Nestled in the depth of the rockie mountains, the rain thumps against the rooftop echoing throughout the tiny cabin. This is where I will spend the night before heading off onto my next adventure.
This journey called Life is leading me all over. In an instant I am transported from an Arctic chill down to a desert heat, there is no time to miss a beat.
I am dancing through the different acts, traveling around the world but at the end of the day I am simply that little girl. You remember the one, with the hopes and dreams as big as her body, with a heart on fire full of desire. The small silhouette that runs across the field, weaves in and out of life without a shield, the one with the little curly ponytail.
Here I am, that is me! Today I can call myself something else. Something bigger than myself, ultimately a team of proud souls following their dreams of wearing the maple leaf.
Today I have been selected to take part in my biggest role on the largest of stages. The lights will shine down as they call my name. I will maybe even blow a kiss and wave, then jump into the battle because no matter what happens I will forever be known as an Olympian.
As my eyes weigh down and I drift asleep all I can do is dream about all the people that helped me complete this tale. A large group of individuals living their lives all over the map they can’t even be charted. This is not the end, don’t leave just yet, the show is just getting started!
There is a certain charm to running in the woods in the winter. The sound of the wind swirling around the branches. The red sun beaming through the openings, sprawling across the snow. The soft trickling sound of the pine needles as they make their way down to the ground. The rustle of the decomposing materials, and the soft touch of your feet connecting to the ground. Each step resounds and brings an electric vibe to the majestic arches of the trees shaking above your head. If you are lucky there are even snowflakes gently falling down and melting as they reach the warmth of your breath.
For someone who has grown up nestled under shades of the forest, it is almost a comforting feeling to be hidden away. As if to be in another world. A place where you can simply follow a path, wander until you are lost, only to stumble back to where you had originally left off.
Every turn of the calendar seems to mark new beginnings, like a new chapter, another adventure through the woods. You can chose a path carefully, following it, to find all sorts of new challenges. At the the end of the path, you take some time to breathe, relax and reflect.
This forest creature has many passions to follow and goals to be fulfilled in this new year. The journey means finding many new destinations, triumphs and failures, smiles and tears, but mainly good people with whom to share these great things. Each person has their own story, perspective and lifetime of experiences. The best part about what I do… Which has no clear definition… is learning about these things and helping them, help me, become a better and stronger human being.
With that being said, I hope you share your stories with me, as I do with you this next year, and maybe just maybe we will cross paths on a forested trail.
Journal entry: Day 59
11:28 pm, feeling sad and happy, writing in my room.
First let me talk emotions. At this point I left my friends and family nearly nine weeks ago. I have been through a lot up here, but as reminded by my friend “No one will ever fully understand your stories. They have to be here to fully understand it, understand how we live up here in such a harsh environment” I felt that hit every point. When she talks about the environment she doesn’t only mean the rapidly changing weather conditions, she means the whole environment. Including the community, the people, the social issues that are faced every day. As much as I have shared, discussed this life with my loved ones. The flow of emotions throughout this journey cannot simply be described.
Living in the north has been an adventure. It is fun to think about all the things that I have done up here. The freedom to wake up and spend hours exploring my surroundings. The fact that every direction you turn, you are overwhelmed with the magnificence of the natural world and the amplitude of the atmosphere you are living in. The fact you are virtually living history, that generations of people have created. By surviving and exploring harsh conditions that are constantly threatening their livelihood. Then there is the sway of emotions that come with living in solace with the environment.
Traveling up here may have been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have faced adversity. Not only because I was constantly battling with my internal willpower to brave the environment. I have faced some of my saddest days. Simply put days where nothing went right, days where I wanted to book a flight. Nights where my eyes saw things that made my heart pound. Dreams where shadows flew straight down.
I have faced uplifting moments. Moments of pure joy. Times where I would smile so big, laugh so hard that my face would hurt. I have enjoyed spiritual journeys and stories. Stories of triumph, of failure, of learning, of thinking and of perceiving the world.
The world is immense. At night when you look up at the sky, and see the stars go shooting by, it is simply a glimpse at the world beyond our own eyes. Nature kindly offers us its share, but not without consequence. Those consequences may be harsh, but it is the people around us that shed light far into the night.
The people of Ulukhaktok, NT have been nothing but supportive to me and my goals. Sure there were days when everyone thought I was crazy. But, it would soon bring smiles and laughter to people around the community. I will miss being here, a place that I have called home. The families that have adopted me and treated me like their own.
Far away, in a land to the south, are people that I can call upon. The ones I love and look forward to leaning on. So even though this journey is complete. Now I am off to live the next adventure, another story, another beat.
