Volume 12, Number 68, 2009

by Marcia Lee Laycock

The thin slip of red mercury barely rose above its bulbous pool at the bottom of the thermometer. The Yukon was proving its myths to be true. The place is more than cold.

When I ventured out, the mystery of it made me stand still, watching, listening. I knew I risked frozen lungs if I removed my scarf, but I could breathe out heavily through its wool and hear my breath crackle. I listened to the chortling ravens, their raucous voices punctuating the thin stillness with incongruities, tropical noises mocking the cold. I watched their movements, their black bodies slipping through ice fog, their raggededged wings pulsing like whispers from a nether-world. They seemed the only creatures able to survive with comfort and even pleasure, in the midst of these harshest of elements. The Huskies seemed only to tolerate the cold. Sleeping it out, curled in their mass of fur, noses tucked under tails, the dogs’ only distraction was a curled-lipped gnawing at chunks of frozen fish and ice caked between their paws. No other creatures stirred.

Each day I chopped wood. Choosing the biggest stumps gave me the illusion of strength. At -60, every molecule of water in wood is crystallized. The blow of my axe splintered the fibres instantly. Tossing the brittle pieces into a pile, I almost expected them to shatter, like bits of fragile glass. They fell, not with the thud of wood, but with the clack, clack, clack of castanets.

My husband worked as a carpenter that winter, or tried to. Mummified in layers of clothing, he would haul the battery from behind the stove and step out into -60, his red mustache and eyebrows soon defined by frost from his own breath. I would watch through the window as he pulled a tarp over the truck’s hood, lit the Saskatchewan block heater (a tobacco can holding a roll of toilet paper soaked in kerosene) and positioned it under the oil pan. He would wait, squatting once or twice to check the flame, then burst back into the cabin, a cloud of cold issuing from his stomping feet. After two or three cups of coffee he would try the ignition. Sometimes it started on that first try, sometimes it took a few attempts. Most of the time the truck would only go back and forth in the driveway, the steering wheel too stiff to turn the frozen drive train. My husband would come back in, chuckling, agreeing that in the battle of man against nature, sixty below had once again proven invincible.

Our rituals of winter continued until the sun returned in early March. I was reading, my feet propped up on the window sill, when I became aware that it had happened. The sun lay, at that moment, only a promise on the rim of the opposite hill, like the sudden glow behind a cloud that has darkened the landscape for too long. All that day I watched it, and the day after, and the next. As it slowly grew down the hill and across the valley, I longed for that moment when the pale light would stream through the windows of our cabin. The day came when I thought it would, but the world itself seemed to stand still when the golden light stopped and began to retreat again, at the end of our driveway. My whole being moaned. But finally the sun did touch the house, pouring through the windows with its faint warmth, breaking the grip of winter.

Now the rituals would change. Breakup would come, the thick river ice would begin to move with the growling rumble of a freight train, releasing the Yukon and Klondike rivers. And that soon followed by twenty-four-hour daylight, by the rush to plant broccoli, cabbage and carrots and to ready the greenhouse for tomatoes. The salmon would run again and fish wheels would begin their relentless turning, tossing thirty and forty pound fish into traps, interrupting their struggle up Yukon tributaries to their spawning grounds. Snow geese and swans would find their way back to their breeding grounds and the caribou would move across the barren land to the north. Tourists too would make their annual pilgrimage to the gold fields, exclaiming at the show of slivers of ‘colour’ in rented gold pans.

We would all tune our bodies and minds to the fast pace of the short summer. But always the awareness was there, the urgency just below the surface of every thought, every decision. Get ready. Winter is coming.