When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was suddenly alone at home with only an 11-month-old baby for company as my husband, a pilot, transported medical equipment abroad. Playdates, music classes, grandparents’ visits and all the other community supports I relied on disappeared over the course of a weekend.
As provinces gradually reopen, many anxiously weigh the pros and cons of resuming life as we once knew it — hosting small family gatherings, exploring the outdoors, perhaps even sitting on restaurant patios. But with August already midway, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this summertime reprieve is nearing its end.
Winter is just around the corner, and it could be even more difficult than those first few months of lockdown.
My now-husband and I started our careers in Yellowknife, N.W.T., where winter temperatures regularly hit -40 degrees Celsius. He arrived first, flying float and ski planes for a local airline. I joined him a few months later to write for the local newspaper. We shared a shabby, one-bedroom apartment and a renewed passion for video games. We soon learned Yellowknifers measure time in winters, not years, when they ask how long you’ve lived in the city, because of just how tough the season can be.
The skies are dark for almost 24 hours, brightening to a twilight pink at noon. The ambient temperature can be so cold that experiencing car trouble on a lonely road can kill you if you’re unprepared. It can be an intensely isolating season, but only if you let it.
“Northern cities and towns know how to act like a community.”
Yellowknifers know how to find joy amidst the hardship. The aurora borealis lights up dark skies dripping with stars. Winter sports and past-times abound. Wood-heated living rooms are the coziest spaces on Earth to enjoy a good book and glass of wine.
In the three winters I spent in Yellowknife, I learned some valuable lessons about keeping mentally and physically healthy that have been surprisingly helpful during the current global pandemic, and can help when the days grow shorter and the snow starts to fall.
Community matters – even behind closed doors
Northern cities and towns know how to act like a community. Our first winter, friends, colleagues and neighbours constantly checked in on my partner and I. They knew it was a new experience for us, especially since we hailed from Vancouver, and they knew it was a hard one for most new residents.
Get outside no matter what
For many Yellowknifers, the freezing temperatures make the winter a highlight. As soon as Frame Lake, located at the centre of the city, is safely frozen, cross-country skiers take the icy lake to work on clear days. I personally loved skating on one of the city’s outdoor rinks. Hailing from temperate Vancouver, it was not only fun and easy, but a new experience altogether.
Small joys are everything
When a friend texted at midnight saying the aurora borealis was in full bloom, I threw my parka on and headed outside without hesitation. Beautiful moments like that were a reminder that hardship and loneliness were only one part of this memorable time. Inside, I savoured curling up on the couch with my cat, a favourite tea, and a good book or new movie. Together, my husband and I would regularly swap out the photos in our picture frames to feel connected to the people and places we wouldn’t be seeing for a while.
Think carefully about conflict
If we had an N95 mask for every time my husband and I traced a winter argument back to good, old-fashioned stress, we could have single-handedly supported Canada’s PPE needs this spring. It was really easy to send tension from a hard day’s work or the tedium of indoor life each other’s way. Eventually, we learned to find another outlet, such as yoga, cooking, crafting or journalling, when we noticed the issue was simply tension boiling over.
Don’t skip alone time
My job involved tight deadlines, and when things weren’t breaking my way, the stress would mount. I learned to take time apart from other people —usually an hour when I got home to tune into a podcast and do something creative. It gave me a chance to mentally check in, process what I was feeling, and get back to life with more patience and joy.
Go all out
I was once told Yellowknife’s first movie theatre was a simple, wood-panelled building with folding chairs and a projector. Moviegoers popped corn at home and brought it to the show in garbage bags to share. Though theatres are still closed in many provinces and territories, my husband and I took note of this for our winter dinners, movies or outings. To celebrate the release of a highly anticipated new video game, we baked treats for an entire week. On Friday at 5 p.m. sharp, that weekend became all snacks, all PJs, all the time.
Look for hobbies that give back what you put in
People spend Yellowknife winters learning and sharing new skills. It was always more about making something with the time you have than about whiling the time away. Amateur artists created, promoted and sold their work (whether it was good or not). Local musical talent was as well-known as major artists on the radio. I learned to pickle produce and discovered I’m terrible at embroidery.
When I first arrived in Yellowknife in 2012, the capital city did not have year-round road access to the rest of Canada. Grocery store aisles would sit empty as the rivers filled with too much ice to ferry supplies across, but too little ice to support an ice road. Necessity inspired creativity in the kitchen. My husband and I love pesto, but basil doesn’t travel well and pine nuts were expensive. We did a little experimenting, and discovered you can make a great pesto with greens like spinach or arugula, and nuts like walnuts, cashews or almonds.
My husband and I have since returned to southern British Columbia and talk about our time below the Arctic Circle often. My thoughts recently have been ones of gratitude for the myriad ways Yellowknife shaped me into who I am today. Knowing I’ve made it through such unique challenges before helped me find some footing in a frightening time.
Correction: An earlier version of this article located Yellowknife within the Arctic Circle. Yellowknife is subarctic.
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