Monday, February 25, 2008

A Charming Evening

There comes a time in every young sellout's life when he has to keep his dress pants on (in this case it happened to be my nicest pair of Carhartt's) and remain on his best behaviour long after the five o'clock whistle blows on a Friday afternoon. Dinner with the boss is an inevitable - if often enjoyable - rite of passage in office culture, and so it was with a calm degree of acceptance that I ventured to my director's home on Friday night to dine with some guests who were in town for a conference.

When I heard that Arctic char - a local favourite harvested right out of Great Slave Lake - was on the menu, I had a bit of a dilemma on my hands. I have been a vegetarian (eating dairy products and eggs but not fish) for the better part of seven years, and save for a couple of errant nibbles at the Thanksgiving table have adhered fairly strictly to the diet in that time. My rationale for going vegetarian was, and has remained, the strain that commercialized meat production puts on the environment (I won't get on the soap-box here, but many of my reasons can be found in this recent New York Times article), and therein lay my dilemma. Would it not be hypocritical of me to abstain from eating fish fresh out of a lake a few hundred metres away, when I eat produce on a daily basis that is flown in from across the continent? Under the auspices of my environmental beliefs, I found it hard to rationalize the latter while dismissing the former.

And so the char was tasty. Not "holy crap, I can't believe I haven't been eating meat for the past several years" tasty, but enjoyable nonetheless. I found the crunchy part on the bottom to be the most flavourful piece, but refrained from finishing it after looking at the other plates on the table and figuring out that the "crunchy part on the bottom" was actually the skin, which one isn't meant to eat. A bit of a faux pas, but it was still pretty enjoyable thanks to my boss's husband's barbequing skills.

I've reflected on the meal over the past few days, and have come to accept that my lifestyle choice may make good ecological sense in Victoria, but is largely unsustainable and completely counter-productive in Yellowknife, where a localized vegetarian diet simply isn't possible in the Winter. To that end, I think that my rationale in taking the carnivorous plunge is a telling illustration of the importance of not uniformly superimposing Southern conventions and ideals onto a Northern setting. The climate and the culture up here interact to create a physical and human landscape that is drastically different than anything commonly seen in the provinces, and contradictions like my fish debate don't stop with what one naive idealist chooses to have for dinner. Looking at any issue that affects the North - be it climate change, loss of traditional land, alcohol abuse, whatever - through a globalized or even nationalized lens is dangerous and incredibly short-sighted. In fact, it makes about as much sense as thinking that jet-lagged Florida oranges are a better environmental choice than fresh-from-the-lake Yellowknife char.

And next time, I'll know not to eat the crunchy part.



Edit (March 4/08) to add: It has since been brought to my attention that the char I ate probably came from the ocean. My bad. Still, though, that makes it a whole lot more local than most everything else that is available to eat up here at this time of year. It has also been pointed out (thanks, Lou) that one can, in fact eat the skin, and it's strictly a matter of personal choice, rather than social convention. Now I wish I'd finished it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Confessions of an Ice Road Runner

It’s funny just how quickly one’s perspective can be completely skewed. Prior to coming up here, it had been the better part of two years before I was in any sort of sustained wintry environment, and even then it was in Ottawa – arguably the coldest capital city in the world, but still fairly innocuous weather-wise by Yellowknife standards. Funny, then, that after only about a month in the NWT, I considered Saturday afternoon’s –23 with bright blue skies to be a warm, sunny day.

After having been cooped up inside (bipedal commutes and dog walking excepted) for the past three weeks, I jumped at the chance to get back into the elements on what felt like a balmy Springtime afternoon. It didn’t occur to me as I slipped out the door for an afternoon run, that never before had I enjoyed “Springtime” recreation wearing long johns, extra thick running tights, two layers of merino wool, a fleece, a windproof shell and a balaclava, but that was beside the point. My perspective has been suitably retooled (screwed with?) since early January, and so it felt like Spring to me.

As I bounded through Latham Island and the neighbourhood known as Old Town (think Yellowknife’s equivalent of Ottawa’s Glebe, Victoria’s Fernwood, or Lake Placid’s Keene Valley, depending on where you’re reading this from) I thought I could hear the faint howl of a husky dog just up ahead. “Ah yes, that majestic - if domesticated – symbol of the North,” I thought to myself, as though trying to impress whomever was listening to my inner monologue. “What better way to complete this vision of the rugged man of the land on a nippy afternoon than to have a bold Territorial mascot plodding along faithfully beside me.” Turns out my sense of hearing isn’t quite as finely tuned as I had thought, and it was actually a small and slightly less iconic yellow lab that joined me for a few paces. Not quite the same as a stoic husky, but it would do.

Further down the same crescent, I once again heard what I thought were the yips of an edgy husky, keen to join me on an afternoon odyssey. Sure enough, as I rounded the bend there waiting for me in all of its unmistakable pride was…a black labradoodle. Right. A further step away from the husky vision, but a feisty breed nonetheless. My second new friend accompanied me for about the same distance as the lab did before losing interest, and left me to my own devices.

Still on the same street, I trudged forward and once again heard some calls of the canine variety in between tracks on the iPod. This time I felt as though I had surely paid some sort of dues, and was ready to have a proud husky that looked rather like a small horse join me just long enough to have our picture snapped for the new packaging of Brawny paper towels. The barking got closer and my pulse quickened as I prepared to have my new friend join me in a scene straight out of the musical montage in the middle of Rocky IV (I think that's where he fights the Russian). I caught a glimpse of something scampering towards me out of the corner of my eye, and turned to behold my newfound grizzled companion. The husky I had been waiting for? Not so much.

It was some lady’s stupid Pomeranian.

You’ve got to be kidding me. Here I am, ice in my beard (see the post-run picture at left), brandishing my newly honed internal thermometer and reveling in what ordinary mortals would call a freezing afternoon, and the climax of my experience with wildlife is Mrs. Ackerman’s show dog? How am I supposed to look tough if my trusty sidekick is a live-action incarnation of a Malibu Barbie accessory? To make matters worse, this yippy and fundamentally uncool new companion stayed with me longer than the other two dogs put together, and I’m convinced I heard it call me a Southern lightweight as I left its block.

Undeterred but with a bruised ego I continued on and had what was my best run in months (on the enjoyment scale, at least). It was indeed a spectacular bright blue day, and I spent the final fifteen minutes of the excursion out on the ice, which is a beauty way to punctuate any wintertime outing in Yellowknife. My elation at being able to enjoy the great wide open after weeks of house arrest was such that at one point I found myself running with arms outstretched and weaving across the ice road, like a six year-old mimicking an airplane.

When it’s Wintertime in the North you take what you can get and be grateful for it, and I think that the run was, for me, a prime example of that. May in Victoria it wasn’t, but that’s not what I came up to the North expecting to find. Sunny and –23 is near about the best we’re going to do this time of year, and from my brand new Northern perspective, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.



P.S. Compare the picture below with the one I took in the same spot at (almost) the same time a few weeks ago. Looks like the pitch-black walks to work are a thing of the past.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Thirty Below: A Welcome Relief

It certainly wasn’t my intention when I started the blog for it to be a weekly update on Yellowknife’s weather and its consequences, but to be frank there hasn’t been much else of note lately. I was expecting cold when I came up here, but for most of the past three weeks, the weather has been around twenty degrees below normal for this time of year. Twenty degrees below normal when you’re in the Subarctic in the middle of winter is a crippling cold. I am clinging dearly to the romantic notions I had in my head when I decided to move North of a stoic, parka-clad version of myself skiing across Great Slave Lake with nary a hint of humanity in any direction. I’ve acted on this fantasy a few times since my arrival, but the reality of the last three weeks is that it’s been just too cold to engage with the outdoors on a recreational level.

Indeed, the lungs of a European-Canadian don’t do so well when it gets into the –40 or –50 ballpark. That said, neither do his Western conveniences. Propane gels, diesel freezes and plastic becomes brittle. Simple tasks like emptying the mailbox become cringe-inducing when bare flesh brushes against steel that has been indifferently soaking up the cold. The past few weeks have marked the first time in my life that I’ve had prolonged exposure to a weather that you can’t escape from. My frozen pipes and faulty heater of last week served as humbling testaments to the notion that a modernized Western city with modernized Western lifestyles maybe isn’t always meant to function as well North of Sixty as it is down South.

And as modern technologies refuse to adapt once the mercury passes a certain floor, so too do the human emotions become affected. The elements have, on more than one occasion, had me cold-bound: hunkering down with book and dog has been a frequent alternative, not only to individualized outdoor recreation, but to venturing out the five or six blocks to meet up with friends. Staying inside to get cozy is an enjoyable exercise when it’s a choice, but can breed a certain kind of loneliness when it’s mandated by a season that has been relentlessly putting you in your place. I’m a fairly resilient, Winterized Canadian, but the dictated isolation I’ve been experiencing of late has long since lost its charm.

