Monday, March 31, 2008

A Harty Visitor and Trouble Steering

After phoning it in for the past couple of weeks (I readily admit that the photo gallery of two weeks ago is the blogging equivalent of a sitcom doing a clip-show retrospective), I figure we’re overdo for some substance around here. What happened today alone (when I was tangentially involved in a street fight, inadvertently fell asleep and drooled on myself at work and met a dog that will be dealing repeated crushing blows to my masculinity over the next two weeks) would make great fodder for at least a couple of entries, but I think I should do some catching up first.

The highlight of the past couple of weeks was certainly the visit of my lovely, talented and – for seven wonderful days – conveniently located girlfriend, Sarah. She was able to find a relatively cheap flight (think double what your concept of a cheap flight may be) on short notice, so we split the price of a ticket and up she came for the Easter weekend. I took the one day on each side of the weekend off work, so we effectually had a whole week together.

Even when you’ve lived someplace for only a few months, it can be all too easy to fall into a routine and take things for granted, or never get around to doing some of the fun and novel (if slightly cliché) things that give a place its character. Having Sarah spend a week up here gave me a chance to once again see Yellowknife through some fresh eyes, and I was reminded of how blessed I am to be wintering in such a special place. Prematurely or not, I felt a swell of local pride as I took Sarah skiing on the lake under the dancing aurora, exploring the Snowking’s winter castle, and dancing at the rough-and-tumble Gold Range.

Sarah and I in the Snowking's castle.

Aside from the things that have become familiar to me, we also charted some new territory together, highlighted by a trip to the famously rugged Bullock’s in Old Town for some fish and chips (complete with writing on the tables and walls and an array of bumper stickers spanning the social and political spectrum adorning surfaces throughout the restaurant). Sarah and I are both vegetarians, with our choice in diet based on the strain that meat production and transportation puts on the planet (see this post for more on the subject). Given, however, that the fish available at Bullock’s is wild and as local as can be (the restaurant is right on the water), it wasn’t tough to harmonize a delicious meal of fish with our personal ethics. I’m not sure how much we enjoyed our meal, but two trucker-portioned plates of fish, fries and “salad” (read: shredded lettuce) were inhaled in their entirety during an eight minute conversational hiatus. Environmental awareness, as it turns out, tastes awesome when pan-fried.

Sarah and I honed our ever-developing “airport goodbye” skills mid-week, and with my roommate out of town once again, it was me and Taiga the wonderdog left to take on the world. Taiga and I have had some great adventures this winter, however on Saturday afternoon we added a new one to the repertoire. Skiijoring (ski-JOOR-ing) is a Scandinavian sport that is essentially a one-man dog sledding exercise, and skiing's answer to automatic transmission. The premise is simple: on cross-country skis, you attach yourself to the dog and let him pull you along the snow.

The premise is simple, I should say, for humans. If Taiga’s ability to pick it up is any indication, the dogs may struggle with it a touch. I harnessed us both up and there we stood in anticipation of skimming across the Great Slave hard pack with the sunny afternoon breeze in our hair. I practically had the blog entry written before we even got going. Right, getting going. There was only one problem facing us as we stood there: how do you start a dog?

“Taiga…GO!” Nothing.

A sharp whistle. Nothing.

A humane prod with a ski pole accompanied by questionable remarks about the legitimacy of his mother. Nothing.

Normally I’d be happy to lead the way, although one can’t very easily lead the way when one is supposed to be getting pulled. The closest we got to activity for the first few minutes was the occasional backwards glance from the dog, with his facial expression clearly saying “You don’t actually expect me to pull your ass around the lake like this, do you?”

You want me to do what?

Eventually, through much coercing and Milk Bone promises we got moving. However, our problems with forward mobility did not end there. I have never been hitched to a six year-old boy with unchecked Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but I think that getting pulled by Taiga is as close as I ever care to come (my mother might call this karma). I could almost hear his internal monologue at we went: “I’m pulling Hart and it’s fun. I’m pulling Hart and it’s fun. I’m pulling Hart and HOLY CRAP WHAT SMELLS LIKE FISH OVER THERE?”

We’d be cruising along pleasantly at a decent clip (with me helping to push with my poles) until the 80-pound husky would see something enticing out of the corner of his eye, or catch whiff of a tasty morsel buried beneath the snow, at which point he would make a sharp and unannounced turn, sling-shoting yours truly forward into the abyss. Ever seen an unimpressed white dude catch air on cross-country skis? Lucky for me, there were always several feet of cold hard snow and ice underfoot to halt my forward progress once I made the inevitable tumble that followed Taiga's spontaneous side trips, so I never got too far without him.

