If you were to leave Vancouver and travel 2,697 km to the northwest, you would be in Whitehorse, Yukon, a little city of 23,272 souls spread out on or around the Yukon River.
This is where I grew up. If you were to leave Whitehorse and travel another 536 km to the northwest, you would find yourself in Dawson City, a much littler city of 1,781 folks clustered into a corner where the Yukon River meets the Klondike. This is where I am living for the month of January; peace and quiet, a lot of time to write, a lot of time to think-a lot of time to think.
The sun came up at 11:16 am today, and will disappear again at 3:38 pm. Dawson was built in the shelter and shadow of the Midnight Dome, a peak that looms 2,911 ft above the town. The Dome affords you a great view of the landscape it surveys, but it also blocks any direct sunlight from striking the faces of Dawsonites for most of the winter. There is a glowing patch of mountainside on the southwest edge of town where the afternoon sun manages to slide around the side of the Dome and light up the pine trees and snow for a while.
I like to watch this little patch of sunlight stretch and spread like butter across the horizon. I imagine that if I were to trek across the frozen river and crunch through the snow to the sunny spot, it would be warm up there. This is an illusion. It is -26C today, and when the sun disappears for another 20 hours, it will drop to -38.
Going outside is a bit of a production. I can see the only gas station in town through the frost-flowered window in the kitchen, but to get there I have to don wool socks, long johns, jeans, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved wool shirt, my parka, a neck warmer, a fur hat with ear flaps, the moosehide mitts my mom got me for Christmas, and my newfangled snow boots. They’re a lot lighter than your classic Sorrel skidoo boots but almost as toasty.
My gran calls this “bundling up,” and to me it’s like wrapping my head up in memories of my childhood: my own breath, warm and wet, trapped under my nose by the taste of wool, the whistle of parka sleeves and snow pants, the dry squeaking complaint of northern snow announcing every footstep.
People in parkas are pretty much genderless. Parkas cover up curves and boobs, or lack of thereof. Scarves and toques mask moustaches or plucked eyebrows. Mittens hide manicures, or hair on the backs of hands. Bundled up, we are all the same.
This affords me a strange kind of freedom. When I walk into the grocery store in my cold weather ensemble, the old woman behind the cash register can’t tell that my hair doesn’t fit my voice, or that my hips don’t belong on the body of a teenaged boy.
I am a stranger but, other than being new in town, there is nothing strange about me. I am dressed for the cold, just like everybody else.
Today we’re at a fur show. Urban lesbians, this is not what you are thinking. I’m talking about pelts: beaver, sable, fox, wolverine, wolf, coyote and lynx furs, all spread out on folding tables in the community centre gymnasium to be judged based on thickness and colour. The whole town is there. You can barely find a parking spot on Front St. Mountains of parkas are piled up on empty chairs and packs of little kids are screeching and sliding around on the gym floor in their sock feet. There is free moose stew and bannock, all the Tang and drip coffee you can drink, door prizes and a fur fashion show; the whole nine yards.
A guy from the Fur Harvester’s Association gives me a bumper sticker that says, ‘Kids who hunt, trap and fish don’t mug little old ladies.’
I try to imagine some of my vegan friends from the city here, sitting stricken on a chair in the corner, trying not to breathe in the almost overwhelming smell of freshly tanned hides. It would be hard to argue against the merits of wearing fur when it is 40 below outside. A lot of big city politics might die of exposure halfway through a Yukon winter.
I’ve cut back on my cigarette smoking quite a bit, what with the weather outside and not being allowed to smoke inside and all. This gives me a great get rich quick idea: I could rent a house in Dawson in the dead of winter and open a quit smoking retreat.
People could pay good money to come here for two weeks and stay in my very non-smoking bed and no breakfast. I would provide them with very thin nylon windbreakers and toeless slippers, and they would be more than welcome to smoke outside on the uncovered, unheated deck, conveniently located on the windy side of the residence.
I run my new plan past a friend of mine over a dinner of rice pasta and tomato sauce with caribou meatballs. She is convinced that this scheme won’t work, that the real nicotine addicts would gladly freeze their asses off instead of go without a cigarette. I concede that maybe my plan has a few kinks that I have to work out. I will need to think on it all some more. Fortunately, I have a lot of time to think. Seriously, a lot of time to think.