Monday, April 28, 2008

Knowing About Goodbye

I move a lot. It took some head-scratching, but one day this week as I was walking to work I figured out that I’ve moved fourteen times in the past five years. Of these fourteen moves, only once were subsequent dwellings in the same city, and only twice was I moving within the same province. There are a few repeat offenders on the moves list, but parking my bikes in the closet of a new apartment, or trying to find the best falafel with garlic sauce in a new city (FYI, in Ottawa it’s Shawarma Palace on Rideau at Augusta) have each been a part of my reality since my undergraduate days on the East Coast. All of this is to say that saying goodbye to people and places is something that I’ve grown used to. It’s not something that I especially enjoy, but I have come to accept the inevitability of goodbyes in my life with the tolerated ambivalence of daily activities such as brushing my teeth, or seasonal rites of passage like raking leaves.

This time, however, it was different.

I said goodbye to Yellowknife this past week, and where a shrug of the shoulders and an “I’m sure I’ll be by here again before too long - we’re Facebook friends, right?” have sufficed in the past, this time they didn’t quite seem to cut it. The fact that Yellowknife sits so far off the beaten Canadian path – geographically as well as culturally – is what made it largely appealing to me in the first place, but is what also made the goodbye tougher than what I’ve grown accustomed to. Knowing that it may be years before I spend another morning skiing the lake with Taiga, another afternoon playing hockey in front of the houseboats with strangers, or another night tipping bottles of Pilsner at the Gold Range with dear friends was enough to put a lump in my throat as I taxied down the runway pointed South on Friday morning. The more I think about it, the more I think that years may be a best-case scenario, as Yellowknife is not a place that’s easy to pass through, despite one’s best intentions.

Yet as strong a tie as I feel I developed with the people and the land, I don’t think I can begin to pretend to know what it takes to call the Northwest Territories home. A good friend of mine once pointed out that there is a difference between knowing, and knowing about. This dichotomy is especially relevant to the four months I spent in the North: I know very little of what it takes to call oneself a true Northerner, but I have come to know about enduring a few months of the North’s most difficult season.

I don’t know the grim acceptance of Winter’s impending six-month strangle-hold that comes with first snows of October, but I know about the deep sense of relief that comes with the first day you can leave your heaviest parka in the closet.

I don’t know the feeling of perpetual isolation that comes with living twelve months a year in a region that is geographically and financially difficult to visit or leave, but I know about the elation that comes when a loved one finds her way North for a few precious days.

I don’t know the necessity of having to rely on one’s neighbours to help with chores of survival – hunting, trapping, canning, stock-piling - in the winter months, but I know about the importance of opening yourself up to those around you and feeding on the warmth of their spirits in order to endure the coldest, darkest days of January and February.

I don’t know the helplessness that can come when one is reminded that Mother Nature is in charge when the ice road becomes impassible before ferry service starts and one’s community is cut off, but I know about the total and complete humility that comes from seeing one's own insignificance reflected in the immensity of the dancing Aurora.

I don’t know if I would have what it takes to make it through a twelve-month cycle in Canada’s North, but I know about the unforgiving Winter, and the inspiring people and resilient community that shepherded this wide-eyed Southerner through it.

I don’t know that I’ll make it back as soon as I would like, but I know all about the deep seeded gratitude I feel to the people and land who allowed me to stand beside them for the past four months.

You were good to me, Yellowknife. That much, I know.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dude on the Rocks

There are just so many rocks.

In last week’s post I mentioned how the snow was melting to reveal a rockier and less gentle landscape throughout Yellowknife than I had previously envisioned tucked below winter’s blanket. A time or two over the winter I have discovered this topographical lesson the hard way: attempts to climb many of the “hills” flanking Great Slave Lake on my snowshoes has proven fruitless as they were near-vertical rock faces, deceptively covered in some fresh fluffy white stuff. Those observations, aligned with the fact that the summer's main event here is a music festival called “Folk on the Rocks” would have appropriately tipped off someone swifter than I, but it wasn’t until an early morning adventure this past week that I discovered just how pervasive the rocks are.

