Four Years and Counting: My Life in Iqaluit, Part 2 (First Snowmobile Ride)

This is part of a series I am doing to commemorate my four years living in Iqaluit. If you haven't already, go read the first post for an introduction to this project.


Year One, Chapter Two: My First Snowmobile Ride

“Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath.” - Matt Groening

My first snowmobile ride happened in early December of 2012. Iqaluit was comfortably blanketed with a thick layer of fresh snow, which is uncommon at that time of year. Just before noon, Justin received an invite from Joel Fortier, his long-time friend, to go for a snowmobile ride. Noon, when the sun was the highest in the day; noon, just two hours before sunset.

Joel is in many ways like Justin. Quietly intelligent, a little bit goofy, loyal and honest. Joel, who grew up in Iqaluit, is also the one who inspired Justin to move North (so if you don’t like my being in Iqaluit, take it up with Fortier), and his advice and assistance made the transition easier for us both. Like many people who were raised in Iqaluit, Joel is a very competent and enthusiastic outdoorsman; generous, too, because he would show Justin the ropes - and let me tag along sometimes.

On this day, we were headed to Tarr Inlet, about nine kilometres southeast of Iqaluit. Later in the season, the route to Tarr Inlet is usually well-marked by many, many snowmobile tracks, but on December 8th, 2012, no one had been out there since the latest snowfall. And so we carved our own path, Joel in the lead, Justin following with me clinging to his back (we never did use a two-up on the machine, and to this day, I prefer holding on to the driver if I have to be passenger, rather than sitting on a second seat).

It was, as I said, my first time going out on the land, and my first real ride on a snowmobile. Despite my naivety, I received zero instructions on proper riding technique or etiquette beforehand; instead, I was doled out muffled instructions or cautions over Justin’s shoulder as we sped towards Tarr, some of which were lost in the engines’ roar and the winds and the wool over my ears.

We reached a peak and Joel stopped. I looked down. I saw a steep drop, but just how steep or how long, I couldn’t really tell; when everything is covered in snow, depth perception is tricky. Joel started driving down and I watched him lean heavily, almost entirely to one side. Justin turned to me before following and said, “Just do what I do, okay? Just do exactly what I do.”

What, exactly, I had to do was lean deep, hold tight, and hang on. At some points, Justin and I were both nearly hovering on the right side of the machine, balancing precariously on a shelf that was meant for a pair of feet, not two. (I notice that couples tend to buy Grand Tourings or Ventures, machines that are meant for, well, two people, but we had a Renegade Adrenaline, a snowmobile that is decidedly meant for one.) Anyone watching us would have seen synchronicity on the outside, two perfectly paired riders moving in unison, unaware that behind our goggles, only one pair of eyes was wide open with terror and only one of us forgot to breathe.

Breathless, we arrived at Tarr Inlet and stopped. If you’ve ever heard anything about Nunavut, you know that the vistas are unparalleled. But there really is something indescribable about seeing and being on the nuna for the first time - but I will try. After all the bumps and bends and big risks, Joel brought us to what was at the time the most incredible space I had ever seen. My vision was filled with valleys and peaks and plateaus, all smoothed by the same crisp air I was now pulling into my lungs, the snowy edges highlighted by the sun’s final moments in the sky.

The winter light disappears quickly, and with it the day’s warmth. I had been in Iqaluit for just over a month, and was embarrassingly ill-equipped. I didn’t have a proper snowmobile helmet, one with a shield for your face, so I went out protected by Justin’s snowboarding helmet with my hood pulled over and a balaclava across my mouth. I wore the winter boots I’d had in the city, waterproof and cute and a little snug because that looks even cuter, a total joke on the tundra, where cute offers little protection from Arctic winds that make -14C feel like -34C. It was the first time (but not the last) I lost feeling in my digits, my nose, my ears. I was at once in awe and in excruciating discomfort.

We went home a different way then we’d come, less precarious, more direct. The light from our machines in the now dim darkness revealed tracks; someone else had been out there, too, but we’d never seen them. Riding through the mountain passes towards town, I buried my face into the cold canvas of Justin’s parka to block the wind, tears freezing inside my goggles as I cried against the pain in my face, feet, and fingers. I went on at least one more snowmobile trip with inappropriate gear until I buckled and bought big, burdensome, bulky boots rated to -100C. I never regretted them.

Justin and I spent countless hours on that snowmobile, most often with me on the back, travelling to cabins or the floe edge, going hunting, or just zipping around aimlessly. I told his co-worker once that I thought it was annoying for Justin, to have me always hanging off his back, that maybe we should get a second seat or another machine. She smiled at me before looking away. “No, you won’t always ride like this together,” she mused. “Hold him tight for now, and ask him to drive faster.”


From my notebook, on the experience of riding a snowmobile:

Friday, December 14, 2012

I kept thinking “trust.” Trust and intuition. Do they go hand in hand? Maybe not. Intuition is a sense of knowing; trust is rooted in hope. As a backseat snowmobiler, I am mostly fuelled by the latter. I don’t have clear vision, dominant control, or even a sense of purpose.

But I am not merely a passive passenger, as you are in a car. My body is as much a part of the machine as Justin’s. Every turn depends on the bend of our bodies; the shifting of our weight urges the sled against gravity, counters the reaction of friction and mass.

And that’s where the intuition comes in, more on the driver’s part, but I need to read, follow, and anticipate his decisions as well. Right there is where I hover, on the cusp of trust and intuition.

It’s kind of like being in love.