We’re coming up on ten P.M. in Iqaluqtutiaq, the old curfew, denoted with the air raid siren… my last evening bell for a while here, in the north.  I spent the day doing odds and ends, cleaning the exhibits, installing the final artifacts with Brendan, making sure everything looks right….

Last night we put together the mannequins who now reside in the qalgiq, a man and a boy, the man somberly looking over a piece of driftwood that he’s whittling:

I’m not sure if you know it, but it’s a slightly eerie feeling, working with mannequins.  We bolted them together and began pulling their heavy caribou clothing on, leveraging against a bench or the floor to heave a set of pants on, then a boot.  They have a peculiar kind of weight; in the end it feels like you’re manhandling someone who is unconscious, putting them where you want them to be.  And finally, there they are, a man whittling an old piece of driftwood, perhaps into a fishing lure, his young boy watching, his kumiq (boot) on his dad’s knee.  What kind of incantation is this, to invent these humans from 1,000 years ago, doing something people might have done?  All in silicone.  They are Inuit, practicing a craft in a place that has long since passed.  Some modern Inuit looking on at them…

Besides a replica, what are they looking at?  They are looking on at an activity that we are engaged in, the activity of studying them, explaining what might have happened, based on careful archaeology and research… they are watching us study them.  I think in a way this feels like an honor, and in another way feels estranged.  If someone was making models of my ancestors, I would want to say, “I’m right here!”

Last night I was trying to divine what purpose a model like this serves.  Silicone waxy people behind bullet proof glass, wearing brand new incredible fur clothing, whittling.  I realized that if some kid, or some mother, or some lawyer looks at this… and ten years later realizes what it is, that it’s a moment, a real thing from a legacy, a story about the land, about the bitter weather of the pole, and the ability to sit down, talk to your son, make a tool, in a seal skin tent that you made, and teach him how to get to where you are… and then do it again, and again… their only traces bone and copper artifacts, stone tent rings, a few amulets and keepsakes, and nothing else besides the vanishing smoky quality of the story, turning into a myth.  Then it’s good.

Tonight we had a little opening party for the exhibit.  Here’s what it looks like with a wide angle lens:

There’s another qajaq frame hanging over it, to show the form before the membrane… we finished building that last week, steaming oak and sewing it together traditionally, with sinew and needle.

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society has an extensive archive room that is completely climate controlled, with beautiful artifacts from 3,000 years ago from all over the north.  Since some of this stuff is very valuable, it can only be displayed in certain instances.  For the artifacts in this display, Brendan took the originals and made plaster casts.  It is very convincing…  Here is old sinew, a hide scraper, a bone thimble… other tools for the building of a qajaq membrane.

For me it has been a deep pleasure working with these beautiful elder people.  They have grace and presence that is uncommon.  That they came through this exhibit, looked for a long time and talked about their grandparents hunting caribou in a river, in a boat very similar to this, looked through the artifacts and–for the women–talked about the sewing (and these particular women were the ones who did actually sew this boat), the challenges, the tools they used, well, that’s exhilarating.  It makes this very worthwhile.

This is Mary Kamoyuq… I believe the eldest elder.  She has the most incredible posture, kind of walks along hunchbacked but if she’s says hello to you she stands straight up.  I think she understands almost all English, but I can’t understand much of what she says.  She looks old, but she can move so fast, it’s alarming… she would kick your ass if she had to.  This woman has been around, seen the polar bear hunts, the walrus hunts, gone through more than 80 long bitter freezing winters, raised a lot of children, both her own and adopted.  She sewed that coat (like they all do); that’s a wolverine around the hood.  You are looking at the last of a great thing… perhaps the last of one of the most stalwart people that have ever been.


Sunrise from our front porch

20 second exposure, out on the ice, the Aurora Borealis:

Some frozen vehicles

Cute people

Frozen eyes

This was the temperature that day… and this dog is outside, nursing three puppies… whom I’m not sure are still alive.

