A DEW Life

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Monday night at CAM-MAIN (Cambridge Bay), it’s 17 minutes for supper and then workers start to file out of the dining room. For a few more minutes, it’s “Night Val,” “Thanks Val,” “Have a good sleep, Val,” as each of the 12 men clears his tray and retreats to his own dorm and internet connection. But the camp chef takes her time. She settles into her studded leather swivel chair. “I think I’m going have just one more of those lobster tails,” she says, laughing a hearty “hoo hoo hoo!,” and makes a clearing on her plate, next to the cornish hen bones.

Valerie Gordon’s dad was an Alaskan maintenance worker on the early western DEW Line sites from the Yukon to Inuvik, and Gordon herself was born without the aid of a doctor in the Inuit camp at Tuktoyaktuk, BAR-3, in 1962. From various kitchen tables at BAR-1 (Komakuk), BAR-2 (Shingle Point) and PIN-3 (Lady Franklin Point), she watched the glory days of the radar lookouts to the end of the Cold War and afterwards, to the system’s fall into obsolescence, contamination, remediation and near erasure. The only constant was the food.

“Turkeys, prime rib, roasts, hams, you know, with the bone in,” she remembers, dunking a pink tail into melted butter. “We had lobsters then too, and king crab, even swordfish, but I didn’t try it.” For the most part, Inuit maintenance workers and their families kept apart from the American military personnel, and the Americans kept apart from the Canadian technicians, except for in the kitchen. Inuit stocked up on southern staples in the commissary, and in the family photo album, Gordon and her four sisters and brothers invariably pose plumply around tables piled high with chicken wings, grapefruit halves, biscuits in tins and walls of condiments. For Christmas, locals joined the seasonal workers for turkey dinner, and a 15-year-old Gordon once sat through the entire 12-hour Roots miniseries on 35-mm projection, gorging herself on chocolate bars. When, at 12, she married John Sheldon in a mock ceremony, BAR-2’s kitchen provided the broccoli bouquet.

When Gordon left the DEW Line for Stringer Hall, a residential school in Inuvik, she says, “I was really small, really shy. I always had my head down…I was used to the quietness of the DEW Line.” In the hostel, she learned she could make 25 cents a day washing pans and helping out with the evening meal. “So I used to work there on weekends, and by junior high, I’d already saved a lot of money. So I went to cooking school.”

In her early career, Gordon experimented, moved south for a while and tried out cooking in the oil camps of the Beaufort Sea. She had a daughter with a welder who worked at Dome Petroleum, but when her boyfriend accused her of cheating and raised his hand to hit her, she says, “I never looked at any man again.”

And she went back to the DEW Line. In the first years of remediation, while labourers piled waste barrels and scrap metal into berms and dismantled the radar domes and white alice communication towers, Gordon worked out of temporary kitchen tents, feeding the Canadian workers. “At BAR-2, I remember it was 150 steps from the kitchen to the dome. I didn’t have to bring the food out there, but I liked to bring them coffee and sit by myself, watching them work.” In the tents, she tried her hand at country food cooking when the workers caught jackfish in the nearby lakes.

Now that the DEW Line’s clean and fewer than half of the original sites staff year-round personnel, Gordon has less choice of worksite. “I’ve been back in the kitchen at CAM-MAIN for two years now,” she says. “I know what the guys like, what they don’t, when they’re in and when they’re out. I feel like I’m home here, at the camp. But there’s not as many people here as there used to be, and people don’t hang out together as much.” She scrapes her plate. “So somehow I’m homesick.” She piles the dishes into the dishwasher and lays out a few lobster platters in Saran wrap for the odd worker who drifts in hungry in the middle of the night. She’ll have a few smokes in the lounge, work on her third puzzle this month, and when it’s finished, she’ll hang it up on one of the silent worker’s doors and head to bed.


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