I’ve been half an hour in this warm room, but the mass of ice and facial hair is still holding fast to my helmet’s chin bar, a testament to its impressive volume. It’ll be a while yet before I can pull it off. The patrons of the inn are a tad unnerved by the facial glacial-fed river now running into the lobby from the head waters of, well, my head. What judgements of this incoherent, lumbering eccentric must now fill whispered conversation? No doubt, theirs would not be the first to murmur the question of my cognisance and intellect, and with any luck, they won’t be the last.
Flash back seven days. Agatha’s internals, externals and everything in between lay scattered on the living room floor, kitchen counter, and (just for effect) the piano, waiting in silent patience for me to channel my inner Shelley and bring her to life. As I frantically piece together her existence in the wee hours before we depart upon yet another winter endeavour, I struggle to stifle the sort of maniacal laughter that erupted from Dr. Victor when his modern Prometheus first took in air.
With trembling hand I tap the solenoid terminals with a rusty screwdriver. Its corroded electrical resistance creates a rather large spark, not unlike the crackle of 1930s movie-set Tesla coils as Herr Doktor flips the switch. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE… and I’m out of Red Bull. Collapsing into the chair, exhausted from weeks of sleep-deprived prep, I glance at the clock on the stove. Four hours till I leave for my most ambitious sub-polar vacation to date. I’m feeling quite impressed with myself, as I don’t usually leave this much of a cushion.
“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” – Douglas Adams
Running full knobbies with over 400 carbide studs makes for an interesting ride on asphalt, as they tap out a cadence, not unlike thousands of marbles being crushed for hours on end. Speaking of crushed marbles, that is coincidentally also the condition of my dangly bits, due to waterlogged seat foam once more freezing solid and refusing to yield to pressure from above. I don’t care what anyone tells you. It does not matter one iota how many layers of Ultra-Loft-Reflecto-Space fabric you put between Lefty, Righty and a bouncing block of ice; in no time you’re gonna feel it in your teeth. I have to pull over to engage in a bit of male privilege. You know, that gift of evolution bestowed to my sex that gives me the ability to whiz standing up. Well, this time it’s not to relieve any pressure on my bladder. Rather, the purpose is to transfer thermal fluid warmth from deep within, in the hope of adding a more vibrant shade to my currently not-so-purple parts. But I digress.
As I often do when the sublime opportunity to indulge in a little primal scream therapy presents itself (without consequence), I take all the trials of spirit knotted hard in my stomach and expel them with vocal violence, the intensity of which caught me off guard. Do I imagine another voice calling back in different verse, or is it just the echo catching up to the flaming vitriol of my momentarily black heart? My shudder has nothing to do with the cold. There’s absolutely nowhere a soul could hide in this endless sea of white as my eyes dart about, looking for who or what is toying with my fragile psyche. I can’t help but feel this time I didn’t get away with saying things thus far hidden in breath. I love this country dearly, but son of a bitch, it can play with your head. I guess the upside is Dr. Freud and I can stop focusing on Mother for a while.
Attawapiskat looms on the opposite side of the river, with the sun setting on its western flank. Near the shore, to the right of the Catholic church, are dozens of loosely spaced white crosses, nearly buried beneath the snow of a recent storm. The sky, lit with the feathered wisps of twilight, slowly releases its hold to give way to the pale green dance of the Aurora as I rumble in from the ice road.
I’m not sure what to expect. This is my first time here, and if the media is to be taken at its word, I’m not going to have an easy time of it. The thermometer on the wall of the inn reads -38C as I turn off old Aggie and start the familiar process of chipping ice off the gear before unloading.
My worries were for nought, as Agatha’s engine hadn’t even finished her cool down ticking before a grinning Robert Kataquapit shook my hand, and one by one, the dominoes of my southern preconceptions tumbled. His leathered hands point to a well-used pulk tied with sinew and cord beside the house. “I’m going to show you my land.”
I make mental note of the history carved into his face and marvel how a man of his years can be spry as he, in two feet of snow with a shovel on one shoulder and an axe on the other. With a tug on the rope, his sled barks to life, and I’m off in a choking cloud of two-stroke smoke on a guided tour of the western James Bay shoreline. Later at his hunt camp, he regales me amidst the intense gesturing of the geese that fly so thick during the seasonal migration that at times, it can be hard to tell between day and night.
Two more hours pass, and I’m standing at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River, looking out to the sea at low tide as the living ice heaves and tears at the beach. My spirit falls from my chest at the realization that the roaming polar bears hunting between us and Akimiski island are not the major obstacle to my hope of travelling around “the point” to Peawanuck. It’s the ocean itself. Contrary to my research that suggested I could ride the ice, this is something that flat-out mocks my little scheme of skirting the edge of Polar Bear Provincial Park to the Winisk River. Adding further insult is the unusually deep snow on land this year that will not allow towing the bike by pulk over the muskeg. I kneel at the edge of the frozen salt floe, where the river’s fresh water retreats enough to give a clear view of its pebbled bottom. I’ve come all this way for nought.
Wallowing in epic self-pity back at the inn, the gnawing in my stomach reminds me I haven’t eaten in nearly a day. Living off boxed microwave food for nearly a week has me craving something green and leafy. Spotting a small bunch of wilted kale on sale for $9 at the Northern store lifts my funk for a precious brief moment. I start to nip at the now-frozen-hard kale on the walk back, leaving a trail of crispy green chips with each bite. Forgetting what happens to food when it’s flash frozen to -40, I take a big chomp of the remaining stalks. It means I’ll now have to wait for the one impaled in my cheek to thaw before I can remove it. Leaning against a burned-out van, I alternate between cursing myself for using shrubbery to self-inflict oral stab wounds, and the fact that at these temps a kilt might not have been such a great idea.
A few minutes ago I noticed a bit of smoke behind the water treatment building. It’s now inky black and there’s more of it.
A lot more of it…
To be continued…