It’s summertime in Wrigley. The Pellissey children dart through moss-covered paths lined with spruce trees near their home, wedged between the Franklin and Mackenzie Mountain ranges, on the high cliffs above the blue-brown Mackenzie River. Their father Wes is on his way home from a day clearing brush along the highway south of town. Their mother Tamarah is gathering eggs from the chicken coop, and harvesting vegetables from the garden to make dinner.
More than a decade ago, Wes was in charge of the forestry base in Wrigley, fighting wildfires in the northern part of the Deh Cho region with a crew of five people and one helicopter.
In his off-time, he’d sit at an unused property with derelict buildings, five kilometres south of town, and dream it would one day be his: the million dollar views of the mountains above and wide river below, the surrounding woods, a place for his family to experience living in the bush, eating food they’ve farmed from the ground or hunted from the land or fished from the waters. And today they’re there, on that plot of land, living that lifestyle. But the work is far from over.
Wes was born in the Deh Cho in 1974, but life had taken him other places. He moved to Yellowknife at an early age, only returning to Wrigley in the summers, but his attachment to the bush never left. He skipped school in Yellowknife to check his snare lines for fowl and rabbits, which he’d bring to his mother.
Wes met Tamarah, now his wife, in 2001 in Yellowknife. They settled down in the city, buying a house in the Kam Lake area. In 2008, when the recession hit, paying for the mortgage of the city house proved too much. Or maybe it didn’t. Tamarah, a registered massage therapist, says they might have got along on her salary. But the bush was calling Wes back. He convinced his cousin, who owned his dream house, to sell him the property for a reasonable price.
Moving in wouldn’t be as easy as filling the place with furniture. The house hadn’t been lived in for years. Trees were growing around it higher than the rooftop. Just as Wes was about to head back into the woods, the woods were just about ready to take his dream home.
Besides, raising a homestead in the NWT is no easy task. For a territory with 1.17 million square kilometres of land, only 20,000 of them are suitable for agriculture. Added to that, unsettled land claims make access to land difficult and confusing. The post-devolution territorial government is just beginning to draft a strategy that deals with agriculture. Even if a farmer were to obtain land, they’d have to gain road access, clear the land of taiga forest cover, work around bedrock and permafrost and build up soil—which, in the NWT, is not usually all that fertile.
Wes has never been one to shy away from a challenge. In 2008 he moved his family down the rutted, narrow access road that leads to the property and slowly began reclaiming it from the woods. The house was boarded up. It had no running water. The deck had rotted away, and mice and other critters had made it their home. “A porcupine had actually chewed through the floor,” Wes says, “the brush had grown right up against it. The trees were as tall as the house. I brushed it all out by hand. I didn’t have a mulcher back then.” Their water for washing and drinking came from jugs.
During the first few years, they renovated the house to a liveable state and cleared brush around the property. Work eventually began on building gardens and preparing for livestock, but neither Wes nor Tamarah had any farming background, so there were a few hiccups along the way.
"One chicken survived, I don’t know how it survived, because the marten just went on a killing spree. But one chicken hid and it survived and that chicken we still have to this day."
The harsh Northern wilderness never let them forget it was just beyond their doorstep. “The first batch of broilers [chickens bred for eating] didn’t really work out,” Wes laughs. In the summer of 2013, a marten broke into the coop and almost wiped out the entire flock. “One chicken survived, I don’t know how it survived, because the marten just went on a killing spree. But one chicken hid and it survived and that chicken we still have to this day.” Later that year, a marauding pack of wolves were causing trouble in Wrigley. After letting his two dogs outside one morning, Wes heard them barking. At least six wolves had surrounded the house. Some even walked on their deck. Wes opened the door and yelled. The pack took off, with Wes’s dogs chasing after them. The dogs fought three wolves at once and managed to take down one of them, which Wes finished off with his rifle. The pack was never seen in the community again.
There was also the ever-present threat of wildfires—something Wes is intimately familiar with from his time on the firefighting crews. He used his mulcher to make a firebreak for his homestead in 2012, after an aggressive fire began crowning the mountain above Wrigley. “I didn’t want to lose my investment there.”
Tamarah strove to learn all she could about agriculture—reading books, taking workshops with the Hay River-based Northern Farming Training Institute—but even all that couldn’t prepare her for some of the challenges of growing food in the subarctic. Freeze-up can come lightning-fast. The Pellisseys’ plants didn’t always make it to the table.
“I spent all summer figuring out how to grow it, and I wasn’t able to harvest it, because it frosted,” Tamarah says. “You need to learn when the frost comes, because you don’t find that in most gardening books when you’re dealing with Wrigley.”
