South, to Yellowknife

I want to take a moment in this blog to stop being narcissistic and writing anecdotes about myself: my triumphs and my defeats. Instead I want to tell a short story, in which I’m only an observer. This happened when I took a basketball team to Yellowknife this February to compete in a territorial tournament. This story is neither about my team, nor about me. It is instead about a group of kids who reminded me of my reasons for wanting to come to northern Canada.

There were only three teams in our division from out of town: ourselves (Hay River), Cambridge Bay (the reigning champions), and a third who seemed out of place. This third team caught my attention because of their utter ineptness at basketball combined with the largest, most innocent smiles I have ever known. They were soundly trounced on the court by every team, but remained unperturbed by the drubbing in what was an amazing feat of good sportsmanship. I was enchanted and curious.

I didn’t have a chance to find much out about the team until our first night billeting in the school with the other out of town teams.  Cambridge Bay was in bed early, in order to continue their reign of terror on the basketball courts, but this other team was still up and about when we got back from a pizza party. Both my team and this other team were still wired and started hanging out, giving me a chance to chat with the teacher coaching these guys and got a great little story about where they came from.

I discovered this team had flown down from Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island, a northern community that makes most of the Northwest Territories seem almost equatorial.  It’s a small, fly-in community that had never before fielded a basketball team at the territorial tournament. The teacher was new and energetic, and decided that these kids from the remote north had the right to play sports with their peers. He solicited, begged, and pleaded to raise the funds to fly six players to Yellowknife, where they could be a part of their territory, representing their school and town, and doing a great job of it.

The entire weekend these six kids emerged as the most energized, excited, and happy kids. They appreciated the opportunity to be ambassadors from their community and had a blast doing it. They also gave me, and others, an opportunity to get a taste of the far North. They came south to Yellowknife to be a part of the community in the North.

aurora

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Curling Northward

I don’t think curling is funny, or at least I’m struggling at making jokes using the name of the sport. Perhaps I should mention that I’ve become a curler, and I’ve discovered it is neither shot-put nor bowling on ice. Who knew? It seems like it should be easy to dazzle people with witticisms about curling, but somehow every pun seems to be worse than the preceding one. Then again, that may just be the nature of puns. But the story of my sordid curling career begins seriously, on a dark and cold night…

It was a Thursday evening, a firehall meeting, the floor was open to new business. A motion was made to discuss Firefighting curling, a hallowed tradition of debauchery. This year it was taking place in the northern reaches of the NWT, in Inuvik, one of those places that calls Hay River a Southern town, essentially similar to Windsor, Ontario but with presumably more respect from Stephen Colbert. This tournament calls on firefighters from all reaches of the NWT to compete for a position in the national tournament. Hay River has a history of performing adequately but was at risk of not being able to field a team and was desperately looking for bodies to supplement the team. Having a body and fancying a free trip to Inuvik (I confess I was not being purely altruistic) I volunteered my skills. When it was clear no actual curlers could get the time off work, my new teammates resignedly put my name on the roster.

Curling from afar

My exposure to the sport of curling consisted of hastily changing channels whenever Olympic curling manifested and watching the movie “Men with Brooms”. With only weeks to learn the sport I was confident that I would have no problems in mastering it fully. Nonetheless, I consented to some coaching and some exhibition games with the local league. My cocky walk quickly crumbled, not least because of my difficulties in staying upright on the ice.

I quickly discovered that curling takes real skill and practice, and quickly began to appreciate the octogenarians who routinely destroyed me at the curling rink. I also learned valuable lessons about when to use a sliding shoe compared to the sticky cover after face-planting very publicly and repeatedly. I somehow kept all my teeth. Slowly my arms began to ache less from the furious sweeping of the ice. Gradually my rocks began to land in the house. At last I began to understand the game, the strategy, the joy of curling. I started having fun. And then we went to Inuvik.

I had somehow found myself having gone from never having curled before to flying even further north for territorial championships in a Firefighter curling league, with a chance to progress and compete nationally. I realized the seriousness of the situation in the Inuvik airport when we ran into the team from Fort Simpson. Within moments one of my teammates had put $100 on our game against the Fort Simpson team. And it got real.

Boarded Houses

The ice in Inuvik was ‘keen’, meaning fast, and my first few rocks soared through the house, pounding into the back wall that first night in our first game, of course, against Fort Simpson. I overcompensated and started throwing my rocks short. They didn’t even make it into play. Before long we had lost our first game and my teammate was down his first $100.

