A tale of two times

This is my fifth trip to Canada’s central arctic, to a town called Cambridge Bay, or Iqaluqtuutiaq, place of many fish. Of course, as things do, I have become acclimated to some of the outré face of life in this extreme north outpost community… acclimated to a degree.  I have discussed somewhat extensively my first impressions of this place (you can find them starting here in the blog archives), emotional response to being with the Inuit, and some reflections that arise about our lives down south, as compared with the collision of cultures that is happening in a real-time fashion up here, unfolding as we speak. Those impressions are becoming more refined as I get to spend more time with the people here, observing how they get along as they watch their grandparents’ way of life come to an end. I have stated it before,  to repeat: these arctic communities are witness to some of the last main-stream migration of a people off the land and into housing, as it were. I am afraid indeed to become “acclimated” to this change; I would like to remind myself with grave punctuation to not forget what a privilege it is to be here and, though soul-wrenching, to see one of the most robust groups of human beings, our northern ancestors, come in off the land, come in off the land to our offerings of sugar, alcohol, technology, and our myriad other, abundant poisons. Along with these poisons we have offered them schools, jobs and central heating. All of this hallucinatory logic I have already spoken about. Tonight, it’s very early morning actually (1:11 a.m and the sun is just crested below the horizon, about to rise again…), I would like to tell one individual story.

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society (KHS), the place where I have helped build large museum installations, serves as a kind of community center. It serves as the only real center for archaeological and anthropological resource in this whole central arctic area… but, because it is here… because it is here, it also serves other, potentially more important roles. It is attached to the town’s high school building, re-built in 2002 because the old building was burnt down by students (this one has had many arson attempts already, but it’s mostly built of steel). It serves as the library for the community, computer center, primary elder meeting center, and the main after-school care program for the town. It is likewise a kind of refuge for kids that have little else to turn to. It is, like the Cheers bar, a place where everyone knows your name. I have gotten to know some of these people, daily visitors to KHS… and can see quite clearly that this place is playing a role in maintaining their sanity, perhaps keeping them alive.

A couple of these people are two blind brothers, called Ashley and Anthony. (We’re planning to do some audio work with them for the film I’m shooting…) the other day we celebrated a birthday party for another regular of KHS, attended by Ashley and Anthony. Ashley brought with him his ukelele and a way’s into the party very soft-spokenly offered that he could play for us. I encouraged him do so and taped it.

I had never once until this moment paid attention to the lyrics of this Credence Clearwater song, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”… and as I listened to Ashley play, I realized I needed to… because I could tell that this is his way of explaining his life.

He and his brother are separated in age by approximately three years. For the sake of everyone involved, and because I don’t rightly know, I will say only that there are stories as to the cause of their blindness. They have been blind since early childhood and are now in their mid-thirties, my age. They are staples of the community and can be seen regularly walking together (they walk everywhere together), echo-locating by clapping. These two are, in my mind, reminders of the intensity and strength of this people, a kind of portrait of what occurs during this brave new experiment of bringing civilization to people. In case you don’t know the lyrics to the song, here they are:

Someone told me long ago
There’s a calm before the storm,
I know
It’s been comin for some time.

When it’s over, so they say,
It’ll rain a sunny day,
I know
Shinin down like water.

I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
Comin down on a sunny day

Yesterday, and days before,
Sun is cold and rain is hard,
I know
Been that way for all my time.

‘Til forever, on it goes
Through the circle, fast and slow,
I know
It can’t stop, I wonder.


signing off for tonight



The Kitikmeot Heritage Society, along with my friend Brendan Griebel, ran a land camp here in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut (nearly 70 degrees north in the Canadian Arctic) the past couple of weeks… I’m along to help out and do a short film about the heritage center. This last camp consisted of lots of char fishing, traditional preparation of hides, old time ways of cooking, camping and getting on. Here are a few of the stills I took in between video work. 

I used a kite to do some aerial photography and this young one, Petra, was enamoured of the kite.

My friend Mary Avalak.

Mary Keniaq

Dennis with gun.

