It is uncharacteristically warm here. Instead of the usual January walking getup* everything stays toasty with one light set of long underwear under my jeans, a couple of wool sweaters and a down vest. Top with a toque and scarf knit by loved ones and -10 is tropical.
There are many downside to these balmy days. The river is rotting. The city ice rink is melting. And last, but not least, the Yukon and Klondike River valley, where we live, is filled with thick fog at all times. The sun taunts us from blue fields that peek out in fractions for a moment here or there. The snowy side of the Midnight Dome melts seamlessly into the blanket of fog and cloud- it looks as though the mountain itself is arching above us- a real life snow globe.
The real loss with all this grey batting above is the stars. We don’t get to see them in the summers here, blotted out by the midnight sun. But in winter, on the coldest nights, the sky is clear, clear, clear, and you can see a million of them. Orion’s left foot, Rigel, the foot of the great one, catches my eye first. A blue supergiant, the sixth brightest in our sky.
Orion’s belt leads you down, to the left and to Sirius, glowing, scorcher, the brightest star in the night sky. Only Venus, Jupiter, and our moon are more luminous. Twice as large as our sun, it would appear on the Egyptian horizon just before dawn in the time of the Nile’s flood, part of the Canus Major Constellation, it marked what the Egyptians called the “dog days” of summer.
I spent a month one winter working far off in the bush, a full day’s trek from Dawson up river and through a maze of creeks and valleys. I lived in a wall-tent with two good men. We worked hard all day, cutting line with machetes on snowshoes, frenzied and shedding off sweaty layers at -30 only to freeze up instantly with the slightest pause. Our work days were short, mandated by available daylight.
I brought an astronomy book with star maps with me. Every night I would stand outside and listen to my eyes blink, the wolves howling over the ridge, and recite the new names I’d learned like spells, Beteguese, the house of Orion, Bellatrix the warrioress, the amazon star, the lioness & the conqueror, Alnilam, the arrangement of pearls, Alkaid, the eldest of the bear’s daughters, the mourning maidens.
I’d stay outside until I started to chill, then go instead to keep reading, to watch a movie with the guys, to make more tea, and finally to sleep like the dead until dawn when we would stoke the small stove, fill our thermoses, start the snow machines and repeat.
When I first moved to the Yukon, had no idea where I would live or work and had spent all of my money on plane tickets and a new parka. I was frantic with unknowns. I took a walk my first morning in the Territory, pleading with my dog, Ulu, to forgive me for the hours of air travel and assuring her the next three hour leg of our journey would be the last.
I came out onto a high cliff bluff over the Yukon River, gained my bearings and realized it was flowing North. In the Maritimes, all self-respecting rivers rush South, or East. That a river could run North was a new and mind boggling consideration thrown on top of existing anxiety.
I looked down and saw Sphagnum moss, an Acadian Forest resident and Boreal Forest constant. A piece of home, a tiny bit of continuity. I continued to look down on my walk, the names came running back from my Ethnobotany classes, and they calmed me down. Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-usri, Labrador tea, Rhododendron groenlandicum, and my grandfather’s favourite, the Highbush Cranberry, Viburnum trilobum.
The moral of this ramble, if anything, is that I am a huge dork. And also, that there is always something familiar with us, it might just be under a winter’s worth of snow, or behind the sun or a shade of clouds.I can’t wait for it to get colder.
*Dawson City Winter Wear: Long underwear, fleece pants, gortex bib pants, merino wool undershirt, shirt, sweater, down coat, balaclava, toque, woolly socks and mukluks. In extreme temperatures this outfit can be augmented with liner mitts, more long underwear and wool pants, making for an extremely svelte and sexy figure.