Regular readers (at last count, aside from family: 11 classmates, four co-workers, two childhood friends [plus one of their moms] and the entirety of my mother’s Monday morning knitting circle) will know that I’ve been house-sitting for the past couple of weeks - an adventure in and of itself that came to a merciful end on Saturday. Some of you will also know that I try and swim before work a few days a week. The house-sit was located in a different part of town than my usual Northern abode, and so I’ve been doing some bipedal exploring on my early morning strolls to the pool.

Last Thursday I slipped out the door at about a quarter after six – an undertaking that has become much less painful since the sun started rising earlier than I could possibly get out of bed – and headed towards the pool. I made the now-familiar turns through my temporary neighbourhood in the direction of the pool, but decided not to take the easiest route that would lead me out to the main drag within about four blocks of my destination. Instead, intrepid Arctic explorer that I am, I opted to continue on the side-streets, operating on a “general direction” principle that I was sure would spit me out roughly where I wanted to be. Gee, I wonder if the loyal reader can see where this is going.

I plodded along, thinking I was parallel to my goal street of Franklin Ave. It eventually became apparent, though, that I was walking for longer than I probably should have been without seeing an appropriate place to make the right turn I needed to. After realizing this, the problem became that I had recently passed a couple of folks out brushing off their cars, so to turn around and back-track would be to risk being spotted and having to admit to being unsure of my whereabouts and direction. This embarrassment would have resulted in my Uncle John permanently expelling me from the family (this is the man who once spent two hours trying to find the ocean in Los Angeles by “following the sun”), so it clearly wasn't an option.

So I kept on, knowing that I had to make that right turn at some point. Lucky for me, the decision of when to turn right was made for me when the street I was on came to a cul-de-sac, penned in by low-rise apartments. “Sweet,” I thought. “I’ll just pop behind these buildings and I should be right where I need to be.”

That was before I saw the rocks.

I cruised around behind the apartments and was immediately faced with about thirty vertical feet of Canadian Shield. Now I wasn’t looking at a straight cliff here, so I thought I’d give ‘er the old college try, drawing on some time spent climbing mountains and convinced that the pool would be just on the other side. It took me a few minutes to navigate my way up the rocks, which were still somewhat snow covered and had become impossibly icy in the thaw/freeze/thaw/freeze cycles of the previous few days. I was nearly at the top when a quick stumble almost had disastrous results for my orthopedic well-being. I recovered without losing much ground, but my thermos full of chocolate milk that was strapped to the side of my back pack decided that it had had enough, and I could only watch as it gleefully slid back down the rocks and came to a smug rest at the bottom. Were the thermos empty I might have cut my losses, but chocolate milk has become integral to my daily existence (what am I, eight years old?), so I gingerly chased it back down the rocks, only to have to climb back up again.

Back at the top after a ten-minute setback I could happily look just a couple of hundred metres away and see…not the pool. Crap. I was looking at what seemed like some sort of industrial complex (or school, or maybe it was a mall), but I was convinced that the pool must have been on the other side, so I headed in that general direction. I was happily cruising along on top of the snow until the snow decided that it didn’t much care to support my weight anymore (snow and thermoses are both quitters, apparently) and shrugged me off, causing me to sink waist-deep while wearing my cleanest pair of office pants. I kept on, though, trying to tip-toe as if that would some how keep me on the surface (it didn’t) and sunk fully on about every third step. Still, I was making progress.

Progress, that is, until I saw the fence.

Upon closer inspection, I could see that the school/prison/un-pool seemed to be encircled in several vertical metres of chain-link, heading way out to both the right and the left. This posed two problems for me: the first being that I am not a particularly adept fence-climber, and the second being that it didn’t seem as though meandering co-op students trying to get to the pool were being particularly encouraged to swing by. Left with little recourse I returned the way I came: through the waist-deep snow, back down the icy rocks (stupid rocks) and past the low-rise. Luckily I wasn’t spotted on the return trip.

