It was the kind of conversation only a mother could have with her son in a car on the way back from the airport.
“How is everything?”
How is work?
“How’s the cat?”
“How’s the house?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you, we moved.”
“Oh it is a nice place – and it’s not actually floating right now.”
Good to know.
Thomas lives in Yellowknife, about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. When I was trying to get my head around how far north it is, I was told “a 20-hour drive north from Edmonton.” Okay, I’m starting to understand the distance we’re talking about.
Once you get there, the setting is quite stunning. A city of 20,000, Yellowknife sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, the world’s tenth largest freshwater body. In the summer, there’s sailing, fishing, and canoeing on the water; in the winter, they build a solid ice castle, create instant hockey rinks wherever they want, and yes, still fish.
The lake is also home to Yellowknife’s resident houseboat community, located between the shore and nearby Jolliffe Island. These aren’t fancy Florida yachts. All 40 or so have been made into frame houses, each mounted on some kind of floating, anchored barge. My son’s place, where he and Katie live, was once a riverboat on the McKenzie River.
Pictures of the colourful houses are art-worthy. Some are simple, one-story cabins; others more “deluxe” (translate—a second story). Most are colourful and well kept. Because they are on the water (and therefore not in town), residents don’t receive services such as electricity, gas, and garbage (and because of that, they don’t pay municipal taxes, but that is another story all together).
Like others in his floating neighbourhood, the boat where Thomas and Katie live is heated with a wood store and operates from solar electricity. Before I learned about the change of address, I’d sent my son the latest season of House of Cards for Christmas. Then I found out that with the few hours of sunlight in Yellowknife, he’ll have to wait until spring to actually view the episodes.
When reading about the people who live off the grid in these floating houses, terms shows up like idiosyncratic northerners and radical libertarians. They are also now featured in a new reality show, Ice Rebels. Really? This isn’t Thomas. He just likes living there.
Like his brothers and sisters, he was raised in Toronto, south of Eglinton Avenue and walking distance from Yonge Street. Now he lives in a place where six to seven months of the year, his house remains frozen in place by ice one-to-two-metres thick. In the spring and summer, he commutes to his job by first taking his canoe to shore. In winter, he parks next to the boat on, of course, several feet of ice, and then drives the famous “ice road” to the Dene community where he works.
Except for being glad that I now actually know where he lives, we’re not worried about him. In fact, I’m pretty proud he’s taking an opportunity that most would only dream of (in either a good or a bad dream).
I do wonder, however, what’s going to happen next spring when the household cat, Juniper, finds out she’s not surrounded by solid land.
It’s sort of a good news, bad news situation for the timid, yet hearty northern feline. Yes, the temperatures that could easily freeze her solid before she twitches a whisker will have finally passed. But in order to venture past her front door, she’ll now likely land—feet first of course— into a lake.
Can’t wait for the latest update on that one.