In Toronto I feel overdressed. My small Sorel boots and practical winter jacket seem out of place and out of fashion. It is Christmas Day, and we are on our way early in the morning to fly up to the NWT. I have never flown on Christmas Day before, but apart from a ticket agent with flashing holiday earrings, not much is different.
The first sign that we are in the north is the stewardess on the Calgary-Yellowknife flight. Before landing she puts on a full length parka so she won’t freeze when she opens the door. It is -31 C when we arrive. She wishes us all a Merry Christmas and we step out onto the tarmac. It is 2:15 and the sun is only a handbreadth above the horizon, but it makes the runway sparkle so much I have to squint. An attendant stands near the plane, directing us to the terminal. She is elegant in a long parka, her dark hair framed by fur. We walk with crunchy steps, and I can tell it is cold, colder than I’ve felt in a long time. After about 10 seconds I can feel my jeans getting stiff and the end of my nose tingling. My long johns are still packed in a suitcase. I feel underdressed.
Dwayne picks us up at the airport, and we head out to the van. Dwayne is a mechanic, and his van is one of those mechanic type vans. The only doors that open are the front passenger door and the sliding side door, which means he has to climb in first, and then we follow. The heater also is not working at maximum capacity, and we pull out our real Sorels and full snow suits. The only place open in Yellowknife is the gas station, so we go in to hunt up some food, returning victorious with microwaveable Chunky soup, Lunchables and beef jerky, which isn’t as good as homemade dry meat, but does the trick in a pinch.
The sun is setting as we drove out of town, and I can feel the north seeping back into my bones, or at least the cold is. I’m wearing Dwayne’s warmest hunting snowpants and an assortment of woolen accessories, sitting in the back with one leg up on each armrest in the front, mitts over my feet trying to keep my toes warm close to the front vents (the only ones that spit out any heat), chewing on a piece of jerky and listening to the latest northern news update from Dwayne.
I see the ravens again out the window, massive black and glossy. We pass a few buffalo on the road and in the ditches, frosty white coats and steaming nostrils stamping through the snow. The trees are covered in snow and hoar frost. It isn’t the kind of covering that looks like it could be shaken off in a breeze. There is a permanence to it, as if the trees had accepted their winter fate and decided to dress the part. The dusky light stays with us for a while, reflecting off the snow that surrounds us with a dreamy glow.
We pass one or two vehicles on the road out of town, and soon the sky is black. The windshield is only half defrosted, but I can see the stars popping out above the trees. Orion is a giant this far north, and it is like meeting an old friend you only see in pictures. I think about Orion and the way the snow looks like crushed diamonds on the road, and I start to doze off.
I wake up just before the ferry crossing over the Mackenzie River. Even though it has been very cold the last few weeks, the channel is still open, kept free of ice by the 24-7 winter schedule of the Merv Hardie. The ice isn’t thick enough yet for the ice road, and so the ferry will keep running till it is. We were the only car going across that run. Micah stood outside the whole time, walking stiffly from side to side in his snowsuit. The channel is narrow, and the ferry does a series of slow donuts, bouncing off encroaching ice floes to break a path and keep it clear. Now I’m sitting in the front seat, where I have discovered the van’s source of heat, and I’ve got my feet right over the vents. I don’t let Micah back in the front seat! The windshield is about two-thirds defrosted by now.
We still have another 4 hours to go. We plan to get gas in Enterprise, about an hour down the road. Just as I’m looking forward to a pee break, we find out the gas station is closed in Enterprise. That means we’ll have to go in to Hay River, which is a little bit out of our way. The Shell station should be open there at The Rooster. I decide I can hold my pee a little longer. Micah is bundled up in the back seat, where I’m sure the temperature is at least a few degrees colder. Water bottles are freezing on the floor, and we have to thaw the juice cans out on the dashboard every so often so they don’t explode.
The gas station on the road into Hay River is closed, so we head in to the Shell. It’s dark. A quick drive around town confirms our fears. Absolutely nothing is open in Hay River, not the gas stations, not the hotels, not even the cop shop. Sure, it is Christmas Day, but nothing?! Nothing between Yellowknife and Fort Smith? We don’t have enough gas to make it to Smith, another 3 hours down the road. At least The Rooster has a working payphone outside, and we make a collect call home. Dwayne paces and stamps back and forth in his fur hat waiting for the phone connection. It is bitterly cold and windy. Dad will try and get a hold of some friends in Hay River who might be able to help us out. Dwayne pees behind the gas station, and I’m jealous, still not desperate enough to drop everything.
We are rescued by a Christmas angel, otherwise known as Glen Wallington, an old friend of our parents that I haven’t seen in at least ten years. He drives us to the card lock where we can fill up. We need oil too, so he invites us back to their place where he’s got some. I ask if I can use their washroom, and he invites us all in to warm up, glory to God. Marsha puts on a pot of coffee and we pull up to the table. It’s a small world wherever you go, and I see one of my sister’s classmates that I knew in grade 6 in Saskatchewan, and Dwayne finds out that he used to play with the Wallington boys back in BC when he was a little kid! Here we are, Christmas evening, drinking coffee in our snowpants in a stranger’s house, and it makes me smile. Christmas found its way through the cold and rescued us.
We are thawed and fortified with caffeine, ready for the last stretch of highway. Micah burrows under a pile of parkas in the back seat, and he looks like the abominable snowman taking a nap. I talk with Dwayne for awhile before succumbing to my sleep deprivation. I am half aware of passing the 70 km road sign, of the pavement beginning again after gravel, and of Salt Mountain. I don’t really wake up till I see the street light at Bell Rock, and then I know it’s only 10 minutes till we’re there. When we get to the bend in McDougal Road the familiarity of the town greets me, and I get excited. All is calm and bright, and it’s about 20 after midnight. We almost made it home on Christmas Day, but this is close enough. We stumble into the house with our coats and suitcases, where my parents are happy to finally greet us and give us big hugs.
I rush down to the basement where the woodstove is, getting as close as I can without touching it. There’s nothing like a roaring woodstove. The house is all decorated for Christmas, and the little spruce tree is twinkling with pride in the corner. I’m too dopey to do much other than eat a bowl of cereal, brush my teeth and find my bed. I drop into bed, exhausted and content. The Hudson’s Bay blanket on the bed reminds me one last time that I’m truly in the north, and then there is only sleep.