Day 1 and 2 in Cambridge Bay

The flight from Calgary to Yellowknife was striking: at dusk we took off over Calgary, about 9:00 P.M.  As we flew North the dusk became subtly brighter; after nearly three hours flying straight North, we landed in a bright dusk evening about quarter to midnight:


I went out to a little hole in the wall pub across the street from my hotel called Le Frolics.  There was a band playing some incredibly bad good cover music.  Their hearts were so invested in the music that it was an excellent welcome to the intense attitude of these Northern places.  A very small dram of Macallan single malt scotch cost $19!  The following morning I arrived–still without my big bag–at the Yellowknife airport, connecting to Cambridge Bay.  Now the faces in the airport were primarily Inuit; I was looking at this amazing map installation on the floor of a crossroads corridor in the airport which shows the whole Arctic portion of the world.  An Inuit guy with a Skidoo shirt came up to me smiling and asked, “Do you like my map?” He was from Kigluktuk, which is about a hundred miles or so West and a bit East.  I asked him if Kigluktuk was nice; he said, “Oh, it’s beauuuutiful.”  He told me he’d grown up there and lived there his whole life.  I told him I was coming up to Cambridge Bay and asked him what it is like.  He said, “It’s beauuuuutiful.  It’s not like Kigluktuk though: Kigluktuk has mountains and large rivers; Cambridge Bay is mostly flat.”  Three hours later I was flying into Cambridge Bay: iqualuk tuk tiaq.  iqualuk is fish, tuk is lots, and tiaq as a suffix is the essence, or place… of lots of fish…





The airline that flies up here is called First Air.  The round trip ticket from Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay, which is a two hour flight, is $2,400.  The plane lands on a gravel runway (I spose most of the year it is on snow-ice).  Each flight is half passengers (or less) and cargo.  A huge forklift is immediately unloading cargo upon arrival.  The sky feels big.  The air feels thin.  The water is right there–the bay–it is as clear as anything; you can see right through it.  The first impressive landmark is a series of spherical dome buildings that look like observatories.  They are part of a U.S. government program started in the early fifties called DEWS: Distant Early Warning System.  They are set up every 200 miles across the Arctic in order to surveil the former U.S.S.R. for any potential incoming nuclear missiles.  According to Brendan (whom I am working with here), if they were to intercept a missile, it would blow up and land in Saskatchewan.  We have such delightful strategies.

Driving into the town I am immediately seized by the impressive difference of this place.  It is still sinking in.  Natives are flying around on ATVs, all the houses are built up off the ground–which is in permafrost–on various kinds of jacks.  Huskies are tied by chains between houses and gnaw on a piece of musk ox leg, a very light fine dust blows through the air, through the dirt and gravel streets and immediately dries your skin.  Trucks and vans trundle by on an errand to the hardware store.  I sense an immediate kinship to Burning Man, not because people are flying by on art cars, drinking and cruising, but because you can sense that every last thing you see was imported from very very far away.  Most of the houses are sided with T1-11, that classical shed product, you see Ford trucks and vans everywhere, covered snowmobiles, ATVs, everything brought by cargo freighter or a Hercules jumbo jet.  Things are expensive here.  A tub of Bryers ice cream (how fit for the North pole) is $20.  A large size cooler is $200.  A normal filled medical prescription is $2000.  A small aluminum boat for fishing is $20,000.  All the electricity is made by huge diesel generators down by the bay.  All the water for houses is delivered by trucks and pumped to an overhead valve running into the house.  Huge oil drums stand outside every house for heating oil.  In the winter, if the heater fails, the pipes will burst within about three hours.  (Brendan’s professor in archaeology told me this evening that he was here once in December and in a walk of about 300 yards he got minor frostbite on his nose: it turned white.)  Women walk around with this pillowy hood feature in their garments that holds a baby.  Many many buildings are dented all around the perimeter from kids rough housing; concrete bollards are broken, windows, rocks thrown on roofs, shoes thrown over wires, debris all over the place.  There is no real dump or recycling facility–way too expensive–everything is taken by tractor about 400 yards behind town and burnt: everything.  And the common wind direction is northeasterly, from right off the pole, and it blows the black smoke right though town, which I am told smells really bad.

