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.