The woman across the aisle pulls a compact mirror
out of her bag, pries it open with a careful creak, holds it up
to the light, pauses, and slowly applies her lipstick, unmindful
of the fact that I have just moved to Yellowknife. Excuse me miss,
can I have your attention for a moment, I don't think you understand
the gravity here. This is a moment and I am going to share it with
you and all the rest of these people, miss, do you understand? "It's
10:30 mountain time, we're coasting in a few minutes early here
folks, hope you enjoyed your flight."
People stretch, yawn, acknowledge the pilot-they fold their
newspapers and bring their seats upright. Stewardesses walk up
the aisle a final time before we land. They collect garbage and
smile. One helps an older man with his seatbelt.
The pilot announces the local temperature. Somebody should
really do something to mark this moment-strike up a few brass
notes, read a line of poetry, mention that somewhere right now
there is a war going on, a famine, a revolution and that everything
in our past stretches out behind in a vast swath-because I'm
really not sure what I'm doing here.
The puffy down jacket I bought this afternoon in Edmonton at
Mountain Equipment Co-op is still a satisfyingly pneumatic bulk
under the seat that I nudge again with my foot as the plane
descends. I have just moved to Yellowknife.
The ground below is an ice rink, snowdrifts, a black hole,
crunchy and beautiful-and look folks, look, I'm new to this,
I've never been here or done this and we're landing a plane
on the moon here and I'm not sure how cold is cold, I mean,
I meant, what I meant to ask was what to wear in this weather,
I mean what do you guys consider cold, anyway?
"It's a cold one tonight folks. Minus 37 and the wind
is blowing. Mind your step on the way into the terminal folks.
A polar bear on a wobbly ice shelf swipes at a seal that has
come up through a round hole for air. A taxidermic wonder. I
don't know anybody in Yellowknife. The bear is in the terminal
above the luggage carousel and nobody acknowledges it as they
pick up their luggage, hug their relatives, get into cabs, go
about their lives.
Bruce, my new boss who is to pick me up from the airport, is
late. I have never met Bruce. We have not seen a picture of
each other. After a long day I'm a seven hour-stopover in Edmonton
and a million miles away from when my mom drove me to the airport
in Victoria that morning, helped me with my suitcase and said
Bruce: "This is my favourite game, spot the new journalist-hi,
my name is Bruce, do you have anything warmer to wear than that?"
Me: "I do."
Bruce: "Put it on. It's cold outside."
Now this is a different day a month later and I have made a
few observations-firstly, that winter is quiet. The cold is
quiet, and things outside move slow and careful as to not slip.
To illustrate, let's note that the guys in the suite upstairs
shout at sports games and usually turn their Nickelback up too
loud. At night these are the only things in a city of 20,000
that I hear other than the fridge hum, or occasionally the sullen
whiz of a snowmobile. They drive those things on the street
here. They park them in stalls at the grocery store.
Secondly, that this is the most common means that strangers
use to start conversations in Yellowknife:
"You're new to town. My name is ______. So why did you
The latter part is not meant to mean "so why would you
come here?" as in why would you move here rather than do
something else, perhaps more predictable, like move to Toronto
to work in an upscale deli, become really good at a certain
sport, or go to law school-it comes from sincere curiosity.
Thirdly, that the boots I picked out the same time I bought
my big puffy jacket in Edmonton at Mountain Equipment Co-op
have a design flaw. The only time I have really been cold I
got frostbite, but only on the bottoms of my feet. Once the
soles of my boots get cold they stay cold, it seems. It may
be a design flaw or it may be that the boots weren't designed
with Yellowknife in mind, what with all the frozen lakes, ice
roads and the crusty layer of snow that covers everything. I
didn't even realize until I got home and pulled my boots off.
The bottoms of my feet were an unnatural purple, a Kindergarten
colour like I was making footprints in fingerpaint.
Lastly, that the winter sun cuts a parallel path just above
the horizon at this latitude like a shallow line drive popped
over the first baseman's glove. I have gone on one snowmobile
trip into the wilds that surround Yellowknife. Apparently you
can hop from lake to lake, over traditional hunting trails,
up creeks and rivers for thousands of kilometers. Zipping towards
the sun at sunset across the surface of a particularly large
lake I wonder how the sky can be so much bigger here. Is that
physics or optics? A little geography, maybe, a little perspective,
or math, I don't know. The sunsets this time of year are unmatched
and the northern lights seem like they should make a noise,
a metallic hum, as they gather, then fade in and out and in.
Today it's -15 C. It should stay balmy for a few more days,
then drop back down. It's outside weather, jackets open weather,
great for the caribou hunters, time to toboggan, to play pickup
hockey on the lake.
People talk about the weather here. That's what they say.
is really really fucking cold.