If Winter begins when the mercury huddles near the basement of your thermometer then this year The Old Man took the long way back.
On February 2 the temperature nosedived and never pulled up. It was -40C in Edmonton and inexplicably colder in every other direction.
I had to get outside.
More years than not I lived in Canada’s Arctic and still consider it home, even though the last 15 have seen my mail sent to Alberta.
Not since early childhood have I wanted to be outdoors in frigid temperatures. Snuggled in several layers of clothing and a snowsuit, I remember the very cold air as an exhilarating force. Beyond stinging skin and aching toes I had no concept of it being dangerous.
When I was just old enough to be bundled up and outside in -40 weather, temperature was measured in Fahrenheit. In one of those quirky coincidences that happen when humankind measures Nature, metric and imperial thermometers converge, and both Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same temperature at 40 degrees below the zero mark.
Kind of like how a thousand cubic feet of natural gas equals a million BTU, and a gallon of water is 10 pounds.
But not really.
Growing up, it was not considered really cold until it was -40. That was the universal benchmark, at least in our universe.
At -40 inFort Providence the wind disappears. I do not recall a single exception. It is a local phenomena and I have no idea how far this particular meteorological certainty extends. If there is a wind, the ambient temperature is above -40. It may be below 40 with the wind, but that it is not the same.
Thinking back to when I was outdoors as a child in the deep cold of winter, it seemed to be always dark and quiet. Sore toes and stinging cheeks aside, I do not remember actually being cold, just that it was cold.I would pretend I was in space. It felt like it. The vacuum would burn your cheeks and pinch the tip of your nose just before it went numb.
In my snowsuit, sealed against the air that was not there, I played astronaut. I would bound over endless monochrome mountains and frozen valleys, slow motion in my mind like the grainy film from the lunar surface. Boulders shattered under my boots as I leapt from the crumbling cliffs of snow piled high along parking lots or the sides of the road. Traveling between the circles beneath the streetlights was like crossing from day to night on the moon.
The whole fantasy fits with the times too. In 1974 I was 10 and more interested in NASA than hockey, and I liked hockey.
Where I lived in the North it would occasionally get colder than -40 with no wind, but -45 is not just 5 degrees colder than -40. No matter the math adds up.
Each increment below -40 is a different tempurate way station. The 5 degrees between -40 and -45 are a chasm. The further below -40 the temperature falls, the more time seems to slow, and doing anything beyond staying warm goes more and more against better judgement.
Today when I decided to go into the cold I had no illusions of reliving my imaginary childhood adventures on the moon. The temptation this time wasn’t nostalgia. I just needed to meet the cold again. Not to be cold, but to walk through it. Naturally I brought my camera. Capturing the cold in an image is difficult. I shoot what I see and the light guides my eye. If the cold shows through that is a bonus.
My first photo stop left no doubt it was cold. Seriously cold. Lethal came to mind. The kind of cold that demanded snap decisions and did not allow for patience. Nature hustled me along. That is when I knew why I had been called outside. Life threatening cold awakens something primal.
I remember once it was -45 and I hauled a bulldozer out of a heated shop and trucked it about an hour out of town. The engine was running from the start so that was fine, but the dozer’s hydraulic fluid was so thick I could not lift the blade to unload the machine from the trailer. At -40 you could slowly operate the levers and warm up the oil. At -45 the “chunk chunk chunk” you heard when applying the slightest pressure to the controls told you damage was imminent if you continued. The hydraulic oil was a solid trying to enter a pump meant for liquid.
It was a remarkable coincidence that about 10 meters beyond the very spot I stopped to unload the dozer, right on the deserted highway that winds around Great Slave Lake from Fort Providence to Yellowknife, a young wolf was pulling with its teeth at what looked to be little more than a stain on the road. Scavenging on a flattened morsel of roadkill the wolf made no motion to move as I rolled to a stop.The wolf was obviously an adolescent and its coat was a lush dark grey and black.
After I abandoned my attempt to warm the solidified lifeblood of the bulldozer and back it off the trailer, I began reattaching the chains in order to haul it home. At the same time, done with the splotch on the road, the wolf walked down into the ditch and ambled along toward me. The wolf was even with my truck on the driver’s side and at my back, so I decided to go around the truck and start chaining up that side, where I could keep an eye on the young predator.
Teen wolf slowly sauntered past with hardly a glance my way, and going the direction I had come from, gradually disappeared into the distance . Neither of us wasted a motion.
