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Some thoughts on winter

in 61st Parallel/Featured by

Last week, the temperature in Arviat rose to -5 degrees Celsius, and I walked across the street to get the mail without bothering to put my jacket on. After several months of temperatures ranging from -20 to -40, it felt virtually tropical.

The first time the temperature fell to -20, I went to work completely bundled up: winter boots, winter pants, a fleece jacket under my Canada Goose winter parka, facemask, warm hat, and a pair of huge, wonderfully warm fur mitts that a friend gave me before we moved north. I certainly wasn’t cold.

But as the temperature continued to drop, something strange started to happen. Whenever it warmed up a little (which usually meant the wind died down) I would give up wearing some article of winter clothing. So, when it went from -20 to -30, I would be completely bundled up. But then when it went back to -20, I would think: well, that’s not so bad, and not bother to put on my winter pants that day. The fleece jacket soon went the same way, as did the face mask. Now, unless it’s a particularly cold day, it doesn’t take me nearly as much time as it once did to get dressed up to face the winter weather.

You get used to it…

Part of this is because I’m simply getting used to the cold. But after winter started in earnest I also realized that I was maybe being overcautious when it came to the cold; that I was intimidated and maybe a little frightened by the mythical brutality that a northern winter is capable of. But I noticed that locals didn’t wear half the winter clothes that I did and seemed to do ok. I’m sure this is largely because Arviammiut (people from Arviat) are far tougher when it comes to cold than I will ever be. But I also realized that, for the short amount of time that I was going to be outside (5 to 10 minutes at most, walking between home, the Northern Store, and work) I didn’t have to be prepared for a circumpolar expedition. Winter just became part of my routine.

…I was intimidated and maybe a little frightened by the mythical brutality that a northern winter is capable of.

That’s not to say that the winter here isn’t dangerous, because it is. People preparing for winter hunting trips load their qamutiks with tarps, caribou skins, Coleman stoves, plenty of fuel, and of course, lots of warm clothing. Clothing made from caribou is best, and the traditional way to wear it is directly against the skin, which I’m told keeps you far warmer than any Canada Goose jacket or the warmest synthetic boots. Judging from the one time I used caribou mitts, I believe it.

Even so, frostbite – especially on the face – is common, and people do sometimes freeze to death on the land, or even close to town if they happen to get lost in a blizzard. Just a few weeks ago, two hunters were stuck overnight on the land when their machine broke down, and one of them suffered severe frostbite in his feet before search and rescue found them the next morning.

But the overwhelming presence of winter, its sheer definitiveness, its pervasive cold and darkness that keeps you housebound (or workbound) for much of the time, and its inherent challenges and danger are all such a defining part of life here that it’s hard not to appreciate both the frozen allure of the northern winter and a certain indefinable grace that it grants to life here. There is a sense of community, a feeling that the winter is something to be faced together and that oil furnaces and blankets are not enough: that only through the support of community and family will it be endured. A cup of tea may warm you for a while, but hot tea shared with friends makes the worst blizzard bearable, and maybe even laughable.

This is REAL winter

The first year I lived in St. John’s, the city had something like 22 feet of snow. I spent much of December through April shovelling, slipping, and plowing my way through slushy gutters and uncleared sidewalks. But it was winter, a distinct season, and it made spring and summer all the more enjoyable. The last several St. John’s winters were not like that, and I hated them simply because they refused to be winter. Instead, the rare blizzards were scattered throughout several weeks of mild temperature and invariably followed by rain, so that all the snow turned to slush and mud and dirty snow banks and there was nothing enjoyable about it. Skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, and toboggans all sat unused while we kept our heads down out of the drizzle and waited for June.

Here in Arviat, there is none of that equivocation, none of that feeling of hesitancy about winter. Here, winter is completely, dramatically, and firmly a season worthy of the name, with howling winds, whiteout conditions, and wind chills into the -60s mixed with beautiful clear days with the winter sun low on the horizon and the snow glittering like jewels. This winter, so far at least, has seen more clear days than stormy ones, and I find myself enjoying the snow and the cold far more than I ever enjoyed the salty slush of St. John’s. The winter may be harsh, but it knows that it’s winter. And I’ve got my big fur mitts, after all.

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