End of Day 3 in Cambridge Bay–Arrival and Preliminary Reflections

In preparation for this second trip to the Arctic I had made plans to avoid the word “cold.”  I felt that there would be other more descriptive words for the temperature–and that the Inuit must have generated a whole host of vocabulary for the nuances between negative 20 and negative 60 degrees Farenheit (albeit there are survival issues closely related to those differences)–in preparations, or in forethought, it seemed kind of stupid to call what’s going on up here “cold.”  As it happens, though, when you are outside here (it is now minus 37F with 50 mph wind)–in the first few seconds of being outside (literally 1, 2, 3…) you exit a residual micro-climate of the last interior space and enter something between shock and disbelief; the mind makes swift efforts to resolve this problem and quickly comes up against a wall because it is also very swiftly slowing down; for someone like me, who has not been around this kind of weather before, my brain is working against the weather itself, saying “this can’t be right.”  I walked from our house up to the museum today at lunchtime, during the two hours or so of absolutely stunning twilight–a naked cold sun just barely edging over the immense icy horizon and took off my mitt to take this picture.

It took about 20 seconds to perform this operation: when I put my hand back into the mitten, it was in a vice with a hammer striking down upon my thumb and index finger, probably just another 20 seconds from phase I of real frostbite–again, my mind saying, “really!?”  So it did become obvious to me how preconceived notions can die confronting the real state of things: “cold” is satisfactory, it sounds frozen, starts with a clattering “k” sound, like pieces of ice knocking together, it’s one syllable, pronounceable with a numb face and mouth, you don’t forget the word as it’s occurring (the way you might with the rest of your poetic vocab),  and you can add simple prefixes, like “really” and “fucking.”

My original idea might have been to avoid anything that erred on the side of complaint and I can see now that I must treat the weather not with the fickle orientation one person uses to look upon another person, but with the attitude one assumes in looking upon death, or a god.  I have already tried using my kung-fu circulatory warming techniques, intentional warming thoughts, will power, etc.: it cannot be escaped and no man is above it: the cold comes for every person here, invading, prowling, encircling, haunting… no matter who you are, your extremities will be black within a matter of minutes.  The eyes, eye sockets, eye brows, and cheek bones are the only suitable naked part of the body (with ample circulation) to bear to this weather for longer than three minutes and more than somewhere around 30 (depending on the wind), you probably need goggles or the aid of a cardiovascular workout and/or hood and contained vapor-micro-climate in front of your face.

It’s cold here.

My initial thoughts after a couple of days have been about these people–and their ancestors–who are always here, and have always been here, spending hours outdoors every day, hunting and working for life, and then enduring vast expanses of time inside a snow house, heated 60 degrees warmer than the outside temperature of minus 40, a warm interior temp of +20F, the giant sphere of the world encased in an ice crystal permanent evening, only the shutter of the dim kuliq (soapstone lantern), lit by seal oil, burning Arctic dandelion wicks, casting weak shadows against the grave ice walls, babies sleeping in caribous skins, meat stored in a cold trap in the exit, frozen urine and excrement next to the door, husband outside looking for a seals’ breathing hole with other husbands, gripping against the wind and night… and 40 more days until the cool orange sun shows itself again over 9 feet of frozen sea…

and a distant second to the natives, acknowledge: the explorer, towing a sled of supplies, going for the pole, 60 days out on skis in the most intense environment on earth, orienteering towards the summit of the planet, within a continual internal micro-climate and a prolonged sense of panic and excitement.

I landed in Yellowknife on Sunday and had three days there with Brendan.  It was great this time to have a staggered entry to the Arctic, not only for an acclamation period to the weather, but to get some sleep (finally) and get a better sense of the Tataouine feeling of this outpost town, sub-Arctic high desert village.  Yellowknife is only about ten degrees warmer than Cambridge Bay currently, but a hefty amount lighter: they’re getting a good quality five hours + light per day there.  We took an excellent 10k walk on a harbor of the Great Slave lake (the huge fresh water lake Yellowknife sits upon); the lake is frozen thick enough for aircraft to land; we saw Ptarmigan, Arctic Hare and that evening, on my walk back across the harbor to the bed and breakfast, glittering fat green knife blades of the Aurora Borealis.

While in YK we determined that all of the qajaq (kayak) display case crates had made it (and now I can attest that they are in the Arctic, basically perfect)–and said a little prayer to whomever, messenger god, watching over that delivery (reverse Santa delivery).  (The delivery of the crates here is actually more than just a minor miracle to me; I will go into more detail later).  At the outpost market we stocked up on some necessary culinary staples like oil, spices, good meats, etc. (which are prohibitively expensive in Cambridge Bay), and sat in a charming bar called “The Black Knight” and drank a last pint of beer for a while.  The B&B I stayed in is called The Narwal, a funky little place right on the lake whose cold mudroom was full of beautiful caribou, seal, blue fox, wolf, wolverine, Arctic fox, etc. garments.  Every morning the woman who runs it put out a basket of–I believe–homemade muffins and a tin of Nabob coffee for me and June, a woman from Korea visiting to see the Aurora Borealis.  I thought about suggesting to her that she call The Narwal, rather than a B&B, a bed and muffin.

