Summer Under The Lights

I’m going to take you back to the beginning. Back to all the survival stories I used to obsess over- cougars, bears, castaways, and hurricanes. Back to hiding and patching knife cuts with duct tape- mom didn’t even want dad giving me a Leatherman in the first place. All pencils, all sticks, were notched and carved. I hid food in my playhouses and built playhouses like barracks- cold, efficient, and strategically spaced on the vast and expanding property that only continued to expand as I learned to climb, hide, and use ropes.

We would build homes in the snow and scooter around the yard at high velocities, making full use of the ridiculous horsepower on a crazy carpet, pulling “the big green sled” full of snow from east to west across the property for every reason that was actually no reason at all. We were tiny architects, tradesmen, harvesting glass panes of ice from the rain barrel and waiting for the next batch to freeze; putting skylights and kitchen windows in the most unstable masses of snow, and playing Russian Roulette with the height of the walls high, the size of the base. Ten out of ten times it would cave, and we would shriek and flounder, drowning in ice and air so cold it felt like our bodies weren’t warm until next morning. Oka, who had drawn the short straw in the litter and had come home to us a fat puppy wobbling and lightning quick on stubby legs, took full advantage of our vulnerable snowy state and made off like a bandit with a toque, or a mitten, sometimes even a boot. I don’t know how we made it to twelve with all ten toes and fingers.

But it wasn’t all militia and tundra wild. There was art, and silence too. A grace of the snow most southerners have to learn; a quiet that, it seems, we northerners spend the rest of our lives chasing when we leave. I would lie in the cold and fall into the sky, straining my eyes to watch my breath disappear. It felt like hours but it was probably only minutes, and I would beg Orion for a miracle, glaring past the northern lights and waiting, with what I now recognize was an extraordinary degree of patience, for the unthinkable- the incomprehensible adventure. I had machinery, I had mind. It was mine, and I wanted every reason to push things, to fill this space and taste this air like I was a sun, a bird, a gaping winter moon consuming the sky and still letting the stars shine. I think it is easy to forget and change the world we knew as children, and easier still to discredit the power of that wonder with naivety- to discredit the things our hands would do when we didn’t know they only had five fingers.

The story I want to tell you here, in the posts to come, is not about the experience of working a lookout tower in northern Alberta. It’s about my experience working a lookout tower in northern Alberta. It’s about coming home, about getting lost. About wandering some more, and getting more lost, and thinking to yourself “whoever made those notebooks in Indigo has neither wandered, nor been lost, this is a terrible experience, I can’t believe this works for marketing”. It’s about breaking into your own house, falling off of picnic tables with sharp tools, and having so many bug bites that you come to realize being itchy is just an optional state of mind. Black eyes, bonecuts, black bears, and incredibly fat woodchucks. It’s about falling into the sky only 100ft higher than you did when you were a child, and climbing down every day to love the ground, and the wind, and the rain. The snow too, in May. You will stay long enough to see the frost come back, and you’ll realize that winter never really leaves this place. Not in the ashen trees, or the late green so trademark of the Boreal. Summer is just a flash of fire, and lightning; a midnight streak of green we call a wonder, painting the horizons, and dancing in the atmosphere to winds we cannot always feel, but winds we always hear.

So here’s to my first summer under the lights.
Round Hill Tower, 2017. 

-Em