Working as a Mailman in Canada’s Frozen North

by Sam Riches

It’s 5:45 in the morning and 37 degrees below zero when I open the front door to go to work. A wave of cold air pours into the apartment, washing down the hallway and biting at my skin. I step forward to a row of cars in the parking lot, their colors softened by the morning dark. Cables hang from underneath their hoods, plugged into electrical sockets propped up from the ground. Without the constant whir of electric heat, the engines wouldn’t be able to start.

It’s late March and the sun hangs higher in the sky with each passing day, but it’s still winter and today’s a reminder.

I don’t have a car, I bike year-round. The morning commute lets me prepare for the day ahead and at the end of my shift, any stress dissolves into the pedals, disappearing beneath my feet. Most evenings I take the long way home, winding down the open roads.

I’ve geared up as best I can with heavy, hand-knit wool socks, thick boots, woolen long underwear, a flannel shirt fully buttoned and pinching against my neck, and a down coat. After the first few minutes my body adjusts, the bite of the cold only stinging my hands and face. Still, this morning is an unwelcome awakening.

My bike is navy blue, with bright green hand grips and reflective taping on the front forks, but in this dark, like everything else, it just looks gray. I ride out of the parking lot and into the empty street. Some homes, the lucky ones, still have smoke climbing from their chimney stacks. They’ll wake to a warm home. The smell of burning spruce wafts in the air. It’s the suburbs, but it’s still the North, and there’s nothing to break the morning silence.

I ride my bike down the middle of the street, keeping my tires between the yellow median lines. No one is around to tell me otherwise. By the time I reach the first stop sign, about a half-mile down the road, my beard is coated with a layer of frost.

When the temperature falls past 15 below, biking becomes difficult beyond the obvious cold. Unless you’ve winterized your bike with a ceramic grease, the bearings freeze up, and even riding downhill requires pedal strokes. The ride to work is five hilly miles, and takes 30 minutes on a good day. So far, today isn’t a good day.

I work as a mailman. Delivering to the communities carved into the woods along the Alaska Highway, in the southern end of Canada’s Yukon Territory.

It’s 6:34 a.m. when I arrive at the plant; I know this because the car rental agency across the street has an illuminated sign that flashes the temperature and then the time. Minus 32, 6:34 a.m., the numbers, fiery red, scroll and shift across the screen, piercing the morning dark. A white light pours out from the bay doors at the plant, trucks sit outside, tailgates open, the night crew inside, climbing over parcels. There’s a single gray locker beside my desk. I hang up my coat and helmet, which are now frosted with ice that drips onto the floor, and grab the first sleeve of mail.

Today’s a heavy day; there are four sleeves of letters, seven crates of oversized mail, and a cage overflowing with parcels. I spend the first few hours of every day sorting letters and packages by their neighborhoods.

There are letters to grandparents, in brightly colored envelopes, with the scribbles of a child. Some have stickers of rainbows or animals or mythical creatures. There are magazines with trucks on the front, or women in bikinis, or hunters in fatigues, or athletes grimacing. There are postcards from Nepal and Switzerland and France. Postcards with sun-stained faces and snow peaked mountain tops, postcards of places warmer than this.

There are letters from the government in uniform brown envelopes on white letterhead with black print. There are notices of dentist appointments with phrases like “it’s been so long since we last saw you.” There are letters from countries away that smell of perfume and longing and love. There are divorce proceedings, court papers and subscription renewal forms; birthday cards, business promotions and bills. After awhile, you begin to put a face to the names, even if it’s only in your head.

Living in the Yukon you are constantly reminded of “the way things used to be.” The past is romanticized and embedded into daily, contemporary life. Self-sufficiency isn’t applauded, it’s just expected. Many homes are still heated by wood stoves; hunting, trapping and fishing are means to an end. Dogs roam freely, cars drive slowly, and people are left to be, for better or for worse.

The sheer enormity of mail that moves in and out of the territory is another reminder of the past, and how far gone this place is. The mail is dependable and relied upon. The internet, electricity, these luxuries often cut out, disappearing for hours or days at a time, but the mail never stops.

The Percy Dewolfe Memorial Mail Race, a sled dog race, is held each winter in Dawson City, a historic gold rush town six hours north of Whitehorse. Dewolfe is remembered as the Iron Man of the North and deservedly so. For nearly 40 years he delivered mail from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, a distance of 150 miles. He traveled by dog sled in the winter, running atop the frozen Yukon River, and by a boat, or horse team, the rest of the year. He never missed a delivery.

If I step back from my desk and look away from the letters, I can watch the sky fade from black to blue in the three by three foot window above my desk. On sunny days, I can watch the light scan across the gray cement floor. I don’t have to check my watch. By eight, it pours over my desk, coating everything in soft gold. By 8:30 a.m. it reaches Tom, who works to my right, about 10 feet away. Tom wears a glove on his right hand. His fingers lock up with arthritis; 20 years of delivering mail have worn away the tendons. He had surgery last fall, but it’s only made things worse. The glove helps with the pain. Tom doesn’t say much, and every day, when his mail is sorted and stamped and carded and ready for delivery, he takes five minutes to himself, sitting on his desk, his back to the wall, his gaze falling, unfocused, across the plant. He eats a banana or an apple or an orange, though he doesn’t eat oranges as much as he used too. They’re too hard to peel now.

Across from Tom is Doug. Nearly every day he wears a green hooded sweatshirt with a yellow John Deere logo stamped on the chest. Doug’s filled with energy and stories and when he gets talking, it’s hard to get him to stop. Before this, he spent 16 years tending bar. He ended up in the North, as many do, by chasing love across the country. When he arrived after taking a bus for nine days, his girlfriend told him she’d left him for another woman. He stayed anyway, and now he’s married, plays golf in the summer and drives a pickup truck. Someday he wants to open his own bar.

