Chronicles of a Trini in the frigid North

The days of above-zero temperatures are long behind us now, and once we switch from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time, we begin the certain slide into increasing cold and darkness.  It still befuddles me why we play with the time in the first case. Why do we move the clock forward in the spring, the time of year when there’s so much light that an hour doesn’t change anything? Even more perplexing, why is it considered to be saving daylight, given that we can’t put it away for use later on in the depths of winter, when we really need it the most?

After years of clock-changing wreaking havoc on my body, especially in the spring, this practice still doesn’t make any sense to me, and seems very unnatural. The time change in the fall is touted as being something to look forward to, because, as the sales pitch goes, we supposedly get an extra hour of sleep. But if you’re like me, you go to bed later than usual on weekends anyway, and you don’t sleep any more hours than normal. So you wake up feeling deceived, plus slightly confused as to what time it really is, because you were too lazy to change all of the clocks in the house before you went to bed.

Regardless of any artificial time we humans want to create, Mother Nature and the animals stick to their schedule. These are the days when I envy the creatures who can (and probably must) hibernate. While it’s not particularly alluring that they don’t eat for months, then they wake up starving and ill-humoured, I find it singularly appealing that they don’t have to wake up in the dark, and go out in the cold to work. Almost makes it worthwhile, the risk of being eaten or hunted.

This time of year is the trapping season, and many who live the traditional lifestyle go “out on the land” as they say. They can be away for weeks on end, coming back for short periods then going back out again, and this can go on until the spring.  Trapping for most fur-bearing animals typically starts at the beginning of November, because for prime fur, it has to be cold enough for the animals to have grown their winter coats.  Trappers establish camps out in the wilderness and they go after beaver, muskrat, fox, marten, otter, lynx, wolf and the ferocious wolverine. Given that this is their time-honoured way of life, resident Metis and First Nations people are not required to obtain hunting licences. They can sell furs to anyone, but unless they have a commercial licence, they are not allowed to sell meat or fish to non-aboriginal people. In some northern communities there is a community freezer, a shared storage facility where residents can store their game, referred to as “country food”.  For many people, animals are a source of food and clothing.

Fox, people-watching

Fox, people-watching

Whether one is in the country or in the city, in the north one is constantly aware of the presence of wildlife. Yellowknife is a city in the middle of the bush, so there are animals just outside of the city, and some of them in the city. I no longer bat an eyelid when I see a fox running around in town. In an early encounter, one nonchalantly ran past me in the car park, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I’ve rarely seen them walking, for which they have a curious gait: their legs move similar to a centipede’s, in an indistinguishable blur. But more often than not they’re running, as if they’re late for an appointment. Occasionally they’re just sitting, watching cars or people go by. I’ve seen mostly the common red fox, but there’s also a charcoal-grey fox with black ears and legs that’s quite a beautiful creature. They’re called silver foxes, and although they look very different, they’re merely a variation of the red fox, as they can occur in the same litter. I’m yet to capture one with my camera.

What would life in the north be without bears? Black bears have been known to hang around just outside of town, and they have even been spotted on the Frame Lake Trail – mercifully not when I was on it. A long-time resident told me that he remembers a hungry bear strolling around downtown one spring.  Bears have created employment for bear monitors, people whose job is to watch out for bears, and, unfortunately, to shoot them if necessary. The need for such people can arise when environmental work is being carried out in remote locations, for example.  There’s also need at culture camps, sites where school-children go to learn about native customs.  Black bears are more interested in food than in little Johnny, but I wouldn’t want to be the teacher who has to tell parents that their child got mauled by a bear during the class outing.

Polar bear rug at the Legislature

Polar bear rug at the Legislature

Wolves are also our neighbours. While driving on the outskirts of town at night, I’ve seen the reflection of eyes, not far from the side of the road. Judging from their height, they could have belonged to a wolf or a coyote. Just last week, 2 wolves were spotted in the Niven Lake residential area, which is located on the edge of town, but still a short walk to downtown. It merely goes to show that you never know who might be hanging around your neighbourhood at night.

Two creatures that I’m sure that I won’t encounter in Yellowknife are polar bears and grizzly bears. This year, the town of Sachs Harbour, on the Beaufort Sea, has experienced an unusual number of polar bears roaming town. This is because the bears, which typically live out on the ice during the winter and eat seals, couldn’t go out because the ice has been late in forming this fall. So they’ve been hanging around on the shore, waiting. In the meantime, they have to eat, and they will eat your garbage, or your dog, whichever you leave outside.  Needless to say, patrols have been stepped up, with both wildlife officers and residents keeping an eye out for them. Life isn’t quite so exciting in Yellowknife, where the only trace of polar bear that I’ve seen is the gigantic polar bear rug in the main chamber of the Legislative Assembly, and the stuffed polar bear in the arrivals lounge at the airport.