The Way Things Work II

Everything up here is frozen.  As I discussed over the summer, this makes for a curious architectural component: because the ground is frozen in the “summer,” everything is built up off the tundra.  In the event that someone puts in a large building (there are only a couple on this scale here), a very expensive crane is employed which pounds pylons into the twelve foot thick permafrost and then deeper… so that is not used very much.  When everything is built up off the ground, and there is no way to excavate the earth, there is no hard line to water utilities.  All water is delivered by truck, and all sewage is pumped out with another truck (if you’re lucky, this happens at roughly the same time).  Normally the water supply is in a clearly accessible spot on the outside of the house with an insulated housing around it and nothing else (otherwise it would freeze); the water utility just plugs into the pipe and pumps 400-1200 gallons.  The water tank is stored in a strategically warm place, usually in a mechanical room in the house and is connected to a fairly complex system which has significant electrical and mechanical components.  A large bilge places the house’s supply pipes under pressure… when water is demanded somewhere and falls below a certain level in a holding tank, the pump comes on and re-fills that tank.  The large water tank is also connected to another holding tank which tempers the heating systems, which run strictly on hydronic means now: glycol and water… this system uses very little water in the winter, but draws up some cold water to keep the glycol system from getting too hot.  Here is a picture of the mechanical room in the house of the Arctic explorer, where we’re staying:

I would guess that a system like this fully installed would cost about $60,000 in the U.S… and perhaps 50% again to do so up here.  This is what must be in every house, otherwise it will freeze. One of the dedicated lines on that hydronic heat system then goes to the sewage tank which is stored in a large cold storage space under the house.  (This space is commonly used by people to store caribou, musk ox, partially tanned hides, butchered meat, etc.)  The sewage must stay heated in order to be pumped out.  When that German made gas fired boiler comes on, it heats a glycol water solution and then cycles it through the various heating circuits; when it comes on, it sounds good.  It purrs.  It is the sound of staying alive in the winter.  (If anything goes wrong with these systems, it is possibly a pretty complicated plumbing and electrical problem: a house call from the mechanical company in town starts at $500 to show up and they bill at $250/hr.)  There are two essential raw components to this mechanical room: 1) water and 2) fuel.  (Electricity is a subsystem of fuel here.)


Everything is frozen.  The sea ice is estimated at seven feet thick now.  It heaves in huge fissures all along the bay shore where building ice continues to push down into the sea floor and push the surface up.  All rivers and freshwater supplies are likewise interminably frozen.  So where does the water come from?  The utility has created pump houses at the mouth of what they call ‘Water Lake,’ a couple of miles outside of town; the intake pipes go to the bottom and have long, large intake sections that are heated, to keep the water moving deep down at the bottom; there is one supply pipe that was very expensively buried in the permafrost and brings water to a treatment facility in town: trucks are filling from it all day long for deliveries.  If you call for water on a busy day, you may not get it until the following day; if you don’t plan right, no water.  The water is heavily treated with chlorine… I don’t know why.  I drank from that river in the summer and it’s the best water I’ve ever had.  Furthermore, the water is stored in these large plastic tanks… which are normally never fully drained; it therefore feels pretty gross to drink this water.  What we have been doing is getting sea ice, harvested with an axe at a natural fissure, melting it and drinking it.  This is superb water.  It is not salinated; too cold.  (Read here if you care to know why sea ice holds no salt.)


I think there are three kinds of fuel up here: 1) gasoline for trucks, skidoos, ATVs, etc.  2) heating fuel, which is close to diesel but different (lower freezing temp.), and 3) diesel for the big trucks (that have to be kept in garages because diesel becomes gel at about minus 55) and diesel for generating power.  The fuel for the house is supplied at a tank stored outside and likewise has a pump that draws fuel into the boiler.  This is delivered when needed; depending on heating conditions (almost all houses keep the temp. up to avoid pipes freezing, because the cost of the fuel is so much lower than the expense of fixing a house with frozen pipes), a 500 gallon tank will last about two months.  I can see in the notes of the Arctic explorer that this house, in the past three years, has used an average of 17 litres of fuel per day.  I can also see that it costs $3,600 to fill the tank.  Pretty stiff.  Cambridge Bay, AKA Iqualuqtutiak, is part of the territory of Nunavut, one of three Arctic territories in Canada (the Northwest Territory, and Yukon Territory are the others).  Every year Nunavut purchases all of its fuel at once; from preliminary research it looks like the government takes this order out to bid: it’s called Ikummatiit, their strategy to bring energy to the territory.  Last year Nunavut spent about $240 million dollars on energy products, 200 million litres of fuel, roughly.  (Here’s more about that.)  There are roughly 40,000 people in Nunavut.  That’s a little more than $20,000 per person (after a re-sale with at least %100 markup) to stay warm all winter.  I’m sure a large portion of this cost is in utility, i.e. cargo to and from the communities, all the infrastructure, heavy equipment, and then lastly houses.  There’s a large complex of fuel storage containers that connect to a power generation facility…

