On the first day of 2018, I opened my eyes to a dark window. The sun hadn’t risen yet. Good. I curled up in a ball for just a moment longer before dropping my bare feet onto the cold, hardwood floor. There was one way I wanted to start this year of my life: outside, in -35 C, on the lake.
I have only begun to see the role the cold has played in my life in the past year. I was living in Victoria, B.C., the warmest city in Canada, to complete the final year of my university degree. One day last winter, I was chatting on the phone with my mom, and she brought up the -40 C windchill that morning in Yellowknife. I couldn’t believe it, but I was jealous. After saying goodbye and hanging up, I walked to class in nothing more than a t-shirt. The biting ocean wind made my skin goosebump in protest. I later realized I was missing more than a jacket—I was making myself cold to subconsciously comfort my homesick heart.
It wasn’t the first time I’d sought cold comforts. Once, a roommate found me standing in front of our freezer, basking in the chill—and scent—of the 24 whitefish fillets I’d managed to stuff in there.
After my graduation, I returned to Yellowknife. During the drive north, I was silent and smiling as I watched the trees get smaller and my breath hang in the air longer. I felt at home after we pulled into my driveway and I stepped out of my van to a crunch of May snow. Growing up, the cold just felt like a nuisance: it made me plug in my vehicle at night, it made me bundle up endlessly, it stung my face, it snowed me in. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.
But the cold has been more than a staple of home—it’s been therapeutic. After a break-up a couple of years ago, something compelled me to go cross-country skiing even though I’d never really gone out on my own before. I put on my uncle’s old skis and awkwardly slipped onto Back Bay. There I took what felt like the deepest breaths I’d ever had. The cold air filled my lungs. I bathed in it that day. I was on the lake for hours, until my extremities were numb. But it was the first time in a while that I’d thought about something other than my hurt. I was too busy focusing on the feeling of the wind nipping at my cheekbones, marveling at how brightly the snow glittered, and of course, trying not to fall down.
The cold helps me calm down and de-stress. In Victoria, I wrote the final exam for my degree under a drafty vent in the basketball gym. While my classmates were bundled up in sweaters, I was in the perfect frame of mind. I passed with flying colours.
I’ve consulted with the cold ever since. In November, I contemplated a career offer. Overwhelmed, I started to make excuses to go outside any chance I got—a long, solo walk on a Saturday morning or a run to check the mail (again and again). When I’m out in the cold, I let the ice build layer upon layer on my eyelashes and hair, in my nostrils, and around the buttons on my parka. I accept the soothing hugs the land gives me. Then, when I get back inside, I’m levelheaded and calm. Those walks in the cold let me prioritize what I want in life, and I’m confident with the decision I made.
I started 2018 on Great Slave Lake, breathing attention into my fingers and toes, teeth chattering without the sun’s warmth. I watched the gold start to rise on the horizon and my dog pant every time he ran to me to throw his tennis ball. I sat on the lake until sunlight quieted the shiver in my shoulders. I started this year at home, in the cold.