Year One, Chapter Three: The Snowmobile Crash
Once or twice a year, government offices in Nunavut hold something called an IQ Day for their employees. “IQ” stands for Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (generally translated to mean “Inuit traditional knowledge”), and the day usually consists of an outdoor adventure with some cultural presentation or teaching. In May 2013, my government department had organized an IQ Day trip to go ice fishing, by snowmobile.
If you’ve read the last installment in this series, you will know that Justin and I started with only one machine between the two of us, and really, it was Justin’s. What you may not know is that I was a fairly hopeless snowmobile driver when I first came up - but Justin was good at it from day one (of course, because Justin). Unfortunately, Justin would be out of town at the time of our planned IQ Day.
“Do you think Justin will let you borrow his machine?” a co-worker asked me. “Well…” I started.
Flashback to three weeks before; Justin’s family was in town for a visit, and he had borrowed a friend’s machine so that we could take his sister out to Tarr Inlet. I was driving Justin’s sled, nervously following the siblings from our house towards the sea ice. We came to a shallow valley, still in town, framed by pipelines. Justin took an angled right up the side of a hill, leaning towards the top, passing the pipes and coming down the other side. After a deep breath, I tried to do the same, at the same angle, with the same lean. But gravity and skill were not on my side, and I found myself barrelling sharply down the hill, stopping only when the ski of the machine grazed the bend of a pipeline.
With this memory at the front of my mind, I tentatively asked Justin if I could borrow his snowmobile. He hesitated just slightly before responding in the affirmative. “Let’s go out for a ride so you can practice a bit,” he suggested. We did, on a bright, sunny day with lots of fluffy snow, nary a pipeline in sight. I did fine.
A few days passed; Justin flew out west, leaving me alone with the machine and my apprehensive aplomb. I woke the morning of IQ Day and checked the weather. It had rained the night before, encasing the snow in a layer of slippery ice. When I went outside to start the machine, I realized that the rain had also seeped around and under the snowmobile’s track and skis, essentially cementing it to the frozen tundra. Try as I might, no amount of jumping or shaking or screaming would dislodge it from its icy restraints.
Despondent, I went inside to text a few friends in a final plea for help. I waited, sitting still, sweating in my snowpants. My co-workers were likely already en route to the destination. I wasn’t sure if I could catch up to them; I took off my parka.
Then, ting! A message. “Hey yeah I can come,” it read. It was from Christine Wilson, Justin’s co-worker, friend, and one of the best outdoorspeople I know. She drove up to the house and clomped out back to the machine in her big, camo-print boots. Legs astride, she began rocking the machine, as I had done before, except with a force and deliberateness that I had not been able to muster. Within a minute, the snowmobile had cracked free from the snow. Christine started the engine and drove it down and around in a figure-eight, her left knee resting bent on the seat, and parked the machine in front of me angled downwards.
Grateful and excited, I started up the sled and inched my way down the steep hill behind my house. I crossed the somewhat busy road at the bottom and came up towards the gas station. The snow was slippery in parts, and I’d have to stop once in awhile to jimmy the track towards a spot without ice to gain some traction. Each time I did this, all by myself, I felt confident and competent. Until I came to The Hill.
Yes, that same hill I had bungled just weeks before, the one with the thick, twisting pipelines that rose ominously from the ground. I stopped at the base and took a deep breath before trying to do what I had seen Justin and so many others do: bank up the side of the hill in a smooth arch. I was off to a good start, making it further along the ridge than I had before, when just as quickly, I was slipping down towards the base.
To my absolute horror, I felt myself careening towards a pipeline; I applied the brakes but it made no difference - the machine’s treads couldn’t get any grip on the slick snow. I slid right into the junction between two pipes, stopping when the front of the snowmobile was pinned below the one running horizontal, the right A-arm wrapped around the one lodged vertically into the ground.
Within seconds, two men were running towards me, calling out, “Hey! Hey! You okay?!” Stunned, I mumbled, “It’s my boyfriend’s machine...he lent it to me.” They repeated, “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Is there someone you can call? A friend?” There was, and I did. As the shock wore off, I called Christine again, getting her voicemail and leaving a frantic message. Only 20 minutes had passed since she had dislodged the snowmobile behind my house.
Minutes later, Christine called me back. Like the two men before, she was concerned about me - was I injured, did I know where I was? - but my focus was on the machine. “I broke it. I broke it!” I cried. “Stay there,” Christine demanded. “I’m coming.”
She drove her car over with another friend, Erika Marteleira. From the road, they would have seen two crumpled heaps in the snow, one made of plastic and metal, one of flesh and bone and tears. Carefully, Christine and Erika lifted up the human mess that was me and urged it towards the car. “We have to bring you to the clinic,” Erika said. “But the machine…” I protested weakly.
