Friday, September 5, 2014

the forest fires of Yellowknife

In the airplane seats in front of me, I listened to a young Cambridge Bay couple try to teach their toddler son about our destination.

“Yellowknife,” said the dad.
“Lellalie,” repeated the child.
The child’s attention shifted as he looked out the airplane window.
“Those are trees,” the father explained, pointing at the forest below.
“Trees. Yellowknife has trees.”
“Trees. They get in the way. The make you feel boxed in, like they’re all over you.”

We flew into Yellowknife over the forest fires that threatened to consume it.  That day, there were over 200 fires blazing in the Northwest Territories. The closest one was only 30 kilometres out of town and the residents near the highway had been evacuated for the night as a precaution.  More firefighters were being flown in from Ontario and other provinces to bring reinforcements; some firefighters were being sent out for medical treatment for smoke inhalation. On Wednesday, the sky had turned a sickly yellow, and then an eerie black, dark as night in the middle of the day.  It felt like the apocalypse.

On the airplane, I was struggling with a cold (possibly pneumonia), and I couldn’t taste a thing or hear very well or smell, but my husband told me that it smells like smoke, even inside the plane. This would normally be a little alarming, but it smells like campfire, the lovely, almost delicious smell of wood burning, just before you dangle your marshmallow on a stick over the flames.

I love the architecture of the buildings in Old Town

I had been looking forward to spending some time in Yellowknife with my husband, who hasn’t had a chance to explore the city.  Despite the smoky haze, we walked over to Old Town where we discovered Bullocks Bistro, a Yellowknife establishment famous for its fish and chips, the shockingly expensive price of said fish and chips, and its notoriously cranky owners who had no use for fools. Think of the soup nazi on Seinfeld, or the efficient but curt workers at Schwartz’s in Montreal.  The place is so well known and the food is so good that the owners don’t have to pretend to like you.

The walls were decorated with all sorts of souvenirs and signatures that previous diners had left behind. Real estate agents’ business cards, fond poems about the fish dish, international dollar bills a surprising amount of comments in Korean, and on one wall, a bright pink bra hung up with a pin on it that said “FALVO” (Side note: I happen to know Falvo). Even the ceiling fan was covered with writing.



Arctic Air was here!

Our fish dish arrived, but by then my stomach had shut down, between the cold-possibly-pneumonia, my asthma being triggered by the cold-possibly-pneumonia and exacerbated by the forest fire smoke, and on top of everything, my allergies caused by the trees, which really do get in the way. Instead, my husband was forced to eat the entire meal on his own, although he did say he enjoyed it.

The next morning, the smoke was even thicker, and covered the whole city in a blanket of what looked like fog.  I could barely breathe, even in my hotel room.   Out on the streets, I overhead a cook muttering to himself while smoking in an alley, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.” He was wearing his apron like a mask to cover his face.

I covered my own face with a handkerchief, like a protester or a sun-fearing ajuma, and wondered how quickly I could leave Yellowknife.

When we returned to Yellowknife three weeks later on our way back, there was still the smell of wood fire in the air, but at least we couldn’t see the smoke.  It was getting better. Still, my entire stay was one long asthma attack.

Determined to try to enjoy my evening anyway, we wandered to the Wildcat Café in Old Town, because it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the Wildcat has the best restaurant patio and the best restaurant patio view in town. The café is only open during the summer. Every couple of years, the contract for the restaurant is open to bids for tenders, and this year, the chef is the guy from Thornton’s, arguably the fanciest dining place in Yellowknife. This means you can enjoy fancy Thornton dishes for not-Thornton prices, while sipping mason jars of wine and watching sailboats drift by on the lake. 

We split my favourite pogo dish and my husband ate a bison burger while I ate a fancy dish of pulled duck confit with tomato, corn, zucchini, and jalopeno in a cream-based succotash with a sweet and sour fennel jam.  I still don’t know what a succotash is, and neither did my server, but I lapped it all up.  I have stopped eating vegetables on my vacation out of principle, but now as my vacation came to an end, I ate my stewy dish of veggies and it was delicious.

After dinner, we climbed up the stairs of the cliff to the Pilot’s Monument, because I insisted that the romantic view at the top was worth it.  The whole way up, we were huffing and puffing, I like to think because of the smoke-induced asthma, but I suspect actually because I’m out of shape and I was really full from dinner.

view from the Pilots' Monument

In the evening, we stayed at the Super 8, with the intention of doing some last minute shopping at Wal-Mart, but I ended up falling asleep with the TV on by 9PM. This meant, of course, that I was  wide awake by 5:30AM. Luckily, I was happy to discover that the hotel had a fitness centre, so I squeezed in an early morning workout before enjoying my continental breakfast of a croissant, yogurt, and tea.  And then I realized everything about this paragraph made me sound like an old person. Guys, I swear I am twenty-nine and three quarters.