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…
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).
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.
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.
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.