A subarctic commute by canoe

Turning down the urban grind to find love, opportunity and a commute by canoe

All photographs by Pat Kane
Pat KanePat is a photojournalist in Yellowknife, NWT, covering people, life and environment in Canada’s Far North. Pat’s work takes a documentary approach to the stories impacting Northerners, with a special focus on Indigenous issues and empowerment. Pat is a member of the Timiskaming First Nation on the territory that is now Quebec, and part of the collective Natives Photograph.

For many Canadians, a typical commute means weaving through peak traffic at the end of their workday, parking underground, then up the elevator to the front door of their homes.

Alumni Katie O’Beirne (MPH ’12, BSc ’09) and Tom Parker (BA ’08) chose a different way. As houseboaters living in the Canadian subarctic, they make their way home to Yellowknife Bay by paddling a canoe in the summer, walking across a frozen Great Slave Lake in the winter and carefully negotiating a combination of the two in spring and fall.

Houseboats on a frozen lake

O’Beirne and Parker met as undergraduates at Waterloo. Parker was staffing the turnkey desk in the Student Life Centre when he met O’Beirne. A few years later, the pair embarked on a new life together in the Northwest Territories.

A houseboat lifestyle, by design and by necessity, is a smart home lifestyle. Residents need to work for their power, water and heat, and therefore become mindful of using only what they need to live comfortably.

two people walking across afrozen lake

“I feel like we’ve got the best of both worlds,” says O’Beirne, who most recently managed a clothing store 25 minutes from shore. “We're on the water surrounded by nature, but our walk to work is less than half an hour.”

The couple heats their home with a wood-burning stove, with a back-up propane heater if needed, while the solar panels on their rooftop provide them with all of the power they need. When it comes to plumbing, most residents carry grey water and sewage off their boats for disposal.

A nice couple and a baby in a houseboat

“Chopping and stacking wood, loading 100-pound propane bottles on and off trucks, firing up the generator; everything requires a bit more work than homes that are serviced by the city,” explains O’Beirne.

The extra work is worth it. “The cost of housing here is really high. Even mobile homes in Yellowknife can be about $400,000,” says O’Beirne. “Houseboats are more affordable because there are more daily challenges involved.”

Houseboat on lake during sunset

Their biggest commuting challenge came in the fall of 2018 while O’Beirne was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first born and the lake was in a state the community calls “freeze up,” where the ice starts to form, but can be unpredictable. As a precaution, the couple stayed on land for over a month in anticipation of the baby’s arrival.

Minor perils aside, O’Beirne says the neighbours in the community all look out for one another. “Regardless of the weather, maintenance and safety challenges, it’s worth it,” says O’Beirne.

Houseboats on a frozen Lake