I spent the morning in the hospital, answering the medical staff’s questions about my various body parts. I had a bruised pubic bone and minor whiplash in my neck. The doctor told me that I may feel a lot of pain in my arms and shoulders the next day; I thought that it couldn’t be worse than the pain in my heart. The weather was just getting nice, and now, Justin would be without a snowmobile and easy access to the land. I was (rightly) scared that he would be disappointed with me and I was (unfairly) scared that he would stop loving me.
By ten o’clock, I decided to call Justin, who was three hours behind in Vancouver. He answered, his voice muffled by morning drowsiness. “I crashed the Skidoo,” I whimpered over the phone. “What?” He sounded more alert now. Trembling, I explained what had happened to quiet on the other end of the line. Then, “Why did you go out, after all that?”
The icy snow. The machine frozen to the ground. My increasing tardiness. My oh-so-apparent lack of skill. So many reasons why I should not have tried to go out that day, and only one that made me do it: I wanted to try to do it on my own.
Before I moved to Iqaluit, I lived my life quite independently. I travelled alone to places in Europe, Asia, and Africa. I had lived on my own as a student in London, England. I was (and still am) a pro at public transport. The daughter of a single mother with a demanding career, I had been used to living life with little supervision or utilitarian support since early high school. Whatever I needed to do, I did, by my own volition. I saw myself as the epitome of feminist modernity, the emancipated woman who didn’t need no one for nothing.
But then I came to Iqaluit entrenched in monogamous coupledom with a man who was far better suited to the culture and characteristics of the city than I was. He had thousands of hours on an ATV; I didn’t have a driver's license. He came up with a snowmobile and guns; I came up with spices and books. Within the first few weeks and months of Iqaluit life, I found myself leaning on him heavily, to drive me somewhere, to take me on the land, to show me what kind of gear I needed to bring.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love and appreciate Justin for the patience and perseverance he demonstrated in those early days of our relationship. It was he who taught me how to drive a car (and a standard, no less), how to fish, how to shoot a shotgun, how to change a spark plug, how to camp. His attitude on adventure absolutely altered me as a person, imbuing me with a love for the outdoors and adrenaline and (mild) physical labour. I am indebted to him for that.
Still, it’s hard to shake off a lifetime of self-reliance, and I never stopped wanting to do things for myself. That’s why I took the snowmobile out that day. I wanted to try and do something completely outside of my comfort zone, without the comfortable crutch of Justin by my side.
Ironically, my snowmobile crash did yield quite the ambitious DIY opportunity for us both. Immediately after the incident, I assumed I would have to buy Justin a brand new machine (which I have offered to do many times over the years), but while I was in the hospital, Christine texted me saying, “It drives! We drove it out!” The darn thing was still running, and by some miracle it made it to the shop, that miracle being the father-daughter duo of Jim and Christine Wilson.
Over the next few months, Justin and I would spend much of our spare time under the tutelage of Jim in his garage. Trust me when I say you couldn’t ask for a finer teacher. Jim is the ultimate handyman, as well-versed in small engine repairs as he is with farm machines and well, everything else to do with tools and vehicles. Slowly, carefully, Justin and Jim took apart what was left of the snowmobile, inventorying what was usable and what had to be replaced. It was this way that Justin learned much of what he knows about snowmobiles; since then, he has continued to tinker in Jim’s shop on various machines, generally with Jim at his elbow. Jim, who is as patient as he is knowledgeable; Jim, who speaks to me as he would anyone else about technical matters, never once condescending or curt upon discovering that I am clueless on the subject.
For weeks after that crash, I would open the curtains in the morning and burst into tears if it was sunny and warm. The glint of light off the snow was so sinister to me, an ironic reminder of what I had writ. Turning from the window, I would look at Justin imploringly, my forlorn face better than any weather app; he knew the day was bright and perfect for a ride. “It’s okay,” he’d say. “It’s going to be okay.” I still don’t know if he meant the machine or me.
Post-crash, I was too nervous and guilty to take the helm, especially if driving in town. To ease me back into it, Justin would chauffeur us out onto the sea ice and then switch seats, letting me drive on the flatness of the frozen bay. Eventually, he bought me a 1999 Yamaha Bravo, a rusty little machine that we had to reupholster ourselves, and which maxes out at 60 kilometres an hour (Justin’s machine can easily break 100). I think it’s the best snowmobile in the world.
The Bravo under my butt, I gained confidence also from the encouragement of friends like Christine, Jim, and Erika, who were still willing to bring me out for a ride. As it turns out, everyone has a snowmobile horror story - and truthfully, some can be much worse than mine. Always wanting to be autonomous, I started spending time at the gym working on my upper body strength so that I could move and pull start my machine all by my lonesome. And while I can never call myself a natural, I do believe that with practice and effort, I evolved into a competent, enthusiastic snowmobiler.
It took several months and a lot of MacGyvering, but Justin and Jim managed to salvage that snowmobile, getting it good enough to go by the winter. As Christine said, it drives - but it has never been the same.