There is no explaining the beginning of the north. You have to be there to know. In the early summer, it remains a deep, inky blue throughout the night. The light doesn’t fully disappear until 11:00 at night, at the end of June. Actually, the light never fully disappears. It arcs down from somewhere even more distant, over the curve of earth, and changes the very fabric of the sky.
By August, things have changed again. The light leaves around 9:00, and the ink has become black velvet, still luminous with moonshed. The stars are gems, and the night world is warm and silvery, bright as day.
We’re not very north at all, really. Iqaluit (Nunavut) is about 1400 miles north of here. These are the prairies, and we’re practically on the US border. Now, when we got our boat, folks laughed at us and wanted to know what we were going to do with a sailboat on the prairies. But last week, we went to sail the 33rd largest lake in the world (13th largest in North America). It’s about two and a half hours from us, halfway between our location and Winnipeg… at least, the southern tip is. We went northward.
Canada quickly becomes remote area outside the urban portions. While we were not really north, we were remote. Hours from home, where a cell phone is useless and you want to make sure you have enough fuel in the tank to get back to the nearest gas station. The lake’s name and the province’s come from an ancient memory, one found in cultures around the world.
Gitchi Manitou is the Great Spirit, an ancient conception of the prime mover. I think the lake is well-named. We stood on the windblown shores the first day, the children and I, and we threw rocks in the water. The sun angled low through stampeding clouds, and when it burst forth, it threw a rainbow in the spray of the splashing stones. And I thought of ancient tales from the other side of the world, tales of promise and benevolence. These are His waters.
There was evening, and there was morning. That was our first day. We sailed out and looked at islands. The air was lighter than feathers, and we drifted slowly, passing the time with songs sung to Him.
Night fell, and the sky calmed and cleared, shining like a dark horse’s coat caught in the silvering of the full moon. The moon coasted over the little manmade cove where the sailboat was docked, its disc sliding through the spars and rigging. The stars were diamond flecks, and I stood there on the dock in silence, watching them reflected in the shadowed, liquid depths. It was all that clear, both above and in the stillness of the lake. Eleven o’clock at night. The velvet season. The air gone cool, the summer’s end creeping in.
Winter is coming. The wind said so to me yesterday. Ahead is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. If you’re Canadian, you’ll probably hear the Huron Carol, written by Jean de Brebeuf in 1643 in which he wisely connects a creation tale from across the world to the terms of this wild land.
‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.
O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you…
I live in the place where the Creator’s memory is not quite forgotten, thousands upon thousands of years later. The great waters bear His name. Day to day pours forth knowledge, and the quiet evenings have their own language. In the greening time, the skies shine deep and dark with a sun that never quite goes down, somewhere far in the north. Then they descend into a night that lasts sixteen hours, where the stars and storms rule. This world turns white, sandblasted with frozen water. The leaves die, all falls to stillness. The world becomes crystal, fragile, pure.
The wind blows where it wishes. You hear the sound of it in branch and eaves, scudding across roads nearly submerged in the shifting world of this blank, cold desert. You don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born here.
Our lives revolve quietly. They turn on seasons, on the land, on days spent within the same few blocks of the same small city from birth to death. Or the same small town, which may consist of only a few blocks altogether. Life turns on rumour and tall tales full of good humour. And, sometimes, there are moments that reach down past the curve of the earth to catch us. Then, for a brief interlude, we are turned about in the hands of the truth.
How that happens, when it comes or why it goes, is beyond us. It’s a seasonal thing without any markers of moonlight and daylight. It just is. And I think I know why; it’s because there are some things that time itself cannot forget, even though we do.
This is the beginning of the north, the place of the Great Spirit. This is Manitoba.