Monday, December 23, 2019

Solstice in the NWT

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I went looking for the weather in Yellowknife, NWT, and this is what I found:

On the 22nd December, 2019, it was -28 in the early morning. By noon time it had roared up to -24, and this is an average December day day.

That is  darn cold by my U.S. standards. Some of the coldest U.S. mornings I've experienced were in January, 1969, in western Massachusetts, in a little woodland cabin with minimal insulation (read none) and a wood stove in the kitchen. On one memorable morning, it was -30, although, thank-fully, this was a one-off. We could sit at the kitchen table and extend a hand toward the outer wall and actually feel a slice of cold penetrating. However, that being said, this -28 is just an ordinary December day in NWT.

Accommodations for aurora tourists in the NWT model a higher profile lodge.

Orion blazes blue in perfect dark sky 

They have 4 hours and 57 minutes of daylight, which, on top of the temperature, has to be stressful. From an astronomy site, I learned : "Geomagnetic field conditions will be mostly quiet, with unsettled periods overnight. Watch for gentle auroras above the northern horizon and overhead." As usual, "peak activity expected in the hours before and after midnight." The higher the latitude, the higher probability you'll see the magic of our atmosphere's protective shield.

It's okay for us moderns to exclaim about cold, but imagine the people who came here between the glaciers, ever so long ago. These folks, and their descendants, until fairly recently, spent their winters in family groups sheltering beneath tents of caribou hide, and resting upon beds of spruce bows and furs. Only imagine the work that was necessary to collect the food and fuel that would be necessary to get through a long season of daunting temperatures and snow.

Before the Europeans got well dug into the north -- and that's apt, as Europeans are mostly interested in the north nowadays for what they can remove from the ground, things like diamonds and uranium  -- winter was the time you spent all the warm months getting ready for. It was easy to starve if you weren't prepared--and, sometimes, even if you were. Fish were dried, meat laid in, furs tanned and cut for clothes. Wood was gathered from the more southerly areas still inside the tree line. You were stocking up not just for the human members, but for the dogs, the original pack animals of the north. 

In the long dark, snowbound, in intense cold, family members gathered. Calorie conservation would have been necessary for everyone in this world of now limited resources, so originally, the people did not gather into large groups, but rather dispersed. Some men went with dogs to tend trap lines; keeping the fur and surviving on the flesh of whatever they caught. 

Story telling was one of the activities in the lodges, stories to teach the children and stories to pass the long frigid nights. Here was the time of teaching life-ways, transmitting skills involved in making tools of bone and stone. It was also a time for telling ancestor tales and tales about the spirits who inhabited the land. Prayers were offered to the sleeping roots, plants, to the four legs and to the fish as well as to the spirits of ancestors who danced over their heads in the aurora. Animal stories were told now, as it wasn't considered respectful to tell the stories when the animals were awake and might overhear people talking about them. In a world where survival depends upon animals (such as caribou) willingly giving themselves to men for food, this respect and sense of circle-of-life community is of prime importance. 

The Tlico flag proudly displays the old skin lodges

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~~Juliet Waldron