel and were in the Northwest Territories .  


Next, we crossed the Mighty MacKenzie River at Fort Providence , by ferry.  (There is no overland access to Yellowknife from the South for several weeks each year – the times between the summer ferry and the ice road forming. Here – you can see the mosquitoes on the window screen. (One of the few times insects bothered us when we got out of the car.)



Eventually, we got to Yellowknife - capital of the Northwest Territories , on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake .  There, I next had ten of the most marvellous days of my life. 



I have always wanted to return and I felt such a sense of achievement and completion. This was a deeply emotional trip for me.  It was the last place where I was a young woman with a future which seemed clear and safe and certain.  Then during the next few years it all fell apart and I never really knew why. I didn’t have insight.  When people talk about insight it is as they  see something – in words or pictures.  But for me,  insight came as a physical sensation.  Not anything I saw or realised.  Something felt.  A knowing. 


All this went on unconsciously.  Day after day, I delighted in being there and seeing the present, really being in it.  And at the same time, relating to my past.


So Yellowknife ?  So much had changed after 35 years – three times the size, lots of tall buildings and shops, much more traffic, much more “cosmopolitan”. 

Yet still a frontier town. Always a frisson of danger or excitement.  Something I can’t quite put my finger on.   Yellowknife sits on the rocks of the Precambrian Shield - some of the oldest known rocks on earth: they are over 4 billion years old.  There is an immense sense of the primitive there – in the ground – and in the skies.


We stayed in a log cabin in the “ Old Town ” of Yellowknife .  


Just near The Wildcat Café (opened in 1937 by Willy Wiley and Smoky Stout).   


Near the old float plane base.




And within a history of three waves of fortune - the fur trade, the gold rush, and most recently, the diamond discoveries.   



One of the things I most wanted to see again was the Northern Lights.  Ann and I went out several times just before midnight and drove beyond the city limits to find some dark place for better viewing.  We were really lucky because the “Aurora Season” had only just opened. Twice we saw such a spectacle!  Phosphorescent light surges along veins in the sky and the effect is mesmerizing.  They are not at all like they look in photographs.  You’d need to take a film because the point is that they move, they dance across the sky.  (Poets have also debated whether or not you can hear them). Also, when we saw them, they were a soft grey-green – not the virulent green in the following photos.  The long exposure of the camera has picked up colours which the human eye doesn’t register.  I haven’t learnt how to modify the photos yet, but you may get the  feel of the aurora:





The other thing I wanted to do was meet up with more friends from the past.  But for various reasons, it just didn’t happen.  It was the strangest thing.  So strange, in fact, that I felt it must have been meant (but then I always look for meaning.)


However, I met new friends – Maggie McDonald and Percy Kinney.  Madly in love and soon to leave Yellowknife . Great people.  She’s a legislative librarian.  He’s the chief coroner for the Northwest Territories – and a wicked drummer and singer in a fantastic blues band called “Rick and the Relics”.  Ann and I became instant groupies and had two great, late nights listening to the thrilling music.  





I had taken old photos of my early Yellowknife days with me, and lots of people wanted to see them and were fascinated by the record I had of the town and its people.  They reminded me whose face this was, and what happened to that building, and what became of so and so. I loved this part of it.  I even looked through old newspapers to fill in some memories for myself.


We went on several hikes.  We walked round the Frame Lake trail which is within the town limits.  And later that night, read that a bear had been shot there a couple of days before.  (We heard a lot about bears!).


We trekked into Cameron Falls amidst a carpet of cranberries and rosehips in a place where trees grow out of stone.      


When I was last there, there was only one place to get a good meal. The Hoist Room.  Now, there are dozens. We ate local food like buffalo burgers, arctic char, pancakes and maple syrup.  Yum!




We saw gorgeous sunsets:






We had several immense and clear night skies when I saw the constellations I knew as a child in the northern hemisphere - The Plough, The Little Dipper and Cassiopeia.


We visited a beautifully constructed heritage museum and saw some fine art collections in the Legislative Assembly.  My favourites were paintings by Bern Will Brown (here is his “Born to Lose”) and a quilt made by 21 women of the Deline community.           




Ann drove along challenging roads (sometimes at delightfully challenging speeds).  The upkeep of roads is really difficult because of the damage done by ice each year.  When I lived in Yellowknife , the Mackenzie Highway was mostly gravel. Now, it is all sealed.  


We visited the Dogrib Indian village of Dettah , where the only thing I easily recognised was the old Catholic church.  So much had changed.  I found out that another person I knew from the past - Helen Tobie, who had made me a traditional Indian embroidered jacket so many years ago – had recently died.




I loved the plants - the fireweed and clover, the sedge, the bulrushes, and the tamarack, aspen, and poplar trees.  And the birds – especially the huge ravens. And we saw sand cranes and squirrels and muskrat.


There were so many weird and wonderful moments in our time there. An  open day at the local rifle range when I scored a cool 5 out of 5 with a .22 rifle! (I did less well with a .33).  We were actually offered crack in a downtown burger bar.  Yellowknife is sadly now called the crack capital of Canada .  I stayed connected with Doug by email from the “Frostbyte Café.”  




The last night in Yellowknife was magic.  There was full moon, and I walked on my own round the old town taking photographs of moonlight and its face on the water.     











Then best of all, on my way back to the cabin, I saw a wolf. We stared at each other for a very long time, then it turned on its tail in slow motion and left.  What more could I have had?  A full moon and a wolf. But later, Ann and I went out for our last aurora hunt and saw the best aurora yet!  


I left Yellowknife with a sense of deep satisfaction.  The journey back was a gentle winding down – five days travelling south on different roads wherever possible, and seeing different things.  I will remember it as a journey across a vast expanse of Canada ;  through leaves beginning to turn yellow, incredibly wide blue Alberta skies, endless fields of hay, wheat and barley.  And so many special moments - a foggy morning at High Level,  a walk in a boreal forest, massive waterfalls, close encounters with bison, and more scary stuff about bears! 









Ann and Eileen and I went out to celebrate our return, and the next day Ann left for Calgary , and I had more time with Eileen, before the long journey back to New Zealand .


It was the most wonderful of journeys.  And it’s also wonderful to be back home again, here in Raumati, with Doug and the cats, and friends, and the garden in all its Spring glory, and a life I love so much.  I have been taking it very easy, looking through my journal and poems and photos of the trip and writing this to you. 


There is an intriguing opening to a book which I am reading at the moment.  It goes like this…


“There is no mystery to happiness.  Unhappy men are all alike.  Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn – or worse, indifference – cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterday. 


The happy man does not look back.  He doesn’t look ahead.  He lives in the present.  But there’s the rub.  The present can never deliver one thing: meaning.  To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. 


Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting that we choose between them.”  (The Interpretation Of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld). 


On this journey to Yellowknife , my experience differed.  I didn’t have to choose between happiness and meaning at all. I experienced them simultaneously - and was very happy indeed.  I have come home with a great sense of peace and pleasure at being where, and who, I am.   


 With love Julie