Day 3 & 4 in Cambridge Bay

My work routine has me rising at 4-5 AM to stretch and have tea and get started by 5:30.  Somehow, it is the least distracted time to work, those early hours, here brightly lit.  My projects so far have been the assembly of two medium sized display cases whose parts I had shipped up here… as well as the construction of a kids’ playhouse for trying on Inuit clothing.  There is a serious tradition of sewing here: there remain elders who sew all of the Inuit clothing: wolverine gloves, mittens of caribou, wolf, musk ox, seal, etc., boots, double layered clothing for deep winter.  There are several of these beautiful parkas here on display, called amauti: the big parka with the large hood, into which a child can fit if necessary.  The design of this technology is the most streamlined function oriented design I have ever witnessed.  The large iconic Esquimaux and Inuit hoods normally have two layers of fur, the first to insulate the skin of the face, the second to create a wind foil at the same time as an antenna for ice: when wind hits the outer layer, the fur fibers leaning forward create a slight air vacuum around the face which eliminates the wind in the center of the hood: a foil.  Your breath then remains in the small vacuum and becomes warmer and heats your face.  This is extremely important in minus 100 degrees fahrenheit.  Brendan told me a story two days ago of having to run outside to check something on the heating oil line coming into the house, in December last year; his errand outside lasted about 45 seconds and when he returned inside his hands were completely numb and several fingers frostburned.  Painful warming up.

The connection to the land here is immediate, palpable.  I cannot surmise another people so intimately connected to the land through such harsh beauty and brutality.  “Nuna” is the word for land, “vut” is ‘our.’  Nunavut is ‘our land.’  This land is lifeline and arbiter of life.  (It’s ten PM now: and the big air raid sirens just sounded.)  The only sense of wealth among this people is survival.  The very condition of beating hearts, pressurized lungs, a meal, the laughter of a child, a skin over your head… is as rich as you can be.  There is ZERO distinction here between the station of one person and another.  They look at me and simply infer that I am from ‘far away.’  I don’t detect any sense of longing or curiosity about leaving.  This is igaluktuktiaq, place of many fish: and it is good.  (I will do another article on the technology and the tools…)  Today, I am most struck with the sense of ‘the land,’ the land making the person… rather than what we’re used to: making something of the land.  I’ll get there slowly.

This far north workshop is bizarre because in its inception it was set up to be an incredible workshop:


… this photo was taken after I spent most of an evening thoroughly cleaning it.  About half of the machines are broken or only in partial working order; there was a sense of complete abandonment in this shop: like it was designed to be something good and then in reality had no real liklihood as tool for instruction.  The thing I see over and over in the shop, and everywhere else, is a shape like this:


…it’s a fishing spear; you simply strike down through the water, hit an Arctic char, the outside two members (here made of caribou antlers) separate (with flex) and the center spike impales the fish; if it wriggles, in only worsens for the fish up above.  This is called a kokiwog.  It seems students took apart machines, re-purposed various kinds of hardware, and in general wrought havoc on this shop in order to make this shape.  I would say rightly so.  In their genetic inheritance lies this shape, and many other ingenious designs… not chairs and tables.  So I have partially re-built the table saw, the oscillating drum sander, the air compressor and organized much of what seemed in disarray.  I should say that it probably only seems to me (and perhaps other southwestern craftsmen) in ‘disarray.’  I’m sure the Inuit brought a kind of sublime order to the space.  That’s because there is one thing in their soul: the land.  Nuna.  The land is life; and they want life, not chairs.

I have spent three days so far building this little play house that is going to tuck under the steel staircase in the museum.  I’m probably making it a little nicer than it needs to be… but I believe there will be time to make a really good kids’ dress up house, and get the qalgiq done, if I spend my 12 working hours per day preciously.  I spent a few hours in the library part of the museum making measurements for this playhouse and made some friends who were pretty excited about helping me measure and extremely curious about this ‘house’ tucking under the staircase.  I had met this one boy earlier, Nicholas; he had poked his head into the open shop door and asked, “what you doing?”  I said I was working.  He said, “you got moneeeey?”  I actually did not and I replied no.  He said, “I help?”  He then came in and spent about two hours with me, sweeping, helping hold boards, standing behind me while I operated the table saw.  He came back today and helped more.



I have spent about five or six hours now with Nicholas and I can vouch for him.  Today Brendan came into the shop and was looking at the little bench in the corner of the playhouse and thought it would be a good idea to upholster it with caribou.  I really liked that idea too, so we did it with a gorgeous piece of caribou:


Nicholas and his friend Thomas came into the shop to help.


