“I think some of the nicest compliments we ever got were people coming in and saying they felt like they were coming home for a visit,” says Reg Bellefontaine, who with his wife Lois Martin has run Fort Simpson’s Mackenzie Rest Inn for going on five years now. And after a long day bouncing along the NWT’s lonely highways, you really do feel like just crawling into your own bed.
So when you arrive and are hit with the sweet smells of maple syrup and bacon—even though it’s approaching 9:30 p.m.—you wonder if you’re hallucinating.
You follow that smell through the carefully decorated lobby, admiring an old rotary phone and grandfather clock, leafing through an impressive collection of Northern literature overflowing from a shelf, examining colourful paintings from local artists like Marion Storm and a pencil portrait by James Houston. You pass a coffee counter and sneak a freshly baked cookie from a plate that never goes empty, before heading up the stairs to your room.
There, waiting for you, is a soft, clean housecoat. Feeling grimy after the dusty drive, you take off your clothes and hop in. You wander onto one of the B&B’s decks and catch a breeze off the Mackenzie River and let it slow down your thoughts. Maybe you return inside to sit in a rocking chair by an open window, or shower and go to bed to the sound of the rushing river.
In the morning, with your window open, you awake to a Simpson Air Beaver taking off from the river. There’s that maple syrup and bacon smell again. Are they piping this scent through the ventilation? You meander downstairs, where Lois is frying up eggs any way you like them, with maple bacon (aha!) and hash browns. You can grab a coffee and skim through one of those books you saw last night. Or pull up a seat and chat with Bellefontaine, sipping coffee at the kitchen table.
“When we first built, there was a need for a step up,” says Bellefontaine. “I really don’t like to say that because it sounds like you’re being a little pretentious or pompous, right? But we wanted to provide as close to a five-star service as we possibly could, in the way of our clients feeling at home.” Lois treats the three-storey place like an oasis. In the
winter, she puts on classical music and opts for low lighting and candles so guests—usually government workers or business people that time of year—can “de-stress after a long day,” she says.
Maybe it feels like home because the couple lived in the building during its lengthy renovation. The structure served as the village’s RCMP barracks and lock-up when it first went up in 1952. After Bellefontaine bought the building, he knocked out ceilings and walls, slowly converting it over 12 years into what it is today. “We would have been better off to tear it down and start over, but we didn’t,” he muses. But the building’s backstory—there’s a pantry where there was once a holding cell—makes it all the more interesting.
More changes are in the works. The couple is looking to sell the B&B: Lynn Canney and her husband Mike have recently taken up residence with the intention of taking over. They’re ideal heirs. A longtime supporter of the local arts scene, Lynn can tell you just about everything that’s going on in town—or in the Deh Cho region, for that matter. And on a smokey and gusty June morning, Mike provides an update on the local forest fire situation, important to drivers setting out on the dicey Liard Highway or up north to Wrigley.
And they enjoy getting to know their guests, some of whom will stay for weeks at a time. Lynn tells of an older Danish woman who came up looking to learn about some long lost family members. Lynn took her to meet prominent Fort Simpson residents Randy Sibbeston and Barb Tsetso, who shared stories about the woman’s relatives. Based on clues from a photograph the woman had, Lynn was able to track down the family gravestone. “She sort of swept some leaves away and spent a few minutes,” recalls Lynn. “She’d brought a Danish flag with her that she wanted to leave at the gravestone, so she did that.” Talking to people about their connections to Fort Simpson, or introducing them to the village, “that’s the pure pleasure part of the job,” Lynn says.
So you never know. You might end up out at the Ice Breaker Lounge for drinks with Lynn and her daughter Emily, or talking politics with Reg. (“What did one guest say? ‘If you don’t want to hear the truth, don’t ask Reg any questions,’” he laughs.)
You say goodbye, grabbing coffee and a cookie for the road. Hours or days later, you return home, slightly disappointed: there’s no cozy housecoat or bacon waiting for you.
(Disclosure: The Mackenzie Rest Inn provided Up Here with free accommodations in Fort Simpson.)