Grizzly and wolverine

Grizzly and wolverine

Grizzly bears are also found farther north, which does not disappoint me. Seeing a stuffed grizzly at the Visitor Centre, accompanied by a stuffed wolverine, was as close as I ever need to get to either of these. A hybrid creature has been spotted in recent years, a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly bear. It’s been dubbed a ‘grolar’ or ‘pizzly’. Frankly, I prefer to call it a grolar, as it sounds a lot more fearsome – which I’m certain it is. Something called a pizzly might be hard to take seriously, which would be a mistake.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the buffalo. In the winter, they can be a driving hazard, as when they’re covered in snow, they can be hard for motorists to spot. Buffalo have been known to walk away from collisions that leave motor vehicles in a wreck. It’s easy to assume that these leisurely-walking, lazily-staring animals are naturally slow, but they can move at surprising speed when they want to. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of a big male that’s not having a good day.  There are lots of stories floating around in the north, and as one of them goes, someone from another province was driving in the Northwest Territories and encountered a buffalo jam, i.e.  buffaloes blocking the road. All of the driving guides that I’ve read state that drivers should keep a good distance away from them and wait, and to not honk the horn. But evidently this hapless tourist hadn’t educated himself on how to deal with the territorial wildlife, and decided to lean on his horn. It so happened that it was rutting season. One of the males didn’t take kindly to the noise interfering with his courting, (or fighting with the competition) and suddenly charged headlong into the windshield of the car, to the astonishment of the tourist. The moral of the story is that if you wish to engage in road rage habits from down south, they will be met with road rage northern-style. Unfortunately, during this summer past, 400+ of the buffalo herd near Fort Providence died, due to anthrax poisoning. Anthrax occurs naturally in the soil in that area, and the poor creatures became infected either while grazing, or from digging at the soil.

There are creatures in the air too. The territorial bird is the gyrfalcon, the largest of the falcons. All raptors and their eggs are protected by law in the Northwest Territories, and those caught in possession of these birds or their eggs can be fined and/or jailed. It’s also required to turn in any dead or injured birds to the wildlife authorities. I haven’t seen a live gyrfalcon, at least not yet, but I live in hope.

However, I’ve seen way too many ravens to count. Yellowknife is overrun with ravens. Some of them are as big as a cat, and their feathers are a beautifully shiny black, almost as if they’ve been oiled. They’re quite clever, and they can spot a garbage bag from a mile away, pick through it in a second, and they’ve even been blamed for power outages. They’re definitely not afraid of people, as they barely move when you walk by them in town, and they take their time to get out of the way of cars. They have a peculiar tendency to hop along on the sidewalk after you, which I find somewhat disturbing, and when there are several of them flying closely overhead I have visions of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. During the last winter a collection of them used to perch above the entrance to the library. They always seemed to be having a conversation, as if plotting something sinister. There’s a reason that it’s called a conspiracy of ravens.

Ptarmigan in tree

Ptarmigan in tree

Last, but not least, is the bird that takes the cake, the ptarmigan, which has to be the bird for which the phrase “bird-brained” was coined. They are plump, rather cute-looking, a type of grouse, and they happen to be prey for gyrfalcons. In winter their feathers are a soft white, except for the edges of their tails, which are black, but this is barely apparent. Their legs are feathered, as if they are wearing boots. I honestly think that they have no brains whatsoever. We joke about chickens being dumb, crossing the road in front of cars, but ptarmigans are even dumber. They scurry out into the road as cars approach, but they don’t cross the road. They run ahead of the car, as if they’re racing it. It’s as if a bunch of them are sitting around on the side of the road, shooting the breeze, and one says: “Hey, check out that car coming. I bet that we can go faster!” As a result, there’s a popular bumper sticker that says ”I brake for ptarmigan”. The trouble is that in the dark winter days, because they blend right in with the snow, you can’t always see them. So if you hear a curious thump under the car, it just might be a ptarmigan.

Spot the ptarmigan

Spot the ptarmigan

The north is so vast and the human population so sparse that there’s no excuse for people and animals not to co-exist as nature intended. Creatures are practically a part of daily life here, and one comes to understand each of them and how to adjust for their behaviour. I too will brake for ptarmigan…but only if I see them.

Copyright © Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini 2012. Use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner are unauthorized 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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