It’s hard to see the caribou there (I’ll take better pictures installed) but that’s not really the point.  These kids want to share time and space.  I haven’t experienced children this open before.  In a way they are already fully formed.  There is just the land here.  On the land there is trouble, and I’m sure to some extent their parents monitor how they roam around, but from the looks of it, kids have a free run of this place.  They are up at four in the morning, playing on their bikes in the icy morning sun.  They are out right now, striking hockey pucks against this building I’m sitting in, laughing riotously and fiercely competing for hardest slap shot against the building.  (These shots leave big dents in the building.)  They are the property of the land, of this village.  They will often go home and be with another family.  Today I was having tea with a woman, Monique, who leads one of the traditional sewing classes and her little girl April came and went several times.  I asked about her, and Monique told me that April mostly lives with her parents.  There was an expression there whose depths I did not plumb.  I didn’t know why she divulged that information, perhaps it was economic, perhaps she didn’t like this particular child all the way?  Later I talked to Brendan about the kids and he said that about 40% of the children are living elsewhere than with their genetic parents.  It is called ingutak, the act of raising someone else’s kid.  There are some dark stories there.  There are a couple of brothers that have been at the Heritage Center every day this week (I’m told they basically live here), they are several years apart, one is Anthony, the other Ashley.  They are both strangely blind, like their eyes are seared shut.  They have magnificent expressions.  They navigate around town, through the dusty windy roads with ATVs roaring by and trucks spewing up gravel (I can’t imagine the process in the winter!) without any problem.  The younger brother Ashley has a pattern of clapping his hands together very lightly and looking up, skywards with a blissful expression.  I asked Brendan about it and he told me that both brothers can echo-locate.  They are known for this.  They clap their hands lightly, anywhere in town, and they know exactly where they are.  They both likewise have a kind of touched sense: like anywhere else they would be ‘placed’ somewhere.  Here, despite whatever dark history lies there, they are a loved part of the public commons.  The people who work at the Heritage Center, and many others in town, have adopted Anthony and Ashley in ingutak.  This seems to me like a way the land is working on the people, almost a direct translation of its effect on people.  Brutal and real and beautiful.

In other places, it often seems hard to read people, to read one’s feelings about a place, about others’ feelings… about you, about the place.  Here, there is no question.  No hesitation.  It’s just open.  In a place that is so harsh, that delivers a kind of weather that, for long periods of time, carries a death-within-seconds seriousness… a weather that penetrates the ground and the sky… there is a heart torn wide open.  Though there are deep troubles, there is an open willing heart.

Yesterday after work, we went out to fish for char and ended up getting a ride on the road out there; this is the light at about 10 pm last night:


We fished an area right on the clear water river.  There was a problem with Brendan’s fishing pole, however.  Every time we cast, the last loop went flying off with the sinker.  Brendan went over and chatted with two women who seemed to be having good luck catching char.  (This char is incredible.  It is served everywhere, raw, on the skin; it melts in your mouth and feels like the cleanest firmest most amazing fish on the planet.  It travels from the arctic rivers just a little ways out into the sea up here and then back; it does not encounter the bigger poisons of the sea… like the water, you can put it straight into your body without preparation.)  She just gave Brendan a fish!  She told us to tell people we caught it.  Since we would have no (other) luck fishing, we walked back towards town.  This is the scene, just a few hundred meters behind Cambridge Bay, just beyond the burning debris:


Because the ground is in permafrost the graves are basically gravel added over the surface.  There are some unfortunate stories in this graveyard and it is being added to as we speak.  But it is also just part of the rugged honesty of this land.  Nunavut.


The starkness of the land here, looking out over it, traveling it, contemplating for how long it extends, and how many other robust creatures are out there, bears, wolverines, walrus, beluga, must rat, and ox, makes me realize how close death is.  It is right here.  It is very nearby and it takes these people a kind of wild chaotic activity to resist those forces; and they have developed a way to do so with a special elegance.  Walking a line, drawing life out of every moment, in a way that seems to require little effort, with a strong constitution for the reality of dying.  Many other things die for these ones to live.  The land has brought that shape of the kokiwog into their minds and now it is everywhere, and the shapes that don’t serve this kind of life (like chairs) are useless.

3 thoughts on “Day 3 & 4 in Cambridge Bay

  1. I’m glad you’ve found some little helper friends for your shop. Your unfolding story is invigorating! It really whets the whistle. . .

  2. Ben Shook, fantastic what you are doing. I am so proud of you. Your writing is splendid.Do you know
    the work of
    Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams? Anyway,
    this work needs to be out there. Navid has been studying with my friend John Gogol the Esquimaux.
    And Dylan was wondering what happened to you–I will tell him you are in the far north on a magnificent adventure. God speed. Walt

  3. Hi, Ben–

    I appreciate your honesty about life in the unforgiving arctic. I wonder how much of the dark side is related to survival, vs. introduced burdens like alcohol, sugar or television?