A Veteran’s Hymn and Bloodline

When I was little, in the summertime, when the evening shadows grew long and you could be outside at night in shirt sleeves–and close to the time the rasberries grew into pregnant little globes on the vine–we could start expecting my grandparents to show up in my Grandad’s Sportscoach; nothing short of a forty foot dream ship, an American land sailing yacht, and most importantly, the roadworthy vessel that brought my Grandad from El Centro, CA the two thousand some miles to Spokane, WA. Days before they arrived, I would have vivid dreams of going out into our back yard and seeing the Sportscoach parked in its dedicated spot under the maple trees, under the tree house, tucked in there for a week of grandparent bliss. I don’t know where it comes from, that feeling, the little kid incompleteness, the undying ache for your grandfather; the need to hold his big hand, to trace the wrinkles on his skin and know that something about life is durable, that this guy made it through the ages, he made your dad, and he made it past that: yes, he’s old, but he has a land yacht and he can voyage through time and space and, just standing there, just the mere act of being there, he is equivalent to god. I wouldn’t want to unravel the feeling too much, philosophically, because–to me–he was perfect at the time… and he’s perfect now. Dove soap, every time I smell it, throws me into the tidy bathroom of the Sportscoach; always tinkering with things and machines, Grandad washed his hands maybe ten times a day. I can’t use the soap now. I remember watching him cutting peaches to put into Chex cereal in the morning; I remember him counting down from five to race across a stretch of lawn and preemptively jumping to one and leaping away first and laughing a laugh so pure that I should have bottled it up so I would have it to open when I’m feeling sad; I remember watching him lace up his gray tennis shoes, telling me they were so good he bought three pair and thinking to myself, “That’s genius!” I remember one summer, having buried our pet rabbit before he arrived, realizing that Grandad too would die, and when he arrived I took his hand and, looking at a carpal tunnel tendon bow-stringing through his palm (from years as a lineman for the fire department), asked him if he would die… in keeping with his perfection, he sat down with me and put his hand on my knee and told me, “Ben, I am not going to die.”

When he killed himself a few years ago, this memory came upon me like an ambush. I knew then that something was out of balance… somewhere in the greasy stretch of time between his birth, his own stern father, his service in WWII, service in the San Diego fire department, his vacuum shop, the Sportscoach, and his death, something had gone wrong for him. The godhead had been compromised. I probably did not know what this was until recently.

I went home to Spokane to watch my grandfather’s son deliver a sermon about a lifetime of struggle with post traumatic stress, a cobweb of shame and grief that has been with him since he flew in a helicopter gunship in Vietnam in 1967-8. During his sermon I remembered having had the brilliant idea to scare him by sneaking into the bathroom while he sang in the steam of a shower and dump a cold pint glass of water over the curtain. I was seven or eight. He did not realize what he was doing until after the shower curtain snapped open and he saw that he had pinned me against the towel rack, making it hard to draw a breath and, realizing what was going on, let out a gasp, “Oh god.” And started crying.

He describes standing-by, watching B-52s in bombing raids, while the gunship waited there, the chopper blades chundering overhead, waiting their turn to let brass fall, turning an Eden so green it hurts your eyes, into a carpet bombed cauldron of fire, marking it with white phosphorous and napalm, defoliating it with agent orange, and then laying tracer fire into Eden’s jungles, chasing men in black pajamas until they met easy defeat under the fire of his M-60, hung from the door of the gunship by a rubber strap. He describes watching the bodies of three little girls crumple under someone else’s fire in the Tet Offensive and screaming into the radio, “SAY I.D.! SAY I.D!” And scanning the scene, crying and violence and rage pulsing through his heart to find the responsible party and knowing that he was not involved in a just or fair battle… but in a criminal act that was on its way to stripping his soul of its native joy.

I watched my grandfather’s son stand up yesterday in courage and with a purple brave heart tell a congregation that he was ashamed and guilty. He has taken part in a crime; in the name of America, he has taken lives, he has been party to actual evil, he has witnessed firsthand the political lie that took our country to Vietnam; part of his crime is following orders, following the sovereign: he stood in solidarity with all of those who have brought this trauma home from war and said, “I’m your brother, I understand you, I forgive you, and I love you, hang in there, I know what you feel is the worst thing on earth, just hang in there: goddamit do not take your own life, because I love you, I’m standing up here saying, ‘look, you can get through this!'”

He read a letter that he’s written to a man named Nguyen (because he doesn’t know his real name), saying, “Nguyen, I’m sorry that I killed you; it was not right. If I could put the weapon down in hindsight I would; if I could trade my own life for yours that I took–now forty years later–I would. Did you have a wife? Did you have a family? Did you leave brothers and sisters, a bereaved mother and father behind? If so, I want to tell them I’m sorry too. Nguyen, I’m sorry.”