“I think I just never farmed before, so it is all new. It’s a lot of research and learning. It might not be as hard as it is, if I never had to learn everything. If my parents were farmers, I could just pick up where they left off.”
But the resilient couple have the wisdom to see their way through just about anything, Wes explains.
“I remember something my grandfather told me—Wilson Pellissey—he always told me when I was younger, that if you really really want something bad enough, you think about it all the time, and you’ll get it. You just have to be positive and help people and treat people good and good things will happen.”
Their chickens now produce four to eight eggs per day, enough to feed the family. And Wes says every now and then they take a broiler to eat, and the meat “is just fantastic.”
Now that they’ve got the hang of it, the chickens tend to take care of themselves. Tamarah doesn’t have to worry about running out of food for them and not having access to new feed bags. Whatever the Pellissey family doesn’t compost, they use to feed the chickens. Tamarah has found their family leftovers are the perfect meal for about a dozen hens.
More garden plots have since been established; chickens, turkeys and their chicks raised; and a greenhouse erected overlooking the cliff. A sweatlodge was built down a narrow path through the woods, and two out cabins are under construction. The couple hopes to eventually run an organic bed and breakfast at their site, attracting Mackenzie River travellers to their homestead with a pathway up the cliff from the riverbank and a sign saying “River travellers welcome.”
“They can climb up and have a hot shower and a nice organic meal from the garden. And they’ll have a nice bed to sleep in,” Wes says. With hundreds of kilometres separating communities along the Mackenzie River, the guesthouses would be a happy reprieve from nights spent along the muddy riverbank—and a chance to get a taste of the comforts of the Pellissey homestead.
The property is still a work in progress. While they’re established, with power and water trucked in from town Wes eventually wants to go off-grid. They plan on getting solar power, and raising more free-range broiler chickens.
And while winter temperatures can drop below -40C for days on end in Wrigley, the hardy chickens have been able to survive. The coop is insulated, and warmth from a heat lamp, their water dish heater and the chickens themselves keep them warm in the depths of the subarctic winter.
The Pellissey children—Seikiah, 12, Annika, 11, Lexus, 8, and Sachey, 5—took to the homestead lifestyle easily. Up until last year, Tamarah homeschooled the children, and they helped with duties like collecting eggs. “If they’re really tired, [homeschooling means] I don’t have to wake them up at 6 to catch the bus ... They just wake up when their body tells them to wake up. We take things as they come,” she says.
In between their schooling they learned about living in the bush—what wild edibles
were safe to eat, how to harvest eggs and tend gardens. Instead of looking down at glowing iPad screens, the children built forts in the woods, and carved out new trails. They classified bugs and plants instead of watching Cartoon Network.
But even such an idyllic lifestyle had its downfalls.
Tamarah didn’t feel comfortable homeschooling the children into later grades, and she began to wonder if they were missing the socialization of a larger group of kids. A little over a year ago, Wes moved his family to a patch of farmland outside of the town of Hay River, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. There, the children attend school full-time and can pursue organized sports and activities.
The Pellissey family now divides its time between the homestead in Wrigley in the summers, and their new farm in Hay River over the school year, where they plan on growing potatoes and herding elk or reindeer commercially. They’ve readjusted to town life, where food is bought from a store just a quick drive down the road, but Tamarah is sure the children won’t lose what they’ve grown up with at the homestead.
“A bit of peer pressure is good for them I found. But at a really young age, peer pressure every day with 30 kids in the classroom is pretty tough. To be removed from that, you find out who you are before you’re trying to mould yourself into who you want to be for everybody else to see.”
While on class trips into the woods, the Pellissey kids are quick to correct teachers who tell them it’s not safe to touch anything or put anything in their mouths. Tamarah still gets hungry for cranberries from the local patch. Wes dreams of getting in his jet boat and heading into the mountains to hunt sheep and caribou. “After our kids are raised and they go off to school … I eventually want to retire in Wrigley. When I’m older. Just spend my time there and go hunt and fish and enjoy nature,” Wes says.
With the school year in full swing, Tamarah wistfully recalls the homestead. “Sometimes I would stay in the house for quite a while and not leave, just around the yard and, mostly in the bush. I’d go on trails and occupy myself with things that interested me, like wild harvesting. I really enjoy using plants medicinally and learning how they can help. That’s how I spent most of my time there. I really liked the solitude and the privacy.”
While they’re living in two worlds, it’s clear their heads are firmly entrenched in one, and they’ll return to it soon.