We spent about 45 minutes checking things out upon arrival and then Max (archaeology professor) and Brendan and two students invited me up on this drive to Mt. Pelly, North of town about 45 minutes.  We drove over this river called Clear Water River (for a very good reason) several times.  The water is so clean you can drink it basically anywhere (above the sewer drop point, close to town).  We stopped and looked at one of the main sites these guys have worked on, called The Pembroke Site… these sites would have been occupied by some very robust Inuiit up until about 800 years ago:



It consists of fiver summer tent rings, five winter tent rings and a qalgiq (the thing I am here to build).  The summer residences are up higher on the hill, less excavated.  They would have been built out of wood and a skin membrane, rather than snow.  The ones lower down were more excavated into the hill side, had more intensive masonry measures, and would have had thicker frames, with skin membranes and then covered in sod and then snow and ice.  On the top of the hill is the qalgiq, the largest structure by far (shown second), probably only used in the spring and summer, and probably taken down in the winter as it wouldn’t necessarily have withstood the huge wind loads (increased by ice) of the season.  This building was used as a meeting house, for going through and maintaining, repairing, building and discussing hunting and hunting equipment.

(Today it began to dawn on me, after having already seen hundreds of artifacts about killing animals, spears for lancing fish, harpoons, knives, incredibly designed arrow heads for shooting caribou, amazing long multi-pronged devices for harpooning a seal… that in the qalgiq, a huge amount of magic happened: it is where you built the things that kept you alive, that tested your ideas about hunting, and that brought you prosperity: a dad might look at a son, building a copper harpoon, and caution about the design, or offer advice, or scold; another man might have an innovative idea, carve a new shape in a soapstone spear and find later that it works well, or doesn’t.  They would have built traps for Arctic foxes, and squirrels.  This gathering house is where they would vet the ideas of others, commune with their only craft, and meet the spirit of the animal they sought through shaman guided vision quests for the next place to slaughter caribou, doing so from within a structure sheathed with the very flesh of that animal.)

We continued on to the butte called Mt. Pelly which really is a gorgeous buttress of shale covered with lichen and amazing little ground covers that have the strangest fruit I have ever seen, like little date seeds with brown bellies, hanging over the main leafy part of the mosses, and things like thyme.  The wind is blowing incredibly… but when it stops, there is an immediate and abundant swarm of mosquitos, almost unbearable.  Mt. Pelly is also know as Uvayok, thought of as the fist death.  He was a giant traveling with baby Pelly, and lady Pelly.  They lay down in this area and died.  You can see the beach striations on the side of the buttress are the ribs of Uvayok.  From the top of this buttress, the rest of the land rolls out flatly.  You can very clearly discern the curvature of the earth, from about 400 feet above sea level.

The dirt street where Brendan lives is called tuktu, or caribou.  We were talking last night and he explained that in his house here (which is very clean and nice… two bedrooms, a good mud room/meat storage, and a nice living room), for others in the community would probably house two families, and maybe a cousin, or two sets of partners, about ten kids, and a cousin.  They still live and hold the things of their past life.  In an old caribou skin or snow house there might have been a family of a man, two wives, and six kids in a 10′ diameter room, which could only sustain one maybe two persons standing up completely, in the middle.  In the winter, it would have been lit with a very soft dim light of seal oil.  And that would have been the only light you see for 9 weeks… the whole time living on stored seal meat, caribou, frozen Arctic char, and a fox or two.  Now a days, in a spacious luxuriously heated building like this, they have real estate to move freely.  And every few days a couple of men will drag a few dead seals in, throw them on a piece of cardboard in the pergo floor and butcher them, saving most every part of the animal and having an immediate seal sushi snack.

Today was a meeting of elders, for Max and Brendan to present their recent findings on what’s called a caribou drive, that they mapped out in a place called Igloluk, about 50 kilometers Northwest of here.  These people hold a huge energy.  They were the only and last people to live “on the land.”  (The ‘land’ is referred to often here, i.e., ‘when you go out on the land.’)  They speak primarily Inuinaktun, and cannot completely understand their children, because their kids were taken from them at young ages by the government and sent to ‘residential schools.’  These schools would have been far away and they were forced to speak only English and sometimes beaten if they spoke Inuktitut or Inuinaktun.  The elders now would have been born on the land, but moved off it pretty early and given government tags, housing, etc.  The oldest one in our meeting today may have been on the land for as many as 15 years.  Their bodies are strange, beautiful and clean.  Their faces and hands much more weathered and tan than the rest of them.


6 thoughts on “Day 1 and 2 in Cambridge Bay

  1. glad you made it safely, benbenben. it sounds amazing! i look forward to reading more of your adventures. . .

  2. Thank you for this incredibly vivid account. It’s like a clear mirror–and the mirror is your beautiful soul–on this magical experience called life. We forget about the magic (DEW line across the Arctic; that’s how much we forget) and this is a magical reminder. What’s Inuiit for thank you?

  3. Great stuff, Ben. I hope you have enough free time to keep the account going –I’m hooked.

  4. Great stuff, Ben. I love the details like the dented buildings and carving up seals on the Pergo floors. I’ll be checking back daily, following along wherever things take you. Thanks!

  5. How very interesting, Ben. I think you could write a novel based just on the paragraph “Today it began to dawn on me…” Great – keep it coming