Here is the YK sun at 10:30 AM before departure on Wednesday:

It was striking to fly from there, directly away from the sun, arriving in the North two hours later with the sun at its highest point, about to set an hour later:

The sun: I woke up at 8 AM this morning after ten hours of sleep, to a distant glow on the horizon, casting a very faint twilight which gradually increases to a full visibility situation at about 11 AM now (this will change quickly in the next month), daylight time is about three hours.

More to come about the museum and the state of things there.

A more critical point of interest for now is the house where we are staying this trip… being in its own right a more proper museum of the Arctic.  I am still unsure whether to display photography of the house and keep its owner anonymous (until I get his consent to show), or describe in detail some of the contents of this place, keeping photography to a minimum.  There are two fascinating elements about the house:

1) It is REPLETE with traditional and traditionally collected artifacts.  (Example: when you enter, you go through a cold locker which has around 30 Arctic foxes hanging in it, traditionally tanned, several traditional caribou garments, which must always be kept cold because they smell bad and shed in warm air.)

2) Its owner is an Arctic explorer and scholar who himself merits a whole cabinet in the museum of the History of the Arctic.

I can split the difference for now, provide a couple of long distance not too personal photos of the place as well as describe in some detail what’s going on in the house.

Here is his house outside:

And one example of what is everywhere in the house, kind of archaeological altars:

Some of the items present in this one window (note that it is totally encrusted with blown snow: it faces the bay) are Ptarmigan feet, real Arctic Grizly paws with the claws, traditional infant mitts, an historic steel oil lamp from the land, these crystal things called “rose rocks,” a siltstone shale aggregate only found in high latitude polar regions, etc.

The house is strewn with notes on walls, labels of things with dates, indications of filed articles, slides, collateral marks on a giant Arctic map on one wall of the house which references yet other articles, slides, and notes.  He has rigorously documented almost everything possibly visible in the place, to the point–it seems–of being overwhelmed.  For example there are 9 separate notes taped to the entry way table about systems in the house that need to be considered.  If you open a journal article, you can see that he has read it, notated other pertinent articles and then sometimes contacted the author and put him in touch with another Arctic authority, often notating this exchange.  There is everywhere evidence of someone annotating the Arctic, tracking and trapping animals, and tracking his own history and trajectory through this frozen land.

It’s nearly midnight, temp down to minus 38F, 40mph wind; I’m going out on the frozen sea for a short nightcap.

10 thoughts on “End of Day 3 in Cambridge Bay–Arrival and Preliminary Reflections

  1. Hey buddy boy.

    A balmy fifty nine degrees in Portland today. Had fifty handsome sword ferns delivered to plant in the woodland garden out back. Verdant and moist. Thinking about breaking out the speedo.

    Excellent accounting, take care of yourself.

  2. I have no words to describe how deeply this stirs me. As you know, I believe I was the first person who saw you when you entered this world. I was standing there at the foot of your mother’s birth bed, and there was the little dark-haired sliver that was the first visible sign of this arriving spirit we would name Benjamin. As you know, that experience changed me. Satori, the Zen Buddhists call it– a glimpse of the universe not previously seen, or even guessed. You have been a growing miracle to me ever since, because you keep projecting yourself and refracting back to me old light from the deep heavens. I thank God for the fierce, curious, joyful, loving, celebratory purity of your soul. Button up your overcoat, dude. Don’t forget your galoshes. I wrap you in a father’s constant prayer.

  3. Ben, you are certainly refracting back the light of your fathers wonderful writing ability.I will forward this to my husband, an architect who braves our 5 degree F. winters here in Kamloops BC

    Much equinisity, Liz and the Herd

  4. “… Carpenter, how wild the planet is.”

    Thank you, Ben, for your courage, generosity, this human work. Facing north out my window here, sending greetings.

  5. Hi Ben, I love your notes from the deep north. The pictures are exquisite. I am deeply fascinated with the ancient and current lifestyle of the inhabitants of such a harsh environment. It really makes me marvel at the wonders of human adaptation.

    Mixed with these reactions are moments of panic. Please be careful. ‘Tis best to err of the side of caution, as you well know.

    We are having this lovely balmy weather here in Portland. My bro, Nom, got secretly married this week to a wonderful lady who was his high school sweetheart. We will be celebrating this summer. It was such great news.

    Another exciting bit of family news this week is that my nephew’s pregnant fiance is having TWINS!! Though they are young and not entirely prepared for this, I think everyone in the family is excited about having another set of twins in the family.

    I will look forward to more of your notes and photos from the deep north.

    Stay cozy,


  6. Ben, thanks for taking me along on this adventure; makes me reflect on the definition of comfort. By the way, we celebrated Jacob’s birthday last night. Thanks again for sharing.

  7. Hey Ben, if you’re not using the word ‘cold’ then I’m not using the word either. I’m putting it on hiatus for the month and will try to go deeper by dropping all easy complaints in general. It’s a good writing prompt, like writing a love poem without the word itself, which carries so many shopworn associations. Anything that aides the cause of awareness is a good. Your post is a lesson on being present.

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