The coming of winter, the talk about snow and cold and recent writing about community (see community category on the left) brought back a memory from last winter. Last December a dear friend and colleague joined me for a week in the North West Territories (NWT) one of the northern most regions of Canada. (We were working on one of those reports that although accepted as “exactly what we need to do” never sees the light of day.)
Now this was REAL WINTER! Not the namby-pamby thing that natives of Vancouver call winter. The snowfall buried any evidence of concrete sidewalks or asphalt roads that the big SUVs slid along. On the second day of our visit I skipped putting on mascara in the morning thus eliminating the task of washing the streaks of black off my face when I stepped into the welcome warmth of the coffee shop, a stop half way to our destination. I grew up and spent most of my adult life in Edmonton often touted as having horrible winters by people: many who do not live there; many who have never lived there, or many who have never been there for that matter. No! Edmonton winters were a cake-walk compared to the experience in NWT. The day time temperatures ranged from a balmy -31 degrees Celsius to a chilly -39 as the high! I was too focused on staying inside and being warm to venture out in the evening to see just how low the temperature dropped. It was cold!!
Our stay was centered in the only city in the NWT, Yellowknife except for one trip planned for later in the week. This trip would take us to Behchoko a village of approximately 2,000 residents about an hour’s drive north of Yellowknife. Many people may be more familiar with the village being referred to as Rae, the name that was given to the village by the Europeans who settled in the NWT. These days it is again referred to as Behchoko, a return to its original aboriginal name.
The evening before our expedition, I dreamt about building a fire—not in a fireplace but a fire in the woods. I was with my friend and in amongst all the snow laden trees we were building a fire. We had to gather wood that wasn’t too wet and recall our boy scout/brownie/girl guide days and pile that wood in a nice stack that would actually burn. It reminded me of the fires I, at first rather ineptly, helped my family in Ukraine to build on one of our picnics in the woods that we had in much more pleasant weather. Our fire in the snowy cold woods took hold and we had a veritable bonfire in what was a remote setting. Luckily I woke up before we had to gather any more wood. The dream came back to me as we were driving out of town. We shared a nervous chuckle when I related the dream to my friend.
Like all other mornings it was very cold that morning, -36 as we headed out of Yellowknife. We watched the temperature reading in the rental car drop as we drove the one hour on an isolated road to Behchoko. The road was deserted. The forest that lined the road was stunningly beautiful and once in a while I would think about our fire. These were the woods of my dream.
Busy talking and confused by signage we ended up in Edzo, another smaller village near Behchoko. We were lost! Peering through the thick ice fog we spotted a building that seemed to have some life, the school and felt relieved to find a refuge from the cold. After a little time spent at the school we were given directions to take us to our intended destination.
Our drive went without a hitch and soon we found the large building that we were headed for. Reluctantly we turned off the car, left its warmth and rushed into the building gasping from the crisp cold air. A wood structure large and utilitarian served as a centre for many services of the village. It was dark in the entrance of the building when we entered. There was some maintenance being done and we thought the lack of light was related to that, but we were wrong. The power was out. I shivered even more thinking that warmth would not be found here. We enquired whether this was a common a occurrence as it is in some small isolated communities like Tofino on Vancouver Island for example. No, this was not common and that there was no power was of some concern to the locals.
Nonetheless we were ushered into a room with natural light and enjoyed listening to the wisdom of the people we were meeting with. Two hours later we expected to come out to restored power. That was not the case. The power was still out and we were told the outage extended all the way to Yellowknife over one hundred kilometres away. The community officials and elders were gathering to address what was being referred to as an emergency. And an emergency it was! The sun was starting to go down and it was -37. It would not be long before everything started to freeze up. We were worried and wondering how people including us were going to stay warm without power to support furnaces. Thoughts about anything else that required power were put on the back burner. It was more than strongly recommended that we head back to Yellowknife.
Gathering up our gear we glanced out at the houses and other buildings that made up the village. I was thinking about how cold it really was out there and about all the people in the village that must already be getting pretty cold. Then I noticed signs of warmth, smoke coming out of some of the houses, wood stoves? We asked. Yes, these homes did have wood fireplaces or stoves. Lucky I thought. We were also told that people who relied on electricity to warm their homes had by now started to gather in the homes that had heat from wood burning stoves. The basic need to be safe, staying warm in the cold became the priority and the people in the community had put aside their normal activities and other tasks and had gathered to stay safe and warm. Funny how what may appear to be rather primitive today, a wood stove, can become so important.
I thought a lot about the loss of power and what that might mean for us as we made our way back to Yellowknife, hoping and praying that it would be restored by the time we returned. I also thought a lot about how the people in Behchoko had come together in consideration of each other and the vital need to stay warm. I wondered what we would do in Yellowknife. Would the urban population draw together as a community? I thought a lot about the fire we had built in my dream.
We saw the steam from the city generator as we turned round the bend into Yellowknife. We were relieved. For the next several hours I reflected a lot on what we take for granted in having access to power. It left me feeling a bit more respectful and grateful for the convenience of power.
What remains in my memory from that experience was the instant sense of community that formed both in response to the emergency and in the gathering of all people of the village together in the homes with the smoke flowing from their chimneys. This made me wonder, if we in our communities can gather to stay warm in an emergency situation maybe we can also gather in calmer times to satisfy our other needs that although maybe not as obvious are vital just the same.
Irene McDermott © 2011