The story of Stella's Place, a lifesaving landmark on a remote winter road

The remote cabin could be the difference between life and death for travellers stuck on the territory’s long winter road. It was built to remember Stella Barnaby, who would have been 55 this Saturday.

Cabin is the difference between life and death for stranded travellers between Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells

Stella's Place, an emergency cabin south of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., has a tragic history. (John Last/CBC)

There's not much to mark the passing kilometres on the Mackenzie Valley winter road.

The seasonal highway, ploughed from ice and snow, connects communities in the N.W.T.'s remote Sahtu region over hundreds of kilometres of largely unoccupied land. You won't get a cell signal here, or hear a radio station on your dial.

But on the long road north from Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope, there's at least one spot that stands out: Stella's Place.

A simple roadside cabin with a makeshift sign, protected from the elements by a plexiglass barrier, Stella's Place has a tragic origin story — one that serves as a reminder of the dangers of travel on the winter road.

Stella's story

Stella's Place is named for Stella Barnaby, a woman from Fort Good Hope. She died when she was 23 after her vehicle broke down on the highway on Good Friday (March 25) in 1989.

Bella T'Seleie, Stella's sister, was 35 at the time. She was with her younger sister when she died.

"We had a really kind of unfortunate trip. Everything went wrong," she said.

Bella, Stella, and friends had driven out on the winter road for the first time that night. It was late March, and "we thought spring was upon us," T'Seleie explained. "We were just having a carefree time, at first anyway."

Then their truck broke down.

A map of river and creek crossings along the winter road between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope, dated January 1992, hangs in the cabin. Before bridges were erected on the route, travelling 150 kilometres could take four or more hours. (John Last/CBC)

Dangerous road

In 1989, the Mackenzie Valley winter road was different than it is today.

"At that time, talk about remoteness," said Danny McNeely, a former Sahtu MLA and Fort Good Hope leader who was involved in the creation of Stella's Place. "Very few vehicles [were] travelling back and forth."

It's only 150 kilometres between Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells, McNeely explained, but in 1989, the road's rough condition meant that journey took four and a half hours to complete.

A framed photo of Bella Barnaby. (Submitted by Bella T'Seleie)

Getting stranded on the road could mean a long wait in very cold conditions.

"You're out in the wilderness all alone without any support," he said.

'It was all the wrong choices'

Stuck on the side of the road, the sisters realized that their group was too large for the truck's small cab. Two had ridden out there in the bed of the truck.

"We thought we were really close to [Fort] Good Hope, but we couldn't judge the distance, because it was our first time on the road," T'Seleie  said.

So, at two o'clock in the morning, the group started walking back.

"We were just walking, walking, and we just kept thinking, Fort Good Hope is just around the bend."

"It was all the wrong choices," she said. "We miscalculated, [and] we didn't realize we were quite far — too far — to the community."

'She never woke up'

"In the brutal cold, in the early morning, we started running into problems," she said.

The sisters were weak, and in desperation, they got their older brother to run ahead on the road, looking for help — "another wrong decision," T'Seleie said.

That's when T'Seleie noticed her sister was "really hypothermic."

Rosaries from visiting travellers hang from a hook inside the cabin. (John Last/CBC)

"She kept wanting to eat snow. It was really a bad situation," she said.

She made a fire, but Stella was unwell, and didn't want to go near it.

"There was a lot of resistance, and then finally I just let her lay down and sleep, because she just needed a break from the whole nightmare. We were exhausted too," she said.

"Maybe that was the wrong decision, because she never woke up."

Time to reflect

It's been 31 years since then. Stella, whose birthday was May 9, would have been 55 this Saturday.

T'Seleie says the horror of that night helped her reflect on living life "according to what I think it should be."

She quit drinking, and went back to school, going on to university.

"I really surprised myself," she said, "because I didn't do well in residential school…. I was a total failure."

"In a lot of ways," she said, "it really helped me…. I always think about Stella, and what she would want."

A photo of Stella inside the cabin attracts offerings from travellers who stop by. (John Last/CBC)

A shrine for Stella

After news spread of the incident, the community pulled together to commemorate her.

McNeely, whose family was close with Stella's, arranged with a local contractor to build an emergency cabin, which he towed to the site where the group's car broke down.

Since then, it's been well-maintained — a pair of bunks, a basket of blankets, and a wood stove keep stranded travellers safe, and give snowmobilers a place to warm up.

"It's a really special place for me, because I know of the lives that it's saving," said T'Seleie. "People come and tell me that that little cabin saved their life because of breaking down."

The cabin also serves as a memorial to Stella. Visitors hang rosaries and leave coins and other offerings, which her sisters collect and donate to a Catholic community.

"Everyone there prays for Stella. Every year for 30 years now," T'Seleie said.

The cabin's interior is simple, but lifesaving — with beds, blankets, and a woodstove to keep warm. (John Last/CBC)

T'Seleie still visits the cabin from time to time. She remembers her sister as "a really good person … [who] always knew the right thing to do."

"It was almost like she was too good for this life, anyway."

If she was alive today, T'Seleie says she'd be pushing for a women's shelter in Fort Good Hope — something T'Seleie hopes she can help to realize on her behalf.

Today, the road has many travellers. For them, the cabin is a welcome rest stop — and a sign of improving safety on the long and winding road.

"I still say a prayer going past the site where the accident happened," said McNeely. "You have a sense of pride and safety as you drive by … still looking at the words 'Stella's Place', as clear as it was … at the beginning."