Closing Time

It’s been a while since I’ve visited my blog, but there is a reason.

In a couple of days, we’ll be pointing our Toyota straight north for a 15 hour drive to  Waskaganish (a.k.a. Fort Rupert), a Cree community at the tip of James Bay, where Andy has a contract to teach Northern Building Maintenance.

In the flurry of planning, supply shopping, packing, wrapping and winterizing our home, memories and images hovered ever so momentarily, and then dissipated as I reached for another mug to wrap, but a new one would appear as I reached for the next item. I found the box of Christmas cookie ornaments decorated at one of our get-togethers in our last community. Bits and bytes of memory-bank movies also played while driving into town for that one more item we missed on our list.  “Remember that time when …”

We enjoyed the intense, and often unlikely friendships, that only happen in isolated communities, the invitations to hunts, feasts and lunches at camp in the only place in Canada where Cree and Inuit coexist, cooking bannock on a fire at the edge of the Hudson Bay, visiting the magical mystical Manitok islands.

We loved the land, the barrenness, the openness, the frigid westerly winds, even the precarious whiteouts. Just out of town, we could stand on windswept knoll to see nothing but monochrome rock, sea and sky and turning around and around until they all become one.

Also the astonishing richness the land brings: frost-kissed cranberries falling into our open hands, dark blueberries, steaming, smoky tea made from Labrador tea leaves.

Now the evenings are cooler and I have taken to watching the Canada geese fly in from the fields to the nearby river to shelter for the night.  I’d wrap a blanket around myself and watch as they form letters in the sky, and can almost hear them splash-crashing into the water. It is the sound of the north I hear.

Some nights when it is cool and the sky is clear, I look up at the stars piercing absolute blackness and look for the wavering ribbons of the northern lights, but we are too far south.

Again tonight, I stand outside listening to the geese come in. The patio door slides open.

“What are you doing?” my husband asks.

It’s getting colder and I hug my blanket tighter.

“Nothing,” I say.  The door is still open.  Andy is waiting for me to come in.

“What are you thinking about, out there?” he asks.

“Just everything, and absolutely nothing,” I shrug and smile, turning around to fold my blanket on our last evening here.

But absolutely everything,” I say to myself.



10428517_947015015331719_3254207126294203347_nAndy’s students of the Northern Building Maintenance Program graduated. A feast to honour the graduates was held at the arena. The Chief, school commissioner and coordinator of adult educational services for the Cree school board were invited guests.

Graduation is traditionally held a few weeks after the students have finished their course. By that time, the teachers have finished their contract. The students were very firm.

“If Andy’s not there, we don’t want a graduation.” They had their way and the graduation took place after the last day of class.

The students wore gowns and traditional hats and walked up the aisle to the stage with an escort of their own choosing. One graduate held a tiny infant, and another was escorted by his mother.

It was a touching ceremony. The most poignant moment was when a student – a very large man – grabbed Andy and enveloped him in a great bear hug when he was presented with his certificate and statue. I noticed his tears. Soon after, other students and family members began tearing up.

Until now, I wouldn’t have understood how this tremendous achievement, which is an expected and ordinary one for most in the south, could so touch an entire community.

Ivakkak – For the Dogs!

Offering encouragement to the sled dogs before the race

Offering encouragement to the sled dogs before the race

“The dogs are in town” are the buzzwords.

There is great excitement as the community hosts this annual dog sled race from its starting point.

Before the race, a feast was given to honour the mushers. Harry Okpik, the legendary one-legged musher was not hindered. I followed the race electronically and was happy to see that a few days into the race, he was pulling up third.

It’s about a ten day journey to the destination community, about 600 km. north. Camps are set up along the way by snowmobilers who travel in advance. Team vets closely monitor the animals.

For the start of the race, the whole town showed up – on school busses, skidoos, ATVs and pickup trucks. The dogs were tethered in long lines on the Great Whale River. As the mushers began to harness their teams to their sleighs, the howling, yelping, and barking reached a deafening crescendo. Some of the dogs became airborne as they leapt into the air, as high as their leads would allow them them.

Volunteers held onto each dogs’ harnesses until they were given the go-ahead at two minute intervals. One excited team veered 180 degrees and raced up the river in the opposite direction!

The dogs are surprizingly small and compact. No blue-eyed Siberian huskies are allowed, just Inuit sled dogs. Some looked like husky crosses, some white (like Skooner), and some were brown and woolly.

Working can be stressful. But on days like today, when the whole community comes together to cheer on local mushers and feast together, it makes it all worthwhile.

Caribou Lunch

Lunch at the Cree Culture Centre

Lunch at the Cree Culture Centre

The Inuit teachers organized a picnic lunch at the Cree Culture Centre for all teachers. The camp is just out of town.

I had caribou, cooked in foil on a fire, with lots of black pepper. It was delicious!

I wasn’t ready to try it raw just yet …IMG_00000714