Now sweating in my cleanest work shirt I took stock of my situation and figured that my best directional option was behind some other buildings just downhill from, and slightly right of, the ones I had previously gone behind. I approached the back lot of this new set of buildings and saw a path, which I decided to blindly follow. Lo and behold, after about five feet on the path I could see the pool just across the street (I have no idea what street I was on) and behind a curling club. The relief was short-lived, however, as I soon realized that I was about five feet back and another thirty feet up from the road. I don’t think you need to know that slope equals rise over run (thank you, Wikipedia) to figure out that this wouldn’t be an easy descent.

Oh yeah, and it was almost all rocks.

The face had some small shrubs growing out of it, so I used those to anchor myself as I eased my way down diagonally. Again, glare ice was the order of the day. I lowered myself until I was about eight feet off the ground. I had nowhere to go but straight down at this point, so I tried to slowly lower myself. The first couple of inches of this final descent went smoothly, but something gave way round about inch five, at which point I was instantly spit out onto the sidewalk eight feet below, which would have been much to the displeasure of any passersby. There were no witnesses to be seen, though, and I was thankfully in one piece and finally able to make my way to the pool, sticky with sweat, damp with snow, pants muddy but spirit unbroken (albeit hanging by a thread).

I mentioned in an earlier post that Yellowknife is a city where a city shouldn’t be. That a southern lifestyle won’t always work when ignorantly superimposed on a Northern geography. That was in reference to the climate, as opposed to the geology of the area, however I think it’s safe to now extend that viewpoint to the physical landscape. Don’t get me wrong, Yellowknife is beautiful, but it is a rugged beauty that doesn't co-exist well with a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The locals up here have found a way to carve out an existence against the most stubborn of backdrops, and for that feat alone they are to be respected and commended.

There are just so many damn rocks.

Monday, April 14, 2008

To Everything, a Season

Roy Hurd, a folk singer from my sometimes home of the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, is the writer of the unofficial anthem of the area. “Adirondack Blue” has a verse dedicated to each of the mountain region’s four distinct seasons – seasons which have their own drastic impact on the way many locals live and work. Living on Southern Vancouver Island over the Falls, Winter and Spring of the past year (2006-2007), I found myself missing the distinct change of seasons that Roy sings about so eloquently. And not only did I miss the snow and cold of a true Winter, but I missed the climatic road trip I would be taken on four times a year as the weather and calendar would perhaps gradually but always dramatically shepherd me into the next season. Indeed, once again feeling a season change under my feet and before my eyes was one reason I was drawn to Yellowknife in the first place. The explosion of Spring I’ve witnessed in the past few days has made the trip entirely worthwhile in that regard.

A week ago I was shuffling seamlessly from dry land onto Great Slave Lake. Today the murky puddles marking water’s edge are the area of backyard swimming pools.

A week ago I looked out the back window of my current home to see soft hills covered with a winter’s worth of snow. Today they are exposed for the barren rock formations that they are.

A week ago the sidewalks were lined with several inches of ice. Today a friend and I raced pieces of trash down the quickly-moving flow of runoff adjacent to the curb. (His apple-juice can won after my milk bottle turned sideways and gave up its sizeable lead. A valuable lesson to be learned about fluid dynamics).

But the changes to the landscape aren’t simply of the endearing, aesthetic variety - the kind that seem to serve no greater purpose than to give old men something to talk about. Rather, the seasonal changes in the North can leave their imprint on the daily lives of just about everybody in the community – and not just when it comes to dressing one’s self in the morning. The neighbouring community of Dettah, for example, is a bite-sized 6km jaunt over the ice road by car in the Winter. Starting this weekend, however, it becomes a slightly less casual 27 km excursion around the bay (on pavement).

Granted, I probably won’t need to go to Dettah anytime soon, but my food will be making an important road trip from the South (I have previously written on the difficulties of eating locally in Yellowknife in the Winter). We are now in a shoulder season, where there is a very real possibility that for a few days the ice bridges won’t be safe to cross and the warm-weather ferries won’t be running. When this happens, a brother might have to wait a few extra days before the grocery store gets a re-supply of chocolate milk.

