Laurie Sarkadi

Renewed for season two, why are so few houseboaters on Ice Lake Rebels?

U.S. network "reality" show built on pretending "Yellowknife doesn't exist"

Ice Lake Rebels, the reality TV show portraying Yellowknife houseboaters as “survivalists” who “hunt for food” and “protect their turf,” has been picked up for a second season by the U.S. television network Animal Planet.

Executive producer Kathryn Haydn-Hays confirmed this in an email to me from California, then asked what her chances are of getting my husband to agree to be a houseboater on the show? This is telling, because we don’t live anywhere near the houseboats.

I like Kathryn. I met her a couple years back when she hired me as casting producer for what was then billed as a docu-drama about people who live in remote sub-Arctic settings, unconnected to the power grid, preferably making their living with animals. I found her honest and professional. After making some calls, meeting a few potential candidates, and introducing them to her, my involvement in the show ended.

Gradually, for logistical reasons and presumably at the behest of her funders, the focus of the series narrowed down to strictly houseboaters. Problem is, with the exception of the series’ stars Stephan Hervieux and his then fiancée Alyce Rattray (they were married in episode nine), and two others, the rest of the people in the show don’t actually live on houseboats.

They also don’t have to forage for wild meats in order to survive, stock up their floating homes with food and fuel to hunker down for a month during freeze-up, or survive their “lawless, ultra-libertarian” rebel lifestyle through barter (who needs money in Yellowknife, one of Canada’s most expensive cities, anyway?)

“The entire premise of the show is pretending that Yellowknife doesn’t exist, that there’s no city beside the houseboaters,” says Iman Kassam, who appeared in the pilot with her girlfriend as newbie houseboaters, something which they agreed to do for a lark.

Kassam says she is being courted hard to appear in season two as an “A team” character with parts in all 10 episodes. Instead of the $1,000 per show offered in the first season, she’d get at least $1,500, and the program would pay her rent for the year to move onto a houseboat. But the inconvenience of uprooting from her Old Town home – and not being allowed to drive her car on the ice to get to her new place (that would look too civilized) is a big deterrent.

She wishes she and her partner had been able to authentically portray their real lives, adding that the actual houseboat community is “really awesome and the stories they can tell are amazing, so why fake it?”

Wade Carpenter built two of the 40 houseboats in Yellowknife Bay. He works as a renewable energy specialist with the GNWT and participated in the filming of the “sizzler” trailer reel, which Haydn-Hays used to garner interest in the production. But like most all of the 50 other houseboaters – bureaucrats, musicians, architects, reporters, fishermen and women, pilots, doctors – he opted out the show.

“It just didn’t seem in my best interest,” he says. “I personally have never liked the reality TV format, it’s just so cheesy. It’s one thing to portray your work in a reality show, like Ice Road Truckers or Ice Pilots, but when you’re portraying your own lifestyle, it becomes something else.”

Last month he and about 15 other houseboaters gathered to view the series and their reaction was anything but neutral.

“We were laughing so hard we couldn’t get through it. We had to pause it, people were making so many comments,” says Carpenter. “Some people were angry, some people were saying, ‘good for them, it’s a nice little arts project,’ which is sort of how I feel about it.”

Anthony Foliot has been a houseboater since 1992 and doubles as Snowking. He’s forthright, witty and colourful, the type of person who could likely entice eyeballs to any television show, but he so far has resisted attempts to get him to participate in Ice Lake Rebels.

“I was curious about the series,” he says. “However, when I saw who was being represented as houseboaters, I became somewhat dubious. To say that we’re subsistence fishers/hunters who are at the mercy of Mother Nature is pure bullshit.

“We don’t hunt moose at the ski club with a 22-calibre rifle. We don’t play up the so-called dangers of everyday life nor do we have people tell us to do stupid things.”

How does the community feel?

I texted the show’s primary character, Stephan Hervieux, wanting to know how he feels about the phony story lines and the fact that he is mainly acting. I also asked how the series has changed his life and what the response has been from his community.

He texted me back saying that he needs to give that some thought. “Uggh. The questions that haunt me of course.”

One thing Foliot and the others agree upon is the cinematography in the program is beautiful. With such stunning landscapes to work with, how could it not be?

“From the technical point of view it was well done, top-notch shooters and top-notch gear,” says Terry Woolf, a veteran camera operator in Yellowknife who has worked on Ice Lake Rebels, Ice Pilots, and in 2005 was nominated for an Emmy for his shooting in Ice Road Truckers.

“But I found it too set up. They arrived with a pre-conceived idea of what these people would be doing, and then convinced them to do it.”

If anyone in this day and age truly believes what happens on a reality TV show is real, they probably are also taking legal advice from Judge Judy and counselling from Jerry Springer. Haydn-Hays makes no bones about the kind of TV she does. Her website boasts she is a “docu-series producer with a talent for producing guy shows. With broadcast shows like Swamp Loggers, Texas Drug Wars, Extreme Drug Smuggling, River Warriors, and more…you get the idea.”

Yellowknifers are self-assured enough to know we live shoulder-to-shoulder with these houseboat rebels. We see them foraging for sustenance at the Co-op and the Noodle House, teaching our kids, driving up the hill. We know what they’re really up to.