The weekend passed in a blur of curling and hilarity. I noticed that as I slept less my curling seemed to improve, until, exhausted, I began to place rocks exactly where they needed to be. My rocks curled in behind guards, or nudged asides our competitors’ rocks. I relaxed into the competition and let myself enjoy it, just as the tournament ended.

I spent my last morning in Inuvik hunting down something to bring back to Hay River, a taste of the arctic. I had remarked that in restaurants Musk Ox was cheaper than ground beef. Sure enough I managed to find Musk Ox meat being sold much cheaper than lean ground beef. I also managed to find reindeer meat, a cut of meat I took to calling my Rudolph Roast, much to the horror of my teammates.

Boarding the plane I was happy to have come to Inuvik. What had started as a chance at a free trip to Inuvik ended as another experience beyond that which I had imagined. I had learned a new sport, connected with people from all over the North, and finally had the opportunity to make a joke about eating that ridiculous red-nosed reindeer of Christmas carol fame.

Igloo church

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Frozen with Feeling

I would never call myself a skier, merely someone with pretensions of skiing. Actually, I might call myself a skier, but certainly not an expert. Nonetheless, I associate with skiers and coaches and found myself on the road early in the morning en route to Fort Providence to help lead a cross-country ski clinic for kids. As I sat in the car I suspected that I should be worried about my lack of expertise in skiing and that I would be woefully unprepared to impart any wisdom. My experiences in the North, however, have given me a lovely laissez-faire attitude and a feeling of nonchalance at the need for improvisation. I have come to realize that a bit of knowledge and experience goes much further here, in large part because the NWT is filled with resources but with too few people to take full advantage of those resources. My chief qualification was that I was willing and able, and so I enjoyed the pre-dawn drive.

Arriving in Fort Providence I was struck by two things: the cold and the kids. The wind was blowing hard and, despite the sun breaching an azure sky, it was bitterly cold. The kids seemed immune to the cold and were bounding with energy.  They were literally bounding through the halls of the school on the weekend in complicated games that only children can truly understand.  I was amazed at how quickly the children gathered into the gym for a discussion of the day and warm-up activities. I was tasked with giving the stern talk about the cold as the thermometer plunged well below -51 °C with the wind. I gave an interactive talk that involved my dressing in layers and generally looking ridiculous. The kids laughed at the hat perched precariously on my head as I described frostbite and the importance of the buddy system to inspect each other’s cheeks. I hoped the message was clear.

Kids on Hill

Outside the temperature continued to plunge as the day became more beautiful. I worked with older kids, many of whom had virtually no experience in skiing. This allowed me to cover ski basics that I had mastered, such as getting up when you fall over. With another coach we flew through the basics of skiing, but were driven inside for a hot chocolate break before too long. Looking around I was pleased to see that all the kids had covered up well and showed no signs of frostbite, but kept giving me an odd look.  It turned out I had an impressive frostbite on both my cheeks. Although not serious it was large and very obvious, both cheeks numb and waxy. I would have blushed at the irony but the blood flow to my cheeks was inadequate so I simply had to laugh it off as an object lesson, and an opportunity to demonstrate how to warm up mildly frostbitten areas without damaging the tissue.

Eventually, the kids warmed up and so did my cheeks. Amazingly, they were all ready to head back out into the cold that had won the first round against me. We headed out to a trail through the woods that cut the wind and thus the cold. Racing through the trees and falling, laughing, in the snow I was thrilled at the opportunity to freeze in the sunshine with kids happy to be alive. I was amazed at the easy smiles despite the cold. I was really looking forward to a cup of hot chocolate.

Ski Race

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A northern Noel

I’m in the north, but not the real North people like to remind me. I think it has to do with the capitalization. A few degrees of latitude further north and I would be in the North, the Arctic, the land of the midnight sun. I’m merely in the north, the sub-arctic, and I’m pretty sure the sub means that my north doesn’t warrant a capital letter. All I really know is that it’s cold, except when the temperatures rises to a balmy… well anything warmer than 30 below seems borderline tropical. Christmas was cold and that is where the story begins…

