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.


2 thoughts on “Northern Sensations

  1. As always, your writing and images are like a gateway to some far off universe where things are new and old and strange. Thanks forever for the vision and grace.

    Si vales, valeo!