Thankfully, things are changing. On the walk to work (which is no longer in pitch black) this morning, the thermometer in the center of town read warmer than –30 for the first time in quite a while, and we’re supposed to have an unseasonably warm –13 on Friday. I was eyeing my skis a few minutes ago, and within a couple of days should be back to playing outside and living the life that I had started to when I first arrived up here, before the wind chill so rudely jerked the recreational rug out from underneath me. Throughout town there seems to be a collective notion that we’ve put the worst behind us: scarves have been lowered just enough to share smiles with strangers as we bustle around on our daily business, and even though today was only Monday, inquiries of “Hey, what are you up to this weekend? Want to go snowshoeing?” could be heard throughout the city. Old-timers might scoff at my musings about how the past few weeks have been tough, but I definitely feel like I’ve had a taste of the worst of the season in the Northwest Territories. At this point, I can only hope that the elements don't force-feed me seconds.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Dispatch from Shantytown

When I finalized my living arrangements for my four months in the NWT and learned that I was going to be living in a trailer down near the water, I was hoping for comedic gold. I could handle living in a shack for four months, I thought, if it would give me some material to add to my inane repertoire of personal anecdotes. I was somewhat disappointed, then, when I actually moved in and found that once inside you wouldn’t know you were inside a trailer, and it was one of the nicer places I’ve resided in within the past few years. Indeed, this trailer was more akin to upscale Northern tourist lodge than it was a postcard from Ricky, Bubbles and Julian. That is, until the heat and water stopped working during Yellowknife’s coldest week of the year.

Last week’s saga started on Monday night within seconds of me posting the blog about how delightfully cozy winter up here can be. Seriously, five seconds after I posted that one, the power went out, which is of slight cause for concern when nighttime temperatures approach -50. I went to bed with a sweater on, and when I was awakened a couple of hours later by the lights coming back on, assumed that I had survived unscathed. That was, until I received the following e-mail at work on Tuesday from my roommate Mike (who is currently housesitting elsewhere): "Hey Hart did you have water at the trailer this morning? Just dropped the dog off and noticed the water wasn't working."


It would seem that pipes underneath a trailer in Yellowknife in January require a little more TLC than those under a house in Victoria in September, and ours had frozen. Mike called the one business in town who could unfreeze them, and was told it would be Thursday at the earliest before we were back in business. Alright, I could deal with this. I shrugged this bump in the road off as best I could, knowing that the gym I belong to (abs like these take work, ladies) was close-by for purposes of showering and filling my water bottles for tooth-brushing, etc. No biggie. Tuesday night was waterless but otherwise uneventful on the domestic front. Wednesday I awoke to a house that was a little chilly - a reflection of the still-plumetting outside temps, I told myself - and allowed myself a little extra time to walk to the gym in order to conduct my elaborate beauty regimen (my sculpted facial hair is just as much work as the aforementioned abs) before work.

I had pretty much forgotten about the troubles on the homefront by mid-morning , when I received some more electronic joy from Mike: "In other late breaking news - When I dropped Taiga (the dog) off this morning the house was pretty cold, turns out the pilot light on the furnace went out." So looks like I was oh, so perceptive when I thought the house was chilly that morning. The pilot light was indeed out, and for the next 36-hours we could not get the furnace lit for more than an hour at a time, at most. It would seem that propane, much like the human body, is not meant to function at forty-five below. It turns to gel, which doesn’t bode well for those in Yellowknife trying to heat their homes with it.

So within a period of a little more than 24-hours, I had gone from a peaceful co-existence with the Northern elements set in a cozy but modernized trailer, to an all-out battle against the cold in a son-of-a-bitchin’ cold shanty with no plumbing.

The heat would stay on a meager temperature for an hour at most, like I said. So I would try my best to keep things warm-ish while I was home (with the assistance of a sometimes-helpful propane fireplace). This meant that early in the morning and after work, the place would be see-your-breath cold, and I slept in multiple layers and a toque in anticipation of how chilly the shanty (no longer a trailer, remember?) would get while I was in bed. Furthermore, any liquids left lying around would be frozen by morning. Lucky for me, frozen liquids weren’t something I generally had to concern myself with, since you may recall that the plumbing was still out. There was certainly no shortage of water to be found outside, though, it just required a little bit of melting in order to be useful. During one of my forays into the elements to collect snow to boil I decided to prove my toughness by going outside clad only in pants and a t-shirt. Sweet nipples of frostbite, that was a cold twenty-eight seconds.

By Thursday afternoon things started to come around. After multiple visits from the propane company, we had heat once again that night (something I celebrated by keeping the thermostat at an environmentally unconscionable level for the subsequent 24 hours), and after the weary pipe-thawing man came by for a few hours on Friday night, the water was flowing and my dwelling had officially reclaimed its prestigious "trailer" status after an adventurous five-day downgrade. A shanty no more, and the peasants rejoiced.

Some of you have asked if it remains cold here, and to answer that I'll let the picture of the temperature and I (below) that I snapped on the way to work this morning speak for itself. I would say something here about how the cold is still manageable and not entirely unpleasant, but I think I'll hold off after the chain of events set off by last weeks flagrant display of disrespect for the season. I don't know what else Old Man Winter could throw my way, but it would not be cool if a polar bear came crashing through my roof tonight.