The Arctic is imagined by the solace of the ice, the overarching dance of the northern lights and the depth of the cold temperatures but it is so much more than that. Beneath the twilight of the night, hidden behind the various shades of ice are the people that bring colour and diversity to their surroundings.
People wander in and out of stilted houses, surrounded by the warmth of greetings, families are sitting together laughing and sharing stories of the past. Stories of triumph and failure, of belief and of wisdom. Knowledge is transmitted through the air and acquired by those who will soon be taking off to create their own. Sharing feasts and recent catches, baked goods decorate the tables, people making sure historical bonds are vibrant throughout the night.
There is music playing from afar. The cries of animals and chants of hurrah. The bright lights illuminate the artistry. Drumdancers shimmer in their outfits, flowing down the streets. All the while they are twirling to the rhythm of the falling snowflakes. Emotions resound through the echoes of the air, shedding light on darkness that otherwise is bare.
Although the day and the night are much alike, the darkness has a certain charm. As it becomes increasingly apparent, the population slowly migrates from far out on the land inwards to the settlement regions. Lights suddenly appear from far places, bearing snowmobiles with sleds. Hunters traveling slowly appearing as if they have risen out of the ice.
Then when true night settles in and the skies are clear they are illuminated by bands of colour. Forming pirouettes in skies, slowly falling through the skies. The bright streaks form like tiny dancers in the spotlight. They come vibrantly and slowly drift away, just as fast as the day that has past.
When the sun rises over the community, for a few short hours, the community awakes. People on skidoo’s zoom across the the frozen bay heading in all sorts of directions. Hunters get out and fix their sleds, preparing for their next trip. Community workers make their way to the small office buildings. Others brew up a fresh pot of tea while bannock bread is warming up in the oven. I head out on my run.
The cold air brings tears to my eyes. The sun beams off of the shimmering snow. I take the path most traveled and run up to the airport. As I approach the airplane takes off. It is a rare sight, there is only one plane every few days. This moment makes me think of the time I have spent here and where I am heading afterwards.
When I first arrived it was a bitter sweet feeling. I had finished an amazing summer traveling throughout the world to compete on the international stage. I performed above and beyond my expectations and was hungry for more. However, during all of that time, everything was very much focused on my own story.
I have often said that it takes a team to create an athlete. My parents taught me that it takes a community to build a person, but it also takes friends and relationships to live life to its fullest.
The moments that I enjoy the most when I have spent time with people and heard their stories. Here, the simple act of living is cherished every day. People work together to make sure that each and everyone is having a good day. While visiting elders and hearing stories from long ago, you can see the warmth of the sun shining in their eyes. The memories of tradition and culture flowing throughout the room, creating a certain happy ambiance. Although it is silent, the joyful spirits bring noise to the room. The laughter that resonates echoes for days.
This year has been incredible, but not because of what I have done, but the people around me. Some have faced uphill battles, others have had experiences of their own, they have shared their love and laughter. In the end we have created a colourful story. My perspective might be different from theirs but it is the living tale that holds the most detail.
There are only two weeks left of my Arctic Adventure, but the story does not end there…
The warmth of the sun rises and the deep blue skies are clear; the frozen Arctic ocean opens a network of pathways into the relative southern portions of the northern lands. Those are the days when the red colour of the cold air shimmers off the rocky landscape. The best days for hunting, the best days for playing and for me, the best days for running.
Suddenly a sun dog is created, surrounding the outer portions of the bright rays. A cloud devours the light and soon the wind begins to howl. It sweeps up and crashes down stripping the bare landscape. Creating crevasse on the eastern portions of the mountains and depositing the remains on the west. People glide down the main road as others force themselves against the wind up town. The cold bites. It hits hard against your skin. It strikes against your outer layers slowly creeping towards the bone. These are the days where it is harder to force yourself upwards.
Whatever type of day. I continue to run. There are some considerations that must be taken. I am not about to go do 30 minutes of tempo on the barren landscape with 90km/hr gusting winds and a -30 degree wind-chill. However, I do happily run up the side of a mountain only to deal with the nipping craze during my cool down.
A community member the other day asked me for advice on running in the Arctic. Although I often think I am the only one who would ever continue a training regime up here . There are many others that might consider it too. If you are a thrill seeker, someone who has made it your goal in life to do something like this, here are few of the main differences between running in southern portions of Canada compared to the high Arctic:
So, on the harder days, when I am alone, I remember one specific moment. It was back in Guelph, before I had even thought about any Arctic Adventure. The wind had picked up throughout the day, as our large group of girls ran together down the long gravel road facing the wind. I said “Pretend this is an Arctic wind, forcing us backwards with drifting snow plunging into our skin.” Like most times the girls just laughed. Well on the days when the wind howls it is exactly like that, except maybe a bit colder!
