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:

The Way Things Work

The sun’s ascent in the past week has been obvious, almost mechanical, like you can feel the ratcheting of North, clicking back towards the immense burning globe: there are a solid 15 minutes of light added to either side of the sun’s path, every day.  This has not caused any change in temperature or the general roughing up of the spirit at the hands of Mr. Boreas, however.  If anything, it has become more frigid.  The last week has sustained a high of about minus 38 and lows way lower, with several days of awesome wind and sideways snow.  Here’s the first full naked appearance, right around lunch time a few days ago:

It’s hard to explain just how huge it seems when you stand there in front of it.  It’s like the only player on the stage, built up by all the stage hands to take up the whole runway, and then they open the curtain and roll it out and wheel it across… and, since this is the most important part of the play, that’s all there is and the curtain falls.

I’ve heard that despite the return of the sun, late January and February are the most brutal period of winter… and several people have told me that they haven’t had winter like this for a long time, with temperatures sustained way down below minus 40 for weeks.  A couple of the elders have blamed it on me.  I take it as a complement.  We have also had some of the more smashing nights of Aurora Borealis since being here.  I ventured out last night with a tripod to try to document the green fire dance in the heavens and failed.  I couldn’t sustain more than about 60 seconds of naked hand before being incapable of moving my fingers and close to frostbite… and I couldn’t organize the camera properly at first… and then the cold zapped the batteries and everything in the camera froze.  I went with a friend and we took tea in a thermos.  I poured some out into the little cup and then raised it to my lips about 15 seconds later and my bottom lip stuck to the metal cup… I tipped the liquid back to get it to overflow the cup (carefully) to loosen the frozen bond of my lip to the cup and–astonishingly–the tea was already tepid.  About one minute later is was frozen.  So much for the idea of sharing tea out under the northern lights.  The show of light, on the other hand… is awesome.  It’s huge seams of light ripping through the sky, from the horizon to up over head; the light is most intense and pure at the seam and then the light diffuses up and partially blocks the view of the black starry night.  They move like flames, quietly oscillating through thousands of miles of space, moving up and then retracting and the seam closes up and is gone and several seconds later a new seam opens up.  Last night it was particularly green light, with a bit of phosphorous type white light at the crisp edge of the luminous crack.

(It’s about 3PM here now and the last light is fading behind a fairly powerful blizzard, sideways snows in 40 MPH wind… dark again until an earlier sun show tomorrow.)

I find myself thinking often about how things work, especially up here.  I suppose I look into these things to some degree until I come up with a story that satisfies my appetite.  Some things I have begun looking into recently:

The Aurora Borealis, why does it happen?

The mechanical systems of a modern Arctic home, how does it work?

A traditional Inuit caribou hunting qajaq, how was it made?

The modern Inuit educational system, how does it work, what does it say about the education of the West?

I won’t go through these questions systematically… I just wanted to share what I’ve been thinking about this past week.  As far as the show of the norther lights… I started my search in obvious places… and learned that they are the result of solar winds moving over the top ionosphere of earth (50 miles up), and result from the sun’s ions colliding with atmospheric particles, around the poles, releasing photons, blah blah blah.  (It says all that in the linked article.)  And as fantastic as that science is… it feels different than that.  It’s almost as if the quick knowledge of a wikipedia article replaces the beauty of the thing, rather than accentuate it.  Last night, out there walking underneath it, looking at it… it doesn’t look like ions colliding with oxygen atoms at all: it looks like a war between gods, or exhalation of some great mystical deity, smoking an evening pipe and exhausting the vapors of deep contemplation about his next creative endeavor.  And once again I am drawn to the Inuit sense of the phenomenon.  They figured the lights were a direct expression of their own emotional moods, reflected in the dark heavens of the dark season.  In a happy good time of abundance the lights come out, dance, flicker and exalt.  In a moodier, more brooding time there might not be any light.  If they whistle at them and call them, the light moves.  I know a modern scientist would look at those theories as silly… but I wonder if there might not be something even more scientific (using that word strictly) about just pure observation of a ton of green light cascading into the North from the heavens, dancing… because that is what’s happening.