You did not often see wolves where I lived, and if you did they usually made an effort to be further from you than not. That young wolf’s stroll past me, close enough for me not to want my back turned on him, had to be a testament to the cold, and the wolf knowing which direction it needed to go. Me near enough to hit him with a snowball was no deterrent to the wolf staying on its chosen path.
The Snowshoe Inn, our family business in Fort Providence, for many years hauled much its own supplies North from Edmonton.
We packed a 45 foot trailer tight with pallets full of empty beer bottles to go South, and always arrived first thingMonday morning at the Alberta Brewers Association warehouse in Edmonton to unload. The rest of the week was spent picking up items to take North, and departure was Friday right after loading the groceries, both fresh and frozen. In Summer you insulated the frozen food, and in Winter it was the fresh food that was protected from the elements. We had insulating the food from freezing or thawing down to an art. In summer Macdonald’s Consolidated, the grocery wholesaler that was always our last stop, gave us blocks of dry ice to put on top of the frozen goods. It was a point of pride that by the time we got home, those steaming anomalous miracles of frozen chemical were hardly any smaller than when we covered them up and sealed them in with the french fries and chicken fingers. Dry ice does not melt, it evaporates. So if you pack well, it evaporates slowly and keeps frozen whatever is under and around it .
The goods hauled North had many common items like building materials, motor oil, furniture, and paper products for the restaurant and hotel. The material and supplies not so routine, were as varied as they were numerous, and I usually rented a pickup truck to run about for a couple days gathering up small packages and hunting down unusual or hard to find parts. We did this more in summer because that was building season, but it was a year round ritual that happened every other month at least. After the requisite number of trips as swamper, the job of bringing the truck down periodically or on demand was mine, and I loved it.
One winter I was all packed up and on my way home and the temperature in Edmonton was below -40. It is not often the weather warms as you head north, and that day was no exception. When I left Edmonton I was told it was -54 in Highlevel, still 4 hours South of home.
Again it became a tale of man and machine versus Nature. The transmission oil was so cold and stiff the top three gears were a fantasy. I was running flat out at 80km/hr.
I had to put a running shoe upside-down over the steel accelerator pedal because it was freezing my foot through my winter boots. The running shoe slowed my foot freezingbut it still froze. At some point one of the two heater fans that uselessly blew cool air into the cab failed. I had to pull a heating duct out of its vent in the dash and tape it to a brake handle (also rendered useless by the cold), so the meagre breeze wafting from the fan that did work could struggle at sustaining a slowly shrinking circle in the frost covered windshield. With the back of my legs pressed against the seat, I slumped and half stood on the accelerator with whichever foot was least frozen. I leaned on the steering wheel to support myself, and peered ahead through my icy porthole.
Around the halfway point, at Donnelly Corner, I pulled into the truck stop for fuel. It was a chance to warm up and I needed to buy a toque. I got warm but they had no toques. The fellow manning the pumps heard me asking at the counter if there was a hatI could buy. Something more substantial than my ball cap. There was not.
Just before I started back onto what I probably imagined was an interstellar highway, with me an intrepid cosmic trucker coaxing his stalwart space freighter homeward, the old guy that fuelled up my limping starship knocked on my window.
I wish I took his name so I could have surprised him with a sign of my gratitude some years later, but of course I never did. When I opened the truck door, (the windows too were inoperable from the cold), he reached in and handed me his toque.
In keeping with my memories of the very cold, it was nighttime all the way home.
The last time cold reminded me a simple mistake or an unexpected turn of events could mean disaster was three winters ago, in Igloolik, Nunavut. There was no loitering. If you were outside, shelter was somewhere close. In cold that severe it was easy to imagine that if warmth was not nearby it would be hard not to panic.
I was in Nunavut Territory in 2016 during winter. No surprise it was cold. None the less, Nunavut is no exception to the vagaries of weather, and we had our share of not so cold. More than our share, which made the extremes all the more acute. When serious weather tightened our mental grip on the here and now the cold felt bottomless, and was a potent reminder that we were visiting a fringe of where humanity chose to live. A special place inhabited by special people.
While in Igloolik the temperature was -44C. The whipping wind was extra. I do not recall the exact negative number that the temperature actually plumbed but it did not matter. You had very few goals in that kind of weather. One goal really, and that was to go inside.
