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6 Stories That Won't Die

6 Stories That Won't Die

When you've been telling northern stories for 35 years, eventually some trends start to emerge.
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Sep 20
From the September/October 2019 Issue

It’s a joke at Up Here that as long as the story hasn’t run in the last five years, you’re golden to do it again. But the thing about a magazine that’s been telling northern stories as long as Up Here has is that eventually, some trends start to emerge. The stories that get told over, and over, and over again. They always seem interesting, always seem fresh, until...they don’t. These zombie stories, or evergreens, or perennial guarantees simply refuse to stay in the past. Behold, our list of the top six stories that haunt our dreams, and will probably continue to crop up regularly for the next 35 years.

1. Franklin, Franklin, wherefore art thou Franklin?
He’s the Where’s Waldo of the North. The quest for Franklin and his lost ships was a longstanding mystery, a tidbit of trivia that had spurred northern adventurers for decades. Then, in 2014, 166 years after Franklin disappeared, someone finally thought to ask an Inuk. One of the wrecks, the Erebus, was found 180 kilometres from Gjoa Haven. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker that year, it was “as if someone had found, in a single moment, the hull of the Titanic, the solution to the mystery of the lost colony at Roanoke, the original flag of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the menu for the Donner party’s last meal.” Well OK then. In the years that followed, the interest in Franklin has done anything but wane—from why it took so long to find the vessels, to when people knew, to who actually discovered it (hint, locals always basically knew), to how to protect the wrecks, and what the future might hold for items displayed in Gjoa Haven. Readers may have thought the discovery would be the end of it for Up Here, but fear not. In the last few years, we’ve turned from our continuing coverage of the search for the wreck to its discovery and now, finally, to tales of the hunt to locate it. Franklin may have been a failure once pilloried in the English press as the “man who ate his own boots,” but he’ll apparently forever remain in Canadian myths and legends, and probably Up Here’s pages.

2. Mad Trapper madness
Strange things are done under the midnight sun, but sometimes particular stories seem to catch imaginations. Albert Johnson rose to infamy after shooting police through the door of his cabin in 1931 near Rat River, and leading the RCMP on a manhunt before he was eventually killed in a shootout. But who Johnson was before he became the Mad Trapper of Rat River remains a mystery—or at least a northern ‘urban’ legend based around the speculation of his real identity. The chase for him, spanning months, was broadcast via radio around the world, painting the picture of a wild wilderness, cops and trappers, and snow and adventure. When he died, Johnson’s corpse carried around $2,000, but no clues about who he really was, or what motivated him. The North has held onto this legend, even erecting a slightly hyperbolic marker at his gravesite that reads: “Albert Johnson arrived in Ross River Aug. 2, 1927. Complaints of [a] local trapper brought the RCMP on him. He shot two officers and became a fugitive of the law. With howling huskies, dangerous trails, frozen nights, the posse finally caught up with him. He was killed up the Eagle River, Feb. 17, 1932.” With that kind of writing prompt, is it any wonder speculation over his identity and his fate have graced our pages? From discussions of who he could have been to feature articles about how the North has always been a place to disappear, the Mad Trapper can’t seem to ever leave the North, even after death. He appeared at just the right time—it was the height of NWT’s gold rush—and his story intersected with other northern legends, like Wop May who helped the RCMP track the Trapper. You’d think we’d be done with him, but he keeps popping up—most recently starring as the subject of a Dead North Film. We may someday know his true identity for real and for certain, but the mystery of how he keeps appearing in our pages will never end.

3. We must teach the south
In May 2011, Up Here did a poll. We wanted to know how much the south really knew about the North. In a turn that shocked literally no one, the answer was: not a whole lot. This may have been the most dramatic moment we figured that out, but it wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last. An overarching theme stretching back to our very first issue has been, “Gee, isn’t the south uninformed?” Sometimes it’s with a tinge of anger—as in why don’t they understand the things the North needs to survive, or the way things work up here, but more often than not it’s with a smirk and a loving pat on the head for the adorable southern dullards. The North is complex and interesting, and the south wants to know how we live—from how we build our houses, to if you could actually eat locally, and even how we go number two. (Seriously, there have been so many tales of toilet adventures in our pages). Southern readers may learn something, while northern readers can keep themselves warm during our long winters in the hot glow of smugness.

