Chronicles of a Trini in the frigid North

Frozen no more

If anyone were to survey Yellowknife residents about how long they had lived here, the answers would vary, from people who have lived here forever (literally and figuratively), to those who came to visit or to spend a short time and are still here more than 20 years later, to those who came to work for a year but are itching to leave after a few months, to those who have left and returned, and will do so as often as it takes for them to figure out where  else where they want to be.

There seem to be many apparently-accepted truths about living in Yellowknife, some of them rather amusing. More than one Yellowknifer told me that once newcomers managed to pass the 3-year milestone, they ended up remaining in Yellowknife forever. I was both amused and sceptical about that. I didn’t plan to stay forever and I know people who have left town after more than 3 years.

Mind you, sometimes, when the Northwest Territories population statistics were announced, we joked about the “traitors”, the people who had left town, adding to the outflow number. As so many had done before me, eventually I became one of those people. After 5+ years of “Life in the ‘Knife”, this year I packed up, picked up and left town, thus making my contribution to this year’s outflow statistics. Change is the only constant in life, and it was time for a change.

Moving always involves saying goodbye to the familiar and looking forward to the new. In my case, it meant saying goodbye to the familiar and returning to some of the previously familiar, as well as some new things. There are so many people and things about Yellowknife that I will miss. 5 years isn’t a long time, not in the larger scheme of life. It is, however, enough time to develop friendships, attachments, a lifestyle and community connections.

The thing that most notably marked the passage of those 5 years was observing the children in the neighbourhood growing up. There was one little boy who was about 3 years old the first time that I stopped my car one summer day, to allow him and the older brother holding his hand to cross the street to enter the park. He looked right at me, smiled the cutest little smile and waved. I waved back and over time, I stopped many more times for them to cross the street. I saw him and his brother playing football in that park countless times with their friends, or with their father while their mother sat watching, and eventually holding a baby brother. By the time I left town, my smiling little friend was crossing the street on his own and baby brother was chasing around behind the ball as well, or perhaps he was just running after his older brothers. It was hard to tell which, because he was by far the tiniest player of the bunch, but what he lacked in size and skill he more than made up for in enthusiastic running and shouting. I will miss hearing and seeing the many kids playing in the park, especially during the summer holidays.

I will also miss knowing my neighbours. I don’t mean merely saying a polite hello to them. I mean knowing them on a first-name basis and knowing about their families. Also knowing them to the extent that we borrow a car, pop over for a cup of sugar or some garlic, or give a copy of our keys when we’re going to be away from home for a while.

I will truly miss the essence of northern culture, which is the understanding of our common human connection, the spirit of community and the way that people look out for each other. Even though I spent much more time in Toronto, I know more Yellowknifers than I know Torontonians. There’s never a shortage of people willing to help, whether it be for a charity, a school event or a search for a missing person. You’re never alone or lacking for help – or for anything – in Yellowknife.

Even those elected to serve are close to the community, perhaps closer than some of them might like to be when there are controversial bills or other matters at hand. You can attend a meeting with your Member of the Legislative Assembly before the start of every sitting. If you miss the meeting, you might have an impromptu chat, because he/she might happen to be your neighbour, or be on your sports team, or shop at the same grocery store, or go to the same pub.

Another one of the apparently-accepted truths about living in Yellowknife is that at some point, everybody ends up with their picture in The Yellowknifer, the local newspaper. The first time that someone mentioned that to me I was somewhat horrified. Then somebody else said it and soon, to my amusement, I realized that there were many times when I would open the paper and see somebody I knew, which had never happened in Toronto.

One day, a colleague told me that she had seen me in that day’s newspaper, thus validating the accepted truth. I suppose it’s inevitable with a small community newspaper: they run out of “important news” and they have to fill the issue with something. So I will miss having a chuckle from seeing people I know in the newspaper. On the contrary, I will not miss seeing people I know on stage when I go to see a play or a show…only because I find it more engaging when I don’t know the members of the cast or the band.

Of course, I will also miss the many  friends I made. Yellowknifers are generally a happy bunch and they know how to have a good time and how to make sure that others do likewise. When you’re new to town, there’s always a party or an event that someone is happy to invite you to – often at someone else’s home – where you are always made to feel very welcome. I will miss summer socializing until the wee hours, on a porch or deck or even in a teepee, sometimes under a blanket or swatting mosquitos, but best of all, under the midnight sun.

