March 31, 2010

Floating away

You're snowmobiling across the thick-frozen Beaufort Sea, up near the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. You've made it this far. You think you see - yes! - there's a polar bear in the distance! You go after it, but you're not close enough yet and over the engine you almost don't hear it: the crack. Wait. Stop. Feel that? You're moving. And there's water. You aren't supposed to see water, not up here. But there it is, welling up all around the sheet of ice. The wind is pushing you, drifting the ice pan further from shore. You're trapped.

Can you imagine?

That's what happened to a group of sport hunters and guides looking for a trophy off the coast of Paulatuk one night last week. Melting ice is all-too-common cause of death/injury/missing bodies in the North. This group was rescued by helicopter early the next morning, thanks to an emergency GPS satellite 911 signal, but not before one of them slipped off the edge of the ice floe and got hypothermia. I covered it for the paper and since then I haven't been able to shake the story from my mind, wondering how I'd deal in such a circumstance. Such wonderment requires intense introspection and self-scrutiny. So, instead of intro-scrutinizing, I decided I can't possibly know how I'd cope unless (UNTIL?) I'm in that situation.

Not that I'd go looking to get myself in such a dangerously helpless predicament, but I'd also not turn down a hunting expedition (anyone want to invite me along next time?) for fear. The guarantee of a fantastic adventure pretty much outweighs the possibility of an icy death.

Still, the whole thing got me thinking about how the hunters must have felt at that moment of realization when the ice broke away, how I'd feel, how anybody would feel. Overwhelmingly out of control. And what's it like to feel that way in daily life, even if you're nowhere near the Arctic Ocean? Some people do. (Get ready for a rocky segue).

The top three medical conditions in the Northwest Territories, based on the types of drugs most frequently claimed through the Government of the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services department*, are:

1. Diabetes
2. Asthma
3. Mental illness
*also the source of this information.

Anti-depressants are the government's highest health claim expenditure, after medicine/equipment to treat diabetes.

This was news to me. (See what I did there?) We hear about the diabetic epidemic in the North, but we still don't hear/learn/know so much about mental health issues - not as much as we should. And I know it's too early for some kind of public service announcement (plus I generally loathe PSAs) about National Mental Health Week (which isn't until May 3-9, sandwiched between National Hospice Palliative Care Week and Naturopathic Medicine Week - now you know) but....whew. (Too many brackets.) Where was I going here? Right. Out of control.

Point is, and I sometimes forget to remember this, we're not all trapped on ice floes. And even if we are, there's GPS.

March 24, 2010


I was wrong. Kind of. That's not the surprise.

The day after writing my previous post, the one in which I whine about the tardiness of spring, I walked through the snow to work, immediately noticing and admiring a bunch of daffodils on my coworker's desk. OK, so my admiration may have consisted of an envious glare and a demand to know "Where'd you get the flowers?!" Anyway. My coworker, he replied:

"Look on your desk."

Oh, glory be! It had been quite a while since I'd seen fresh flowers and I guess I got a little carried away...
No, I wasn't trying to ingest them. They did smell nice, though.

Turns out they're fundraiser flowers. Some volunteers from the local chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society were going door-to-door selling the daffodils they just had shipped up here. So, yes, I was wrong - thankfully - it feels much more like spring now! And for a good cause.

March 22, 2010

My apartment shakes

...much more than usual, lately. The building sits atop wooden pilings that are driven into the permafrost, so I'm hoping these mini tremors that trigger Titanic dreams (you know the part when the ship is tilted vertically and Jack & Rose have to jump?) are just signs of spring. Fingers crossed.

Said pilings.

But it doesn't look or feel much like spring around here just yet.

So, with my iPod cozy in an inner pocket of my parka, I listen to this song.

March 15, 2010

The hardest part

Roberta Memogana slides a heavy sheet of blank paper across the table toward me.

"First, we need to draw something."

Easy for her to say. And do. Roberta Memogana is a well-known NWT artist, originally from Ulukhaktok (formerly called Holman), famous for her stencil prints of traditional Northern life (see some of her work here.)

For 16 years, she's been printmaking – a craft she learned from her father, Jimmy Memorana, one of the founders of the Ulukhaktok Art Co-op, through which artists in the community of about 400 have been producing prints for nearly 50 years.