I spent today remembering my grandad, and his son. They are cut from the same cloth, and I suppose I am too. I found myself feeling proud of my dad… pointing me in the direction of a land where I can plant the oar… a place that does not know the spiritual defoliant of war, a place where men can have the courage to say, “I’m scared; I’m scared to death, I want to be held by my mother, I want to tell you how I feel: I’m not going to run your errand of death today, because I want to come home, I want to love a woman (or a man), I want to sleep the whole night through, I want to always sense the song my soul was born to sing, a joy that cannot co-exist with what you’re suggesting.”

Instead of a precept like “support our troops,” I suggest another practice: if you’re in America, don’t hate her or love her for some empty shiny idea like patriotism, instead hold your heart open for those who have gone down the dark road, the road of spirit amputation, death, suicide, sacrifice. I hold my heart open for the real grief, the paradox, the tension, the anguish, the inconsolable terror, the willingness and offering of my dad to risk it all; even though America commits this crime, I forgive her and I forgive you, dad. I will get under the grief too, and I will help you carry it because it is a real weight that must be carried, and with my help and the help of others you will live and you will have a club to which you belong. I love you, I love Grandad, and I love the life you brought me into. Thank you. There is no other man like you, Larry Shook.




Before I came to you, I imagined easy wind-blown horizontal snow, and glass plate photography, I imagined the place of a scholar’s dream, dreamt of in a library, sewn leather elbow patches and classic globes, soft light over reading carrousels, a geographical limit, a lecture, a conception… and instead I found the real mess of love, the sea tortured into tumult, at times steel blue and menacing, at others evolving to tropical glacial silt and clear, I found a whipping cold and an over-indulgent splendid sun, rubbing my skin to the point of pain like a new lover; before I came to you I imagined the stage prop of a black and white sea bird, a tuxedo, and instead found the mystery of a society, hidden in your snowy museum for millions of years, like the human race in a different form, stowed away in the Earth’s bottom, on eggs, concealed in feathery wet fat, loving and cheating and living as we do, but without the fanfare, without the need for recognition, quietly caring for its young: tender, harsh, and real, dying; before I came to you, I imagined that I was strong and clear, that I could march across your back and chart point A to point B, but found instead a yawning catalogue of time stored in ice, millennia stacked mercilessly, Vikings, Christians, Buddhists and Neanderthals all crushed thinly, easily, a single shelf in your ice library; I found vertical granite walls, impassable glaciers, a maelstrom of ice and rock, impossible to navigate in my mind, and yet I walked on your shores and witnessed your wilds, I was able to perceive you: I dreamed of a goddess and found instead a real woman.


In November of last year I went to the Antarctic Peninsula via Ushuaia with my very good buddy Gabe Rogel, who does amazing adventure photography.  Look him up here.  We went down with polar operator, One Ocean Expeditions, who, for this trip, wanted to explore a ski-mountaineering option on their cruise of the very mountainous Peninsula.  Because I am writing an editorial about this trip, to be published imminently in a national magazine, I am going to keep the verbiage to a minimum and share a few highlights in image form, Gabe’s photos:

The ship still moored in Ushuaia, Argentina.

A shot of yours truly, on our best weather day… this one was actually just printed in the April edition of Outside magazine, in the Exposure section.

The most rad day of skiing… a pretty nifty, kind of steep couloir.

Speaks for itself.

This unspeakable magnitude everywhere, a labyrinth of beauty.

I also brought my kite and did some wind meditation in the [very] cold water down there… but very excellent winds coming off the South Pole.    In a dry suit.

A few more awesome shots by Gabe:

Up in the crows nest.






And this one by our friend Tad Boniecki: a 3,000 meter peak down there:

Zen Doors

Ben P. and I just finished these doors for a Zen Temple not far from my house in NE Portland.  One is a dragon, the entrance to the zazen interview room, and the other a monk called Jizo Bodhisattva, known for being an enlightened one (bodhisattva) dedicated to protecting children and helping others, anyone who displayed the least inkling of being interested in ‘the way.’  Jizo is known for unflagging optimism.  The doors are made out of Oregon Elm (I think pretty closely related to Japanese keyake), rails and stiles are all book matched and engineered on a core of furniture ply, the solid carved panels are book matched as well.


On Exploration (Part II)

A couple of days after we had bid farewell to Richard and Glenn–and after a very long day in the shop–I came home at about midnight and walked up into the second story kitchen of the house we were staying in, made some tea, and looked out over the bay… my eye scanned over to the main pier and I did a double take and then a triple take… because I was looking at the apparition of a yacht parked pleasantly right at the pier.  The day prior I had been back out at the cabins and knew that either I was cracking up a little from the long day of work… or this was a serious ice-breaking sail boat.

