Jessica Davey-Quantick is a former reporter and editor with Northern News Services, as well as former editor of Time Out Doha and Up Here.
Before moving to Yellowknife, I spent nearly five years living in Qatar. In the desert, all my clothes were chiffon and I didn’t own shoes that weren’t sandals. Now, I live in a place where temperatures regularly dip below minus 40.
For most of the country, this is not just the first COVID-19 winter – it’s the first lockdown winter. Not Yellowknife. When COVID-19 arrived, spring may have been springing across the rest of the country, but in Yellowknife, it still felt like the winter of my discontent. By mid-March, the Northwest Territories was in full lockdown, with government employees and most others working from home, limits on social gatherings and a border that if not outright sealed was at least a Tupperware with the mismatched lid. And it wasn’t until April that Yellowknife cracked 2 degrees above zero, the longest it’s taken to warm up since records started being kept in 1943.
Over those first pandemic months, as the world shut down, I hunkered down in my apartment, scared for my loved ones far away, panicked at what would happen if COVID-19 spread through the territories. Day after day, I watched another morning dawn to frost and grey sludge. It never seemed to end. And one after another, the events and celebrations that usually helped us get through the winter disappeared. In March, the Arctic Winter Games was one of the first big events in the country to be cancelled. Meanwhile, the SnowKing, a.k.a Anthony Foliot, may have been building a giant castle of snow bricks and ice blocks harvested from Great Slave Lake for more than 20 years, and holding a month-long festival with art, raves and ice slides, but his kingdom was no match for COVID-19: Lockdown scuttled the festival, the doors on the Snow Castle remaining shut. The never-ending winter, when we couldn’t take refuge indoors with friends and loved ones, made everything more difficult: You can’t exactly plan Easter outdoors when your deck is covered in snow and the air is so cold it hurts your face.
Our social circles have shrunk to households, or to small groups of friends who are allowed to gather, outdoors and masked. And maybe this is where living north of 60 has actually prepared me for COVID-19. Yellowknife may technically have a population of around 20,000, but most days it feels like about 200 people. It’s impossible to go to the grocery store without seeing at least a few people you know. There’s no such thing as anonymity here. Dating in this town is a slightly troubling exercise in swiping past your exes, your friend’s exes and people holding fish until you literally hit the bottom of the deck and finish Tinder. Trust me, no one needs to know what lurks at the end of Tinder. Many people in southern Canada are now struggling with this; it’s not normal to socialize with only three people regularly (or, even more extreme, just the members of your household) or have your co-workers see the colour you’ve painted your bedroom walls. Maybe those of us up north were a little more used to it already?
Yellowknife winters are long, even when they’re not possessed by whatever demon spirit has taken hold of 2020. As winter sets in, we lose about 15 minutes of light a day, until Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, when sunrise is just a few hours before sunset. The cold comes with it, slapping us in the face. But Yellowknifers are out and about. I walk to work every day. People play hockey on lake rinks at lunch, and ski to the Brew Pub in the afternoon twilight. They go for hikes and competitively string Christmas lights and endlessly post pictures of 3 p.m. sunsets on social media. I’m in multiple book clubs, and in the years I’ve lived here I’ve picked up so many hobbies like embroidery and cross stitch that I’d be a real catch in 1834.
People are not crazy. They’re just focused on the joy of winter. Winter isn’t something that can be avoided, it isn’t an unpleasant surprise like your one cousin’s vegan girlfriend who turns up on Christmas. It’s something we know is coming, something we know we can’t just avoid or get through or we will go insane. When I first moved here, I was shocked to find the winters easier than in Ontario. People go into them knowing there will be moments you hate, days you feel personally victimized by your snow pants. I don’t know anyone up here who hasn’t cancelled plans at least once because they just can’t face going outside again, sorry. But long-time northerners declare they know it’s going to be rough, and use peer pressure on newcomers about things such as happy lamps and vitamin D (to quote an actual real ad campaign from the Yukon, everybody needs the D).
Once you acknowledge things are tough and our brains are working against us because we are basically houseplants with more complicated emotions, it gets… easier. You can be kinder with yourself when you give yourself permission to be a little sadder, a little more irritable, a little more in need of comfort foods and early bedtimes and cozy days with warm blankets. It doesn’t surprise me at all that before it was an Instagram trend, hygge came from Scandinavia. The idea of curling up and being nice to your brain with soft, gentle things has got to be a northern idea.
The north is pretty intent on sucking every ounce of joy out of winter it can. COVID-19 winter is no different, we just need that joy a little more. So I get an extra shot of serotonin when I leave my office in the darkness, looking at the twinkling Christmas lights the city puts up in Sombe K’e park every year. Bundled up, my face snuggled into the fox fur trimming my parka hood, my hands burrowing into the sheered beaver lining my mittens, I can enjoy the floating snowflakes that look like they should have come out of a Hallmark Christmas movie in which the big city career woman realizes all she really needed was the small town single dad after all (but in a less sexist and problematic way). The coldest days here are the brightest: We may only get three hours of daylight, but it’s an intense light glittering off the snow. And once the sun goes down, when it’s too cold to snow, the aurora come out to dance and remind us why we live here.
Sorry to anyone who started reading this expecting a list of activities or gear to magically make this COVID-19 winter better. Wait, I’ll throw you a bone: Real fur is warmer than fake, it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you’re warm, and there are so many amazing Indigenous artists making mittens and mukluks and coats and hats so go find one of them on Facebook or Instagram before you buy that overpriced Canada Goose parka. This has been a weird year. But the thing I’ve learned, heading into my fifth winter in the Arctic, is it’s all about attitude and perception. If we give in to despair, whether from COVID-19 or from the cold, we won’t get through this. The north is able to enjoy winter in a way that makes the pain, even just a little, more bearable. Even when it’s minus 50, you know eventually you’ll be wearing shorts under the midnight sun again. We’re able to find joy in the darkness, because we know that one day, the light will come back.
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