I was Alex’s roommate for the first few months I lived in Fort Smith, NT in 2005. He really didn’t want a roommate and at first argued against it. Thankfully, not directly in front of me but off to the side. What changed his mind was his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife.
I arrived in town in early October from Nova Scotia. Smith was already cold and I shivered in the NWT chill. I was tired, too, after a couple of flights and I yawned in the daylight that was already beginning to wane much, much earlier than in the south. I was the new editor of the Slave River Journal (SRJ). The outgoing editor was Robyn. She drove me through town showing me the hotspots (the Pelican hotel dance floor) and cool places (the rapids where the pelicans gather in the summer) and where to get my groceries (never walk home in winter with fresh produce, Robyn told me). That was all great except I had nowhere to put those groceries (mostly crackers since I can’t cook).
I had been shown a few apartments but they were too large for just one person. There was no way I afford to heat any of them. Our last stop was the Pinecrest Hotel. The two-storey, L-shaped building was right in the middle of town, in the middle of all the action. I guess that’s why there were muddy footprints all over the bed spread in the room I was shown.
“You are not staying here,” said Robyn.
That wasn’t my last resort (pun intended). She told me about her boyfriend and said he’d let me stay with him.
“Phew,” I thought. “I have a place to live.”
We arrived at Alex’s large Pine Street house and went straight into the home. Coal, a huge black lab with glossy fur, nuzzled my hand while I stood in the wide kitchen. By the sound of the running water upstairs, Alex was in the shower. Robyn shouted up to him. He shut off the water and came down the stairs. The tall, not-so-young man, was wearing a blue terrycloth robe, still dripping wet, and had clumps of white soapsuds clinging to his ears.
“Lea’s going to live with you,” she told him.
“What?!?” he asked.
“She’s going to rent a room.”
“What?” he asked again.
Wait a minute. I thought Alex must have done this before. I thought he rented out rooms all the time. My neck started to burn and the heat spread to my face. I was embarrassed.
Alex took Robyn by hand and guided her into the adjacent dining room … that was maybe a metre away. They argued back and forth over me staying there. Alex definitely didn’t want a stranger around sharing his space. Robyn told him she wasn’t sending me back to the Pinecrest. I was beginning to think that maybe stained comforters weren’t all that bad.
After a few more seconds of back and forth, it was set. I was Alex’s new roommate. Although he did not like the idea and I was out of there as soon as I found a suitable place to live. Or so I overheard.
Our first night was a bit awkward. I was in my early 30s and he was in his early sixties. I had no idea who Alex was. He prepared supper and we started chatting. I quickly learned about his fascinating life. He owned Canoe Arctic Inc., a paddle business that saw him guiding in the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. He had clients from all over the world who came to tiny Fort Smith to go on a trip with the intrepid Alex Hall.
I was staying with an adventurer extraordinaire, a man who paddled the Barren Lands in the summer and had written a book and many articles about it. A man who was passionate about wild spaces and wild places and wildlife. He loved the north and the freedom it gave him to explore and live in peace. He loved his two sons and eventually, his new extended family.
Over the months we lived together, we got into a comfortable routine. He was a man of habits and cooked me supper every night. He always had some moose steaks or duck breast or a goose to cook for me. He always had to have salad and always had to have dessert. He had such a sweet tooth. Halloween candy bought on Tuesday wouldn’t last until Wednesday. Once I brought him a large jug of maple syrup from Nova Scotia. The next week I looked in his fridge and it was gone.
“What happened to the syrup?” I asked him.
“Oh,” he giggled, “I drank it all.”
Alex became one of my closest friends in Smith. When I moved out and into my own place, we still met every Thursday for supper and watched the TV show Survivor together. In winter, Alex and I went cross-country skiing and for walks with Coal. Alex was there for me through break ups and breakdowns and lent me his beautiful old Ford truck if I wanted to get out of town for an hour or five.
I hardly saw Alex in the summer. He had clients and was out on the land for four months. In the fall, he’d tell me stories of the grizzly bears he had seen and the wolf cubs he had taken photos of and the caribou herds that passed through the tundra. He called the Thelon “Eden” and would have spent all his time out there if it were humanly possible.
When I left Fort Smith for a new job in Vernon, B.C., it was Alex who dropped me off at the airport. We stayed in touch regularly and he was a diligent e-mail writer. He sent Christmas cards to me every year, no matter where I was. Each card featuring an amazing scene from Eden. There were muskoxen with their long gorgeous manes of hair blowing in the breeze or a sweet mamma wolf and her babies in a den dug into an esker.
Alex was uncomfortable in cities and when I picked him at his hotel in Edmonton last May, he wondered how I knew which traffic lights to follow. My husband Jason made us supper and I had made dessert, apple crisp, as I knew Alex would want something sweet afterwards. He told us though, that because of the cancer, his tastebuds weren’t the same and his appetite wasn’t what it used to be. He had a small bowl of crisp instead of a large one.
I saw Alex in Edmonton two more times in 2018. His sense of humour was unchanged and his laugh, that boyish giggle stayed the same. I didn’t know that November would be the last time I saw him. His cancer was in remission. He was happy, even if tired and struggling with his balance.
I’ll miss my friend and I know I’m not alone. We’ve lost a man who knows an extraordinary amount about nature and the water and land trails of the Thelon. His world out there has been changing for a few years now and without him, I hope it doesn’t disappear. He won’t, as his trips are forever in the memories of those who paddled with him and those who knew him. He’s a legend.