I have also been up here doing my job, which is the installation of an exhibit case for a traditionally made Inuit qajaq.  The kayak form is a uniquely Inuit boat technology, developed by these peoples of the north for hunting.  It was only recently that I learned from Brendan that the main purpose these boats served was hunting the summer caribou, in rivers.  There was a certain amount of seal fishing done from kayak, but that would have been a different boat (than the one we’re displaying), and a much trickier hunt, not to say that the caribou hunt was “safe.”  This boat was built for speed, to rush up along side of a group of caribou, entering a river, herd them along into the middle of the river (there would have been multiple qajaq hunters on either side of the river), and spear as many as possible in the back and side of the neck while the caribou fled through deep water, swimming for safety.  Here is the boat, and case as of last week:

I have since put much more of the case together and completed all of the acrylic, plexi-glass work to enclose the boat in its climate controlled environment.  In each third section of the display apron is a box which will have a glass cover and the box is meant to display artifacts associated with the qajaq-caribou hunt.  Here is Brendan going through some of the possible artifacts with Mary and Annie.

I guess these artifacts (which range widely in age and value, but have all been collected from fairly nearby) had been poorly stored until just now, when Brendan went through all of them and cut special foam cradles for everything.  The ladies were elated to see how it had all been organized and were really excited to see these old tools.  There are all kinds of incredible artifacts here, old bone fishing lures, hide scrapers, a little bone scoop that Mary said was for scooping up frozen pee or excrement from a kid in an igloo to put it somewhere special outside, harpoons, knives, spear ends, spindles for tendon fishing line, etc.  So we went through them to choose some of the appropriate tools to display in the qajaq case, things that would have been used either in the maintenance of one’s qajaq or in the river caribou hunt.  There will be one box which displays the tools used to build and maintain a qajaq, little toggles for tying things off, the bone drill used to make the holes for lashing the ribs to the stringers of the boat, knives and chisels (blades often made of locally occurring copper) used to make the shoulders for wood joints… and another box displaying the spear ends the hunters used to slay the caribou.  There will also be displayed a pair of shaven seal skin boots sewn with the special waterproof stitch, and some of the amulets a hunter would have brought along in the boat for good luck, such as an arctic bumble bee, or the red throat skin of a loon.

A few of the case:

more soon…

Some Sketches on Technology

Four nights after we arrived here a blizzard moved in and basically caused all traffic to stop.  The winds went up to 50 MPH and the wind chill temperature was somewhere close to negative 100 degrees Farenheit (minus 38F without wind).  As we left the museum, people there wished me a nice first blizzard.  No one appeared to take any real significant precaution, this sort of thing being pretty common this time of year.  We cooked dinner and watched the weather from the living room windows, watching the thick white curtains of snow going horizontal out onto the sea.  I went outside for a few minutes to check it out.  With something close to a hermetic seal around myself, 700 fill down, Goretex®, balaclava, goggles, etc., I was able to sit down about 200 meters away from our house and watch the storm without being too uncomfortable.  The wind was coming almost directly from the pole and it was virtually impossible to look into it, the snow material would blow apart seams between my hood and jacket, mask and goggles, and instacold would happen, combined with a kind of snow sandblasting onto my skin.  But when I put myself at an angle to the North, it was ok.  The lights of Cambridge Bay, even though I was on the waterfront street (Nitiak: seal), seated directly under one street light, were extinguished by a super low visibility storm.  The light of the moon lit up the top of the storm and cast a gray flickering distant light down through the hurtling snow.  (Brendan says that many storms are only about 10 feet high… sometimes you can get to a piece of high ground and see right over top of the blizzard.)  Sitting there I realized I have made some mistakes.

I realized that I have been permitted immense luxuries, such as constant continual access to highly evolved shelter, superlative quality nutrition, comprehensive education, transportation that takes ancient animal and plant matter and explodes it, causing the advance of extremely heavy steel carriages, including ones that fly, and in the frightening banal ubiquitous presence of all these luxuries, crafted ideas about my own person.  I don’t think it really matters what the exact contents of these ideas are; we all have them, identities.  And sitting in that storm, meditating on the peoples that have intentionally migrated HERE to live, I realized that those ideas basically just depend on being comfortable, and are perhaps completely wedded to the things themselves.  I could feel the faint intimation of why someone would choose to come live here: here, you join up with the climate, with the place: you are part of it and vice versa and if you begin to formulate ideas about yourself irrespective of the place, you’ll die.

