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Fireworks in a Blizzard

Fireworks in a Blizzard

New Year's Eve in Cambridge Bay
By Herb Mathisen
Dec 15
From the December 2015 Issue

Parkas silhouetted in the glow of orange-yellow streetlights start down for the bay around quarter to midnight. A mother and father and two kids trudge noiselessly through town. Another couple. An elder bundled deep inside her coat appears from behind a frosty building, her cane tapping the hard packed snow on the ground.

A blizzard warning’s been in effect for the last 36 hours. The wind from the northwest is constant, carrying new snow—and whatever hasn’t already been frozen-packed into the tundra north of town—through Cambridge Bay. Sometimes when it funnels through the streets, after travelling the vast expanse of Victoria Island, the wind roars like a jet engine. That replaces the sounds of actual jets, which haven’t been able to land for two days on account of the storm.

It has put tonight’s festivities in doubt too, but word is the fireworks show will go on. Someone posted on the town’s Facebook page they’d heard Bill Lyall at the Co-op say it was going ahead. (“Wind be goddamned” is probably what Lyall said, too.) That’s all anyone needs. The Lyalls have been doing the fireworks for years. The year before, Bill and Co. shot them out the back of a pick-up, causing a small fire in the truck’s bed.

From all directions, silhouettes keep descending the hill toward Natik Street, a ring road that runs along the shore of Cambridge Bay. The almost-ice underfoot is like walking atop a marble floor.

People gather outside the Lyalls' on Natik. The hill and the houses that line the street protect them from the wind. Still, families and groups of kids clump together next to vehicles to further shelter themselves. Others huddle up on snow ridges along the shore to get a better view. They watch four figures with headlamps move around on the frozen bay, setting up pyrotechnics at five barrels on the ice. It’s -31 C with winds gusting to 50 km/h and more (-48 C with the windchill). You can still make out the lights on the towers at the other side of the bay. Not much of a blizzard, if you ask Cambridge Baymiut. You can even see the moon and a couple stars in the sky. No need to cancel the fireworks.

There’s no official countdown. Someone down the road yells, “Happy New Year,” but there’s no sign from the bay. Then a low shooooop and a whistle and a light shoots up from a barrel. It pops white in the sky. There’s oohs and ahs from frozen faces and thuds from mitts clapping. Startled dogs all over town start barking, oblivious to the occasion. The biggest hits are the screamers: white-gold fireworks that whirl around urgently after exploding, like demons escaping into the sky. Some light up the area for a moment, providing a momentary glimpse of the contours of the bay—another quick chance to see it outside the four or so hours of twilight that comprise daylight this time of year. Some go haywire, firing off sideways, exploding magnificently when they make contact with the ice on the bay. 

People keep coming: elders unhurriedly, kids race up snow banks at the road’s ridge. A mother with her baby in the hood of her amauti shuffles by the crowd. A woman wishes an elder, seated in the basket of his walker, a happy new year and gives him a hug. She moves away, but he grabs and pulls her back, and they laugh and snuggle up to keep warm. Some watch from their trucks, some drink hot chocolate being served up in the Lyall home. A group of kids hang out near a truck. “You’re cold?” one yells incredulously to an older one. “Dress warmer!”

There’s no official ending. The fireworks fizzle out and there’s quiet. “Happy New Year,” someone yells from down on the bay. And that’s it. People in their trucks honk their horns, then start rolling away. Some walk back up the hill, leaning into the piercing wind.

The storm subsides the following day; the planes return the next. But then a real blizzard hits, grounding planes, and this time keeping Cambridge Baymiut indoors.