Happy Canada Day from the heart! I have just found the exact geographic centre of Canada—62.3° north, 97° west. The temperature this morning is around 10° C.
I am in untracked tundra in Inuit territory in Nunavut, calling in this dispatch via satellite phone.
I am accompanied by a dog named Diesel—trained to bark when he spots a grizzly—two hunter-guides and a videographer. An RCMP officer from the nearest community of Baker Lake sang the national anthem with us yesterday and went fishing in his traditional red tunic before leaving with the bush pilot.
In a nine-seater plane on June 30 we flew over the golden coordinates. It was too windy for the aircraft to land. Instead we are camped out 35 km north on Ferguson Lake where a helicopter will pick us up this afternoon to deliver us to the central coordinates.
As Canadians light fireworks and celebrate tonight, we’ll walk over the exact centre of the country under the Arctic sun and hoist a Canadian flag (bought at Canadian Tire), use a Hudson’s Bay flyer to swat the bee-hive-like swarms of mosquitoes, and make a toast to the nation with Molson Canadian and a pack of assorted Timbits.
My assignment was to find the geographic centre of the country, travel there, and be as Canadian as possible. So I’ll also paddle a dingy and unfurl a massive flag that flew atop the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, weighing down one of the corners with a hockey puck. Coleman cooler, pancakes and syrup, ketchup chips—we’ve got all the staples here at the centre of Canada.
Our guides, Joan Scottie and Hugh Ikoe, are siblings who grew up away from any settlements, living off this very piece of land with their family until moving to Baker Lake at ages 14 and eight, during the residential school era. Last night in Ferguson Lake, Hugh caught two trout, which Joan cleaned and cooked for our dinner. Joan is 66 years old now with dazzling white fossils of teeth. She is nearly deaf, but she speaks fondly about this land, having hunted and lived in winter-time igloos here, leaving nothing behind but fruit pits.
On this trip we will leave nothing behind but a Geocache. We have permission from the Kivalliq Inuit Association to visit the site so long as we don’t harm the environment.
The cache contains a stone and grass from Parliament Hill and a vial of water from the Centennial flame, along with a baggie of mud from the longitudinal centre of Canada in Manitoba. Anyone who makes it here will also find a key, which opens a lock on the locks bridge over Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.
How did this happen? I figured this satellite phone wouldn’t last long enough to explain, so what follows is mostly an account I sent my editor before we lost our last Internet connection in Baker Lake. This Canadian journey turns on generosity, particularly that of a bush pilot in Baker Lake named Boris Kotelewetz, owner of Ookpik Aviation. Boris was the person fated to receive an email last year beginning with, “Hi there, I’m a journalist from Maclean’s magazine, and I have a very unusual question.”
I asked Boris to help me travel to the exact centre of the country, later gently layering on the complexities of camping on the site, bringing a videographer, leaving a Geocache and raising a Canadian flag to launch the country’s year-long 150th anniversary celebrations. “I don’t know if you fully realize what you are getting yourself into, Meagan,” Boris wrote to me. “It’s a hell of an idea if you can manage to pull it off.”
The idea began in a cubicle. Last year, my editor sent me a link to a Winnipeg Free Press article about a group raising funds to build a park exactly halfway across the Trans-Canada Highway. “I quite like this story,” he wrote, and he wondered where the longitudinal and latitudinal centre would be. Although Baker Lake claims the title, I consulted the president of the Canadian Cartographic Association, who used the Atlas of Canada, published by Natural Resources Canada, to determine that the spot is actually located near a body of water called Yathkyed Lake.
Before publishing the story about the disputed centre, my editor suggested I try to travel to Yathkyed Lake. He wanted me to travel the following week. My budget? Less than $2,000.
Hitching a ride with the military, miners or Canada Post were my economy fare options. I thought the Canadian Forces might squeeze me onto an aircraft during a northern exercise, or the Arctic mail couriers might make room for a magazine intern with a backpack. I figured mining companies would be transporting employees to the Far North anyway, maybe they could spare a middle seat?
No, no and no. So we waited a year and tried again—this time, with a little more thought and planning. I asked for sponsorship from Calm Air, which gave us a 50 per cent discount for videographer Nick Iwanyshyn and I to fly from Winnipeg to Baker Lake. I followed up with Boris, updating him on my shoestring plans. “This is typical of the greatest majority of Canadians,” Boris replied. “They have no clue the extent of their ignorance about this wonderful country of ours. I guess Maclean’s falls in that category for not giving you a realistic budget to work with.” But Boris is a lovely, forgiving soul: he offered to fly us for free, covering the cost of fuel himself, because it would reignite the Canadian spirit. In his words, “Canada needs it.”
