Getting under the skin of a place, especially one as immense as Canada’s North, isn’t easy. Sure, discovering a great local restaurant or exploring backroads that lead to whoknows- where-and-what can help, but one of the best ways to gain insight about where you are — and where you’re going — in the North is through the literature, film and music associated with the region. Here’s a by-no-means-definitive list to get you started.
|Late Nights on Air
Weaving history and myth with a darkly humourous charm, author Elizabeth Hay’s tale of the lives, loves and wanderings of a group of misfits working at CBC Radio in Yellowknife makes for irresistable reading. The lyrical evocation of a journey through the Northwest Territories’ Barren Lands, in particular, will make you want to see this spectacular landscape for yourself.
|Never Cry Wolf
Adapted from Farley Mowat’s book of the same name and featuring stunning cinematography, this Carroll Ballard-directed tale of a seemingly hapless government biologist sent to the Canadian Arctic to investigate whether wolves are the reason the region’s caribou population is in decline is equal parts charming, funny and meditative.
|The Idea of North
Musical elements abound in famed Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould’s 1967 CBC Radio documentary, in which the monologues of a nurse, an anthropologist/ geographer, a sociologist, a surveyor and a civil servant are orchestrated to overlap with one another as each talks about what the Canadian North means to them. Part of Gould’s “Solitude Trilogy,” it’s a fascinating work of psychogeography from a musical genius that deserves a listen.
|Prisoners of the North
Pierre Berton paints compelling portraits of five larger-than-life characters — gold prospector Joseph Boyle, explorers Vilhjalmur Stefansson and John Hornby, poet Robert W. Service and the force of nature that was Lady Jane Franklin — all of whom made their name, and in some cases lost their lives, in the Canadian Arctic.
|Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Fans of films about love, lust, family, power and revenge can slot this incredible work next to The Godfather trilogy on their shelf. It’s a gripping and visually mesmerizing rendition of an ancient Inuit legend, and was also the first Inuktitutlanguage feature film, winning its director, Inuk Zacharias Kunuk, a host of awards.
Maybe it’s the purity of the a capella style. Or perhaps it’s simply the power of that booming, instantly-recognizable voice. Whatever it is that makes Stan Rogers’ song a moving, sometimes elegiac, paean to those who helped open Canada’s North and the continuing lure of exploration, it’s a must-have track for those long roadtrips. Play it more than just one time.
|Songs of a Sourdough
There’s far more to Robert W. Service’s canon than the classic “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” (bend an ear to the Johnny Cash recording of the poem, if you can) and you’ll find much of it in this volume of poetry, including “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Rhyme of the Remittance Man” and “The Call of the Wild.” No wonder Service was known as “The Bard of the Yukon.”
Gold fever is personified in the form of 73-year-old Albert Faille, a prospector who the National Film Board of Canada followed up the South Nahanni River in 1962 as he pursued the legend of a lost gold mine in the Northwest Territories with a determination that beggars belief. The stone-faced Faille doesn’t speak a single word during the film’s 18-minute running time, which you wish director Donald Wilder had made longer.
|Folk Songs of the Canadian North
Woods Wade Hemsworth wrote the iconic song “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” (which singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle made famous in the classic National Film Board of Canada animated short film of the same name) but his first album is also a toe-tapping gem, referencing muskeg, the northern lights, blackflies, the doomed Franklin expedition and more.