We did have other, lesser goals. There were six of us and we worked for SSI Micro upgrading cell towers to improve existing internet services, and to eventually introduce cellular phone services too. The two young men that climbed towers for SSI Micro, and that we relied on to keep our other goals attainable, were remarkable in a couple ways, their embrace of the cold not least of all.
Danny and Guillaume worked in that cold always smiling and without complaint. We all did, or at least tried. The difference was, they had to be happily going about their work 70 feet in the air roped to a steel structure made of icy angles and braces that did not block anything but the slivers of pale sunlight needed to make a latticework of shadows on the ground. They were layered up and prepared. It was not their first trip to the frozen edge of where people called home. What always amazed me though, aside from sustaining inordinate cold for an unimaginable amount of time, was that they wore the thin impact resistant leather and gore-tex gloves worn everywhere. It was that or barehands though, but I am not sure there was much difference.
Of course they got sore fingers. Sore, not frozen. Every few minutes, usually between endless bolts and the nuts that needed to be tightened onto them, they would briskly flick their wrists and swing their arms to move the blood.
I did a little tower climbing in Nunavut that winter, a tourist to their being journeymen, and I climbed in dire cold, but not Igloolik cold, and not for durations half as long as those two stayed aloft hoisting and fastening antennas and braces. So when it comes to hanging off a frozen steel structure, and ignoring Nature’s incessant torture, I can attest to the grit and determination those two young men possessed to remain focused on the tasks at hand.
One day in the vicious cold, rather than scramble for warmth when they came down, they built an igloo for fun.
Danny and Guillaume stood out amongst a tough and determined group, and when I think of extreme cold, I often think of them.
Today the cold made the space around me mostly empty. There was just the hum of traffic hissing close then fading to silence and the crunch of my boots. Footsteps echoed through a frozen ghost town. Downtown Edmonton is in the midsts of an upgrade unlike anything seen here since the heady days of the Energy Crisis, when North America had lineups around the block at the gas station, and Alberta was the Promised Land.
Heading out from Little Italy toward downtown I traveled through time. Every other corner took my journey through a different decade. I walked from the faded and peeling residential of the Fifties to the run down commercial warehouses of the Sixties and Seventies, and from there graduated a decade or two forward in time with every couple blocksI got closer to the freshly minted Roger’s Arena, and its entourage of glistening new towers, still webbed with exposed girders and bandaged and inflated hoarding. Unfinished monuments for the decade to come.
On Jasper Avenue life returned to the city but it still looked dead. The grim faces you knew had nowhere warm to go avoided my eyes.
Anyone on the sidewalk was either puffed up in shiny new winter coats breathing steam and waited for a bus, or wore every grubby layer they possessed, and plotted their next sojourn, deliberate and slow, through the heated warrens and walkways of the downtown core.
Checking my extremities for hints of the relentless chill, I angled for the river valley, away from the living and their hollow stares. The cold does that. Survival does that. There was only one thought and everyone had their own version of it. Warmth.
Along the way I had stopped and started several times, photographing anything that looked worth a shot. Checking my watch, I gauged the rest of my route against the start time of the movie I was bound to see. Not too late, I marched across barren parking lots and through the legislature grounds and made for the Southside of the North Saskatchewan river.
When I got to the Highlevel Bridge, with the strap across my chest and my camera on my back, I pulled it to the front of me onto my hip, and cradled it with my forearm while keeping my hands warming as fists in my coat pockets. Then I ran. Not fast, but in a lope. In order to get to the show before it started I had to make up for some time spent taking photos on the legislature grounds. Running warmed me up too.
Wikipedia tells me the Garneau seats 527. Even without the extreme cold attendance today would be thin. I think it is fair to say a Korean psycho-drama on aSaturday afternoon is not for everyone, combined with biting sub zero weather, it would be a private screening.
Anyone who braved winter’s lash was already seated when I hustled in, so I virtually sailed past the ticket booth and then bellied up to the concession. My usual movie time treat is a large buttered popcorn (real butter at 1/2 the price of Cineplex popcorn), and a medium soda water (free). Yes, that is a plug for the Garneau. Its official name is The Metro Cinema at the Garneau, and it features arthouse, foreign films,Saturday morningcartoons with unlimited cereal for the children (Pajamas encouraged), and Hollywood fare only if it is quirky, old, or a cult favourite. The Garneau also shows “The Room” on the first Friday of every month at 11:30 pm. Not having yet attended, I know it only as a movie so terrible it has attained cult status, and has played that time slot for as long as I remember.