I also realized that when we (Westerners) consider native people it is very difficult to avoid a simplistic noble savage type scenario.  In high school history books are cartoons of Indians putting fish under corn plants with Pilgrims, there are sharpened spear and totem artifacts behind glass in museums of Civilization, sculptures of Sacajawea pointing the way for Msrs. Clark and Lewis, etc.  It is very difficult to conceive of native technology in contra-position to Western industrialized technology.  This is at least a mistake I have always made (thinking that natives just made stuff sharp and stabbed animals).  When you consider the validity of ancient technologies, along with the stark factual reality that none of us can explain very well how really anything works (a telephone, computer, engine, electric transformer, CD, fax machine, photo copier, cell phone, even things like a sky-scraper, a pair of running shoes, a loom, a windmill, etc.), much less the lack of ability to make any of those things… it becomes interesting to look at ancient technology.  Here is a comparison of two things, a modern thing and an ancient Inuit thing.  What they both share is vast independent research, engineering and joint effort across borders (peoples), communication between generations, constant vetting over time with experimentation, and constant improvement leading to better results.

The first, modern thing: the 2009 Audi A4 Avant (one of my favorite machines):

It would take a long book to detail the advances this machine represents, starting with early processes such as steel casting, refinement and casting of plastic, refinement of rubber, leather tanning, fire-retardant foam, on-board electrical generation, electrical engineering, metal machining, laser boring, on and on and on with safety features, number of circuits, performance both in user experience and competition with other vehicles, etc.  In my mind, the automobile represents something every modern nation has taken pride in trying to perfect; nations have learned from one another, traded with each other, competed over, and exhausted mental and physical resources trying to sell these to every person on earth.  (I have a special affinity for the German version of the automobile; they do it so well.)  To provide one sentence about this machine, what it can do: go from zero miles per hour to sixty in right at five seconds; it can also make a reverse banked turn at high speed on snow and electronically correct between four driving wheels to go exactly where you want to go.  This thing is the result of probably hundreds of thousands of people thinking about it, pouring their life energies into making it better.  And now we have it: it’s amazing; (and kind of silly.)

What about a traditional technology?  This is another item that has been manufactured by the hundreds of thousands all over the North, for the past many thousand years, with significant advance in performance:

I can only see in these objects certain strains of similarities… and then the things I’ve been told from Brendan, and in perusing a book in the Arctic explorer’s library: “Ancient Harpoon Heads of Nunavut: An Illustrated Guide” by Robert W. Park and Douglas R. Stenton.  There are several discernible periods of Northern craft and peoples who made sakkuni (harpoon heads).  Amazingly, in the Central and Eastern Arctic, there is a Pre-Dorset period (people who were up here before the Inuit and remain a bit mysterious, before 2000 B.C.–way before Heraclitus), Dorset, and then the Thule (the ancestors of the Alaskan Esquimaux and Inuit).  The harpoon was used widely and is found commonly in archaeological expeditions across the Arctic.  It was used to kill sea mammals.  The fairly incredible innovation of this tool is the invention of the tikaagut, the toggle: in the leftmost harpoon head it is most obvious as that large tooth.  If you examine them all they have something like it, some of the others get the same action from the swallow tail in the base.  The head is lashed with tendon to the end of the harpoon shaft (tigula) and then also tied with another tendon so that the shaft can come free.  This allows the hunter to thrust the shaft into the animal (and the book details many innovations in the harpoon heads to make its way into the flesh faster), completely penetrate the skin and then release from the shaft, which the hunter would quickly pull away and set aside, AND THEN AUTOMATICALLY TURN INSIDE THE WOUND and lock itself under the skin of a seal, a walrus, a beluga whale, or even a 40 ton Bowhead whale (Balaena Mysticetus).  (Aside: I have been out walking on the sea ice every day here; if you charged me with finding and killing a seal, I would not even know how to FIND one… much less kill one without a gun.-)-  A good Inuit hunter would take down a seal every day with an instrument like this, fashioned by his own hand, and by tracking down breathing holes and waiting, haunting the animal, using methods he learned from his father and the generation before him.  A strong guy would strike the seal with the harpoon, the seal would run by diving straight back down with the sakku embedded, he would let out up to 50 feet of tendon line, slowly adding tension to the lead, and then manually arrest a 200 pound seal, reeling it back to finish it off with a club, and haul it in to hook it up to his dog sled; it’s ten AM, nighttime dark, Aurora Borealis dancing over your head like long glittering green harpoon spears in the stars, minus 50F, you cut out a small piece of steaming seal steak for right then, eat it, looking up at a dancing sky, cut a piece of fat and feed your dogs, and know you’re returning to feed your family.

Personally, I would be just as happy about knowing how to make and do that… as I would about the Audi.

Let’s compare the two stories a little more.