Skiijoring was enjoyable enough, but I think I can safely put it with first year law school exams and puberty in the “glad I went through it, but don’t want to do it again” file.

So it’s been an eventful couple of weeks. As I said in the first paragraph, there’s already a lot to cram into my next couple of postings. The days are getting wicked long (it’s currently light until about nine o’clock) and the Northern Lights over the past few days have been some of the best I’ve seen, so I’m barreling head-first into April with a keen anticipation. Thanks for helping me through this far, and please stay tuned.



Monday, March 24, 2008

Closed for Easter

A Harty Meal will be closed today, March 24th, in honour of Easter Monday and the fact that there is nothing cool about sitting on the couch and blogging when one's girlfriend is in town for but a few short days. Regular scheduled programming will resume next Monday, March 31st. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Photogenic Week (or: Let's Go to the Hop)

It's been a pretty jam-packed week around town. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking this time around.

The Arctic Winter Games (AWG) were in town this week. A mix of cultural events, modern competitions and traditional sports, the Games bring athletes from nine circumpolar regions (Alaska, Yukon, NWT, Northern Alberta, Nunavut, Nunavik [Northern Quebec], Greenland, Sami [Northern Scandinavia] and Yamal [Northern Russia]) together for a week every two years. I was stoked that the games were here this winter.

I saw more cultural events than I did athletic, but there were great in and of themselves:

A fiddler and jigger from the NWT (they love their jiggin' up here):

A dancer and drummers from Northern Russia:

Vegetarian though I am, I kind of wanted to go out and hunt after watching these guys do their thing.

The one sporting event that I did get to see is perhaps the flagship event of the Games. The knuckle hop is to the AWG what the men's marathon is to the Summer Olympics: it is the last athletic event of the week, and happens just before the closing ceremonies. What is the knuckle hop, you ask? Simply put: it's one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Competitors get themselves into a push-up position, but with weight on their knuckles as opposed to their palms. Remaining in that position (with elbows tucked in and back straight) they have to hop along the hardwood (yes, hardwood) gym floor on their toes and knuckles. No, you're not mistaken: it is exactly what you're picturing right now, and appears to be every bit as grueling as one would assume.

The winner "hopped" around ninety painful feet. I'm curious to hear who among you injures yourself trying to break that record after reading this post (Micah Carmody and AJ Biswas, I'm looking in your general directions).

Competitors must report to the nurses' table immediately upon finishing, and some say that the rendering of the knuckles useless is why this event is the last of the Games. The picture below is of the hand of the first competitor pictured above. The sight under the bandages is nasty, I assure you.

I think that the next time I'm foolish enough to think myself tough for the way I can ride a bicycle up hills, I'll recall the knuckle hop and gently weep to myself.

Sunday afternoon I took a run along my favourite local route: the ice road out on Great Slave Lake. The picture below doesn't do justice to the colours I can see underfoot, but I think you get the idea.

Fifteen below and sunny is what I call a near-perfect day.

And at the end of a long week, who doesn't want to put their feet up on the lake with a good friend?

Happy St. Patrick's Day, folks. See you next week.

Peace, love and knuckle hops,


Monday, March 10, 2008

Remaining Grateful

I made a remark in this post a couple of weeks ago about how I was taken aback at the extent to which my own perspective had changed since being in Yellowknife. The comment was made with regard to a feeling that –23 was a downright balmy afternoon temperature, when it would have felt rather frigid a few weeks previous. Sitting down to write this week’s installment I was reminded again of how my perspective has shifted since being up here. I was stumped at what to write about, thinking that nothing in the previous seven days seemed appropriate to share with my ever-growing readership (up to twelve non-relatives now, I think). Thinking back, though, on just the previous couple of days – let alone seven – I realized that perhaps I was looking at things with a Northern shrug of the shoulders, rather than a more appropriate wide-eyed gaze.

Friday night I walked a few blocks to see some live music. This activity in and of itself wouldn’t be especially noteworthy, however the circumstances under which the band was playing made the evening more than the usual weekend head-bob. Indeed, the venue of choice wasn’t a smoky poolroom or stale bingo hall, rather I watched a Francophone band throw down in the middle of a lake in a multi-room, multi story sprawl built nearly entirely of snow and ice. Picture a band playing in the biggest snow sculpture you’ve ever seen, and you might have some idea. Yellowknife’s annual Snow King festival is in full swing for the duration of March, and the King himself (an eccentric local with a custom-made “Snow King” Ski Doo suit and a beard that looks like Lanny McDonald’s moustache on horse steroids) is holding nightly court in his frozen castle.

