Thursday, May 22, 2008

Intrepid Arctic

The snow is almost gone now. It is a little sad to see. The panorama has changed. There is a lot more brown and grey than there used to be. Even the sky has been grey, though it cleared today to reveal bright sunshine. The rivers are open too, and places where just three weeks ago there was ice and slush, there is now rushing water with the occasional blocks or slivers of ice. It makes for a whole new kind of Arctic adventure.

Here is what it was like back in the snowy March days--what I saw of them anyway. We had to get up at dawn and hike up hills with our skis to get to work...the snow was slippery, the weather -40!!
OK, maybe not. But you get the idea.

On May 10th, Sylvia Grinnell Park still had the touches of winter The river was not safe to cross, but there was plenty of slushy snow to sink into while walking up the path to picnic. Well, it was a BBQ more than a picnic, one that made me realize it was a long time since we BBQed a steak anywhere other than someone's house. Silverware, for example, is not readily found on the tundra. Perhaps that will change once the campers set up their tents in the summer...

Now, in mid-June, the rivers are entirely open, the tundra brown-green, and the Arctic flowers blossoming. The weather alternates between cold rain and bright sun. Two days ago, I did my first run--in trail runners no less. It's all part of the new outdoor adventure, one that promises to get even better over the summer.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Arctic Ethnic

About a month ago, I discovered that there are Armenians in the North. I was in Yellowknife buying a bottle of wine at the liquor store. At the checkout, I thought I heard someone speak Armenian, though I imagined it was more likely Turkish or Arabic and I had just misheard. The women at the checkout were pale, with dark hair. I'm not sure if it was the accent, the dark eyeliner, or the red lipstick. I asked where she was from. "Armenia", she responded, not even pausing to look up from the cash register. "Hayren khosoom ek?" I asked. Both she and the woman at the neighbouring cash were completely amazed. Never, they told me, had they encountered another Armenian at work, though there are apparently many Armenians in Yellowknife. These women were wives of diamond-polishers who worked in Yellowknife. One of them gave me her phone number and insisted I call her the next time I was in town. They want to have me to their homes for dinner. When I called my sister to tell her what happened, she said "canum, I have been waiting for the day you called me from the Arctic to tell me that Hayastansis invited you for dinner." She's good that way.

While Nunavut's Inuit traditions provide a unique cultural backdrop for life here, visible minorities and ethnic experiences are not as abundant as they were in Toronto. According to the 2006 Census, there are 420 persons of visible minority living in Nunavut, almost half of which are in Iqaluit. Contrast that with the 1,162,630 individuals in Toronto, and you can understand how it's a bit of an adjustment. At the same time, the Arctic is a place for "missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits"; I guess opportunity does not discriminate amongst those who chose to take it.

There are ethnic experiences I would not have had unless I lived here. It can also be very personal. I doubt I would have attended a passover seder in Toronto, or a traditional Hindu dance performance, or muddled through the traditional lahmacun recipe I have so I could share it with my friends at Easter (see below). People take the time to explain why a tradition exists and how it's developed, whereas at home it might be taken for granted. We also look forward to "theme" dinners and lunches at the Francophone Centre in a way that we never would in Toronto.

I return to Yellowknife next month and plan to give my new Armenian friends a call. I wonder if we'll spend time talking about the differences between Eastern and Western Armenia, Nunavut and NWT or if we'll just be amazed to speak Armenian in a place so far from anywhere any of us expected to hear it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A River Runs Through All Of It

Spring has arrived in the Arctic--or at least my part of the Arctic. With spring has come the melting. Everything is melting: the snow, the ice, the rivers... Little creeks and ponds have sprung up everywhere. That includes the main road through the middle of town. Almost overnight, it seems that snow banks became slush banks, ice became mud, and mud became muck. It is a drastic change from the -20C weather that was the norm only a couple of weeks ago.

The new weather brings some interesting changes to my wardrobe. Some changes are long-awaited and totally welcome, i.e. ditching long underwear as everyday wear. Other changes are not so expected but kind of cool: rubber boots. I am not talking any kind of rubber boot. I mean a fully insulated, industrial (at least that's what the label says), Kamik-brand bottle-green rubber boot. Imagine something you would wear in your fishing boat while on the way to gather seaweed for the local marine biology centre. I am wearing something similar in the picture below, but those are loaners [NOTE: Photo still to follow].

The story of how I came to borrow these boots illustrates Iqaluit's new muddy reality. Friday night, I was walking to a friend's house in downtown Iqaluit (distinguished from the rest of Iqaluit by the fact that it is in "town", i.e. less than 10 minutes from the Bay). Walking there, I came across a large puddle that required negotiating. On the one side of the puddle was the road, relatively dry. On the other side, a fairly big snowbank. I chose the snow bank. I chose unwisely. Almost as soon as I had stepped onto it, my right foot sank into the snow bank and, as I soon realized, the source of said puddle. I swore as I stood knee deep in slush with water rapidly soaked my EMS pants, MEC longjohns, Wigwam sock and Merrell hiking boot--which together probably cost me more than my court robes and which were now completely useless in keeping me warm or dry. My cursing turned to slight panic as I discovered the muck underneath the snowbank had taken hold of my boot like a little suction cup. As I struggled to get my right foot out, my left foot sank into another slushy pocket, not as deep but just as uncomfortable. A very nice gentleman witnessed my distress and walked over to see if he could assist. Happily, I made a not very graceful exit before he needed to intervene. Footwear intact and dignity slightly bruised, I arrived at my friends' door where they provided me with food, wine, warm socks, pants, and even a pair of boots to walk home in. Thank god for friends.

All weekend, I heard similar stories from folks in town; people had gone in up to their ankles, knees, thighs. You name it. It made me feel better. It also made me wonder if these stories get a life of their own, with everyone sinking a little deeper into the puddle every time.

But I swear to you, I was in up to my knee. .. :)