Looking from the window I could see that about 20 kids were playing around the boat, some slightly on the boat–excited to have a far away visitor, so early.  (They are used to the sea lift–freighter–coming every early September, delivering all the major necessaries for the year.)  I finished my tea, determined that I was not hallucinating and then walked down there.  It had warmed up a little and there was no wind, a mirror finish on the water… the drawback to this peace in the Arctic summer is that it brings mad mosquitoes, now easily capable of sensing carbon dioxide rising off the humans, and boat probably, so they were out in force along with the kids playing around the boat.

As I approached the vessel it was even more than I had suspected: a full-on luxury-adventure yacht, 115′ long, a double walled aluminum ice-breaking hull, two masts (schooner), three self-furling jibs, 30′ beam, sleeps 30, full instrument room, huge tinted enclosed helm  that opens onto the back deck (all decks Burmese teak), spare zodiacs, etc.  This boat would catch eyes arriving at the marina in Monaco, and I was looking at it at 70 degrees north, several hundred miles off the Northwest Passage, just east of the ice-locked bay it had sailed through a few hours’ previous.

I walked right up to the boat, taking these pictures, marveling at the thing… a few of the Inuit kids asked me if it was my boat (I guess because I’m white), which led me to believe that the crew had not been out to greet anyone yet.  Puzzled, I kept inspecting the boat and swatting at mosquitoes with the kids.  After a little while longer a tan pretty young European looking fellow came out on deck.  He asked if I’d seen Ryan?  I said, “I don’t know Ryan.”  There was an immediate odd feeling in the air here.  No one was receiving a greeting and assumptions were being made both ways, from boat to shore, and shore to boat.  I was puzzled that the crew of this fantastic vessel was not out on deck, saying hello to everyone, sort of celebrating the fact that they’d sailed to the Arctic in an insane yacht.  I heard another kid ask this European sailor what the boat was for and the kid answered, “We’re young explorers, traveling with Mike X—-, he’s an explorer and owns the boat…”  Now I was even more intrigued, and still it seemed weird that an explorer wouldn’t be out surveying his new surroundings.  As I looked more carefully at the boat I now saw that his name (which I will not completely disclose here, but you could probably figure it out pretty easily) was stenciled all over the boat, as a kind of message, along with ads for Mercedes Benz.  Some kind of sponsored explorer.  Then Ryan showed up… an Inuk kid–who I later learned runs a tourism company in Cambridge Bay–he had come by boat and it became evident that the yacht’s crew had employed him to go buy cigarettes for them…  I noted that the one crew member of the boat had said he was from Wisconsin (I guess looked Norwegian) and was wearing technical clothing that had the explorer’s name on the black wind stop fabric.  (All the kids out there playing had shorts and short sleeve shirts on.)  Then, after the cigarettes arrived, the rest of the crew came out, a total of four… all in matching clothing.  I was almost immediately reminded of the movie, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, this being the opposing exploration crew, headed up by Alistair Hennessey, played by Jeff Goldblum, who represents the wealthy, dapper–and matching–crew who is always frustrating the efforts of Zissou.  I sat there staring, almost reverting to my state of hallucination.  I was the only white guy on the dock.  The crew did not really pay much mind to me, or the kids… they retreated over to the far side of the main deck and lit up cigarettes and swatted at the air to mix up the mosquitoes.  They looked over at us every so often.  Then, after quite a while, the older guy, who turned out to be the explorer himself, shouted, “Hey kid, get off the boat!” to one of the kids hanging on his stainless steel railing.  Then they kept talking so that we could not hear them.  I began to wonder about the idea of this guy being an explorer… like what was he exploring?  The NW Passage has been explored a lot already, most of the Arctic is mapped; obviously it can still be explored (though not “discovered”)… it simply seemed odd that this fellow Mike was not making more of an effort to reach out to the people whose dock he was using, and whose cigarettes he was smoking.  Not just that, but I had pieced together that he was leading a group of young explorers… and the first part of his leadership I see is lighting up cigarettes with them, and then projecting that as an example to the Inuit kids.  The first lines of the Odyssey came to mind,

Sing to me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways and crafty,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men…
Odysseus went on perhaps the greatest voyage of exploration in all of literature… which took him through the minds of men.  I did not get that sense in the present situation… that this guy was exploring anyone’s mind, at least here, yet.  But then he began to talk to me.  It was brief and our conversation went something like this:

Mike: “…lot of mosquitoes here…”

me: “Yep…this thing can break pretty serious ice, huh?”
Mike: (South African accent) “Yeah, pretty good.”
me: “Was there a lot of ice in channel on the way in?”
Mike: “Yeah, a bit, but not like I would’ve thought.”
me: “Well, it looks like a pretty amazing boat.”
Mike: “The bank owns most of it.”
me: “So it’s a business then?”
Mike: “I’m an explorer.  I use it for exploration and conducting research.”
me: “Exploration?  What are you exploring?”
Mike: looks up into his head, pauses, “Um, we’re sailing along the northwest passage… I’m doing some sailing with young explorers.”
me: “…so, you’re just using the boat to go places.”
Mike: “Yeah, i just go places.”
me: “…because the NW passage is mapped and pretty explored already…  what kind of research?”
Mike: again long pause, “Conducting research about the sea.”
me: “That makes sense.  What aspect of the sea are you researching?”
Mike: “There’s a lot of mosquitoes here.”  he gestures for the crew, who have finished smoking, to go inside the tinted glass cabin.
Mike: “What do people do here, in this… town?”
me: “Why don’t you come explore it?”
That sort of wrapped up our talk and then he disappeared back inside the boat.  The next morning at about 10 am I saw them leaving the pier and examined them with the binoculars from the kitchen: they were wearing a different matching outfit, now with matching black wool caps that had his name on them.  Matching backpacks too.  They lit out from the dock moving pretty slow and then moved up into the streets of Cambridge Bay.  I found out later that they had explored the library–to check email–but had not looked around the museum, or the actual library either… and they had explored the grocery store.  Soon after, the boat departed and the Inuit of Iqaluqtuutiaq were none the wiser that an explorer had just visited.  I felt like their visit deserved some kind of dramatic sound track.  I also felt that I had just met a species of tux explorer… and was grateful for the encounter.




On Exploration (Part I)


When I was growing up my imagination was never held captive by the endeavors of explorers.  I’m not sure why… I believe I was probably  more interested in actually being outside and looking around for myself, however meager those researches were in comparison.  Christopher Columbus and James Cook and Francis Drake were never part of the archetypal repertoire that defined my youthful urges.  I was even less moved when forced to read about these demagogues, starting somewhere around fifth grade… Christopher Columbus being sent by some Queen to find a new trade route by which to expand the empire while I passively witnessed what a fourth or fifth hand narrator had to tell me about this character who mistakenly found America instead of the West Indies, in the margin a little Victorian glossy picture of a guy with a moustache and what looked like jester’s pantyhose, bowing before a royal court.  And then next is the chapter about the pilgrims.  The emphasis on the man, the explorer, I think has always seemed strange… like the whole place is associated with him, even though plenty of people were already living in the place he “found.”  I just looked up “explore”… ex plorare… literally “to cry out.”  Explorers cry out.  Something like, “I found it.”  When we were leaving the Arctic last year, Brendan Griebel (archaeologist) was telling me about an aspect of his PhD thesis being an analysis of the old explorers’ Arctic maps.  He wanted to translate them as maps of the individuals’ desires.  The map of a land starting as the urge in someone to go somewhere that hasn’t been visited before.  I don’t mean to speak about one explorer or another in a pejorative tone… because I’m pretty sure there are as many kinds of explorers as people.  I have spent some time now reading about the Arctic and about a few of those folks who came up here to look around over the past few hundred years.  This place has been the subject of the armchair explorer’s delight for something like two thousand years… starting with the idea of Thule.  Ultima Thule.  A majestic frozen land to the North where there are strange lights, gelatinous seas, ice mountains, mystical ice creatures, and home to the hyperboreans–those living above the north wind, Boreas… a tribe of immortal ice giants, by some accounts people with only one leg.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from the second century B.C. is supposedly the first explorer to chart the Arctic seas of Ultima Thule, as described by Polybius in his Histories. (I would have much preferred to read Polybius and about the one legged hyperborean giants early in school than Christopher Columbus… both are appropriately history).  It is debatable whether Pytheas “found” the Shetland Islands, the southern tip of Greenland, Iceland or perhaps only northern Ireland.  Did he meet Druids, Vikings, or another native people?  No matter what he found or did not, the Inuit were already up here, living year after year, way further north, with two legs, and getting along quite well despite having not been discovered yet.

