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.


The Girl in the Café meets an Astronomer

Pierre Bureau's art in a Café

Pierre Bureau’s art in a Café

The roads are dry and I am confident enough to drive to Chibougamau today with only two snow tires (long story).

My plan was to have lunch at Café Brulot and do some shopping. Andy had pointed out the Café on a previous trip into town.

“It’s your kind of food, you know, three chickpeas on a bed of bean sprouts and birdseed bread,” he said.

Just what I needed! I parked my little Subaru between two giant trucks and walked across the street to the Café. I studied the menu selections on the chalkboard and requested a panini, with swiss cheese and spinach.

I also ordered a cappuccino as I was waiting, and found a cosy table by the window and logged into their free WIFI.

The waitress brought my coffee. I had forgotten how creamy frothed milk tastes, and when swirled, the dark bitterness released from underneath. I savoured every spoonsful…

“I’ll have another!” I said, standing up, clattering the chair behind me, pointing at my empty cup.

Looking up from my playbook and cappuccino, I notice a bearded gentleman gazing at the pictures on the walls. I shifted a couple of times, to allow him a better view.

“Vous êtes l’artist?” I ask him, indicating the pictures.

The next thing I knew, we were sitting at the table, side by side, he with this tablet and I with my playbook, exchanging and bookmarking websites.

He showed me his creations in pastel, which I thought were quite wonderful. I have absolutely no artistic ability; however, the pictures were alive, swirling with colour and dimension.

Pierre told me, after we finally introduced ourselves, that he is a retired fine arts teacher, but his wife still works and is a principal at the local school.

An amateur astronomer, he set up an observation dome in the local library, which he insists Andy and I must check out. He gave me his number to call him first so he could have everything ready.

Of course, that started a new wave of excitement, when I told him about my fascination with the northern lights and we continued to swipe and tap our devices. Here is an excellent site that maps aurora borealis activity

Reluctantly my new friend had to leave. He had a funeral to attend.  But before he parted, he gave me his website coordinates:

On my way out, I stopped by the counter to pay. I heard a familiar sound … English! Two woman, and a girl of about five, were having coffee.

I stopped by the table and told them how nice it is to hear English.

“Oh, yes, there’s some of us here,” one of the women quipped

Pat and Anne invited me to sit and I sank into the offered chair immediately. The little girl, Mila, was Pat’s granddaughter who will be attending a local English school. This surprized me, as I thought there were only French schools in the area. We chatted for a while about children, grandchildren, distances, and about something they called “Cree time” to describe an easier pace of life than what I was accustomed to in Montreal.

But sadly, I had to go …

On my way to the car, I met Pierre who had just come back from the funeral home. We chat a while longer and exchange business cards and e-mail addresses.

What an absolutely lovely afternoon. I’ve had more conversation today than I have had in months!

The Northern Lights, so I thought …

Northern Lights near Chibougamau (Pierre Bureau)

Northern Lights near Chibougamau (Pierre Bureau)

We turned left onto a secondary road from Rte. 167, straight north of Chibougamau. I had hoped to arrive in daylight, but weather had its way, and it was now early evening. The sky was the deep purple of eggplant skin. With the waning moon, I was able to make out the tarnished silver expanse of the lake, which I knew from Google Maps was to my left.

“Oh,” I gasped, “The northern lights!”  The sky was aglow with streaks of pink and yellow, a haze, seemingly emanating from the ground straight ahead.

Andy laughed. “That’s the town, that’s Mistissini!”

Along the lake, I noticed the dark silhouettes of small cabins, windows glowing amber.

“People live here, in these little huts?” I asked Andy.

“Aw, no,” he said. “People build these places to get away from town, you know.”

As we drew closer, the town appeared lit up like a Christmas tree, the streets pure white, and the windows glowing. Andy explained that the town’s people keep their lights on, and at all times, the streets are as bright as noon.

As we turned on to our street, a large Bernese mountain dog stood in the middle of the road, alert to something in the distance, not visible to us.

“Watch out for the dog,” I said.

“Don’t worry, he’ll move.”

He did not move, we had to inch around him. I could almost feel his fur brushing against the car. Still, he did not move.

It was late. I was tired and looked forward to slipping  under my down duvet. I hadn’t realized how tense I was from the drive up, the large weaving trucks, and driving through every sort of precipitation.

Rte. 167 from the Saguenay to Chibougamau was closed off to trucks, and we were detained for over an hour as a jack-knifed truck was being cleared. We had not beaten the freezing rain and sleet. I was relieved to see snow plows dispensing salt, and service vehicles never more than 10 minutes apart. My plans of arriving in daylight were not realized, but I am glad to have seen the glow of the town in the dark of the night.

Tomorrow I will start to unpack.