When you walk past this place, it is extremely audible… a little like Don Quixote and the fulling mills.  This plant is producing all of the electricity for the community.  Without the fuel pouring into these generators, there are no lights in your house, no spark for the boiler, no stove to melt ice.  Without electricity, nothing works.  When it goes off, it all freezes again and things go back to the way they were 60 years ago, which is how things were for a long time before that.  Even in the tightest house, the tightest community, this only takes about 12 hours.  Then it’s minus 50 inside and outside.  Frozen.

The previous method for melting water was to bring sea ice or snow blocks back into your snow house and put them in a stone vessel; the house is heated with your body heat and the small flame of a seal oil quliq (soapstone lantern): it would melt slowly and be very good for when you were thirsty.

The government hugely subsidizes the energy cost for this territory of 10,000 people (Nunavut is about the size of Columbia)… for it would not otherwise be possible to be here, like this.  Obviously.  The cold is mitigated by fuel, for the time being.  Like in the note on the harpoon, it raises the question: is this way of life inexorably connected to a thing?  To fossil fuels?  Would we be thinking differently in the absence of that fuel?  The answer must be yes.  Just as when experiences in life mitigate life… and get into our dreams… so has the dream of the north been shifted from its original vernacular, to this, something more industrial, something more Christian, fossil fuel driven.  And the people who were born here before, in the absence of this fuel commodity are still telling another story, part of the old language, the old dream:

They are telling us about the harpoon, about sewing a caribou amauti coat, about their parents and grandparents who were around for the first significant contact with white men, coming up here to fur trade and barter tea, tobacco, steel, and cloth for seal skin, furs, precious narwhal tusk…  These people hold space differently; when I go in to visit them sewing in the Heritage Society, they like the presence of another human in a different way, like you’re entering a tent where they live, like life is just about that: about the contact… not about retirement or video games or homework or books or movies or anything else.  And when there isn’t anything else (like with them), it’s big: life.  They are almost always laughing; literally, if you listen to them talk in Inuitaqtun, about every 100 seconds: laughter.  It must feel strange for them, speaking a virtually dead language, with all these white people around them, studying them, bringing them all of this heavy stuff, making museum exhibits, taking notes, annotating their lives, and trading them their precious ambergris vitality for snowmobiles and facebook.  But they don’t get connected to that stuff, nor your attachment to it.  They are just there, laughing and sewing.  And because they have big hearts, they embrace your awkwardness and they embrace you and your culture, even though it has brought them to the brink of their way of life.  They have courage, in spates, looking at their grand kids, not fully understanding them, but loving them, being surrounded by people they don’t fully understand, because they are not fully there… but these ones have made it, made it through the last major push of Industrialized Civilization into Aboriginal tradition.  And they are the last of their kind, on earth.

Then think about the water and the fuel.  Aren’t those systems incredible?  They are certainly a marvel, when you see them working in this place, like Don Quixote watching the giant hammers coming down on the cloth, the new Industry.  But they are also this: me typing on this computer, in my t-shirt two feet from a triple pane window holding out minus 50 degree air.  And those systems are part of who we are, part of what made contact with this place, and part of what destroyed it.  It’s hard to think about it like that, like ‘would you trade one for the other?’  How would you know the answer to that… until it’s too late?  And when you know you want to go back to the old way, well… you can’t.

I’m pretty sure that we didn’t come here to destroy a way of life; on the contrary, we found it fascinating and inspiring, so we returned over and over, until a relation was made, and a joint agreement.  Obviously the natives accepted the white man’s voyages, his trading, ultimately his fuel.  But I think some of them now–the older ones–have a quiet kind of sorrow for what’s gone missing.

I heard Nick Jaina, a musician, explain the origin of a love song in the French custom of drowning their national bird, the Ortolan, in Armagnac before preparing it to eat.  (It’s the most expensive culinary delicacy in France.)  They so cherished the bird’s singing voice, that they invented a way to subsume the creature in delicate delicious spirit, and then eat it.  Because they love it so much.

This is Mary Avolak (the one pictured above in the middle) in the 70’s with her niece: