The beauty of the north

Rob and the Northern Lights
Peawanuck community member and the Northern Lights (photo credit: Brandon Macleod)

Author: Brandon Macleod, JHR trainer


My hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta is literally less than a degree south of my current home in Peawanuck, Ontario. But that minor blip on the map in terms of latitude bears a big difference in terms of my perceptions of each community and their natural beauty.


I used to think, growing up in Cold Lake, that we were in a northern community. It snowed in August every once in a while. It was never warm enough to wear just a Halloween costume to go trick-or-treating: we always had to find a way to fit our costume over our snowsuit. March was never, ever the start of spring. It was cold most of the year and therefore, it seemed to me, that I was a northerner. But it’s pretty clear that Cold Lake is in fact at the east edge of central Alberta. Want to talk northern Alberta? Try Fort Chipewyan or Zama.


Since moving to Peawanuck, less than 20 miles from the coast of Hudson Bay, I have yet to notice a huge difference in terms of weather. We’ve had a very warm summer. Sure, there has already been frost in September. My flight into the community at the end of April was delayed two days because of a blizzard that dropped two feet of snow. And in August I was wearing four layers, including a winter jacket and wool socks, while out fishing and photographing polar bears on the tundra next to the shores of Hudson Bay.


Although the weather in the two communities is similar and the latitude nearly identical, those last two mentions – polar bears and tundra – are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to my vastly different perceptions of Cold Lake at the center of a prairie province surrounded by air force and industry, and Peawanuck as a truly northern community made up almost entirely of natural beauty. Oh and there are literally icebergs just miles from here, floating around Hudson Bay all year long – it’s magnificent.


Cold Lake’s beauty comes in many different forms, with the lake itself being the star of the lineup. It is a small city at the end of Highway 28, offering almost all the services one could ask for from a small city at the end of the line. The wildlife, parks and people of Cold Lake keep life enjoyable and interesting year round, while the region lies in the midst of the beautiful Boreal Forest.


But along with its natural and urban beauty, the Cold Lake region comes dotted with thousands of oil and gas wells and other industrial development, as well as being bordered to the north by a fenced off tract of land 11,700 square kilometres in size, known as the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (a restricted area where military bombing practice takes place and caribou dare not cross).


It was in large part my love of nature and a longing for even more natural beauty that drew me north, specifically to Peawanuck and the coast of Hudson Bay.


Out here the beauty comes to me in breaths of fresh, crisp air. It arrives at sunrise through trees that go on for miles – stopped only by naturally occurring permafrost and a bay of unending horizons. It’s in the clean and clear Winisk River that provides life for so many species up here. It’s in the days of blue skies and the nights of stars and northern lights. It comes to me through the animals and plants I know from before and the ones I have yet to meet. It’s the people, the mere eight roads in town and the one main street. The beauty is everywhere, walking for miles into the bush, smelling the trees, hearing the silence, not coming across anything manmade but the rare new cabin, generational trails, and the occasional old shack.


July along the Winisk River (photo credit: Brandon Macleod)


My intentions are not to comparatively disparage the beauty of my hometown, and I acknowledge the newness, excitement and temporary nature of my stay in Peawanuck could cast a veneer over things that might not always end up beautiful in the longview.


But Peawanuck – my time here, the people, the place, and most of all the nature – has opened my eyes and mind to the true wonders and beauty of the north and I am beyond thankful for that.

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