24 December — This post pivots around the winter solstice, but misses it by a few days. That’s all right, I’m really thinking about the larger concept it represents: darkness and light, marked by sunrise and sunset — which have differents hours, and dates, and even months, depending on where you live.
I live in Toronto, where, on 20 December, we had 8 hours and 50-some minutes of daylight. At this latitude that “daylight” includes long twilight hours either side of the midday full-strength brightness. And so, walking through Allen Gardens at about 4 p.m. on the 20th, the day had already faded to soft blues. (That’s a pigeon, on the overhead lattice, fluffed out against the chill.)
But… that late-afternoon dusk is nothing, compared to what happens in higher latitudes. Anywhere north of the Arctic Circle, for example, where by definition the sun does not set on the day of the summer solstice and does not rise on the day of the winter solstice. The farther north you go, the longer the period of continuous daylight, or continuous darkness.
I used to travel a lot in the Canadian Arctic, and I remember that every trip north in winter, I’d see sun-welcoming posters and signs in shops and schools. Like this front-hall display in Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit, Nunavut…
My most vivid memories come from farther north, from Inuvik, NWT, a community near the Mackenzie River delta on the Beaufort Sea. There, the sun disappears entirely on 7 December each year — and, ever since 1989, the community has held a Sunrise Festival to welcome it back on 6 January.
In early January 1991, on behalf of Equinox magazine, I flew up there to join in the final preparations and the celebration itself. The magazine is no more, but that great natural cycle of light and dark continues its yearly rhythm. Now, as we move again toward light, seems the perfect moment to offer a few nostalgic photos from that long-ago trip.
The sun reappeared, my old Equinox article tells me, at exactly 1:26 p.m. on 6 January. The big parade and festivities, including evening bonfires in the -36C weather, took place the day before; on the 6th, everyone bundled up (it’s now a toasty -28C) and made their way to Bypass Road, the height of land where you’d get the earliest possible glimpse of the returning sun.
“Glimpse” is right: this first day, a Sunday in 1991, it will be above the horizon for just 36 minutes. After that (I now quote myself), “it will start bounding ahead: Monday, it will be up for 55 minutes; Tuesday, 99 minutes. By March 19, it will be in the sky for almost 12 hours, and on May 26, it will rise and stay above the horizon for 56 days…”
Back to January 6 and Bypass Road! Local kiddies are hand in hand with outsized RCMP and polar-bear costumed stars from the annual parade. And… and… behind them on the right, that pinkish smudge close to the horizon… the sun.
While still in Inuvik, the magazine photographer and I were allowed to borrow a town vehicle and drive the fabled ice highway — the Mackenzie River, well frozen — over to Aklavik. I remember our going into a fur-trading store in that small community and, while staring wide-eyed at heaped pelts, overhearing someone on the phone talking to his broker down south (Edmonton, maybe), arranging his yearly RRSP contribution.
The most wonderful sight there was this young man, Jerry, in his glorious, intricately beaded coat and mitts. Made by his mother, as my memory has it. But notice, too, his contemporary boots and windpants — just like the trapper sorting out his RRSP, Jerry was drawing on both old and new, making his own best combination of both.
One more photo, taken at a split in the highway, this time no northerner, just a visiting southerner. Me. (Such an old photo, my hair is still red.) The coat is less spectacular than Jerry’s, but it too is traditional — a double-parka brought to me from Inuvik, now back in Inuvik for a visit. The glare comes from the truck’s headlights, a bit harsh on me but perfect for catching the signpost.
Enough nostalgia, let me bring you right up to date. The reason I know that the Inuvik Sunrise Festival still takes place is because I did an online search — which took me to a wonderful blog.
, and immerse yourself in daily life in Inuvik, as documented by Philippe Morin, who lives and works in the community. If you want to see the most recent Sunrise Festival, search his Archives for 12 January 2012, which is when he posted this year’s celebration.