The story of the Audi starts before the industrial revolution: even though the West had Copernican astral mechanics and Bach, life was hand made and built sturdily on WORK.  Of course it was not a subsistence lifestyle (… but neither was life in the western Arctic, even long before Bach).  Heat was made largely with fire, either burning wood and then later coal, if you were a farmer, you’re house was made of stones and earth and wood, and likely made by you.  When you went to the market, you purchased (or traded your metier) for food grown by the people selling it to you and probably from within ten miles of where you lived.  There were of course intense hierarchies of social organization, politics, major abundance in different places such as in the hands of land owners or conquerors… and it was a life of surplus in that you did not necessarily worry how to get from one day to the next, or worry about the weather killing you.  But you probably did worry… and that concern lead to more tooling, more refinement, greater ease in producing and therefore less worry about quotidian things such as dinner and shelter.  The human penchant for accessorizing is discernible in more frills, the Victorian age, complex musical instruments, theater, shock absorption on the horse and carriage, and a couple hundred years down the line, the CNC bored single aluminum block 3.0L V6 Audi A4 engine.

The Inuit in the Central Arctic are descended from the Tuniit and Thule peoples, who are thought to have migrated from the Alaskan Coast and Bering Sea starting somewhere around 1,000 years ago.  Their migration is well documented by archaeologists, Brendan being one of those people who have looked at the story of why people would migrate deeper into the Arctic, closer to the pole, away from more substantial community.  I did not understand this until recently: the Aleutian and Esquimaux were not just subsisting up in the Arctic through drawn out pre-history… they were flourishing, populating, building societies, and becoming easily as complex (in some ways…) as my ancestors who were trying to figure out the Audi.  Way up in the Alaskan Arctic, the Inupiat Inuit were building small cities, creating trade networks with China and Mongolia, making significant lodge buildings that would be handed down through generations, and creating complex social hierarchies.  There are excavations that demonstrate this kind of organization going back to 1,000 and 2,000 B.C.  There have been rattan mats excavated from Inupiat sites that are 2,000 years old, clear indications that they were trading with China.  There were bustling villages with powerful chiefs and intense social hierarchies based on hunting.  There was a clear surplus along the whole coast of Alaska, extending high up into areas that are frozen for nine months of the year.  This surplus was effected by hunting the Bowhead whale, an animal who lives only in Arctic waters and often weighs as much as a laden rail road car.  A powerful chief would have proven an ability to pull down several of these animals a year, bringing provisions for light (lamp oil), buildings (the qalgiq we built this summer would have traditionally been made of Bowhead jaws), ample food provisions that would last throughout the winter and offer nourishment for many families, clothing materials, medicines, etc.  The whale offered the ability for Inuit to enter a life of surplus… and a life of surplus–being the product of specialized tooling and engineering–allows for further refinement.  There were shamans and dancers who aided spiritually in the hunting of whales, there were artists who depicted Inupiat culture, there were clothing makers and tool makers.  There was a system of specialists… in the Arctic, 2,000 years ago.  This was, to some degree, based upon the technology of the harpoon.  Along the coast there were different versions of the tool, depending on the tribe, depending on the tool maker… and there were varying degrees of success or economy, which translated directly to quality of life.  With the social complexity connected to surplus, came a host of problems and social unrest, a loss of values and, in some sense, tradition.  That is the trend the Thule were responding to when they decided to break away and explore into the high Canadian Arctic, looking for a simpler way of life.

The over tooling and over use of the harpoon led the Thule to seek a simpler way of being, like a clan of hippies striking out to start a new commune, fleeing the concrete and steel of the city.

This is a story that archaeologists are building thousands of years after the fact.  It appeals to me, though… because when you examine the causes of strife amidst the people, they appear to be technologically based: on the one hand we make things so well, we can make them so well that they offer function, then comfort, then luxury… and in the same act, we have made an object that can create social disparity and tremendous unhappiness.

There’s something akin shared by the Audi and the harpoon.  What’re your thoughts?