And that's why I'm here, at Inuvik's Northern Images art gallery on a bright Saturday morning alongside two other eager students – to learn from her, and (if all goes well) to make a stencil print of my own. Because it sounds like fun. But, drawing? Freehand? Uh-oh.

I look to my left and then to my right, trying to gauge the reactions of my fellow workshop participants, making no effort not to look like I've just been told I must throw a puppy out a third-storey window. There's something sacred about looking into a stranger's eyes and knowing you're both silently having a panic attack. "I can't draw!"

Artistic ability is subjective, I suppose. So here's a fact: I don't draw. I don't paint or sculpt or sketch or create anything anybody would want to hang on the refrigerator, much less put in a picture frame and display above the couch. I don't even doodle in my notebook during long-winded phone interviews. Despite having quite a lot of appreciation for fine art, I haven't actually done any artsy stuff since those mandatory elementary school art classes I couldn't wait to leave behind. My Grade 8 teacher, Mrs. Bouchard, upon finding out I hadn't signed up for a single high school art course, showed hyperbolic shock and appall.

"You'll regret that someday," she told 13-year-old me, who knew everything anyway and didn't care.

So now, maybe today is that regretful day. Mind as blank as the paper in front of me, I turn again to Roberta, who smiles patiently. No sign of a "why are you even here?" eye-rolling smirk, although I wouldn't blame her.

"It can be anything you want," she says. "Then we'll make a stencil out of it."

She gestures to a pile of transparent overhead projector sheets (known by the pros as mylar) and pen-like X-Acto knives. Beside them on the table are a scattering of barbershop-style shaving brushes, their bristle-ends coloured blue, yellow, red, green, orange, brown, black, and there's a placemat covered in matching ink splotches. The oil-based inks are solid in individual packs ordered from down south, "probably Toronto," and she keeps them all in a plastic bag. If it gets too hot, they will melt. It's better in the cold. But the colour comes later, Roberta says. She's already finishing up a pencil sketch of a "simple" igloo. Her word, "simple." My word: "mind-blowing."

I decide to try my hand at an owl stencil. Paintings of snowy owls feature prominently on the gallery walls – convenient inspiration. In Inuvialuit culture, Roberta tells me, the owl is a symbol of good luck. I've never seen one in real life, I say, so that explains a lot.

Roberta can't draw any wildlife she's never seen. She draws them the way she sees them. And she draws them fast. I take a break from erasing my wacky-looking owl eyeballs for the fourth time to watch her work.

"My father used to tell me to take my time. I'd say, 'what do you mean?' And he would say, 'you're drawing too fast!' I said, 'but, I am taking my time,'" she laughs. Of course, traditional stencil printing is much easier now than it was in her father's day. He used to cut his stencils out of sealskin.

Her older sister, Mary K. Okheena, a talented artist herself, motivated Roberta to start making prints of her drawings. Now, her work is in galleries all over Canada. Tourists visiting the Beaufort-Delta region can quickly pick out her prints on framed canvas, greeting cards, and even T-shirts commemorating the Inuvik Community Greenhouse.

She still has piles of drawings at home that she's never made into prints, she says, simultaneously cutting out her igloo stencil, twirling the knife expertly around its curves. Circular shapes are the most difficult for first-timers, but she makes it look deceptively easy.

She's generous with her secrets, though, and amazingly I manage not to maim myself or my little owl – much, since I'm really more interested in listening to her stories than creating a masterpiece. And it shows. By the time I'm ready for the printing part of the exercise – the colour! – Roberta has already completed two prints and is working on yet another sketch, of two polar bears, that a gallery customer has just come in and requested.

Roberta distributes ink onto the brush by thump, thump, thumping it onto the appropriate-coloured splotch until there's just the right amount. She knows when. She makes her own beat.

I watch as the brush moves leisurely over the paper with a scratchy-soft drum beat sound, giving a light, almost airbrushed, blue glint to the snow beneath the bears' feet. The sound is repetitive, relaxing. Soon a chorus of four different brush-beats fill the room. It's therapeutic. That's why Roberta likes it. This is what I am beginning to like about it, too.

Stencil print artist Roberta Memogana with one of her finished prints.

