Friday, June 11, 2010

Return to the North

Flying into Yellowknife on Tuesday afternoon was a memorable experience. I had previously only flown into the city during the fall and I recall it being remarkably unremarkable. Coming in during the summer is a much different experience. The lakes surrounding the capital region are countless and watching them sparkle in the brilliant sunlight, stretching to every horizon was almost breathtaking. If I didn't know better, I might have been fooled by this ruse.

Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories (NWT)  in general have a tenacious and unyielding seductive power. Anyone who were to visit in June or July would be awestruck by the all at once rugged, rocky and lush landscapes surrounding the seemingly limitless lakes of one of Canada's most unscathed regions. The area  around Yellowknife is considered to be mostly boreal forest, but it looks a heck of a lot like the sub-arctic tundra that lies not far north.

The North is notorious for its bait and switch tactics. People come here in the late spring or early summer and are wooed by the gorgeous weather and undeniable beauty. They are fooled only long enough to settle in and become established; as soon as September comes, the temperatures begin to drop and by early October the snow has begun to stay. Ahead is a brutal winter that lasts a solid seven months. I recall leaving Yellowknife during the final week of May last year and thinking to myself that it was the last time I would ever have to bare witness to snow cover so late in Spring. But even now, as I sit here writing, I feel guilt creeping up on me. I look out my window and see the alders and the cedars blowing in a gentle breeze against the back drop of Great Slave Lake in all it's majestic beauty. How can I be spouting such poisonous filth about such a remarkable land. One woman reads on her driveway, sprawled in a deck chair, dressed in nothing more than her bathing-suit. Her next-door-neighbor, shielding herself from the freshness of the breeze with a fleece sweater, nurtures a basket of freshly planted annuals. They are calling for a fifteen degree high today, but it seems there is still some debate, even among neighbors, as to whether or not summer is indeed upon them.

Getting off the plane yesterday I felt a sneaking sense of dread creeping into my mind. I was pleased to be returning to visit the many great friends I had left behind, but something in the back of my mind was telling me that returning to this city, which for so long I loathed, was inherently wrong. I am all too aware that permanently returning to the knife, would be a significant step backwards in life; but, until now, I was unable to fully articulate the untoward state of mind that sent me careening from Yellowknife last year. I am uncertain whether it was the time away to ponder the strife of life in this city or whether it was the return to this fruitless corner of Canada that provided the catalyst for the revelation, but today I am able to articulate those feelings.

The disproportionate level of substance abuse and homelessness, predominantly among the native community, not only left me disheartened and discouraged, but it left me feeling like a horribly intolerant, bigoted and dare I say racist person. I was starting to take on some of the qualities that I so abhorred in others. In all my arrogance I had never considered that I could ever be one of those people. The more time I spent in Yellowknife, the more I began to think that the cultural values of Native communities were fundamentally incompatible with those of my own culture. I left Yellowknife after two years with a numbness that penetrated far deeper than any winter night the North could ever have thrown at me. In living with that numbness over the past year I have only ever taken time to reflect on Yellowknife as the uninspiring place I saw it to be.

An older friend of mine, a long time Yellowknifer, once told me that there was nothing like getting frost bite on his genitals to give him a proper respect for the North. Perhaps now that I am facing up to these abject and embarrassing revelations, I too can begin to pay this land the respect it deserves in a more forthright and less painful way. Already I can honestly say that Yellowknife is not as uninspiring as I had thought it to be. Today it inspired me to tell you this story of my personal shame.


  1. I also lived in Yellowknife for one wonderful August, 9 terrible winter months, and an awesomely beautiful June and July that followed. I swam in a shallow lake in late June, as the sun bounced across the surface at 3 a.m., as much "set" as it would be on that longest day. I struggled with the concept of no house plants, none could survive the winter without artificial light so none were available. I spent much of that year practicing a little substance abuse of my own, and learning how it was to be part of a white minority. I welcomed 1990 standing on Great Slave Lake, under dancing Northern Lights and a full moon and wondered what the new decade would bring. And in August of that year I left, never to return.

    Send pictures please ... reading your wonderful article makes me question my decision to "never return". Perhaps a good trip for Ryan and I in June next year?