Cruising from room-to-room, sitting at the icy tables and climbing the snow-block stairs to the upper reaches of the castle on Friday night made for quite the Yellowknife-specific experience. As for the band, well, they were kind of brutal. And I don’t mean “they sang too loud and forgot the second verse of Brown Eyed Girl” brutal, I mean “two of them did not know how to play their instruments” brutal. And yet that didn’t seem to matter. The novelty of standing in the second-floor loft of a frozen house looking down at a live band in the middle of Great Slave Lake more than made up for music that didn’t exactly go down smooth. What I experienced on Friday night was an exercise in complete sensory immersion, with the result that enjoying the music was entirely secondary to being a part of an especially unique Northern experience. To discuss the musicians as if I were at a bar in Ottawa and they were the sole purveyors of the evening’s atmosphere would be to take an incredibly short-sighted view of a night on the ice.

Friday’s activity lasted many hours and several drinks after the last note was played in the castle. As such, Saturday night proved socially uneventful, though a late-night walk with a four-legged companion provided quite the dose of Northern excitement. I had casually observed the Northern Lights earlier in the evening, cutting a bright white horizontal swath across the sky before taking a prompt vertical nose-dive (think the trajectory of a BASE jumper taking a long run before leaping off a cliff). Pretty, but something that I have sheepishly grown accustomed to and slightly less taken by in the past couple of months. By dog-walking time, however, things had taken a turn for the spectacular.

Walking across an empty residential parking lot I became frozen in my tracks when I glanced upward: the entire night sky was a flurry of greens and whites that seemed intent on outrunning every superlative metaphor I tried to categorize them with. One minute they spread themselves into a domed chapel ceiling under which I felt like I should be giving penance; the next, they separated and played against the sullen evening darkness in a way that recalled the buzz-heightening light shows of the Phish concerts of my (slightly) younger days. As I involuntarily lay down in the snow to watch the show from my back they shifted again: round swirling that looked like a glowing disc (Frisbee) being tossed around a Salt Spring Island campsite, holding that resemblance only for a second before unfurling to look like the concentric rings of icing on a fresh sticky bun. All the while they were shifting by the second – moving at times as quickly as a four year-old’s crayon across the pages of a colouring book.

“Taiga, are you seeing this?” I asked of my walking buddy, looking more for corroboration than companionship. I even tried pointing skyward to get him to appreciate things, but it would seem that the following of trails left behind by previous canine visitors and the smelling of one’s own hind quarters are endeavours more important than Aurora gazing to some local residents.

I lay in the snow, feeling insignificant and awestruck, until the lights started to settle. As the show ended and Taiga and I headed home, I couldn’t help but feel greedy with my occasional glances upward, as if the sky still owed me something after what it had just given me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some remarkable natural phenomena to this point in my life, but I don’t know that I’ve ever come away from a natural experience feeling so humbled, so grateful to the Creator, as I did on Saturday night. Contrived as that may sound, it’s the truth.

And yet I still wasn’t sure that my experiences of the past week were blog-worthy; apparently, evolving perspective can be both a blessing and a curse. I suppose I can relish in the fact that I’ve become somewhat culturally and naturally acclimatized to life as a (make-believe) Northerner, but experiences as special as those which I had on the weekend aren’t of the ilk that I ever want to take for granted, no matter how long I may live somewhere. I do fear that once I leave the North I’ll realize that I wasn’t fully appreciative of it while I was here (I think there’s a Joni Mitchell quote in there somewhere). And so I must seek to remain engaged and appreciative as I go about the next couple of months up here, and not lose sight of what a blessing this Winter has been, still is and hopefully will continue to be for me. Vancouver Island in the summer will be wonderful on its own merits, but by that point it will be far too late to appreciate first-hand a people and a land that can give you a night with the Snow King and the dancing Aurora.



Monday, March 3, 2008

Hockey Day on Local Terms

The dream died over a decade ago, buried under an avalanche of paper, plastic and minimum wage. I think it was around 1996 when, despite my father’s perennial willingness to drive me to the rink at ungodly winter hours, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to morph my illustrious 8-year stint in the House League B ranks of the Nepean Minor Hockey Association into a lucrative professional career. The skates were hung up in favour of a crisp red apron and gainful employment at Robinson’s: Your Independent Grocer. (I wouldn’t go pro in that field either, although the $6.30 an hour I earned was more than I could have every hoped to make manning the blue line at Merivale Arena). I’ve only played hockey on ice a handful of times since then, but always jump at the chance when it is presented to me. This past weekend the opportunity came again, Yellowknife style.

