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After more than 20 years, the territorial government finally opened up 22 new cabin lots (“cottage lots” for some of you southern folk) just outside Yellowknife. They were to be awarded to residents via lottery. In typical Northern fashion, just about everybody in town waited until the last day to drop off their applications—myself included.

I figured I’d drop my forms off at lunch, and then a coworker mentioned in passing that the line-up at Avery Cooper, the accounting firm handling the process, was a couple blocks long. I grabbed my application and ran. There was no line outside, but I entered the lobby and saw at least 50 people sitting in an adjoining room, with more standing around the counter. I approached one of the receptionists and grabbed a number. “Do you think I have time to run and get a sandwich?” Five people within earshot laughed bitterly. The woman behind the counter smiled and gently told me that shouldn’t be a problem. 

Fifteen minutes later, belly full, I sat down to wait. And wait. There were still 30 people ahead of me. I hatched a plan. The government website said we could mail our forms in. What if we called Purolator, met them outside and paid them to deliver our documents? We could watch them just tromp inside and drop the papers off. “That’s actually a pretty good idea,” said an old schoolteacher of mine who didn’t seem to remember me. (My lasting memory of him is when he smoked me in the groin, accidentally, with a dodgeball in gym class. I looked up, in severe pain, to see him bowled over laughing.) He called Purolator and I ran back to my office to scan my ID for the application. I returned in 15 minutes to see my old teacher walking away from Avery Cooper. “Seabrook!” I yelled. He stopped, turned around and shrugged, before yelling back: “They just left!” Purolator had come and gone without me. I entered Avery Cooper dejected, betrayed yet again by my old teacher.

My number was finally called—almost two hours after I first arrived. I got my application stamped and was told to go to the front counter and pay my $100 application fee. Then I waited to go into the small room to get my ballot. I sat with the others who’d made it this far, grizzled and tired like veterans of some mildly frustrating, bloodless war. We complained until someone inevitably brought up the elephant in the room: well, I guess we did leave our applications until the last minute.

I noticed the ambience of the room was ever-more punctuated by the harsh consonants of cursewords. The mood was getting ugly. No one was smiling. Finally, I was called into the small room and given a ballot. As I left, I made a joke about rioting: it was either ignored or met with determined nods.

The next week, 22 ballots and 22 alternates were drawn. Mine (and 869 others) was left in the box, that hard-won prize now just worthless paper. Why did so many of us put ourselves through such agony to enter a draw we knew we had such low odds of winning? I think everyone in that sweltering office was trying to imagine themselves, a year or two down the line, on their cabin deck beside a quiet lake where bureaucratic hassles like the ballot-draw application process are far, far away.