Authors: Fran Hurcomb
The river looked ominous in the fall gloom. A dusting of snow along the shore only made the swift waters look blacker than ever. Hard to believe that in a month or so it would be frozen almost solid. The days were already getting really short. Soon it would be pitch black when I walked to school in the morning and black again an hour after I got home. We were due for our first blizzard too, and all of the boys were totally hyped for snow. For them, it meant only one thing: snowmobiles. They'd be racing everywhere, day and night.
“Hey.” From behind me a familiar voice broke the silence. It was Michael Greyeyes, from my hockey team.
“Hey, yourself,” I said.
“How's it going?”
“Not bad.” There was a long pause while Michael fell in step beside me. I hadn't seen him much since hockey ended last spring. He had been away for most of the summer, and he's a grade ahead of me at school.
Likethe rest of the boys, he had grown lots. He towered over me now. “Going to play this year?” he asked.
“Sure. I mean, what else would I do?”
“Yeah. I heard they were going to try and get the ice in earlier this year, so we can actually start before Christmas.”
“That would be cool.”
“Yeah.” There was another long pause. “The pond is starting to freeze. There might be a game on the weekend if the ice is good. Want to play?” he asked.
“Sure. Guess I should dig out my skates and get them sharpened.” There was an old sharpening machine at the gas station where we could sharpen our skates for a dollar apiece. “I hope the machine is still working.”
“Yeah. It would be a real drag if it broke. Wellâ¦ See ya.” And with that, he was gone, jogging slowly across the road and heading toward home. I whistled for Spider, who had been happily searching the riverbank for disgusting things to roll in. Luckily, he hadn't found anything. Trying to give Spider a bath was not much fun.
At school the next day, I had a chance to talk to my two best friends, Sam and Geraldine. We had all started playing hockey together when we were little. We were actually the first girls in Fort Desperation to play hockey, so we got to be a bit famous. My dad was our first coach, and he made it lots of fun, but I think if it hadn't been for Sam and Ger I probably would have given up when the boys started laughing at the way I skated. We stuck it out though, and it was worth it. Last year we played together on a line on the Peewee team and scored a lot of goals.
“What would you think of starting a girls' hockey team?” I asked casually at lunchtime. There was a stunned silence.
“A what?” said Ger.
“A girls' hockey team. You know. No guys, just girls.”
“Why would we do that?” asked Sam.
“Well, maybe if all the girls who already play got together, and we could find a few others who'd like to try it out, then we'd have a team. I guess we could practice and then maybe go somewhere for a tournament or something. My mom said she'd look into it if we're interested.”
“What a weird idea,” replied Ger.
“My mom was talking to the new rcmp corporal's wife. I guess those Smithers girls played girls' hockey in Newfoundland.”
“They don't look like hockey players. They look like Barbie dolls,” exclaimed Sam.
“They're not that bad. In fact, they're really mean soccer players. I saw them playing at the field when they first got here. They know what they're doing.”
“Okay, so say they can actually play. That makes six of us. That's not enough,” piped up Geraldine.
“Yeah, I know. I suppose if we could find a few more girls who could skate, we could at least try it out. It would be cool to do a road trip without the boys.”
Road trips with the boys were not always fun. They had farting contests and peeing competitions and only wanted to watch gory combat movies on the bus. And they sure didn't want to go to the mall to shop. A road trip with girls would be awesome.
“Maybe we could go to Yellowknife. They have girls' teams thereâ¦and a Wal-Mart, and McDonald's and a swimming pool. Yeah, that would be cool,” said Geraldine after thinking for a few seconds.
“Yeah. Well, I guess we could ask around a bit. But I'm not going to quit boys' hockey,” I said.
“Oh, for sure. I'm not quitting real hockey. This is just for a road trip,” agreed Sam.
The one place that everyone in Fort Desperation always goes is George's Trading Post and Video Rentals, known simply as George's. Even if you don't need groceries, you'll probably want to rent a movie sometime. In the lobby is a beat-up bulletin board, which is the main communication center in town. It is plastered with notices for babysitters, firewood, sled dogs for sale, Ski-Doo parts and church bazaars. It was the
perfect place to put up the small sign that read:
Are you interested in playing on a girls' hockey team? Contact Mary Middleton at Casey's
. Since Mom wanted to help, I figured this would be a good way to start.