I think one bifurcating factor when I contemplate an explorer is something along these lines: is this person voyaging out to carry back a story… to return to London and put on a tuxedo and address the Royal Geographic Society about his findings in the Arctic after which there is a reception with champagne and caviar in a room filled with cologne, shiny black shoes and people who are desperate for the outré (armchair explorers) surrounding and questioning our manor is this person going out there because it’s fun?  Those are (potentially) two different people.  Personally I wonder about the explorer who trudges mile after mile, oblivious of the native peoples, ethnographic background of the place, and archaeology, just to set foot there, plant a flag and take a picture… and bring a story back to London.  It doesn’t sound attractive to me mostly because it does not sound fun.  I would also be pretty chagrined to say I did something like that first, or found, cried out, a place which already had many many very well situated inhabitants with their own language and culture.  There are of course those adventurers who are bold and pure… who go for the going, who have fun being in dramatic and perilous landscapes, I think Amundsen was so, Hillary, Moitessier… lately I have been reading about Samuel Hearne… who worked for the Hudson Bay Co. in the late eighteenth century and was so good at learning from natives that he was able to live off the land by himself and adopted wearing furs (because they work so much better in Arctic climates) and komiks, poilus, etc… he was the first European, and perhaps first person, to go from Hudson Bay overland to the Arctic Sea in one go, more than 2,200 miles to the northwest.  I like the stories of the guys who go native as it were.  (If you’re interested in reading an incredible account of someone who adventured and loved the process so much that he could not reconcile it with the waiting parade at home… so just stayed out there, check out A Voyage for Madmen.)

Anyway, I am lucky enough to be up here in this Arctic region surrounded by 1) people who choose to live here, 2) people who have always lived here, and 3) people who are here to adventure.  (For the sake of this little foray into the idea of exploration, let’s divide the realm of explorers into tuxes and furs… and I’ll describe one of each from recent explorations of my own… of the gravel streets of Cambridge Bay.)

This past winter I was here with Brendan and at some point near the end of our stay he had been in communication with an Englishman called Richard Best who was planning a sort of epic kayak trip… from here to Gjoa Haven, about four hundred miles by paddle to the East.  He had invited Brendan, who was deliberating about it.  I have done a fair amount of kayaking, mostly whitewater, and told Brendan he would be welcome to come to Portland and hang out for a month and I’d teach him to roll and get acquainted with the water and the boat.  He ended up being too busy.  On this trip, luckily enough, I ran into Richard Best, who was here completing the finishing touches to his skin-on-frame kayak–that he built here–in preparation for the trip.  He was waiting for another fellow from Engand, Glen, who would accompany him to Gjoa Haven, leaving about the  21st of July.  As I discussed in the last post, there is still tons of ice up here.  At that time, last week, we had been going out to the sea every day and monitoring the ice situation (fishing)… and I was visiting with Richard almost every day… and he was growing nervous about the ice situation.  Once it is all broken up, the ice can shift quite dramatically… and–according to Brent Boddy, a local resident and explorer in his own right–can completely fill the bay back in here… which was extremely hard to believe looking at the huge bay of open water… until I saw it happen.


This is not in the bay directly in front of town, but just out past West Arm, where the sea opens up slightly between Victoria Island and the Mainland… a lot of people have little cabins out there and we had been there the day before and there was NO ICE.  It had all blown in from the west and stacked one two-ton block upon another for as far as you can see.  (Char will come in under the protection of ice, so I thought it would be a good fishing situation until I almost fell into the water as a piece of floating ice I was standing on disintegrated, only teetering on another piece below it, below the water line.)  It’s treacherous.  This picture was taken two days after Richard and Glen had departed.  Their plan had been to paddle around the Victoria coast line to the west until they reached a small strand of islands about forty miles away and then make the trip across the sea to the Mainland coast, another forty miles or so, broken up by this string of islands… the longest time in open water about ten miles.  At the last minute they had decided that the ice situation might be too difficult (which turned out to be right on) and they hired a float plane to take them over to the mainland.  I offered to help them rig the kayaks and load gear and get over there.  So I was fortunate enough to make the trip about seventy miles from here to a pristine white shell beach on the Mainland.

Here is the same area (as the above photo) two days prior:


It’s hard to see how far out that sea extends under the plane, but it’s far.  The ice was ( and is still) moving in the direction of Richard and Glen.  I also got another account from a different explorer (aviator), who had flown over the area they are currently paddling and said that it appeared ice was locking the Mainland pretty well.  After seeing how quickly the ice can move, I got a bit nervous for Richard and Glen.  I think the worst thing they’d have to endure at this point is simply staying put and waiting for the situation to clear.  They also have good dry suits and could attempt paddling a bit and then portaging over the teetering wind blown ice and then paddling again… but look at that ice.  Hard going.


Here are a couple of the shots I got in preparation for the float plane (de Havilland Beaver) flight…


Richard’s is the darker, less flexible boat, being carefully strapped to the pontoon of the plane.

From the air, here’s the ice labyrinth they were avoiding:



This is where I’m going to leave you:

The beach:

This is Richard with an absolute bat shit storm of mosquitoes invading all of our personal spaces.  I’ve never experienced a bug situation like this.  It’s a remarkable sensation… an audible buzzing sound extending many meters around your head and a sensation all over your body that mosquitoes are landing and doing their thing. 


I think Glen was kind of pissed that I took this picture, but it was one of the most awesome economic transactions I’ve been party to.  Glen paying Fred for the float plane ride across to the mainland:


As we lifted off the water and ascended into the ether above the Arctic, Cambridge Bay very quickly fell away, the plane picked up to 120 MPH and we flew.  Over the sea, over the ice labyrinth, for about forty minutes… as we navigated along the coast of the Mainland, looking for a place to land, I realized that I had never been to such a remote place.  I realized that there is no more remote a place on earth, than this… really thousands of miles from any kind of emergency service like a hospital, thousands of miles from any kind of ordinary civilization outside of these tiny Arctic hamlets.  This sensation filled the plane.  I knew what Richard and Glen were doing.  I could feel their excitement and trepidation, being left in this rocky place with only a skin boat and everything they needed to pack into it, hundreds of pounds of food and gear… only a layer of skin separating a harsh expedition from an emergency.  So we left them there:

Fred humored me in buzzing them on the beach once… the last time they would hear the sound of a motor for a month… the last time they would see anything made by man.  I kept them in the corner of my vision for another few seconds and as the de Havilland droned away and picked up to speed, it penetrated me quite viscerally how far away these gentlemen are from… anything.  A huge flood of feeling arose in my body… I saw all of Richard in a moment, a veterinarian from England who’d left his family to come make this trip because he loved it… leaving Cambridge Bay, where he’d made friends with about twenty kids–who were very reluctant to let him go–and charmed the adults he shook hands with, who had studied the kayak because it’s beautiful and decided to come here, build one and paddle it across the Arctic, because it’s possible, and fun.

I had encountered the fur species of explorer.

The others will have to wait, because it’s three o’clock in the morning and I have to do my job tomorrow.

Northern Sensations

I’m returning to the Canadian Arctic for the third time in this year.  I will have spent 25% of the past year in the Arctic, in Cambridge Bay (Iqaluqtutiaq), Nunavut, and that fact is sinking in this time.  I’m looking at the place in a new way this time, this summer; right now it’s eleven thirty p.m. and the sun has not even touched the horizon yet, and will not… it will skirt the norther radius of the plate for another hour and a half and then begin to rise again.  This time, not accompanied by Brendan–arctic scholar and archaeologist–but by my friend Ben, my carpentry conspirator: because his eyes are fresh, seeing this place for the first time, I’m re-experiencing it with him to a degree.  There are roughly 70 days here where the sea is not locked up with ice, an even smaller window when a sea lift (freighter) can get into the bay harbor (one rusty pier) and deliver all the vitals for the next year: diesel, heating fuel, aviation fuel, trucks, tractors, ATVs, skidoos, houses, furnaces, building materials, dry goods, container after container of those things determined necessary.  So this is the time that people are running… really in a flat out sprint with the day, to excavate for new house foundations (4″ or so can be removed down to permafrost to set house jack stands on the ice-clay hard pack), perform exterior maintenance on buildings, sealing, retro-fitting siding, windows, repairing vehicles and large equipment, administration for the arrival of the coming life line of materials, including–for the territory of Nunavut, 39,000 inhabitants–an almost $400,000,000 fuel expenditure that must be carefully inventoried and stored.

Looking out of the plane window, about 500 miles above tree line, the ice looks like it’s really pretty decrepit, like you could split it with a canoe:


Any of that ice upon which you can see white, however, is anywhere from 2-3 meters thick still:


I’m kicking myself for not bringing my wetsuit now because you could easily walk out the ice for miles, intermittently wading and quickly swimming from one piece to another… and get to some really good char fishing.

