…and then they splashed fuel all over this large, wooden structure built to resemble a dog. Everyone was told to stand back. I watched them light something small on fire… a stick? An arrow?
Oh wait, I should probably provide some context.
In May of 2015, I left the warmth and comfort of London, Ontario, Canada and made my way to Iqaluit, Nunavut for a summer of guiding. If you aren’t familiar with Nunavut, it’s the largest province/territory in Canada and stretches all the way up toward the North Pole.
I remember arriving in Iqaluit to a small blizzard (remember, it’s May) before moving my stuff into a tiny townhouse in the center of the town. I had two roommates, both having just arrived to Nunavut as well. We three women were the newest employees to a tourism company.
Cold and lonely in the north
There were in total five employees, plus the owner, though he was often travelling and attending to the guides in other parts of the arctic. I was the youngest; the others’ ages ranged from 28 to 50-something, and I had just turned 20. Though much older than me, I became friends with the other guides quickly. This was bound to happen, as we spent literally all of our time together.
See, May is a sort of an in-between month for guiding in the arctic. The winter season is almost finished with a handful of tours scattered here and there, and the summer season is fast approaching. That meant in addition to guiding, we were cleaning storage units and doing inventory day in and day out. It was pretty monotonous work, and much of it was outside. This seems great – who doesn’t want to work outside everyday, even if the work is boring? But here’s the thing, it’s still bloody cold. -10 C may not seem that cold, but with the wind and the fact it’s May and your friends back home are having drinks on the patio and going to cottages, the cold gets to you.
So basically I was always cold and my entire life was centered on a job I wasn’t enjoying. This made the first few weeks in Nunavut incredibly lonely. I remember thinking at one point “only 14 more weeks ’til home”. Great attitude, I know.
Then came Yurt Fest
But the cold wasn’t all bad. It was cold enough that Frobisher Bay, the body of water Iqaluit borders, was still frozen sea ice. We regularly went snowmobiling on it, and when we had tourists come to Iqaluit we took them out too. This was by far my favourite part of my job.
Three or four weeks into living in Iqaluit, another guide came through town on his way further up North. He was to be in Iqaluit for a few days and he invited us to this party coming up. He didn’t give us much information: “bring some drinks and a lot of warm clothing – it’s going to get cold” was essentially all he said. I had no idea what to expect. So I packed some gin and tonic water, wore a super thick coat, wool socks and Arctic boots (spoiler alert: I was still freezing). We drove to another part of town and hopped on snowmobiles.
From there we snowmobiled over the sea ice until we came to a giant yurt (canvas tent) covered in Christmas lights. There was a DJ playing music and people dancing and just having a good time. People were just hanging out on a piece of ice in the middle of the arctic ocean… casually… as if that is a completely normal thing to do!
Remember, it was still freezing cold. More than anything else, I drank my gin and tonic to trick my body into thinking it was warm. At one point I found myself – on no – low tonic water. I was not in need for long however, for I found someone also enjoying G&Ts who offered me some. Turns out he had attended a university not too far away from mine.
Bring in the Wicker Dog!
We hadn’t been talking for long before I saw some commotion over by this large wooden structure on the ice, standing there seemingly without a purpose. My new friend brought me over to it and we watched events unfold.
After dousing the structure in some kind of fuel, I watched Inuit community members light arrowheads on fire, pull their arms back and shoot flaming arrows across the sky at the structure. By now I’d realized the structure was in the form of a dog; my friend told me it was known as The Wicker Dog and it was a tradition to light it on fire as it got dark outside.
Soon I was introduced to more of the friend group. We talked and laughed while keeping warm by the Wicker Dog (no one else seemed to care that we had lit a fire on the ice separating us from the Arctic Ocean – I quickly let it go).
Friends in the arctic
Yurt Fest wasn’t like the kind of city-bar interaction where you meet people and never contact them again. I heard from these friends the next day and shortly after we were camping, hiking, getting drinks after work, and spending all our time together. I ended up becoming very good friends with some of them.
Though I still felt the occasional moment of loneliness when I saw photos of my friends together back home or received a letter from a friend, these times where few and far between. It’s amazing how a completely new place, even one north of the 60th parallel without trees or total darkness, can feel like home with the right people (also warmer temperatures and more sunlight help too)!
So big thank you to Yurt Fest and the flaming wooden dog that gave me a social life in the arctic.