At breakfast a few days later, Mom looked at me with questions in her eyes. “I got a phone call last night from Jewel Graham. She says the twins are interested in playing hockey. Do you know anything about this?”
“Oh noâ¦not the twins.” My worst nightmare had come true. Opal and Ruby Graham were twin figure skaters. They had learned a bit about figure skating in Hay River when they were little and could often be seen twirling and leaping in the arena, wasting perfectly good ice time. They wore tiny dresses and gleaming white figure skates. They were definitely not hockey players. “They can't join, Mom. No way.”
“What I'd like to know is why they phoned me about it? What does this have to do with me?”
“Well, Mom, you wanted to help. I thought we could use your expertise in organization to get started,”
I replied, trying the old “You slide further on grease than sandpaper” approach.
She glared. “You don't think I'm busy enough running this place fourteen hours a day?”
“Don't worry. Nothing will really happen. There's no way we'll ever get enough players for a team. And the twins are banned!”
How could I have known that there were so many girls who wanted to play hockey? By Friday, Mom had received four more phone calls, and I had several other inquiries at school. There appeared to be about fifteen girls in town who wanted to play hockey. Yikes!
“Well, now what do we do?” Mom asked Sam, Geraldine and me when we stopped in at the cafÃ© after school. “Are you girls really into this, or was it just a joke?”
We looked at each other. What did we want to do?
“Well,” I said, after a short silence, “what we really want is to go on a road trip, with girls, not boys. But I don't know what to do next.” Geraldine and Sam nodded in agreement.
“Next. Yes, next is always a problem,” said Mom. There was a long pause while she thought. “I think we need a meeting. That's always safe. We can hope that nobody shows up.”
“Yeah, cool. A meeting. I'll make another sign,” volunteered Sam.
“We could have it here, Mom, some evening. There's lots of room.”
“Okay,” agreed Mom, “but I'm not doing any phoning. I draw the line at phoning.”
So, Sam made the sign. This one was bigger and fancier, with hockey graphics and colored printing. It let Fort Desperation know that
A meeting for everyone interested in girls' hockey (parents welcome) is being held at Casey's CafÃ© on Monday evening at 7 pm
. That would give us the weekend to decide what we really wanted.
Saturday morning dawned clear and cold. Winter was finally here. I scraped a hole in the new frost on the kitchen window. Time to put up the plastic. I peered through the tiny hole and read the thermometer:
minus twenty-two degrees Celsius. All right! It was cold enough to make ice! Lots of ice!
Before I did anything else, I hauled in a few armloads of dry wood and kindling. The woodstove in the cafÃ© had been sitting patiently, waiting for winter, and this was officially it. I opened the door, stuffed in some paper and kindling and struck a match. I watched while the paper and then the kindling burst into flame. Once it was going well, I added a few small logs and adjusted the damper. For the next six or seven months, the fire would rarely go out. We had an oil furnace, but wood was a lot cheaper. Once it got cold, the woodstove became our main source of heat, and another job for me. At least I didn't have to cut the wood. Once a month, Edward Mercredi delivered a cord to our back door. Six cords got us through most winters.
This is the time of year when I start thinking about my dad a lot. He loved the fall. He said he liked getting ready for winter. Things like cutting firewood, winterizing the house and hunting were fun for him. That's how he died: hunting. He and his best friend Stanley were back in the bush at Lonesome Lake hunting ducks. Stanley's shotgun went off accidentally,
and Dad was hit. He died right away. It was the worst time of my life. Mom's too. It's been three years now. That sounds like a long time, but in some ways, it seems like yesterday. So, even though I'm excited in the fall because it's almost hockey season, I'm sad too. I guess I always will be.