We started our trip in Toronto, the financial centre of Canada, or the locally proclaimed centre of the universe. At the magazine office, the brainstorming meeting bordered on lunacy. Request an old brick from the Parliament buildings or else stealthily take a stone from the lawn to leave as a Geocache; paddle into Yathkyed Lake while using a 360 camera to capture footage; unfurl a Canadian flag across the tundra that once flew atop the Peace Tower, while harnessing satellites from the Canadian Space Agency or NASA to take a photo. Meeting adjourned.
This was the first assignment for Nick as a new Maclean’s photographer/videographer. His errands on day one included renting a satellite phone to send images from the Arctic and buying freeze-dried beef stew. The office assistant, Nicole Wynter, was also a new hire. Her task turned out to be impossible: find 150 buoyant, biodegradable lanterns and get them inscribed, in three business days, with “Happy Canada Day” in 150 languages so we could float them on Yathkyed Lake. “A small job. Not hard at all. Over to you!” the deputy editor joked to Nicole. “Oh yeah, and Meagan leaves on the trip soon. And we can’t spend too much money. Welcome to Maclean’s!”
Hear Meagan Campbell discuss trip preparations. (Story continues below)
My own pre-trip preparations were equally manic. Google searches included “creating a time capsule,” “horse flies Nunavut” and 27 inquiries related to buying a black and red plaid jacket. Maclean’s reporter Aaron Hutchins miraculously came up with a flag that had flown atop the Peace Tower, which his father had bought for $50 before they became a thing (waiting list for those flags now? Fifty-nine years. You can apply here. ). “Don’t lose it,” he warned.
Operation get-a-brick was executed in Ottawa. We couldn’t get a brick from Public Works Canada in time—our own fault—so instead I scoured the lawns of Parliament for alternatives. “Could I have a shingle?” I called up to construction workers on nearby scaffolding. “A screw?” At the Centennial Flame, I unlatched a black canister and filled a container with water. The RCMP also no doubt have footage of me on my hands and knees, using First Aid scissors to snip blades of grass from the lawn. The optics were shady.
“The gateway to the North,” as Winnipeg is known, was our next stop. From the airport, we drove to Tache, Man., the longitudinal centre of the country, to meet the people behind the Centre of Canada Park. They are planning an amphitheatre, a wedding venue, a $20,000 flagpole, a playground and possibly an amusement park in time for next July, Canada’s 150th birthday. “Us being at the centre … people can stop here and say, ‘We are Canadian and we are special,’ ” said Armand Poirier, a Tache councillor and a director of the project. He and councillor Bill Heather began by erecting a sign, but “it sagged,” said Heather. “And then someone stole it.” The latest sign should last for years, but Poirier said he expects the park, once built, to never disappear. “In 100 years, they’re going to talk about us,” he said. “So it’s a legacy. It will live on forever.”
We left the next morning for Baker Lake, via Churchill, Man., Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and Chesterfield, Nunavut, on the flight discounted by Calm Air. The planes got smaller and emptier. The air got drier, the mosquitoes hungrier, the landscape icier. When I dragged my bags to meet Boris at the lodge, there was only one thing to say: “Finally.”
Boris, who calls himself my “guardian angel,” has lived in Baker Lake for more than 50 years, adoring the remoteness. “I need to be around the creatures that live with me on the planet,” he explained. Boris couldn’t actually pilot the plane himself—“my cane sinks in the tundra”—but he called in half the community’s Mounties to accompany us. One agreed to fly with us to the site from Baker Lake to sing the anthem, holding his salute despite the mosquitoes. He brought fishing rods to try to catch some supper donned in his ceremonial garb.
On June 30 we boarded Boris’s Otter aircraft, built and designed by de Havilland, a Canadian company. We tested our headsets and heard a safety briefing from the pilot, ending with “All right, let’s go fly!” At altitude, the tundra turned into a twist of blue, green and grey, resembling satellite photos of Earth. Through his headset, Boris pointed out a rock that contains fossilized water drops, 1.7 billion years old. When Joan spotted where her family once lived — a sight indistinguishable to anyone else — she pointed out the window in glee.
So here we are as we report by satellite phone. We’re harnessing the help once again of Canadians as a local helicopter pilot — a friend of Boris’s — will pick us up at noon to fly us to the exact centre for Canada Day. While waiting, I tried to escape the crazed bugs by keeping most of myself inside my tent with just my head popped outside for phone reception. Boris says God created mosquitoes by mistake. “He was trying to build a butterfly,” he told me as we boarded yesterday. “And instead he built a mosquito.”
We’re ready for the final leg of our journey. I’m swaddled in three layers of plaid, every jacket I bought and a bug net. I have a burn from 22-hour sunshine. I’m itchy, cold—and proud. Happy Canada Day to everyone.
Over and out.
To read more on Meagan Campbell’s journey, follow this link.