As for the midnight sun, it goes without saying that I will dearly miss the glorious summers in Yellowknife. I’m sure that summer anywhere is a wonderful time of year. But in my books, summer in Yellowknife is beyond wonderful. It is positively magical. Living in the North has made me acutely aware of the presence of the sun and its position in the sky all year round. During the summer it is ever-present and it affects the rhythm of life in the most positive manner. Nobody ever seems to be tired or in a bad mood in summertime. I’ve said it before and it still holds true: inarguably the best summer activity in Yellowknife is playing baseball, the game of summer. After 5 seasons, I would like to think that I have become a better player than when I first set foot on the diamond – and back then I wasn’t sure where to put that foot either, I might add. (See Baseball is definitely not cricket) From being in the field, to batting, to sitting on the bench yelling at team-mates to “run!”, I will sorely miss playing baseball on summer nights, with the sun still up and blue sky as far as the eye can see (smoky days aside).

I will miss being able to walk 4 blocks to work, to have a commute of under 10 minutes. I was able to do that only once in Toronto – for 3 months until the office moved all the way out to Mississauga – a brief period of bliss that is now a fantasy of times past. “Rush-hour” in Yellowknife was the 10- to 15-minute period when everybody was driving home for lunch, or coming back after lunch, or leaving work at the end of the day. In Toronto, there are “rush-hours”, an indeterminate period of time when everybody’s in a tearing hurry, but nobody’s going anywhere quickly. So I will miss rush-hour in Yellowknife, especially because what little “traffic” there was had no effect on people who walked 4 blocks to work anyway.

It may sound strange, but I will even miss the Yellowknife taxi drivers. I didn’t miss the taxi drivers when I left Toronto, especially after an encounter that I had with one.  As I was leaving work on the Friday of my last May 24th long weekend in Toronto, I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. Spying a taxi a few yards away, I took out my jumper cables, walked over and asked the driver to give me a jump-start. He told me it would cost me $20. When I told him that I didn’t have even $20 on me, he asked me how much I had and happily took my last $10. I remember thinking “You’re really going to take my last $10 when you know my car isn’t working?” but I just wanted to get it started. I will miss the taxi drivers in Yellowknife because when the door at my destination was locked and I had to wait for a friend to arrive with the key, the taxi driver turned off the meter and let me wait in the car so I wouldn’t have to wait outside in -35 degrees. I shudder to think what a Toronto taxi driver would have demanded in exchange.

I even have my own personal Yellowknife taxi driver joke. When my bike wheels were stolen 2 summers ago, I had to call a taxi twice during the few days that it took me to get a new bike. As soon as I got into each car, the taxi driver, whom I had never seen before, asked me: “Where’s your bike?” After recovering from my surprise, I asked how he knew that I had a bike. Each gave the same reply: that he had seen me riding around town. I too had seen lots of people riding bikes all over town, but I certainly couldn’t pick any of them out in a lineup. For a millisecond, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the taxi drivers of Yellowknife were behind the theft of bikes and bike wheels around town, in a diabolical conspiracy to drum up more business.

I could go on forever with anecdotes of life in the ‘Knife and the things I will miss about it, but I will end where it all started: with the aurora borealis, which is what drew me to make that first fateful visit to Yellowknife. (See Aurora borealis: A dance out of this world)  Since that night when I endured being frozen solid to see the aurora in all its splendour for the first time, I’ve seen that spirit in the sky umpteen times more: looking at me from my bedroom window, hovering over the Great Slave Lake, over some of the smaller lakes, over the park, directly above me as I did mundane things such as throwing out the garbage, or over downtown, defying the light pollution. It appeared differently each time and although its soothing presence was a constant of life in the ‘Knife, I never stopped being fascinated by it.

Now that I have moved “down south”, I miss having a light show to look for in the sky when night falls. There are too many tall buildings blocking the view anyway. What I don’t and won’t miss is the bitter cold that seems to produce the most spectacular shows. As much as I miss the aurora, and as much as I enjoyed 5 years of being a resident tourist, I am ecstatically happy to be frozen no more.


Copyright © Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini 2016. The use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and/or owner are unauthorised and strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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