After breakfast, I dug through the shed to find my warm boots and my skates. The big question was, would they still fit? I hoped that my feet had finally stopped growing and would stay at size seven. Big enough. The skates were old favorites, given to me by one of my cousins when he outgrew them. When I first got them, they were way too big, but by last year, I had finally grown into them. They were basic black CCMs, but I loved them. Slipping my feet into them was like putting on a soft pair of old jeans; they just felt right. Mom had bought me fluorescent green shoelaces in Yellowknife last year, so they were downright fancy now. Even though they were still frozen inside, I couldn't wait to try them on. They fit, but just barely. If I wore thin socks, I'd be okay, at least for now. As my mom says, ACP: Another Crisis Past.
I retaped my old stick, put on the warmest clothes that were handy and headed to the pond to see how
the ice was. Four other kids were there already, staring at the solid surface of the small pond. It definitely had ice on it.
“Is it any good?” I asked Arvin, the oldest of the kids contemplating the ice.
“Dunno. Joey went home to get an axe.”
We waited in silence for Joey to return. It was a yearly ritual, checking the ice. There had to be at least four inches of clear ice before we could skate. The rcmp would be along shortly with axes too, just to make sure we weren't cheating on our measurement.
Joey Lafferty, who played on the Bantam team, returned quickly and casually walked out onto the smooth ice. About two yards from shore he stopped and started chopping. We all held our breath. After about six or so good chops, he was through to water. He put down the axe and stuck his bare hand into the rising water, grasping the top and bottom of the ice to measure its thickness. About four inches! Not bad. He walked out farther onto the pond and repeated the process several more times until he was in the middle, about fifty yards from shore. Last hole. He knelt down and measured again. He stood up with a grin, shook the water off his hand and put it back into his glove.
“It's good,” he announced as he strolled back off the ice.
All right! I ran home, grabbed my skates and headed to Dave's Gas Bar to use the skate sharpener before everyone else got the same idea. Hockey season was here.
Hours later the sun slipped below the trees with a golden glow, and the skaters reluctantly straggled home. I sat on a stump trying to pry my skates off my frozen feet. I couldn't even feel them. My ears and fingertips were burning and my knees felt like they were covered in bruises. It had been a great day. Over the course of the afternoon, most of the community had come by just to watch for a few minutes, or to lace up their ancient skates and go for a spin. This was the best time. With no snow to shovel, and good cold weather to make lots of ice, it was like a magical gift. Although the ice surface was covered in cuts and grooves from all the skates, a good wind would polish it and leave it looking brand-new. It was perfect! What we all hoped for was that the snow would hold off for a while.
This would be our only rink for the next month or more, and nobody likes shoveling snow.
I had started skating on this pond when I was three, and it felt like home. Without skating and hockey, my life here would be boring and empty and sad. There really wasn't a lot to do in Fort Desperation, especially for someone my age. If you didn't do sports, most of the options were illegal and downright unhealthy. Winter was my favorite time of year, which was lucky considering it lasted over six months. I wedged my frozen feet into my frozen boots and jumped up and down. Time to get home and check out the damage. Frostbite was always a possibility. Whatever. Tomorrow would be another great day, frostbite or not.
Sure enough, Sunday was another beautiful, clear, cold day. The word was definitely out. Everybody was there, from toddlers to old Mr. and Mrs. St. Germaine, who skated around the edge of the pond, holding hands. They were so cute with their matching beaver-fur hats and mitts. Our hockey game had to tone it down quite a bit to avoid running over the other skaters.
Sam and Geraldine and I took a break and looked around. Daisy, Michelle and Fancy Smithers had just arrived and were lacing up. They looked sort of nervous, which wasn't too surprising, since they were just about the only ones here who hadn't done this every year since they could walk.
“Well, let's just see how good they really are,” said Sam, kind of smugly. She obviously wasn't expecting too much. Fancy, the youngest, who was about ten or so, was the first to hit the ice. She stood quietly for a moment and then took off, slowly at first. She quickly built up speed and then, with no warning, she slammed on the brakes, spun and roared back toward her sisters. She slammed on the brakes again, sending a shower of ice into their faces. With a laugh she took off, with both of the older girls in close pursuit. They could skate! In fact, they could really skate. People stopped mid-stride and watched as the girls flew around the ice. Forward, backward, it really didn't seem to matter. They were good!