It’s also an awkward time of year for playing outside. Snowmobiles may look cool when puddle-skimming, but I assume that thinning ice and disappearing snow make this most popular of winter activities here probably tougher and significantly more dangerous. As for me, I’ve had to accept the reality that my skis and snowshoes are probably done for the season. My stomping ground in that regard has been Great Slave Lake, which is a whole lot tougher to get onto these days on account of the massive puddles that encircle it, and the reward of plodding along through heavy Spring slush isn’t entirely worth it. We're still several weeks away, though, from the replacements for skis and snowmobiles - being soccer shoes and speed boats, respectively - being dusted off for the summer.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the advent of Spring is 5% inconvenience and 95% sigh of relief as far as I am concerned. Upon stepping outside over the past few days, residents have been greeted by the sound of a city melting and coming to life. For the first time I can remember, the sound of the water having been left on is music to the ears. It’s as though someone has flipped a switch, and with no January thaw to speak of, Yellowknife is instantly spitting out an entire Winter’s worth of precipitation (this morning’s setback in the form of a slight dusting of snow notwithstanding).

From vast expanses of rock being uncovered to transportation routes being reconfigured, the change of season in the NWT can and does alter the very makeup and identity of a region in ways that I’ve never seen it happen anywhere else. At least, not to the extent that it isn't avoidable for anybody. No matter how well immunized a man may think himself to be from the authority of the elements – especially now that Winter’s wrath is seemingly tucked in for its warm-weather hibernation – when topography, food supply and available leisure activities all change in complete orchestration with the thawing landscape, we are reminded that we are biological creatures who remain part of a dynamic ecosystem. This is as it should be, and has been another of the humbling pleasures of my season in the North.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A New Friend

“So Hart, what do you think of dogs?”

As far as loaded questions go, this one ranks right up there with “What are you and your arms doing Saturday afternoon?” and “Hey, do you still have that station wagon?” The person asking almost always knows the answer, and the person being asked almost always knows that an honest answer will lead to a some sort of unpleasant (though happily undertaken) task, leading to a reward measured out in pints.

The positor in this case was a co-worker with a somewhat desperate look on her face, so I didn’t have much choice but to answer honestly and anticipate a grovel-induced follow-up. It would seem that her family has to go out of town rather suddenly, and is turning a chore of a trip into a bit of a vacation which will have them in need of a house-sitter. The two sitters she had managed to line up both bailed, and her usual backup will be out of town at the time. Enter our hero: the compulsive e-mail checker with curly hair who occupies the office at the end of the hall.

I should say before proceeding that house-sitting is a part of the culture up here. The fact that cold temperatures make leaving a house unattended a horrible idea for much of the year, paired with the reality that to get any sort of change of scenery Yellowknifers generally have to travel for longer than a weekend, means that there is quite a demand for unattached young folks willing to uproot for days or weeks at a time. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon in the community for people to move from house-sit to house-sit for months at a time without keeping any steady residence of their own. With the need for house-sitters comes a certain amount of trust in those in the community, which is certainly endearing and seldom if ever proves to be ill-advised.

My co-worker and her family will be away for two weeks; a length of time I balked at slightly given that I have been quite enjoying my domestic situation (this week aside) and only have three weeks left up here. That said, I could see that she was in a real pinch, and I’m always up for a change of scenery, so last Tuesday I found myself wandering over to my temporary new digs (not far from my current house, as it turns out, and almost the exact same distance from the office) to get the lay of the land before the family was to take off two days later. This was also my chance to meet Lola, the four-legged roommate who would be my charge for the next couple of weeks.

I’m a dog lover and Lola is a dog. For these absolute truths, she should be thankful, because upon first meeting her it seemed to me that the fact that she is dog was her only redeeming quality. She is a shi-tzu/poodle mix (I’m a large breed kind of guy), yaps at passersby (hardly enchanting) and bit my hand the first time I met her (call me grumpy, but I don’t like it when yappy small-breeds whose crap I’m about to be picking up for two weeks bite me on the hand). Wait, it gets better.