The icy waves crash against the shore. The base sounds resonate across the land. It is the beating drum. It hits a perfect rhythm. The ice undulates at various wave lengths shaping the tune. Depending on the time of day, the direction of the wind and where you are located you can hear the song in a different way.
Inuit, like a perfect tune create the bridge between the ocean and the land. Walking through town it is typical to see hunters fixing their sleds. Families heading out fishing. Children running around, or ‘playing out’ as it is commonly referred to here. Dogs barking at the children. The warmth of families surrounding a cup of freshly brewed lake water tea. The light touch needed to skin animals and the soft sounds of the needle pulling thread sewing parkas. Preparing for the depths of winter. The sounds are light, but apparent.
The alto sounds are found out on the land. As the snow arrives, the arctic landmass is covered with a sheet of white. What is perceived as something that is untouched is covered with wildlife, brush and hidden secrets. I have been fortunate to travel outside of the community. It has made me realize a few things. Once you leave the community, which is quite small, suddenly the beat becomes less apparent. Its like a slow decrescendo of the base.
There are typically a few people out on the land. Some ice fishing. Aggressively forcing a metal sheer to make a hole, scooping out the ice, lacing their lines and waiting quietly for a fish to bite. Others are traveling in the far hills pulling long wooden sleds with their belongings. Sometimes foxes will appear curious enough to glide across the ice.
The sun shines down as if to conduct the orchestra. Highlighting a freshly caught fish, a nice view in the distance or perhaps even some small willow bushes. The wind crafts a higher pitched sound resonating through the thorns as Arctic Hares appear. Some days this sound is cut with a silence other by a hunter looking to feed his family.
As the sun goes down the crescendo rises. Snowmobiles travel back home and people continue on with their life. Wherever you go, though sometimes more apparent than others, if you listen closely, you can always hear a heart beating.
Earlier that morning, a local hunter had caught four wolves. As we were chatting around the breakfast table he stopped. Quickly got up and rushed out the door. He said in passing “We were just talking about them and they knew. I think there is one out there and its big.” By the time I looked out the window there were five skidoo’s speeding down the road and out of the community.
Most days I like to step outside of my comfort zone. Some days it involves pushing myself to new personal limits. Other days it can be as simple as trying something new. While my challenges are probably more extreme than the majority of people. I am certainly not alone in my pursuits.
As I turned the corner they were there, staring straight at me. My heart dropped. I became a statue, a rapidly freezing statue. Chills began in my toes and slowly crept upwards. Luckily my head could still turn enough, to see that I was being watched. I began to count. One, two, three, four…
Every year the world grows, my perspective expands. Everything that I learn helps me to develop a new aspect of knowledge that I did not understand before. I remember when I agreed to travel up North. I decided this was an adventure that I wanted to fulfill. A project that I aspired to work on. I was a few years younger a bit less experienced and a lot more naïve.
Every day I encounter new scenarios that challenge my thoughts, my opinions and my emotions. Some days are harder than others. The Arctic is most certainly a place where I have faced some of the hardest days of my life. Once I leave, it will remain a project, a part of my life. However, for the people that live here. The friends I have made, the families that I cherish, this is their reality. They live each day not knowing whether tomorrow will come. That is a fact.
It was what I perceived as just another day. I ran through my check list. Saw the people I needed to see and did what I needed to do. I was finally heading out for a run under the afternoon sun. I had heard that there were some wolves nearby. I thought it would be best just to go on my ‘usual’ route. It is a route that literally oversees the community. Other than the aggressive climbs, the slippery shale rocks and the brisk winds it is nice route. At the beginning of my run I noticed a dark sky up ahead. I didn’t think much about it other than what would appear to be a sign of danger.
Inuit have a strong relationship with the environment. Traditional knowledge is simply one term that is used to try to describe the immensity of their knowledge. It is passed down through generations. It is taught through stories and experiences. One acquires this knowledge as time passes. However, it is more than that. As I said I can not describe it, since I will never fully understand it.
As I stood there in shock I remembered the words of an Inuit hunter. “I don’t like hunting wolves because they sense fear. I am afraid of them and they know.” I tried to stay confident. I took out my knife but suddenly it seemed very insignificant. I began to back away. I counted six, seven of them. I backed out of their line of sight and began to take bigger and bigger steps until I was able to turn and run. I knew if I could get to where some of the hunters could see me I would be safe. I would look back every five steps. Nothing came chasing after me.
