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The ninth of ten children, I was born on a particularly cold February day in 1979.
Taking me home from the hospital, the air was full of tiny snowflakes. My mum and dad had not seen such things since their days living in sub-Saharan Africa. They were the tiny dry snowflakes normally associated with the Arctic, an extremely unusual sight on the blustery west coast of Ireland. So the first weather I felt on my skin was typical of Arctic winter, and maybe that explains why Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, Canada, was such a comfortable fit for me when I arrived in Canada in November, 2010.
My partner and I had been out of full-time work for a year in Ireland. Both of us had lost our jobs in the construction industry in 2009. Once again the Irish had begun to fan out across the world in search of work, like so many generations before us.
Finding it difficult to get work in downtown Vancouver, where we had settled, one day Paul pointed to a spot high up on Google Earth’s map of Canada. He asked if I’d move there instead of Surrey, BC, where he’d found a job, and I said yes more or less immediately. Neither of us wanted to live in the burbs — it was downtown or the sticks.
With good advice from our Vancouver friends, we had packed tins of tomatoes, pasta, coffee — all the staples — into big cardboard boxes filched from Extra Foods and put them on a Greyhound bus. They promised to send whatever else we needed and bade us good luck in The Yukon. NWT doesn’t stick in people’s minds, I find.
We arrived in Yellowknife on the 11th of November, Rememberance Day. Looking at the deserted streets from the back seat of Paul’s new co-worker’s heated truck, I surmised that -10°C was even too cold for the locals to go out in. My god, what had we let ourselves in for?!
We marveled at the frozen handrails on the ramp from the plane in the airport, me skittishly walking down as I fought down my irrational fear of slipping on slippery things. I cursed myself for forgetting this when I made the spur of the moment decision to move to this land of ice.
Ariana and Greg, a Chilean/British Columbian couple who formed our welcoming committee and tour guides that day, laughed at our shivering coldness and told us that -10° is actually really warm — the first of many truths I would learn here. The streets were deserted because it was a holiday!
We got studded tires for our bikes and settled in, making the trek across Frame Lake to get groceries with our backpacks on our backs, and getting used to the cold that seemed to wash over you like water, snatching your breath when you walked out into it. We discovered the sending of tinned food and pasta had been in vain. Supermarkets and specialty shops catered to every need, from the exotic (Muskox burgers? Wild arctic char?) to the mundane.
On our first Christmas in Yellowknife we upgraded from borrowed picnic furniture to a proper dining room table and chairs and celebrated with new friends — the first of many feasts. The duck burned and our windows were frozen shut, but it wasn’t a bad start.
That spring, we marveled at the snow castle, built igloos, cycled over lakes and laughed at anyone mad enough to race 45 km on cross-country skis. My first attempt at skiing had looked like a mix of creative dancing or Bambi on ice, and ended with a sore ass. Paul had managed to remain upright most of the time, which was promising.
We were pleasantly surprised with the arrival of summer, heralded by the smell of autumn rot and the arrival of gulls and huge V’s of geese flying north. Suddenly the world came alive. Green buds popped from the ends of every branch and the blanket of white disappeared, exposing rubbish (garbage) that had been there for months. Neighbourhood volunteers scoured the streets and within days the city was scrubbed clean. Window boxes were hung out and seeds planted to take advantage of the long, hot summer days and growing season.
We bought our first canoe and started paddling. Every weekend and most evenings we’d set out with it tied to the roof of the Crown Vic and go exploring. Yellowknife Bay, pontoon, walsh, hidden — a billion loops and forays accompanied by the constant buzz of a billion, trillion mosquitoes.
Endless days of 24-hour sun merged into weekends. Then, with a faint glimmer of northern lights across the august sky, a chill breeze signaled the end of our seemingly endless summer.
While the houseboats battened down their hatches and prepared to freeze in for winter, we picked cranberries in yellowing birch groves. On our last paddling trip we saw the most amazing northern lights so far. Lying in our canoe, they swirled overhead sketching Vitruvian waves and oak leaf patterns down to the horizon of jagged spruce all around, reflecting across the still water.
Like spring, autumn was over in a flash. I welcomed the arrival of lovely, sparkly snow and dark nights in which to hibernate.
As the temperature dropped, we picked up a skidoo. Our matching helmets made us look like lego men. The first trip we went on, every bump had me laughing uncontrollably, clinging to the bars and bashing lego heads with Paul. (This may be one of the reasons he wants me to get my own skidoo).
Flying over marshes and portages we had trudged through in summer, me effing and blinding at the mozzies and Paul up to his waist in porridge-like goop with the canoe on his head, was exhilarating. Suddenly the world had expanded and we could go anywhere.
Signs of life were everywhere, written across a fresh crust of snow. Tiny paw prints of little mice, soft shallow pads of the lynx and the deep gouges of a wandering moose. All the animals that disappear before we ever get a glimpse in the summer left their marks everywhere for us to see.
Sometimes the smaller tracks would end with three graceful strokes on either side, the light touch of a swooping bird of prey.
Bulrushes, now at waist height instead of towering over our canoe, still burst in my fur clad hand, spilling effervescent fluff over the snow.
The walk to work was again filled with those tiny crystals of snow floating in the air. The cold snatched my breath in a satisfying way, and I snuggled into my parka (not until it was a respectable -20°, mind you).
Paul is starting to talk about training for Frostbite 45. if you can do it twice, why not a third time?
This will be our fourth winter in Yellowknife. Ireland will always be home for us, but we’re having a hell of an adventure North of 60. I know some day we will go home to a land of green fields and salty air, and hopefully a stable economy. But if I ever chance to see that Arctic snow on Ireland’s west coast again, I’ll have fond memories in my heart of this place.
My mother’s journey immigrating from China to Canada
In Our Place – Dan & Taya’s IEC Working Holiday in Banff
My year in Canada on an IEC work permit