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.

dark day

A cold dry northern air has moved over Portland, blown the clouds out of the sky, disrobed a snowy Mt. Hood and helped the whole place feel more like winter.  It’s about twenty minutes before the globe drops at Times Square, so I still have a few hours to scribble before the New Age.  At the time I was leaving the Arctic last August, we knew there was a chance that we’d be coming back up to do another project which involved displaying an Inuit kayak.  Some time in early October it became a sure thing and we started planning for the trip and for the exhibit.  I think two years ago, Brendan organized a kayak building workshop, which involved bringing people from several areas of the Canadian Arctic to Cambridge bay, and then organizing all the traditional hand tools, the seal skins, setting up a place to do all the work outside and camp there (near another good fishing area a couple hours from Iqualuqtuktiak), a film process, etc.  They used only the tools that Inuit would have used long ago to build a kayak.  (“Kayak” comes from the word qajaq, pronounced KAh JACK)  Some of these include a bow driven drill, whose bit is cradled in a caribou bone socked and held in the mouth, the ulus and knives for shaving the seal skin smooth and then stitching it with a waterproof stitch for the membrane of the boat, stretched over caribou ribs.  Their workshop turned into an ancient technology seminar and sounds like a pretty incredible few weeks by the water, building a real qajaq, fishing for seal and char and telling stories at night.  They built a beautiful boat.  We are building the display and putting together an exhibit for this vessel.

At first I had imagined building the exhibit case up there.  And was trying to conceive of how to do that.  Here’s the initial idea:

It quickly became evident that this thing, of museum quality, would be pretty difficult to pull off up there.  So we stipulated that it would get built here, in Portland.  Ben and I started working on this thing the 1st of November.  (Then it became evident that it was going to be somewhat challenging to build even here, and obvious that it would have been impossible in the Arctic.)  Some of the case considerations:

*It must be hermetically sealed to artifact display standards, climate controlled, and free of all acids or ureas that might damage sensitive artifacts.

*To accommodate the boat, the case must be 23 feet long.

*The display must be able to break down and ship, then re-assemble with some kind of ease, and still be totally sealed.

*The kayak sits under acrylic glass which must key together along the sections of the case, all of which needs to be shipped and then prepared in situ.

*There is a full text and artifact display that wraps the main exhibit platform.

*This all must be made, finished, and shipped before Christmas.

Ben and I then put in 51 days of work without stopping.  Some of those days were 8 hours, but most 10-12 hours.  At some point a friend of mine came over to look at what we were doing and kind of laughed at me because he said it was like I was somnambulant, intimidated by our task, subservient to the kayak case.  It was–in every way–more than I had imagined.  The shop barely had room to assemble this thing, and when whole, it was like being in the room with a whale.  So, for the most part, we worked with it in sections, putting parts together, getting it straight, and then taking it back apart and re-assembling other parts.  Here are a few shots of the assembly:

The display panels (there are six like this):

A few weeks later:

There are drawers at either end that weather seal against the cabinet box and are surrounded by a silicone sealed box on the interior; they vent up into the acrylic display and have climate control silica in them (that get’s changed every few months).  The empty places in the display apron are artifact display boxes where harpoons, the hunting charms, spears, etc. will be displayed under acrylic; the other spaces are all for text display in English and Innuinaqtun.

We set the whole thing up in the shop like this and then spray finished it, because we decided that that would become its own nightmare trying to do that up there, especially if the only place we could spray up there would be in the museum proper.  So we did it the right way.  These are the special glasses you need for finish:

The next step was building crates.  I was definitely intimidated by this phase of the work.  I had nightmares several nights about the dimensions of the crates, of building unsatisfactory crates that fell apart on the way up there, of building myself into one and then getting shipped without the company knowing that there was a human in their cargo that would die en route to Yellowknife, over the iceroads, etc.  Ben had some experience building crates for his artwork and we utilized that expertise and then just overbuilt the boxes in general.  Each box weighs about 400 pounds, and there are eight boxes.

At this point, being incapable of even attempting to lift one of these, I realized once again what a miracle the wheel is.

The day after we finished building the crates, day 52, we loaded them onto the freight truck, bound–strangely–for Salt Lake City, and then started having post partum seizures.  (As we speak, they are in Edmonton and will be arriving at the Cargo Hanger in Yellowknife the 5th of January, Godwilling.)

It’s hard to believe that we are sending 3,200 pounds of museum furniture to the North Pole.  But that’s what’s happening.  And I am going there in less than ten days to start working on it.

Right now Cambridge Bay is in 24-7 darkness, and will continue to be so until the 11th of January.  Then there’s 40 minutes of dusk… then the sun begins to reappear quickly, changing by as much as 35 minutes a day.  Here is the sun table.  Right now the temperature is -58 degrees Farenheit with 20 mph winds.  I don’t know why exactly, but I am really looking forward to feeling this kind of winter.  I will do my best to describe it.  It feels like the right way to invite the new year, starting with the ceremony of the death of the sun, then watching the birth of the sun: when I leave there, February 15, there will be 7.5 hours of sun a day, almost as much as Portland gets right now!

Be well and be great.