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.




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