The opening credits just started as I went through the lobby doors and into the dark theatre. I hoped the projector would light the seats enough for me to find an empty one. No such luck. The movie began with a black screen and Korean credits. Small Korean credits. They appeared in the darkness ahead of me then disappeared. And again. I could see nothing.
I shuffled down the aisle to what I judged to be about halfway and stood in the pitch black waiting for the screen to illuminate the seats. I waited some more. The movie now had some dialogue or sound but still no light. I was focused on the seats and was essentially blind. Moving toward the seat on the aisle I was able to determine it was empty. I sat down. After securing my popcorn in the fold of the seat next to me, and my drink in the armrest, I unzipped a couple layers and set my camera on the floor. I undid my boots and removed them. Eventually the screen lit up and I could see the theatre was virtually deserted. With a fistful of popcorn slowly unloading into my mouth I leaned back and hit a knee.
The sequence of events immediately after I discovered I was directly in front of another moviegoer in a virtually deserted theatre is a bit fuzzy. I know I was looking to relocate andcould still not tell if the seats further down my row were occupied. Across the the aisle was empty so I decided that is where I would move to. While gathering up my camera and boots I heard a distinctly disgruntled sigh and the unhappy viewer got up and shuffled over a few seats. Problem solved, thank you anonymous stranger.
Again with a handful of popcorn, and me slowly tumbling the salty kernels of buttery goodness into my mouth, I leaned back and reached for a drink of soda. Again a knee pressed into my back!
The anonymity of a darkened theatre is a mixed blessing. Whomever I was tormenting, (and for what inexplicable reason with 520 empty seats to choose from), could not see the distress on my face, yet they could well imagine me to be some kind of special asshole. Assembling my possessions, once again I was the slower one to move, so remained where I first planted myself and had to wait for the movie to drag my thoughts from the fact someone was thinking ill of me. Someone reseating themselves’ right behind me with just enough harrumph and “tsck tsck” to let me know their displeasure. Finally settled and concentrating on not just reading subtitles but taking in the whole screen, I soon forgot my distressing entrance and bumbling in the dark.
The movie ended with Korean script slowly pulsing on the black screen, same as the opening, only now with the house lights up, so I could really see the vacant rows and how ridiculous the whole seat shifting affair seemed to be. Turning around I made amends and apologized for my apparent rudeness. I think everybody went home happy, but I did not really get much in the way of sympathetic looks or even a nod of understanding. When I explained that I could not tell there were two people behind me, I refrained from asking why on earth only one person moved the first time? It was the same knee both times. Life’s little dramas. In Korean.
Despite just walking in from a deepfreeze and then returning to it for my walk home, the irony of the title completely escaped me.
The movie was called “Burning”.
Zipped up and shielded from the cold I walked out of the Garneau into darkness. The street lights mirrored the people scurrying beneath them, hunched and stiff.
My return trip was a different route than the usual retracing of my journey there. This time I walked along 109 Street, from the top of the river bank to where it begins winding down into the river valley toward the Kinsman Field House. I would cross the brand new Walterdale bridge heading North back into downtown. I would extend my walk and there was a place I wanted to see on the way.
The Walterdale Bridge will always be a significant personal landmark. It is where I nearly killed myself driving drunk.
Reminiscing or pondering life and death had nothing to do with walking there now. It was much simpler than that. The debacle that nearly ended my life and scarred the rest of it was over 20 years ago. It is impossible not to think about that horrendous decision now and again, but I have long since reconciled myself to it. Besides, in spite of all the damage to me and those close to me, the whole ugly incident could easily be considered my lucky night.
No one else was hurt. I lived, and I was not crippled despite a fractured third vertebrae, and that’s just the big stuff. Narrowly escaping a self inflicted death on that early morning in late October, 1994, was certainly a big deal, but old news by now. I wanted to walk past the site of my near demise to check if a tree was still there. I heard it was cut down when they built the new bridge. It is the tree I crashed into.
I followed the sidewalk toward the river along the street I once plummeted down blind drunk behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Before reaching the bottom of the hill I passed out cold then was jolted awake, the truck had violently bounced over something while hurtling completely out of control. I was awake just long enough to barely grasp my dire plight, then blackness claimed me again. When next I woke I saw the foggy image of a person hovering above my face. They wore bright stripes, like someone at an emergency.
Traveling fast with me slumped behind the wheel the pickup truck left the road just before the bridge and wedged itself sideways under the massive limb of an old tree. A piece of bark smaller than a dollar bill was scraped off the branch that crushed the roof of the truck. The tree suffered no other damage.
The cab of the truck was smashed down nearly level with the dashboard. My head went through the driver’s side window and away from the pushed in roof which nearly touched the steering wheel. Somehow I survived. Like I said, it was my lucky night.
Today in the cold and dark I found a footpath that meanders past the tree then forks to follow the North Saskatchewan River in both directions. The tree stood out of the light in a hollow below the onramp of the new Walterdale Bridge, the slanted trunk and giant branches visible only as a silhouette against the bridge lights. Wading through a couple feet of snow to frame them in my viewfinder, the tree and its two equally massive companions towered over me like silent sentinels. They were motionless and almost invisible. With the fingers empty and flapping against my cheek, I pulled my scanty woollen gloves further over my fists and worked to make exposures. It was all but futile trying to push the shutter release and remain steady.
Done with trying to photograph twisted wooden shadows in the dark (I failed), and with my hoodie askew across my face to better deflect the wind, I trudged upward into the open space of the bridge and onto the sidewalk across the river. I hurried my pace and hunkered against the cold. Peeking at the horizon, narrowed by the hood around my face, I reviewed my mental map and the various streets and crosswalks I had to navigate to make my journey into the city centre as short as possible.
I never spared a second to wonder on where I was. I knew without thinking there was no time for idling. My mind was on survival. In that very spot somehow my subconscious did the same thing many years ago. Only then it was for real. On death’s door, before seeing the bright stripes of a medic, I dreamt of forcing myself from my knees to my feet. I was lifting the weight of my entire existence. I did not know why, or how come I was so heavy, just that I had to stand. That unconscious struggle to get off the ground saved my life. I know it.
Standing by the tree, trying to photograph it in the freezing blackness, I never thought about that dream. Not until now, while writing. The cold will do that. When you have expended your internal reserves, and the heated core of your being is sensing erosion, the merciless void that surrounds you narrows your focus and you move. If you have a home you go that way.
Only later did I think about being close to death there. That spot could have been where my existence crashed to an end. That big old crooked tree is a waypoint from where I measure things that are in my life that might not have been. Things like children and some of the amazing adventures I have had since. The Walterdale Bridge will always be the place of before and after.
I’m glad the tree remains.
Arriving home after my adventure in the cold today, I noticed the faded shadow of my gate in the weak orange glow of a streetlight. I took some photographs. The images were nothing special so I wasn’t too disappointed when my camera clicked its last, and would not make another exposure. The battery was frozen. Not dead. It turned out to still have life when it warmed up.
My camera is a Nikon D3. While I walked it was either riding on my back with the strap across my front like a bandolier or in my hands. I have never drained a fully charged battery from use, not even in the cold. Never. My D3 is set to full manual just like the film cameras I learned on, and I often refer to the light meter only after I’ve made an exposure. Most times I know the settings just by the light. I do check, but it is not often I reshoot for poor exposures. The D3 is the most rugged camera Nikon makes. The body is formed from a solid block of magnesium alloy, which is a recent arrival on the alloy scene, and is every bit as exotic as it sounds. They got it very right when the D3 was introduced in 2007. It is state of the art while paying homage in both style and function to the iconic Nikons of yesteryear. The old lenses fit, so the D3 is compatible with all the gorgeous glass that came before it. I have a couple of those old lenses, and enjoy using them with the digital body. They work together as if made for each other. They were.
The D3 is shaped for the human hand like it was designed by God.
In fact, it was sculpted by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign, so same thing. But not really.
There is now a D4 and it shoots video. Of course every version of Nikon’s flagship camera to follow will also record videos. My camera has no video capability. The sole function of the Nikon D3 is photography and that adds to its strength.
My Camera had been on my back or in my hands for nearly four hours, two hours each side of the movie, and the temperature (with the wind) was below -40. That is by far the longest time I have had my camera out in the open in temperatures that low. A prodigious feat of technology to build a camera that will operate so far below freezing, and for so long. Especially a camera that is ultimately mechanical.
I discovered my camera’s limit today. I will concede a twinge of regret for having to give up the notion that it is invulnerable.
I got the camera soon after its debut a dozen years ago.
Since then the tests have been numerous. Some have been severe.
Limits are found.
On the screen I see the words but they see me too.