After showing me around the house, Lola’s doting owner took me through the steps for taking the dog out for a walk, highlighted by the placing of four dainty, matching booties on the little one’s paws. Oh, and she needs to wear a coat when it’s cold. The flowered leash was affixed and we headed out the door. Sensing, perhaps, a lack of enthusiasm in her sucker of a house-sitter as we navigated the slush and melting snow of her tame residential street, the grateful soon-to-be traveler attempted to offer some consolation. “Oh, and if this leash isn’t manly enough for you, I think there’s a black one inside.”

Apparently she didn’t think that one through. I’m going to be walking a temperamental mix of the two least manly breeds on the planet. While chastising passersby for having the gall to try and share her sidewalk, our little princess will be clad in four matching booties and possibly a jacket. There are not enough pictures on Earth of naked women holding machine guns that could adorn a leash with this dog on the end of it in order salvage even the teensiest bit of manliness from this situation. Thanks, but I might as well just stick with the flowers. At least then people might think I’m approaching the situation with the slightest bit of irony as opposed to lying to myself about what’s actually going on.

So out of town they went and I headed over on Friday afternoon – before I actually moved in – to let Lola out. I decided to high road-it and be friendly right off the bat. You know, extend the olive branch and kill her with kindness. Lo and behold, she actually seemed happy to see me, did her business in the back yard, and I ate my falafel and headed back to work. “This might not be so bad,” I thought. Maybe she understood that it was just she and I against the world for a while, and she might as well be cordial to the hand that will be feeding her and, umm, putting on her booties (a little part of me has died every time I’ve done that).

Shortest. Honeymoon. Ever.

I came “home” on Friday night to move in and found two different types of animal waste on the floor in different parts of the house. Her footwear never seems to stay on when we go out, so I’m forced to spend entire walks – exercises that are embarrassing at best - bent over at the waist trying to discern if the black booties have stayed on the black dog, and am left thinking about possible creative solutions to the adherence problem (duct tape can’t hurt dogs, can it?). Oh, and when I was at work today she redecorated the basement with the contents of the garbage can.

There’s also the issue of solid waste. (Grandma, I love you and I think it’s great that you read my blog, but for issues of language and content, how’s about you skip the rest of this paragraph? Say hello to Georgie for me). I have spent much of this winter walking my roommate’s beloved husky dog, Taiga. When Taiga makes a roadside deposit, he does it like he means it, and leaves a Texas-sized calling card which sometimes contains discernible parts of an animal lower on the food chain. Granted, picking up and transporting dog dung is never an exercise to be celebrated, but if a guy has to do it, he might do it on the manliest terms possibly and make sure that the bag is full of ten pounds of hard-earned husky shit. Lola’s delicate outputs, on the other hand, are probably better gathered with a Q-Tip than a plastic bag, and further reduce the macho factor of this strange new gig I’m holding down.

Things aren’t all bad, though. The barking has subsided and she has generally started showing excitement when I come through the door. And while I do prefer a larger dog, I would lie if I told you that I haven’t enjoyed a couple of cozy moments on the couch with my small new friend. Plus, she’s got great hair: dark and curly. A friend of mine was over the other night and said that he couldn’t tell where my hair stopped and hers started when I crouched down on the floor to say hello to her. Added to these positives, there’s a big screen TV in the basement (pretentious lefty that I am, I live most of my days without a TV, or at least without cable) which I just finished watching the NCAA basketball final on, and I’ve discovered that satellite radio may be the coolest broadcast medium ever (three favourite channels on Sirius: Jam Bands, Bluegrass and all-Springsteen).

I know that Lola is dearly loved, and there has been a lot of trust placed in me to mind the shop for the next couple of weeks, so I’m focusing on her sweet side and we’re getting along better by the day. To be honest, I just might be sad to say goodbye to her when the time comes. That said, if anyone reading this ever needs a sweater-wearing Pomeranian looked after for a few weeks, you may want to look elsewhere first. It will take my fragile male ego a while to recover from the feisty little one who will be calling my shots for the next little while.



P.S. A special shout-out to my classmates back in Victoria who are heading into exam season. I anticipate a steep spike in procrastinatory readership for the next couple of weeks.