Relieved, I arrived into town. The kids playing outside of their houses waved and yelled “Hi Gen”. It was like nothing had changed. My experience with the wolves in the hills are simply to be stored in my memory as a story I once told. It was a day that I tried something new. We will just have to see what happens tomorrow.
The snow has arrived. It arrived one night. Beginning at the top of the dark shale cliffs as if they were covered with frosting. Then a strong cold breeze drifted throughout the community, followed by giant flakes falling from the sky. The ground was instantly covered. The ocean turned from a welcoming dark blue, to an eerie shade of grey. The waves began to strike the coastline with layers of ice forcing themselves upwards to the community. The temperatures have quickly dropped from late fall chills to dramatic lows. Winter is only just beginning.
I woke up that morning and realized that people were now driving around on their snowmobiles, rather than the four-wheelers that typically brush up the dust on the rocky roads of Ulukahktok, NWT. Most people down in the southern parts of Canada really dislike the winter. Here the common phrase is “Its only just getting nice out”. You can feel the population slowly sneak out of their houses and bask in the winter sun. Personally, I choose to embrace the winter, the snow, the cold. Running in winter can be fun. You just have to understand how to make your own tracks.
While trudging through the snow with a 90 km/h headwind following your own tracks can be difficult. So you literally have to go with the flow. Here, there are only a few roads. There is Main Road and Airport Road. Together they form the 10 km circumference of the community. However, there are snowmobile trails and my personal favorite fox tracks. While running sometimes you get into a grove but here you always have to be alert. At any instant there can be danger up ahead. Whether it be a large cloud progressing towards you or a howl in the distance. While following fox tracks can be dangerous if you follow the right ones they will lead you to shallow drifts of snow.
Following these tracks have lead me to some really amazing sites. Lookouts over the Arctic ocean, across the glaciated landscape, through the copper valleys and off the rock shell cliffs. They have also lead me to some new friendships and stories created by our adventures ‘over that slippery slope’ or ‘that ice trip into that really bad weather’. These new adventures remind me of the days I have spent training back home through what I thought at the time was snowy. As I continue my runs up here I always think of the great adventures I have had with the simple act of running in the snow.
In the Arctic things change fast. Really fast. In an instant you can be blinded by a weather system, a development in the community or faced with life threatening decisions. The last time I traveled to the 70th parallel I was younger my eyes were filled with innocence and to be honest I had never really experienced some of the difficulties of life. This time it’s a bit different. I like to consider myself ‘better’ versed in the realities of the north. Without any surprise, this week has been filled with sudden shifts in reality, weather systems and dealing with life.
The winds howled through the windows forcing its way through any open cracks. Outside a vortex has been created, a mixture of sand and dust plowing through the gravel packed roads. Nestled between rocky copper cliffs and the gradual three hills the community of Ulukhaktok NWT, tightly packed into less than 70 residential buildings, is bungled down to face an incoming weather system. Throughout the streets the 500 residents are out tying down their belongings with ropes and heavy knots in hopes that they won’t blow away. As soon as the wind hits there will be no shelter strong enough to face the storming forces. If an Inuit hunter tells you it will be windy. He really means ‘don’t go outside you risk blowing way’. This is just an example of one of the things that can rapidly change and at that point all you can do is buckle down and wait for the wind to pass, hoping that all will be O.K.
Patience is something that I continue to work on. As someone who is constantly battling excess energy I tend to rapidly rush into the next thing. Here you have no choice but to wait out the storm before you can travel safely. Safety is the main concern. If you are out on the land you can’t just use your phone to call someone to pick you up. You are literally out forever. I normally run with a knife, a hot pack and some sort of protein enriched food. Not because a flip blade will save my life but because it is a tool to prevent the worst.
Wandering up the shale crescent towards the top of the third hill I was suddenly struck by a sound. I could hear my heart beat simultaneously sending shivers throughout my body. I was numb. As I looked up I saw white fur brushing in the wind. It was an arctic fox. We stared into each others eyes, not knowing what the other would do. I was told by the locals “if he’s rabies then you should be scared otherwise don’t worry”. He didn’t move. I began to step backwards down the hill after a few steps he began to run away. If it had not been for my state of shock it could have been a different story, patience is the most essential tool.
Now, as the week is drawing a close the skies have begun to clear up, the sun is shining bright and people have begun to wander out of their houses. Some traveled down the coastline to escape for a few hours others have gathered in song and dance. I went up to the local gym and watched the local drummers resonate their sound throughout the space, the dancers took their turns and balanced their movements to the beats of the drum. Overall it has been another life experience to add to my week in the north.
By Geneviève Lalonde
A collection of stories and tales. Reminiscing the past and exploring the future.