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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In an Arctic outpost, Friday nights are for curling

The ice road leading north out of Inuvik is open only in winter months.

By Hilary Swift and Ellen Barry

Alison Lennie steps out of her house into 29 degrees below zero.

It’s twilight, and the cold stings instantly. Eyelashes crystallize. In five minutes, exposed skin goes numb. Car engines strain against the cold, which thickens motor oil and slows the chemical reactions inside the batteries.

Lennie grew up here, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so she knows all of this. She turns the key in her ignition 25 minutes before she has to leave.

To drive through Inuvik at night is to navigate whiteness, guessing where the edge of the road drops off under layers of ice and snow. If you pass people, they’re hard to recognize, blobs in parkas. Tonight, the moon is full, the air still.

Lennie, 36, pulls her truck into the parking lot of the recreation center, a windowless, warehouse-size structure of corrugated metal, and slams the door behind her.

She steps inside, and they look up at her from round tables — women, like herself, peeling off their layers of clothing, cheeks still burning from the outdoors. Her girls. They were waiting for her.

Eleven years ago, when Heather Mair, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, began a survey of female curlers in the Northwest Territories of Canada, she found something she had not expected: Many of them said curling had helped with their mental health.

It pushed them to go out during the darkest months of the year, when the sun barely crosses the horizon and people withdraw into their houses. For women who curled, withdrawing was not an option, because the team depended on them.

“They know they need to get out,” Mair said. “When they stay home, they are unwell.”

The communities of the Northwest Territories, with a population descended from Indigenous and white settler families, stand out for their struggles with mental health, which are in many cases connected to Canada’s damaging colonial history.

This is a familiar story to Lennie, the daughter of an Inuvialuit man and a white woman who moved to the Far North as a nurse. At the age of 7, Lennie’s father was sent to a residential school with the aim of “westernizing” him, taught by priests and nuns who punished him for using his native language, she said.

He learned silence there, and it stayed with him as an adult.

“You didn’t talk, you didn’t cry, you didn’t have emotion,” she said. “You grew up in a system that taught that out of you.”

She can’t remember anyone talking about mental health when she was growing up, not even after her uncle, and then her cousin, died by suicide. That history has spilled into a third generation, she said, children growing up around addiction and violence, paying for what happened to their parents. She carries images of the dog tags that her uncle and grandmother were asked to wear, the “Eskimo IDs.”

Still, when Lennie tried living in the south, she couldn’t wait to return. She hated the traffic and the pollution. She was used to being near bodies of water. Her husband, who is from Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean, didn’t belong in the city.

And, she said, something about the dark months pulls people together.

Inuvik is a town with one stoplight. One dive bar, with a reputation for rowdiness. Two restaurants. No movie theater.

Tannis Bain, 39, curls with Lennie. In the winter months, family life settles into a grim, repetitive pattern. Bain’s children leave for school in the dark, and return home in the dark.

“Sometimes you would be inside every day,” she said. “You work, go home, work, go home.”

The coronavirus pandemic made their world narrower. Now there was no small talk with neighbors in the grocery store. She began to notice herself receding into a bubble, with less and less interest in meeting new people.

“I was like, I’ve got to snap out of it,” Bain said.

Lennie keeps an eye on the other women, takes note when they seem to be struggling. She prods them, in a friendly way, with a speech about “keeping each other accountable.”

It goes like this: “Sometimes there are nights where I’m like, It’s so warm inside, I don’t feel like getting out on the ice. But I signed up for a team and I said I would.”

Bain’s three daughters curl. Tyra, who is 15, goes to the recreation center four times a week, after school and work and on her lunch hours, which often feels like a huge effort.

But when she gets onto the ice, Tyra said, she is totally immersed.

“When I’m curling, I’m so focused on curling, you don’t think about anything else,” she said.

On this particular Friday night, Lennie’s team is curling against a team of teachers from Ontario, women they have never met.

The Ontario women are horsing around — bumping hips, bopping up and down on the ice, celebrating raucously when they score. They are new to curling, and to Inuvik, which one of them describes as “this little slice of heaven in the Arctic.”

Lennie is as she always is. Serious. Focused. No dancing.

“Yeah, we’re there to play,” she said. “It’s fun to win, and it’s fun to make good shots.”

In a game of curling, brought over by Scottish settlers in the 18th century, two teams of players slide granite orbs across a long sheet of ice, competing to see which team, after 16 throws, has its rocks closest to a target, known as a button.

On this night Lennie is the team’s skip, or captain, which requires a constant focus on strategy. Her babysitter keeps texting her, breaking her focus. She wishes she could just play, without all the thinking. But this is where she is tonight, always having to stay a rock ahead.

The ice is different this time, because the regular ice makers aren’t in town. It is a game of flukes. And the women from Ontario surprise themselves, a little, by scoring two on the first end. It begins to look like a tie.

With a few minutes left, Lennie is staring at a problem: Two of the other team’s rocks are in the ring, having come to rest 6 inches apart. To win, she must somehow use one stone to knock both of them outside the house, as the ring is called.

She releases it, and then it is all physics. It hits the first, and bounces off it with such force that it careens into the other, and both of the other team’s rocks slide out: a double.

Then there is only one turn left, for one of the teachers from Ontario, Jenn Schuett. Eight women stare at the shot, which is not easy. Shuett takes a deep breath and throws, hoping to connect to anything at all that might break up the other team’s shots.

Lennie watches as the shot veers left, and then something happens — a nub on the ice? a quirk of rotation? — so that the shot slides to the right, almost as if someone had grabbed it. It scatters her team’s stones.

Schuett watches in disbelief.

“I’ll never be able to do that again,” she said.

It isn’t enough to change the outcome of the game. It’s just another night of small-town sports, under fluorescent lighting, in a recreation center surrounded by tundra.

But they will talk about it days later, what happened with that rock. The women touch elbows. And then they go off to drink beer.

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