Lay missionaries Hart and Marilyn Bezner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Mission in Teslin, Yukon, in the Diocese of Whitehorse. Inset, a magnificent view of the rectory and the surrounding hills.
‘WHILE YOUNG, AND LONG BEFORE WE MET, WE BOTH HAD THE STRONG DESIRE TO SERVE IN SOME FORM OF MISSION WORK, BUT IT SEEMED THAT IT WAS NOT TO BE, BECAUSE SCHOOLING AND FAMILY OBLIGATIONS STARTED TO OBSCURE THE VISION.'
In 1967, I joined the Physics Department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. I retired in 2003, after 36 years. They were satisfying years because I thoroughly enjoyed my work and my students. Marilyn, a registered nurse, and I were married in 1966, and we were blessed with four children.
Marilyn and I drove to Mexico on our honeymoon, and it soon became a family tradition to pack the children into the car and to head for Mexico or Central America during Christmas breaks, and Mexico became an integral part of the family psyche.
In June of 1995, Marilyn and I decided to visit Alaska for the first time. We were stunned by the beauty that greeted us in the Yukon and were intrigued by the long hours of daylight. On the way back to Ontario, I tried to imagine how things would be in December, because I naively imagined Whitehorse to be wrapped in 24 hours of darkness. When we stopped for food at Toad River, I suggested to Marilyn that we return in December. She said that if I wanted to drive up, it was fine with her, but she would prefer to spend Christmas in Waterloo.
My 1995 Christmas break was unusually long. I had finished marking the exams by Wednesday, December 13, and had managed to get my trusty 1992 Honda Civic ready for the journey. The preparations included a new fuel filter, plugs, air filter, oil filter, synthetic oil, an engine-block heater, and four new Blizzak snow tires.
I left Waterloo around lunchtime on Wednesday, December 13, 1995. That evening, I hit major snow in upper Michigan and began to worry that worse might lie ahead. By Friday, I reached Edmonton, and then I drove into Whitehorse Sunday afternoon. The drive was a little disappointing because it wasn't at all dark, and the 5,000 km had been remarkably uneventful, and I had hoped for some real adventure.
Standing between McDonalds and Tags, I decided to head further north, possibly as far as Inuvik. I called Marilyn from the payphone outside Tags to let her know. I reached the Dempster junction in the wee hours, had lunch at Eagle Plains, and drove into Inuvik Monday evening. So here I was at Inuvik, and the entire drive from Whitehorse had been utterly uneventful.
I had heard that it might be possible to drive on the Mackenzie River all the way to Tuktoyaktuk, but was informed that the ice road had not yet been officially opened. Thought I would check it out the next day and drove on to the ice. Although it was pitch-dark, it was obvious that there had been plowing because the ice was smooth. After driving past some dark, hulking ships, solidly moored in the ice, it hit me forcefully that I was really on a river. The signs had not yet been installed, but I continued on, following the right berm left behind by the plow. I met one pickup and also a lone dog team, and 195 km later, I climbed ashore at Tuktoyaktuk, where an amazed resident scratched his head upon hearing that I had come from Inuvik. After enjoying a lasagna supper at the Tuk Inn, I turned around and headed back to Inuvik. It had been a magical experience, created by the wind and the drifting snow, the cracks in the ice, and the utter solitude.
Before leaving Waterloo, I had heard that the Dalton Highway—the road that leads North from Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay—had been recently opened to civilian traffic. The Top-Of-The-World Highway is closed during the winter months and to get to Alaska, I would have to backtrack the 1220 km to Whitehorse to meet the Alaska Highway. I crossed the border Friday morning, filled up at Fairbanks Friday evening and rolled into Deadhorse, near the Arctic coast, on Saturday morning December 23.
In Deadhorse, I checked into the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. The hotel is really a bunkhouse for oil workers. It cost $65 a night, and that included three lavish meals and all the food you wanted in between. There was a warm, peaceful, and friendly atmosphere and it felt strange to eat tropical fruit, roasted meat, fresh milk, six kinds of pie, and fresh salads, all in a world that looked like a moonscape, without a single stick of growth, with the winds howling outside in the 24-hour darkness, and with temperatures low enough to take your breath away.
I left early on Monday, Christmas Day, to begin the journey back to Ontario. The hotel staff had packed me a wonderfully generous lunch for the road and saw me off with handshakes and hugs. It would be a completely empty road, just me and the Alaska Pipeline, for the next 244 miles to Coldfoot, a service centre similar to Eagle Plains on the Dempster.
The church at Immaculate Heart of Mary Mission in Teslin, Yukon.
I was back at Haines Junction early on Wednesday, barely two weeks after leaving Waterloo. On impulse, I drove down to Haines and there boarded the ferry to Skagway. The crossing was smooth and restful, and I sat there trying to digest the incredible events of the previous two weeks. It all seemed strangely unreal. On Monday, January 3, 1996, I was back in the classroom in Waterloo, a changed man.
And this is how our annual Christmas trips to the Arctic began. Marilyn would sometimes fly to Grand Prairie, or to Anchorage, where we would meet up to continue north to Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, or Deadhorse. Whenever near Teslin, we would always drive into the village to use the payphone at the RCMP station.
Over the years, we had become acquainted with Val and Barry Smith at Johnson's Crossing, and Val invited us to the annual Teslin Seniors' Dinner in 2004. At the time, we had no idea that nine months later we would move into the Catholic rectory, but life takes interesting and unexpected turns. After that Christmas dinner, we drove up to Tuktoyaktuk. It was an exceptionally exciting journey with lots of adventure.
I had retired the previous year, and Marilyn several years before that. After we began to spend Christmases in the North in 1995, we would, during the summers, spend three or four weeks camping in the desert in Baja California, Mexico. It was always at the same spot, miles from nowhere. It was a place to read and to regenerate, and it allowed me to prepare lectures for the fall classes. I had visions that we would spend a lot more time there after retirement, and we even considered some sort of permanent move, but the North also attracted us strongly.
After returning from Tuktoyaktuk in early 2005, we dropped in on Oblate Father Jim Bleackley at the diocesan offices in Whitehorse and offered to serve in one of the Yukon parishes. The rest is history. We arrived in Teslin on September 8, 2005.
Marilyn and I share an interesting past: While young, and long before we met, we both had the strong desire to serve in some form of mission work, but it seemed that it was not to be, because schooling and family obligations started to obscure the vision. After we offered to serve in the Yukon, it suddenly became clear to us that God was honoring our earlier desire.
It is somewhat easy to look back over the years to recognize how all the interlocking pieces fit together. It is much more difficult to gaze into the future, but looking back gives us the assurance that the road ahead is also paved and benevolently provisioned.
(Lay missionaries Hart and Marilyn Bezner have just completed their mission days in the Diocese of Whitehorse in the Yukon.)