4. Berries. Just a whole bunch of berries
We’ve written a lot about food over the years. Like, a lot. We’ve roasted moose and fried eggs. We’ve tried so many bannock recipes that we’re basically a carb ourselves at this point. We’ve mixed cocktails and tried country food, all sorts, in our pages. But one thing, one northern ingredient that comes up year after year, time after time, is berries. Despite the relative lack of preparation needed (you pick, you eat, end of process), berries pop up almost every fall. And why not? They exist in every part of the North, in abundance and variety unlike most other ingredients. They can be the sweet fermented sourness of cloud berries or the tart tang of cranberries, the soft sweetness of blueberries or saskatoons making their way up from the Prairies. Preparation, we’ve done it all: we’ve talked to numerous generations of grannies about the best way to make jam; we’ve stewed them for sauces; we’ve baked them in cakes and muffins; we’ve mashed and infused and macerated every berry under the sun; and yet, every year, there they are again, waiting for more. Part of the appeal may be the insider knowledge of it all. Berries are one of those things visitors and newcomers to the North alike can latch onto, unlike a lot of other country food. You don’t need a special permit or a harpoon or the intestinal fortitude to wolf down fermented walrus in order to try this taste of the North. But at the same time, you have to know a little something to get them. The first rule of berry club is you don’t talk about berry club. Patches are closely held secrets, even if they’re just off the highway, five minutes outside town. You don’t tell the uninitiated where you get your bounty, and when a born-and-bred northerner deigns to share the secret of their succulent treasure trove with you, you shut up and pick.

5. What I did on my summer vacation: canoe trip edition
One of our yearly staples is the annual travel edition. Here we have tales of what you did on your northern vacation—from sea to sea to sea and everything in between—and all the ways to see the North. One thing that emerges over and over again, like a grumpy portager forcing his boat through the bushes, is the canoe trip. These epic adventures started out in the ’80s as straight-up stories of doing battle with lakes, rivers, and mosquitos. But over the years they’ve evolved to tales of derring-do and misadventures galore. Then they kept evolving. We’ve put together guides to get you through the wilderness; we’ve delved into new ways to hit the water like pack rafting; and we’ve even left the trips behind entirely and instead focused on the food you shove gleefully into your greedy maw the minute you’re back in civilization (or at least near a working stove). These are evergreens among the evergreens; stories that build the backbone of this magazine and won’t be going away anytime soon—even if we’re going to have to start really hunting for ingenious ways to paddle the North in the next 35 years.

6. The tourists are coming
The North has a weird relationship with tourists. There, we said it. We’ve been writing about the influx of tourists—particularly from Asia—literally since our first issue. It pops up every time Up Here Business covers the state of the economies—which is to say, every year you can’t help but stumble across the issue of tourism. The spectacle never ceases to amuse us, and whether we’re doing full features on the phenomenon or just letting the subject drift like background radiation, it demands attention. They come seasonally to see the aurora, to go fishing, to post selfies, and buy souvenirs. In the last few years, with tourism increasing in Yellowknife by leaps and bounds, Nunavut opening up to cruise ships, and the Yukon cashing in on the thirst for the weird, it’s clear they’re not going anywhere, anytime soon. But the love for them here is mixed with the huff of locals who suddenly find sidewalks besieged by Japanese tourists in matching blue Canada Goose parkas (even in September when the rest of us have barely grabbed our sweaters). They crowd our limited restaurants and book every room in the inn all over town. It’s good for the economy but raises some interesting discussions of at what cost—as we covered recently in our feature on the collapsing space and time of the North. How do we maintain that authentic northern charm while still sharing all that makes our territories so special with the rest of the world?