"The hardest part," she says, surveying her finished print, "is coming up with a title."

As for my foray into artistry, it didn't work out nearly as well compared to Roberta's talent and experience, but, all things considered, I don't think my owls turned out too horribly.

Stencil print artists generally make three proofs before they settle on a final piece, and I only finished two. So that pretty much sums up my career as an artist. But Roberta said they were cute!

And, like I said, I'm interested in the story more than the pictures.

March 07, 2010

Never say die

That's the motto of the town of Aklavik, where I had the good fortune to go yesterday.

From Inuvik, it's about a two-hour trip along the frozen Mackenzie River - the longest river in Canada.

I had never driven the ice road before, nor had I ever sat in the driver's seat of our newly company-owned bright white 2008 Chevrolet Equinox, but it was a gorgeous, almost spring-like, day for a road trip. And no way was I going to miss Aklavik matriarch Mary Kendi's 95th birthday celebration.

So I set off, turning onto the river, seeing nothing but snow and evergreens and blue sky forever, listening to Sean Cullen proclaim the winning qualities of cake (because there's no instant mix for pie) on CBC Radio One. Sometime in the middle of Jonathan Goldstein's awkward phone confrontation with his Twitter imposter, I had to take a moment to process the awesomeness of what I was doing. My mental monologue went something like: "Holyeeeeee. Shiiiiiiiit. I am driving on a river. FROZEN WATER. It's not as slippery as I thought it would be. I can't believe I'm actually doing this. WOW, THIS IS AMAZING. I AM AMAZING. OK, people do this all the time. Don't be a geek."

But, in my giddy state I couldn't control my inherent geekiness and I had to stop and take some pictures.

First, for comparison:

October 2009

March 2010

Yep, I'm driving on a river. No big deal.

That blue sky makes me want to learn how to kayak so I can revel here in the summer.

Eventually I made it to Aklavik, pop. 645, wished Mary Kendi a happy birthday, shared a feast and enjoyed fiddle music and jigging with some great people. A story for another day.

The community, formerly an administrative centre in NWT, with one of the first Hudson's Bay trading posts and RCMP headquarters, is celebrating its centennial this year, and I'll be back the next chance I get.

Enough said.

March 01, 2010

Orange you glad...

…the generous bleeding hearts at Tropicana Canada deigned to shed some light on the joyless, dim souls who, for some mysterious reason, choose to inhabit Canada's Arctic? I sure am.

A production crew hired by the orange juice giant filmed this commercial here in Inuvik the second week of January, a few days before the town's annual Sunrise Festival as part of Tropicana's new ad campaign, which launched last week. In the past few days it's aired on national TV networks, enjoyed a prominent spot on the Globe and Mail's website and garnered thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook, where it's sparked delightfully "bright" comments, including:

"Great Commercial, loved it. I wonder if this is the first time those eskimos ever tasted Tropicana."

"Wow!! Truly Amazing!!! The look and smile on their faces will illumate their community until the real sunshine returns...Great campaign Tropicana!!!! The only OJ I drink!!!!"

"really great ... it's the caring efforts that mean the most ... especially to our far-north neighbours who have so little. Kudos Tropicana. Nicely done!"

"well isn't that nice of you,s too do that"

Isn't it, though? All of those poor, uncivilized shmucks* looked so happy when the Tropicana truck rolled in. It's almost as if they were being paid hundreds of dollars (plus royalties) to glance up and stare in awe for a few seconds at a fairly ridiculous inflatable orb that finally, yet intermittently, glowed. Oh, wait. That's exactly what happened.

I suppose it doesn't really matter that the sun actually rose – albeit briefly – for the first time in a month just before 2 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2010, proving false the commercial's claim that Jan. 8 was Day 31 without sunlight in Inuvik until Tropicana lit up the town. But, that's a tiny detail, not something the entire premise of the ad was based upon, right?

And I won't mention the epic condescension in the juxtaposition of the commercial's images and end text. Let me just say: an editorial is brewing.

So. Um. Yeah, thanks so much, Tropicana! Thanks for reminding me stereotypes are alive and well – and apparently orange-fed.

*whom I genuinely love equally as much as the 18-second mark of the commercial.