Up, up and further away with my northern identity

On EDGE: Opinion

Samantha Merritt

I have lived in Yellowknife for nearly 23 years. When I first arrived, a young teen from small-town farming Ontario, Yellowknife seemed a big city. But not home. I was from Ontario. I would go back there in a year…in two years….after four years, I did go back. I left Yellowknife to go to the University of Toronto. Ahhh, home – back in Ontario at last.

But something happened. I found myself bragging about Yellowknife to anyone who would listen. People I met were curious about this strange place where no one else was from. Were there really igloos, dog teams, eternal winter darkness? The questions would come, sometimes sheepishly. I would answer all of them. I talked about how when someone honked at you, it was to say hello. There were lakes right in the middle of town. You could go anywhere in 10 minutes – no commuting! And the glorious summers; loons calling while you fished at midnight, lit by a sunset that lasted for hours. Winters? Why I scoffed at Torontonians bundled up against a mere -9. I began to miss my frontier, yet cosmopolitan town.

My university education ended after my first year. I went back to Yellowknife, still reluctant – southern bragging aside – to call it home. But my eyes were beginning to open to the possibilities of this place.

I still had no career to speak of when I landed a job loading planes. I remember telling my dad that I was thinking about becoming a pilot – a bush pilot. I wanted to do the type of flying that puts you in the middle of nowhere. Off-strip. Floatplanes. Twin Otters. Ski landings on pristine snow. Well, Yellowknife is to bush flying what Alaska is to dog-sledding. So I became a bush pilot, and to this day I do exactly that type of flying I imagined all those years ago.

In the end, this place sculpted my identity. There are things I would never have discovered about myself had I lived somewhere else, somewhere larger, somewhere warmer. Like how to keep warm and work outside when it’s -40. How I relish the lengthening days that start on the winter solstice. How to live in a small town where everyone knows your business, whether you want them to or not. This small town busy-body-ness is (mostly) a good thing. When people talk about the sense of community they feel in Yellowknife, they mean it.

In August 2011, my mom died in a plane crash. The suddenness of this tragedy pummelled my family, and left our small Northern aviation community reeling. But this whole city rallied around me and my family. I will never forget how supported I felt, in contrast to my big-city-dwelling brothers. They were awed by the response from my neighbours, colleagues and friends. When, during the next two months in horrid succession, two more Yellowknife-based aircraft crashed, this city showed its courage and kindness through continued, sustained support to other families. The community grieved together. And with time, began to heal together.

But I vowed to make last winter my final one here. The cold, long winters, the high cost of everything, and promising new adventures beckoned me. Last summer while flying a wildlife survey, I met my fiancé (see photo), an Alaskan sailor, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. This summer, I will join him to sail his boat through the Northwest Passage. After that, Juneau, Alaska will become my new city. It’s the capital and shares many characteristics with Yellowknife. I feel right at home there.

So, goodbye, Yellowknife. I want to thank you; those many winters prepared me for rigorous adventure and honed my strength of character. And thank you, Yellowknifers, for graciously shaping me into a compassionate citizen. I will miss you.

Samantha Merritt is still happy to tell people how great Yellowknife is. You might see her at the airport, loading and flying planes. She does not approve of the use of wind chill temperatures for weather one-upmanship.

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