Cindy works across from me. She’s usually the last to arrive. She’s been doing the job for so long that it takes her one-third of the time it takes me to get the sorting done. She wears gray sweatpants and purple slippers but each morning, before she leaves, she changes into navy blue slacks and puts on her wool socks that she keeps in her top desk drawer. Like everyone else, she didn’t plan to end up here. Today’s a heavy mail day, and Cindy isn’t very happy about it.

“Who wants to be out there, for God knows how long, in this damn cold?” she says. “Helluva spring, isn’t it?”

She wears glasses, but only to sort the mail. She looks over at me, chin down, eyebrows lifted. “This is why your parents were always telling you to go to school, you know? Then you wouldn’t have to be doing this.”

I’m the newest and the slowest. By the time I leave the plant, it’s almost 11. I have a set wage I get per day, if I work five hours, or if I work 12. I push my dolly through the orange swinging doors and out to bay three. All the bays are usually open by the time I get there, but I take the one in the middle. Mike is usually out on the dock. He works in the sorting department, emptying trucks and tossing parcels into crates. Sometimes, he works at the front counter, where customers come in to pick up mail. He doesn’t like that very much. Mike isn’t the talkative type.

I pile everything into the work car, the letters and magazines and parcels, bundled together and sorted by stop, and then I pull out of the garage and into freedom, or something like it, for the next four hours.

I spend most of my day at one stop, a cutoff point, the last of the city boundaries and the start of the outland. It’s warmed up a couple degrees, but it’s still cold enough that my hands, now different hues of red and purple, are numb within the first ten minutes. There’s a certain level of finger dexterity required for the job that can’t be met with gloves on, at least not with gloves thick enough to fight off the cold, so I go about it bare handed and hope the wind keeps down.

A good thing about the cutoff is I get to work inside a kiosk to deliver the mail. It’s a shelter, even if it is a cement walled box. It takes a while to fill; there are more than 300 mailboxes there. Usually a few dozen people stop by as I work, opening the small steel door of the mail compartment only to see my face looking back at them. They must have gotten used to it by now.

There’s a rhythm to stuffing mailboxes, a flow, but it’s not forever, at least not for me. I lose parcels, misplace them, put the mail in the wrong box, mis-sort letters and sometimes forget a letter or two at the plant, still shelved away. They say that’s an automatic dismissal — I guess they haven’t noticed yet, or, more likely, can’t be bothered to let me go.

About halfway through the day I reach a community center surrounded by nothing but mountains and trees with ski trails that go right past the mailboxes. Ravens bounce on the limbs of spruce trees, staring at me with tilted heads.

After this stop, 30 miles or so from the plant, I turn around, head back, and deliver to the boxes on the other side of the road. The drive is my favorite part of the job. There’s not much time between stops, 10 minutes at most, but that’s enough for a couple songs on the radio and a few gulps of coffee. There’s comfort in the sense of freedom that comes with an empty road, I could keep driving and get away from this. I don’t have any reason to, but it’s nice to know I could.

One of the fastest deliveries is an elementary school on the edge of town. Sometimes they get a letter or two, or a couple magazines, or maybe a small box of books for the library, but it’s never much. Unlike a lot of the schools up here, where the kids stay in the same building from kindergarten until college, this one only goes up to grade seven. The students are usually outside for recess when I get there, shuffling across the snow-caked yard like penguins in brightly colored snowsuits. The hallways beside the door are lined with skis, snow shoes and hockey sticks. A few students, still dressed in winter gear, hide behind the doorway, momentarily escaping the cold until a teacher shutters them back into the white void. Peggy, at reception, is always on the phone. She gives me a smile and a nod and mouths thank you as I drop the mail.

Driving the same stretch of highway everyday you get to know the contours of the road, of what to expect. Most of the time it all blends together, though. Thirty miles out, and 30 miles back. A couple weeks ago a young girl died on the same stretch of pavement. It’s not uncommon on this highway; the miles go on forever, with nothing in between except more trees and more mountains. Still, she was only 18, and the community felt the pain of this one.

There’s a memorial on the side of road now, a wooden cross staked into the ground, surrounded by flowers, photographs and letters. Across from it is a set of mailboxes. It’s my last stop of the day and ever since that memorial went up, the most sobering. I’ve got a lot of time to think on this job, and this stop reminds me of that.

I pull up the car and open three sets of mail boxes, a short stop, it doesn’t take much more than 10 minutes to fill. Somewhere in that time, another car pulls up and the driver walks over to the memorial. The wind is blowing strong and the flowers lurch to the side, he bends down and picks up the petals, head bowed. When he looks up his face is ashen, his hair, a small tuft of reddish blonde, blows in the wind. He’s weeping. I stuff the remaining letters into the boxes as quickly as I can and hop back in the car. On the radio, Kitty Wells sings, “How far is heaven, let’s go tonight. I want my Daddy to hold me tight.”

This job isn’t perfect, not even close, but there’s substance to it, a history, a connection to something greater. I might be one who delivers that man his next letter; I might be the one that delivered that girl her last.

In my own small way, I’m part of it all. There’s pride in that. I pull forward, leaving the man to be and head up the highway, another day done.

Sam Riches is a frequent contributor to The Classical, where his work has been reprinted on Hazlitt and Salon. He’s also reported for the Canadian Press, and appeared on CBC North Radio One. He lives, sometimes, in Whitehorse, Yukon and sometimes in Toronto, Ontario.