Should I stay or should I go now…

by Elizabeth McMillan

On EDGE: Opinion

Sometimes I get nostalgic for what Yellowknife used to be for me. It creeps up on days when I’m hoisting groceries across an icy parking lot. I’ll sit in my frigid car and curse the darkness. What was once a novelty is now a routine.

I wonder, why do I live here?

Yellowknife is easy when it’s an adventure. I remember the first time I saw Old Town awash in golden autumn sun, early drives into radio and cell silence, the wonder of so many pristine snow-covered lakes. This is The North, I thought.

My first winter I trudged across Frame Lake to the Co-Op. So what if I couldn’t find the packed trail, or that I could easily have gotten a ride. It was better to revel in having to traverse a frozen lake just to get food. The frustrations were part of this frontier town’s quirks.

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Like many before me, I lived through the lens of being on the cusp of the Arctic, soaking in a new culture, collecting and savouring experiences many Canadians will never know. I bonded with people doing the same. Within months we were a team, a family 6,000 km from my other home. I filed snapshots to relate to friends far away or to look back on fondly when I inevitably moved to a “real” city.

But I didn’t leave. One hot July day I stood on an outcrop of Canadian Shield and realized I was building a life I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to. I chose to stay.

Yellowknife is still a land of extremes. Temperature, daylight, what can be considered work-appropriate clothing – rubber boots or heels. The lows can hit unexpectedly. Going to the grocery store and failing to find any zucchinis (none – anywhere) can drive me into a rage.

Some weeks, many weeks, I’m one dead battery away from booking a one-way trip south.

Yet Yellowknife continues to surprise and delight me. It happens walking out of work and being dazzled by the northern lights. I’ll look around a crammed cabin and realize I could never have predicted how much I’d enjoy a weekend in the woods. Just like that, I get pulled back in.

For every eye-rolling inefficiency we happily complain about, there’s a short commute, a friend footsteps away, a familiar pair of smiling eyes peeking out of a parka.

“Oh that old story, came for a year and stayed for 25.” I still get uneasy when someone tosses around this joke. This is my sixth winter but I’m hesitant to admit it. I still never feel entirely settled. I worry I’ll wake up to find I let the bubble of a generous salary and a cozy town consume my ambition. “Get out while you can,” a nagging voice inside says.

Yellowknife isn’t an easy place to live. The darkness still lulls me into a stupor every October. I question my mental health when I contemplate another winter. I’ve watched so many friends cycle out that I have lost interest in finding new ones. It’s nothing personal, I’m just sick of goodbyes.

I used to think Yellowknife enabled a perpetual adolescence. It was like a university town for people taking home larger-than-life pay. Wing night affirmed this.

Now I think it can be the perfect place for adults to grow up. Drifters and adventure-seekers can stumble into routines but keep the element of surprise. Of course there’s the mortgage, but there’s also the canoe to load up on weekends. And you never know when you’ll wake to the panic of a broken furnace or top off a dinner party jigging at the Range.

When I go out now, I can see a fresh cohort of eager faces.

They have city haircuts and unblemished parkas. I look at them fondly. Welcome. Soak up that first dogsled ride, the hilarity of exorbitant prices. Sometimes I think of those days wistfully. I worry I may have missed a crucial chapter because I’ve never lived on a houseboat.

But comfortable isn’t always a bad thing. I’m still eager for the first dip in Long Lake, for hazy wood smoke during a midnight sunset, for the satisfaction of sore muscles after a long ski.

It’s common to hear a story of someone leaving and missing Yellowknife. The less seductive one is about sticking it out. I’m still learning what it means to call this place home.

Elizabeth McMillan is a reporter with CBC North. Moving to Yellowknife allowed her to fulfill her longtime dream of becoming a C-league rec volleyball player.

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