September 07, 2010

Back to school

My coworker has just returned from a six-week vacation.

"We've been here a long time, haven't we?"

He doesn't mean here, in this dim-lit hotel bar with about as much character as an airport lounge. Where speakers in every corner emit Lady Gaga's stutters at a volume that hovers between annoyingly quiet and annoyingly loud, where people sit in sparse pockets as far away from each other as possible, shrouded by the high backs of their upholstered chairs.

He means here as in up here, in this different world.

We both sigh. He stares into his cream ale. I look out the window.

Pickup trucks and SUVs roll slowly toward the intersection, waiting at that one traffic light. The sky is grey, not dark yet, but soon. When I walk out into the wind, buttoning my sweater against it, the air smells deliciously smoky. Woodstoves already burning. Winter's a'comin'. They talk about it, whether they've lived here six days or 60 years. The longer they're here, the less they talk.

I don't care if the snow flies tomorrow and every day after or if it doesn't get here at all. Because right now the hills on the horizon are golden, the birch leaves have turned, the sunsets are pink and new. We're in the blink of falltime – not dying, but starting over. Back to school.

My summer has been, in some ways, a crash course in self-sufficiency. For six weeks I worked in an office alone, during which time I learned that being the sole producer of content for a weekly paper is an amazing high for exactly one day – the Wednesday between Tuesday's copy deadline and Thursday's mass delivery. But it wasn't entirely an exercise in solitude - the hardest part for me was realizing when to depend on someone else. Over the course of the summer, under 24-hour daylight, I stumbled into things that may or may not have advanced my initially unintentional quest to become a more well-rounded and generally fearless individual. (Reader scoffs acceptable here, and at any point prior or upcoming.) A few highs and lows:

I listened to so much Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire that I now can't fathom how I ever got any writing done without that Canadiana hipster soundtrack playing in the background.

I made a list.

I chased after caribou and splashed around on a Beaufort Sea beach in Ivvavik National Park, Yukon.

I gutted and filleted fresh char caught off the coast of Victoria Island by an Ulukhaktok hunter and fisherman named Kirby. Below are photos meant to serve as feeble proof and as my personal homage to the Half Nelson DVD gag reel.

I hopped aboard a military Hercules plane with the prime minister and his entourage for a visit to Tuktoyaktuk, where apart from the political dramedy and staged photo-opps, I feasted on muktuk (raw whale blubber that tasted like rubbery chicken), confirmed the humanity of many longtime sources who had for the past year existed to me only as voices through a phone line, and allowed an Australian tourist to snap a dorky photo of me (not shown!) in front of Canada's largest pingo – an awesome ice-cored hill.

On a related note, I learned which member of Ottawa's parliamentary press gallery has earned the affectionate nickname "Sleepy Bear."

I successfully seized my first opportunity to use an Allen wrench - even if while doing so I continually referred to it as "that L-shaped thingy" - and subsequently rejoiced in my newfound mechanical abilities. Days later, I swallowed defeat in the form of ice cream soup, realizing this rudimentary skill could not help me solve the Case of the Un-Cold Freezer.

So as I prepare to stare into arctic winter's wizened face for a second time, feeling as though one year here should count as five elsewhere in this country, I remember there's still so much I have to learn.