Funky sunset

The car wouldn’t start. It was plugged in but it just coughed a sad little cough and whined like a constipated puppy, the engine refusing to turn over. It was Christmas Eve, afternoon, and we were heading to a sled dog farm to celebrate a proper northern Christmas with a friend and his mother. We were already having a classic northern experience. We weren’t yet desperate since we had access to another car for the Christmas vacation, but unfortunately the stalled car was blocking the working car in the driveway. Also, I had just locked the keys in the working car. I was wringing my hands, mostly to keep them warm in the air so cold that I could feel my eyebrows freezing and my beard trying to grow faster as a protective covering within 30 seconds of being outside. Luckily, the Hay River community came to our rescue to solve our first set of Christmas challenges. A friend driving by stopped to try and jump-start the feeble car. Pumping the gas pedal the engine didn’t so much roar into life as it did lurch into a semi-comatose state only to sputter and die as we began congratulating ourselves on our ingenuity. We managed to get the working car open due to it having a combination-code on the lock in addition to the key. Of course, the current owners didn’t know the code and had to contact the previous owners to hunt down the code. The given code proved to be incorrect but close enough to the right one that we accidentally got the combination right, never to be repeated.

We managed to roll the dead car out of the way. Out of our way at least and into the middle of the street, allowing us to get the working car out. After again congratulating ourselves on our ingenuity we put our backs into pushing the car only to discover that it is easier to roll a car down a slight slope than it is to roll it up that same slope. We grinned sheepishly as we waved at cars to detour around our temporary roadblock, wringing our hands to keep them warm. Again our involvement in the Hay River community helped us overcome this challenge as one of the large firefighters with whom we work screeched to a halt in his truck and jumped out in a light fleece. With his help we managed to manhandle the car just far enough into the driveway that we would be ticketed anywhere except the north  (and the North), despite not being on road. With a belly laugh and a shake of his head he was gone as fast as he arrived. We were careful not congratulate ourselves and instead thanked our lucky stars for the friendly people of Hay River. We headed for Christmas (forgetting most of our presents for other people in our relief to be on the road).

Christmas Breakfast

The farm upon which we were spending Christmas was rustic, rundown, and fabulous. It had nearly 25 dogs, at least 6 of which were indoor dogs, the rest sled-dogs. A giant furnace of a woodstove blasted heat in one room, which slowly percolated throughout the trailer, never quite reaching the bedrooms, which still felt toasty at 3 degrees Celsius compared to the outdoors. Christmas Eve was spent with the warm glow of family, except for when we went out to feed the sled-dogs a steaming soup of kibble and raw chicken. It looked putrid but the dogs were ecstatic, howling and running in circles when they heard us arrive. It was pitch black feeding the dogs, their eyes glinted in light from our headlamps and their teeth snapped at their bowls. We gave extra-large portions. Merry Christmas to the sled-dogs. We hurried back in front of the stove, opening it to stare into the flames as they died to embers late in the night. We crawled into cold sleeping bags wondering what Christmas would bring.

Christmas came early. We were up at six in the morning for our friend’s mother who was working on Christmas day. To make it even better we cooked breakfast on top of the woodstove, which would prove to be good practice. Another Frontier’s Foundation volunteer staying in Hay River over Christmas came out to the farm and we began to prepare for a Christmas celebration. We put the turkey in the oven; grabbed an axe, machete, and shotgun; and headed out to hunt for a Christmas tree and ptarmigan. My friend and I were convinced that we should be able to sneak up on a ptarmigan and catch it with our bare hands. The machete was to put it out of our misery and the shotgun was for appearance’s sake. People scoffed at our idea but we were confident in our ability to recapture our Neolithic roots. We didn’t catch a ptarmigan. We didn’t even see a ptarmigan. The cold was intense and the forest was silent. Nothing moved. The air was so cold that it seemed to settle into our lungs, never to be expelled. We couldn’t catch a ptarmigan we couldn’t even find. We remain convinced that we are in touch with our inner Neanderthal.

Christmas Tree

We did find a tree. Or rather we found two trees. The heavy snowfall meant that every tree that was slightly suitable was bent out of shape. In the end we found two trees that complimented each other, both being barren on one side. We hauled them out of the bush and, in a bizarre Frankenstein-inspired idea, stitched them together to provide one suitable tree. Then the power went out. Daylight had disappeared. The turkey was almost done, but nothing else had been started. The tree was up but undecorated. The lights were gone and it was pitch black. The power was out in Hay River for Christmas and we hadn’t even started the stuffing. My romanticized vision of a northern Christmas went into overdrive as we started cooking the rest of the meal on the woodstove. I decorated the tree using a headlamp, which meant that I couldn’t see the entire tree and thus had no holistic aesthetic vision and certainly no symmetry. As dinner bubbled on the wood-stove I grinned to myself, happy that we weren’t having a Martha Stewart Christmas, and imagining Christmas Dinner huddled in front of the woodstove. I imagined candlelight and caroling, and ignored the fact that we couldn’t flush the toilet. I was ready for a rustic northern Christmas, and then the power came back on.

Christmas Lights

We ate dinner, opened presents, and sought words to describe the Christmas trees. As I glanced around at the people with whom I was sharing my northern Christmas I couldn’t help but laugh at the series of events that brought us to be together on this night. I think it was that moment when I started to love the cold and the challenges that it brings. The cold of the north (and the North) forces people to come together as a community. Nobody wants to be cold and alone. It’s better to be cold and together, being warm is just a perk.

Moon set

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Northern Dispatches

 

I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for a long time now, not sure how to start it, what to say. I want to simply write: I am a firefighter, a member of a fraternity that reaffirms its importance every single day. I want to claim kinship with the men and women who constantly risk their lives, sometimes receiving accolades such as after 9/11 but often cursed at when drivers have to make way for a truck hurtling down the highway.

I’ve wanted to make grand claims of membership to this group of men and women but haven’t felt justified in doing so, and still don’t believe I can claim to be a firefighter. Instead, I think I should be honest. I’m a rookie. I’m a rookie who still doesn’t have a helmet.

Gear 1

I’ve joined the Hay River Fire Department, consisting entirely of volunteers except for our chief: a veteran of many fires, a man of few words but wry humour, and a borderline obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleanliness (to paraphrase his exact words). In short, the chief is exactly what a volunteer fire department needs to run smoothly, receiving commendations and accolades. As a member of the fire department we also carry the role of paramedics, running the ambulance service. This dual role of firefighter and paramedic provides insight into the town beyond that which I see in the school, as I listen to the stories following meetings or respond to calls myself. The juxtapositions and paradoxes of Hay River are becoming alive but not resolved.

One exceptionally long day had me responding to three separate calls, starting at 3:30 in the morning with the alarm in my building going off. It wasn’t the alarm that woke me, but my radio screeching in my ear. Groggily I dressed and sprinted for the firehall, passing an RCMP officer in the stairwell. At the firehall I suited up in the requisite 60 seconds (sans helmet) and returned to my building in grand-style, riding on a firetruck, only to have the stand-down called. Seven hours later, brunch was interrupted with a chimney fire occurring at a house somewhere out of town. We raced along icy roads, slowing down after skidding once on a turn, putting on SCBA gear (oxygen tanks and masks), preparing for an inferno, only to have the stand-down called by the time we got there. We headed back to the firehall, oddly enough, blasting “Barbie Girl” on the stereo to affirm firefighting as a bastion of masculinity. The last call of the day came through at 4:30, this time a joint call for the ambulance and RCMP. We responded to find a battered woman staggering down a hallway, cradling her arm, eye blackened. She reeked of alcohol and seemed confused. The RCMP got one name out of her; their job had just begun, as we rushed to the hospital to finish ours. We left her in the capable but gentle hands of the Hay River nurses. As we headed back to base to clean up the ambulance I knew that the nurses would heal her body but there would be wounds remaining that are not so easily tended. I wondered if I would see her again.

Pump 3

Many days have no calls whatsoever, or might have a patient transfer between the airport and the hospital, bringing an old woman home or a mother in labour to the hospital. Regardless of the nature of the call, there is an adrenaline rush that is equal parts exhilaration and dread every time my radio sounds the tones summoning us volunteers. I understand the banter around the table following training meetings on Thursdays. It is gruff and politically incorrect, funny and sad. It is the frank discussion of those addicted to the rush of firefighting and to the knowledge of being members of the community. It is the discussion of ordinary people doing extraordinary things as if they were mundane. These are the people of Hay River, laughing and struggling. This is the fraternity I have joined.

Fire Department

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The Cosmopolitan Lights

 

A couple of weeks ago I had an impromptu opportunity to visit Yellowknife. In September I was still living in Toronto, but after 7 weeks in Hay River this felt like a chance to visit the big city! After all, Yellowknife has not only a McDonalds, but a KFC and A&W too (to name but a few of the signs of civilization that Yellowknife boasts).

The adventure began at 6 AM as we began the long road between Hay River and Yellowknife. The dark was made worse by the snow that had been falling all night and the roads were unplowed. The snow sheeted down from the clouds and up over the hood, until finally a plow passed us. Daybreak saw us at the ferry crossing over the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence. The ferry sliced through ice floes tumbling down the river, but was soon to be obsolete with the new yet rusting bridge slated to be officially unveiled before Christmas. The snow continued to fall as we approached Yellowknife covering the city and the buffalo alike.

Bridge over Mackenzie

Arriving in the big city we drove directly through for a truly northern sojourn: dogsledding. The dogs howled and yelped, excited at the prospect of fulfilling their need to run. Our sleds were small with only four dogs to pull.  The dogs pounded across a frozen lake, the sun low in the sky and a chill wind blowing. The dogs’ breath steamed as they panted, heads bending low to chew at snow as they ran. Standing on the back of the sled, the wind whipped across my face and I grinned with the exhilaration of the cold. My toes numbed as the snow whipped past, mere inches away. It took me over an hour to warm up when our dogs finally led us back to their kennel and hot chocolate.

Dogs

The rest of our visit passed in a blur, more cosmopolitan than our initial dogsledding. We shopped for things we could not find in Hay River: 3 liters of Olive Oil, 10 lbs of Basmati rice, mung beans. We dined in fancy restaurants with French Onion Soup and Muscovy Duck. We huddled for warmth watching the Santa Claus parade. We sipped lattes in coffee shops as we read the news. In Yellowknife we spent a moment being in the city while still firmly being in the North. When we left we were going home, to Hay River.

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Strategies for a Winter’s Day

The time since my last post has passed quickly, certainly too quickly to capture in a single post. The yoke of winter has firmly nestled itself onto our backs as we watch the days grow shorter still, the sun never truly passing overhead, instead rising above the trees, only to give up and return us to the lengthening nights. The locals seem to take a perverse pleasure in reminding me that the days will get shorter still, and that it becomes easy to forget that sun could be bright or warm. The sun still casts some warmth when the wind is calm but even this feeble warmth will fade.

To date there are three strategies that seem to be most effective in warding off the descending winter chill. The first is the most banal and the effects are least felt, but a panel of scientists insists that evidence supports this strategy. I refer, of course, to popping vitamin D like candy. I’ve been tempted to offer guests vitamin D in the place of after dinner mints, but I worry about how that might be interpreted.

Gathered at Louise Falls

The second strategy should be no surprise, but has proven to be easier than ever before since many of my colleagues and friends live in Hay River’s lone highrise, which I call home. Potlucks, group dinners, and brunches help ward off the winter chill, and often don’t require any of us to tread outside, but instead ascend a few floors (by stair to reinforce our appetites of course). At least once a week, and often more, a group of us, thrown together by chance, congregate in an apartment to share meals and stories. Comparisons of world travel are made over dahl and roti, arguments over the impact of the recent election erupt with points emphasized with flourishes of homemade sourdough bread, reflections on the beauty of the morning sun colouring the snow-covered pines emerge over pancakes and maple syrup.  These meals have lead to fast and furious friendships, confessions brought on by good food and a need for companionship when facing a plummeting thermometer and a distant family.

Midmorning brunch with homemade English Muffins

Finally, the third strategy is a necessary consequence of potlucks that become rituals of hedonism: the long walk. Although Hay River feels like a frontier town to us “southerner’s” (it really is not, there are two grocery stores!), being without a vehicle makes that imagined frontier impossibly distant. Fortunately, we have discovered the town to model the very essence of community, with rides often being available and cars being loaned with suspiciously few questions. This allows us some freedom to face winter and enjoy the cold. We often hear the refrain that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment”. Nestled in my Canada Goose Parka (essentially a sleeping bag with arms), I am inclined to agree. Trudging through knee-deep (and sometimes waist-deep) snow at the nearby waterfalls or skiing at the local Nordic center reminds me that winter is neither an enemy to fear nor one to battle. Instead it is an opportunity to explore. It becomes easy to track hares, their tracks so distinctive in the snow, ruffed grouse are not so camouflaged against the white carpet covering the land. The river is almost frozen and soon the reserve will be walking distance instead of a 30 minute drive. All day, the whine of snowmobile engines can be heard and occasionally a dogsled team will be seen loping alongside the highway, the rider grinning with cold and joy as the breath steams from the dogs’ mouths.

A walk in the woods

This is the winter that is beginning, and that I am beginning to discover.  My optimism may be downfall because this is just the beginning. It will get colder and darker, and then colder again when the wind blows. But with friends and pills of liquid sunshine, how could I not relish the unfolding North.

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