A cold dry northern air has moved over Portland, blown the clouds out of the sky, disrobed a snowy Mt. Hood and helped the whole place feel more like winter. It’s about twenty minutes before the globe drops at Times Square, so I still have a few hours to scribble before the New Age. At the time I was leaving the Arctic last August, we knew there was a chance that we’d be coming back up to do another project which involved displaying an Inuit kayak. Some time in early October it became a sure thing and we started planning for the trip and for the exhibit. I think two years ago, Brendan organized a kayak building workshop, which involved bringing people from several areas of the Canadian Arctic to Cambridge bay, and then organizing all the traditional hand tools, the seal skins, setting up a place to do all the work outside and camp there (near another good fishing area a couple hours from Iqualuqtuktiak), a film process, etc. They used only the tools that Inuit would have used long ago to build a kayak. (“Kayak” comes from the word qajaq, pronounced KAh JACK) Some of these include a bow driven drill, whose bit is cradled in a caribou bone socked and held in the mouth, the ulus and knives for shaving the seal skin smooth and then stitching it with a waterproof stitch for the membrane of the boat, stretched over caribou ribs. Their workshop turned into an ancient technology seminar and sounds like a pretty incredible few weeks by the water, building a real qajaq, fishing for seal and char and telling stories at night. They built a beautiful boat. We are building the display and putting together an exhibit for this vessel.
At first I had imagined building the exhibit case up there. And was trying to conceive of how to do that. Here’s the initial idea:
It quickly became evident that this thing, of museum quality, would be pretty difficult to pull off up there. So we stipulated that it would get built here, in Portland. Ben and I started working on this thing the 1st of November. (Then it became evident that it was going to be somewhat challenging to build even here, and obvious that it would have been impossible in the Arctic.) Some of the case considerations:
*It must be hermetically sealed to artifact display standards, climate controlled, and free of all acids or ureas that might damage sensitive artifacts.
*To accommodate the boat, the case must be 23 feet long.
*The display must be able to break down and ship, then re-assemble with some kind of ease, and still be totally sealed.
*The kayak sits under acrylic glass which must key together along the sections of the case, all of which needs to be shipped and then prepared in situ.
*There is a full text and artifact display that wraps the main exhibit platform.
*This all must be made, finished, and shipped before Christmas.
Ben and I then put in 51 days of work without stopping. Some of those days were 8 hours, but most 10-12 hours. At some point a friend of mine came over to look at what we were doing and kind of laughed at me because he said it was like I was somnambulant, intimidated by our task, subservient to the kayak case. It was–in every way–more than I had imagined. The shop barely had room to assemble this thing, and when whole, it was like being in the room with a whale. So, for the most part, we worked with it in sections, putting parts together, getting it straight, and then taking it back apart and re-assembling other parts. Here are a few shots of the assembly:
The display panels (there are six like this):
A few weeks later:
There are drawers at either end that weather seal against the cabinet box and are surrounded by a silicone sealed box on the interior; they vent up into the acrylic display and have climate control silica in them (that get’s changed every few months). The empty places in the display apron are artifact display boxes where harpoons, the hunting charms, spears, etc. will be displayed under acrylic; the other spaces are all for text display in English and Innuinaqtun.
We set the whole thing up in the shop like this and then spray finished it, because we decided that that would become its own nightmare trying to do that up there, especially if the only place we could spray up there would be in the museum proper. So we did it the right way. These are the special glasses you need for finish:
The next step was building crates. I was definitely intimidated by this phase of the work. I had nightmares several nights about the dimensions of the crates, of building unsatisfactory crates that fell apart on the way up there, of building myself into one and then getting shipped without the company knowing that there was a human in their cargo that would die en route to Yellowknife, over the iceroads, etc. Ben had some experience building crates for his artwork and we utilized that expertise and then just overbuilt the boxes in general. Each box weighs about 400 pounds, and there are eight boxes.
At this point, being incapable of even attempting to lift one of these, I realized once again what a miracle the wheel is.
The day after we finished building the crates, day 52, we loaded them onto the freight truck, bound–strangely–for Salt Lake City, and then started having post partum seizures. (As we speak, they are in Edmonton and will be arriving at the Cargo Hanger in Yellowknife the 5th of January, Godwilling.)
It’s hard to believe that we are sending 3,200 pounds of museum furniture to the North Pole. But that’s what’s happening. And I am going there in less than ten days to start working on it.
Right now Cambridge Bay is in 24-7 darkness, and will continue to be so until the 11th of January. Then there’s 40 minutes of dusk… then the sun begins to reappear quickly, changing by as much as 35 minutes a day. Here is the sun table. Right now the temperature is -58 degrees Farenheit with 20 mph winds. I don’t know why exactly, but I am really looking forward to feeling this kind of winter. I will do my best to describe it. It feels like the right way to invite the new year, starting with the ceremony of the death of the sun, then watching the birth of the sun: when I leave there, February 15, there will be 7.5 hours of sun a day, almost as much as Portland gets right now!
Be well and be great.