The Great Slave Invitational is a one-day hockey tournament that is serious in name and heart only. The setting is a natural rink – complete with boards and lighting maintained by a local operating only out of the goodness of his heart – in front of a row of houseboats on the lake in Yellowknife Bay. Six teams were in the running this year for the coveted “Houseboat Cup”, a toilet-paper roll and duct tape mock-up that resembles a potential Lord Stanley and Red Green love child. Of the motley crews vying to have their names etched – er, magic markered – on the trophy, the proudest must have been Team Trailer Trash, straight out of Trail’s End Park where yours truly lays his head at night. Representing the trailer park was not something my fellow diplomats and I took lightly, as was attested to by our rather distinct uniforms: sleeveless undershirts with the numbers drawn on them in ketchup and mustard (picture at left). I inadvertently took the theme one step further, sporting loaner skates held together with packing tape.

Despite the laid-back nature of the day (both on and off the ice) scores were kept and a schedule was adhered to. Knowing when your team would be up next was crucial, as it afforded players the chance to maximize resting time in the tournament host’s houseboat while skates were warmed by the fire (picture, below). Though things warmed up by the mid-afternoon, the mercury will only rise so high when the windchill is sub-minus forty at the beginning of the first game, so time inside the houseboat was cherished.

After a spirited and undefeated romp through our exhausting (?) two-game round-robin schedule, Team Trailer Trash lost an overtime heartbreaker in the semi-finals. The winning goal was scored by a high-flying kayaking Frenchman from Fort Smith with an anomalous competitive streak and dreadlocks to his waist. The overtime loss was a tough pill to swallow, but after three games and a subsistence of potato chips and water over the previous eight hours, I wasn’t sad about setting out across the lake in the direction of my warm trailer just as the final game was starting and the evening winds were picking up.

Any experience like Saturday’s will lead one to contemplate the game in a broader national context. Personally, I’ve grown increasingly weary in recent years of the Canadian hockey myths perpetuated by the good folks at our country’s macro breweries. I do not know that hockey is quite the national unifier that we would like it to be, and I do know that there are a whole lot of natural-born, passport-carrying Canadians who aren’t terribly concerned with five men dressed in garters and stockings looking to score. This is, of course, despite the fact that we are supposedly a nation of 30 million hockey lovers.

I do remain among the throngs who get annually swept up by the playoff march of my hometown NHLers (sorry to those of you in Toronto who have forgotten what this feels like) and pay close attention to all the right international tournaments. Despite my enthusiasm towards these events, however, I am often left feeling like there are certain elements of the contrived and predictable within them, and that we’re all just buying in to exactly what we’re supposed to buy in to. Pardon me for not welling up with patriotic tears when a different fan every year gets on CBC’s coverage brandishing a homemade “Cup Belongs in Canada” poster. (Lest I receive a flood of comments charging heresy, I should point out in my defense that I slid The Hip’s Phantom Power into the rotation inside the warm-up houseboat, thinking that Gord and the boys would make the day that much more complete.)

The doubts mentioned above notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but feel a very organic sense of authentic territorial pride (note the small “t”) swell up inside me as the afternoon wore on. The scene surrounding me – natural rink on a massive lake with a backdrop of cozily inhabited houseboats - was not one that could be easily duplicated in many other populated parts of the world, nor is it one that felt scripted by a ninety-second potato chip ad. And if following the fake Cold War that is the NHL can feel contrived and predictable, then Saturday afternoon felt authentic and spontaneous. There was no forced sense of Canadian-ness among the thirty-odd players (or thirty odd players, depending on your perspective) who took part in the tournament. Rather, the climatic and social circumstances that brought us out to the rink are very legitimate and inescapable byproducts of living in the true North strong and free (I'll leave it to you to delineate that territory however you see fit).

The author and activist Winona LaDuke has said that she feels patriotic to a land but not to a flag. On a similar note, I walked away from Saturday feeling patriotic toward a land and a game, not a flag and a beer commercial.



The troops are rallied at the official pre-tournament meeting:

Fierce opening-round action as"The Greengoes" take on "Team Rag Tag":

The die-hards:

A bucket of cold water and a shovel do Zambonic wonders when chunks get taken out of the rink:

We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger: