Northern Lights II

After the sun had set on the first day at the cabin, after we thawed ourselves and filled our bellies with roasted caribou and fresh coffee, and after we’d laughed until it hurt, we all began to settle in to bed.

I awoke on our second day at the cabin under a mountain of blankets. I was refreshed but had no interest in moving. There was no way to check email, Twitter, or Facebook, and as the fire had died down slightly there was a bit of a chill in the air. And plus, I was beyond comfy. Eventually, however, nature called and I needed to move. Fortunately, this provided me the opportunity to put the coffee on that Karl had prepped the night before.

There’s something special about sharing coffee with bed-headed friends that has been percolated on a wood stove at a cabin in the middle of winter seemingly a million miles from civilization. It was a low tech luxury that with every sip brought me more to life, but also reminded me how often I take for granted the things I have in my day-to-day; where the morning rush to get to or from one meeting or another takes over the simple joys like sitting and staring out the window at a grey jay.

After cleaning the dishes from breakfast and tidying up the cabin, we began to ready ourselves for our next outdoor excursion. The temperatures had dropped from the day before, so the thermometer was now reading -19C without wind chill. We could see from the window, however, that the wind was blowing quite hard across the ice – exactly where we were intending to go.

Bundled up and ready for a new adventure, we jumped on the skidoos and followed Karl about a mile out on the ice. The ice and snow were a brilliant white against an incredibly clear blue sky, but the boundary that normally separates the two was lost in a blur of blowing snow. As we gazed at the beauty of the snow flowing like liquid over the intricately swirling patterns of drifts, Karl readied his gear and began drilling the first of three holes in the ice.

It wasn’t long before Karl’s drill had punctured the ice, and a gush of ice-cold water momentarily burst through. After the hole was cleared of ice and slush, Sandi began lowering her hook and line into the dark water to teach us the proper technique for fishing rock cod. Quite literally within 30 seconds, and as if by magic, she was pulling up the line with our first catch of the day. And then the second, and third. As each fish was pulled from the water, Sandi would deposit it on the ice and then return her hook to the icy waters. The fish would flop around for a few seconds, gills spread wide in an attempt to breathe in a foreign environment, before it almost instantly froze.

We each took turns fishing, and each were able to catch several. My second catch came to a rather unfortunate end as it was completely eviscerated by the hook I was using. Poor little super tasty dude. My third catch managed to escape the frying pan because my fishing hole had frozen over just enough to prevent pulling it out of the water. And despite my best efforts, my last catch managed to wriggle free even before I was able to pull it through. Regardless, by the end of our excursion we’d collectively managed to catch about 30 fish. And despite the wind and frigid temperature, only my feet and fingertips were cold.

After warming ourselves by the fire, and filling our bellies with freshly caught and fried rock cod, we once again bundled up to head back outdoors. This time we were taking the skidoos, empty komotiks in tow, into the forest along Karl’s trap-line to gather wood for the fire.

Karl and Oliver led the way, followed by Sandi and Alex, and then me and Ashlee. We made our way up into the forest.

And then the skidoo was somehow on top of us.

I quickly realized that my right leg was pinned under the weight of the skidoo. Ashlee immediately attempted to turn off the skidoo (as we were instructed to do by Sandi in the event that this happened), but struggled as she too was pinned. Once she managed to turn off the skidoo, we lay there for a heartbeat or two, on our backs, a skidoo on top of us, crystals of kicked-up snow gently falling on our faces, and bundled up enough that I felt almost like a little kid in an oversized snowsuit, unable to achieve the range of motion that would otherwise be necessary for even the most basic of movements. I think even before we had checked for injuries, both Ashlee and I burst out laughing. It was a long and rather cathartic laugh. And despite both being pinned by the skidoo, we were unscathed. Between bouts of laughter I somehow managed to lift the skidoo enough for us to wiggle out from underneath. With Sandi’s help we had the skidoo righted, and we were off again.

The trail through the forest was out of a fairy-tale; breathtaking and surreal, winding through the trees, and over hills. It was wide enough for the skidoo, and bordered on either side by walls of snow and snow-dolloped trees. The sun hung low in the sky, creating dramatically long shadows that stretched across the snow-blanketed land. Save for the sound of the skidoos and our breath, the forest was quiet and still.

After about an hour or so we arrived at our destination. The forest had been painted blue as the sun began to set, and what we could see of the horizon between the trees was a beautiful pink and orange. The rest of the sky began to transition into an electric almost fluorescent blue as the first stars began to sparkle. The air was crisp and clean in a way that I don’t often get to experience when I’m home; almost as if I was breathing air that was still in its purest state, never having been spoiled by pollution.

Karl cut down two trees, and Sandi began to make short work of chopping them up into size appropriate pieces for the wood stove back at the cabin. Oliver and I took turns chopping as well, but paled in comparison to Sandi’s mastery. With every swing of the axe she seemed to find the exact weakest point in the block of wood, splitting it gracefully and effortlessly. With every swing of the axe we seemed to barely make a dent. When the axe failed to immediately split the wood, she effortlessly flipped it over her head and swung it to the ground axe first so that the log would crack under its own weight. I could barely get the log above my head. It was amazing watching her work.

With the komotiks full, we set off back to the cabin. It was almost fully dark at this point, so the lights from the skidoos painted the forest in a completely new way. While our path was well-lit, the surrounding forest was dark and quiet.

Ashlee and I followed Karl and Oliver, keeping them in our sights as best we could. However, the twists and turns of the path often left the two of us seemingly on our own, with only the light of our skidoo visible. At one such point we rounded a bend to find Karl’s wood-laden komotik stuck. We watched as Karl expertly worked to free it, only to discover that it had been damaged somehow. Without any sense of panic, Karl simply decided that we’d leave it behind and come back for it later.

We carried on. The night sky was fully alive with a million stars, unfettered by the dimming of city lights. As we drove through the trees, my breath clearly visible before me, I marveled at the opportunity to join Karl and Sandi on what to them would be a necessary and frequent activity. And again I thought about the land that they called home; how much it had to offer, but how quickly it could turn deadly if at any point one were to somehow forget their place in it. And as is often the case, I was reminded how lucky I am to get to share in these experiences.

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