Anyway, there is a lot of ice out there still, this July 21st.  This is last night at about nine p.m.:

Walking around here–again–I am impressed with the raw reality of the environment.  Everything I’m used to is stripped away.  The town bears evidence of what it’s like to build up a place based basically on necessity, not on a marketplace or business strategy… and again I remember that I am not who I think I am.  I am one liver, one large and one small intestine, one spine, one brain, two hands, two eyes, two carotid arteries, two sciatic nerves, cartilage, bones, fat, hair, one spirit, and one pumping heart… and that’s all.  I remember leaving here last February and flying into Portland at night, looking down on the vast expanse of the grid, the glowing electrical web of the city, and thinking, “it’s burning hot.”  It looked ferocious and feverish compared to where I’d been (here), a peaceful dark frozen pillow on the top of our earth, it looked unnatural and sickly, not warm like the moon rising over the sea, spreading a soft light, one little moon rock reflecting the only true fire, below our horizon, ninety three million miles away.  Take away those things you come home to, your “job,” your art hobby, your addiction to an after-dinner drink or TV show or your new pair of shoes or computer or vacation to Mexico, or all of the most of the stuff that isn’t necessary… and what’s there?  I’m not sure I’m going to be able to answer that except by saying I’m getting the sensation of it here, where things seem clearer, basic.  The only way human life is possible in a place like this is by the death of animals… the animals hold the passage to life here, and that pathway is only possible through their own death: the terrible contract set up by whomever, wild architect of this planet, maker of the contract between all living things.  We know that this contract is real because there are still native people here, doing–in a way pretty closely related to how they used to manage–what they’ve always done:

I can imagine the relative horror of an environmentalist looking at this scene… this year’s muskox slaughter was less than what they normally shoot for: 250… I think they got around 190 muskoxen this year, harvested all the meat, and will tan and use the hides.  You might wonder, is this still necessary?  I guess it’s an interesting question; I’ve looked around at some websites where environmentalists are complaining about sovereign nations whale hunting, collapsing the problem of Inuit hunting whales with what the Japanese do.  I don’t mean to start that argument: to me, being here, it appears that it could be no other way… to ask them to stop would be like asking the muskoxen to be other than they are.  (Remember: America is the nation that ruined the whale, over-fishing every ocean to the point of eradication,  largely using it for lamp oil… to SEE by, not to live by.)  When you’re here in the cold, it likewise becomes obvious that the only way to be out in the cold is by the use of animal fat… an hour out in minus 45 is possible with the fuel of caribou stew and seal fat… and very dangerous and uncomfortable with a blueberry muffin.  When you cut into the flesh of an animal, there is that contract… all of those guts you clean out are virtually the same as your own… and what you clean and keep will move through your own and power up you, not the you you think you are, just you.

The tea by the fire and soup simmering on the stove and cribbage game with friends and warm electric light, snow falling outside, warm winter Christmasy spirits inside… that’s there and it’s yours, but only in the same balance as the hard arctic wind cracking over your head, a gust of inhuman cold blowing down over your elk hide parka, yelling over the wind at a dog team and cursing to stop and untangle and comb the chaotic lines running to the harnesses, frostbite black fingers and deathly panic that you will not make it back, that the storm will eclipse your way home and you will turn into a piece of ice statuary with your animals, never to emerge again from the frozen land.  The graceful smile of your beautiful lover… it is balanced by the death run of a fish on the line, a steel hook piercing its mouth, penetrating its scaly armor forever until its dead and clean and then part of your body.

I still do have a bit of squeamishness about accepting this contract, about killing an animal, looking at it, dissecting it, cleaning it, cooking it (sometimes), and eating it… but mostly I have the curiosity of a surgeon, a love for looking into the beautiful complex inventions of this universe, breathing deep and giving thanks for that creature… making it me.  We’ve been having some really good meals:

That’s an Arctic Char, caught by Ben P.  We’ve gone out with Mary Avalak several times and learned the ways she has caught fish for her whole life, killed them, cleaned them with her ulu, and prepared them.  Watching her work with the fish is like watching a carpenter with a saw… except more.  One night, while we cleaned a cod and all the guts came spilling out of it, I said, “All of that is in us.”  She looked at me and scrunched her nose.  Later on I was asking her about growing up in Wellington Bay (about 50 miles West of here) and she got this look of serenity and said, “I love it there, I love that life… that life, you can see what you do.”  She was describing her time really before significant “contact,” her time on the land with her parents, growing up on the land, with just one other family… a life and way of work where you can see what you do.

There’s more to the story of the ice and travels… but it’s past two in the morning now and will have to wait until soon.