Skip to main content

A Polar Turn of Mind: Finding Peace and Quiet in the High Canadian Arctic

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

For most North Americans travel means moving sideways or, slightly more exotically, south. The former journey unwires one’s circadian rhythm while the latter equinoctially scrambles the night sky. What of going North, then? As it turns out, there remains quite a bit more “north” to North America than is usually imagined, and I stepped off the plane in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada’s largest and northernmost territory, with uncertain desires and little expectation. It was July. The ground was snowless, and though it was warmer than I had anticipated the air had a lettucey crispness.

Nunavut is a composite word that, in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit (who make up eighty-five percent of Nunavut’s population), means “our land.” Nunavut has been quietly autonomous for almost half a decade now. Nevertheless, it is a virtual orphan within global consciousness, and not only outside of Canada. Before I came up I was told that nine out of ten Canadians do not have the faintest idea what Nunavut is. On my way to Iqaluit, I had a day-long stop-over in Ottawa, and in a Tim Horton’s near my hotel I engaged in some random polling. Sure enough, of the ten Canadians I asked, only three had any notion of Nunavut; two of those notions were wrong.

Nunavut is roughly the size of continental Europe and if independent rather than autonomous would be the twelve-largest nation in the world. Its inhabitants number 27,000; if Denmark were as sparsely peopled, it would be home to 600 Danes. Iqaluit (which means “place of many fish”; to slip into reflexive phonics and call it Iqualuit, as many visitors do, is to use the word for a kid who has shit his pants), is Nunavut’s largest—and only—town, with a population of 6,000. There are no cities, properly speaking, and the population of most of its remaining twenty-four hamlets hovers just above or below 500.

While waiting for my luggage in Iqaluit’s airport I happened upon a poster, tacked up among various hotel brochures, that displayed a full-frontal polar bear. Emblazoned above the black-eyed beast were these boldface words: “It attacks without warning—Keep your distance!” I leaned in to read the poster’s smaller pica type: “Aim for the body as this presents a larger target. Your first shot may not be fatal but it will stop the bear long enough for you to get off another shot.” And welcome to Nunavut.

*  *  *  *  

Of Iqaluit, the Lonely Planet Arctic guidebook notes that “there’s little to do in the town itself.” Setting off the day of my arrival to prove that statement wrong, I walked down a long dirt road into town. Gravel, gravel everywhere: about five percent of the roads appeared paved. Even fewer were straight, or named, the town’s twisty layout making the municipal chaos of lower Manhattan seem comparatively Pythagorean. The sunless sky was a swirly mood ring: pewter, navy, gray, bruise. Iqaluit hugs a bight along the shore of still chunkily frozen Frobisher Bay, and a few stretches of open water seethed with rolling-pin whitecaps. The gouged condition of Iqaluit’s gravel throughways discouraged speed, and vehicles drifted by at a driver’s-ed pace, their license plates polar bear-shaped. The mind-boggling number of taxis reminded of me of Manhattan, and almost out of habit I hailed one and climbed in. I told the driver, who was black, that I would like to see the town. Many of Iqaluit’s individual homes were lifted off the rocky, uneven terrain by a metal webbing of stilts and poles, basements not being possible in this permanently frozen land. Some of these suspended, porch-wrapped structures could have airlifted from the coast of Maine. Others looked refugee-scoured, their barren yards piled with garbage, stripped snowmobiles, and legless old pinball machines. As for the terrain itself, there was scarcely any grass, no flower taller than an inch or two, and not a single tree.

Ten minutes into my tour, I was forced to concede that there was little to do in the town itself. With new vividness I noted that my cab driver was black. He was an African-by-way-of-Toronto named Maxi. I shared with Maxi the rumors of tension I had been hearing. In Iqaluit, one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, white people had now achieved ethnic parity with the Inuit. The “South” was thus shorthand for any number of things, few of them regarded as good. “Naw!” Maxi said instantly. “Must have been some droog dealers from the South who tell ya that.”

“Drug dealers?”

“They messin’ everything up. Used to be peaceful here. Look at that!” He gestured exaltedly toward Frobisher Bay. “This is the most beautiful place in the world.” Maxi then asked me if I know what the Inuit call black people. The Inuit word for white people is qallunaat, which translated means “eyebrows and belly.” I told Maxi no, and braced myself.

Portugi,” Maxi said, laughing. “When I first moved here, all I hear is portugi, portugi. Finally I asked, what is this portugi? Then I learned that some of the first ships that came to the Arctic had all these Portuguese brothers in the engine rooms. Their faces were all black—from the coal.

*  *  *  *  

I visited the town post office, the curling rink (wow), the Visitor Information Center, all the while marveling at Iqaluit’s stairs, most waffled with ice-foiling metal grips so intrusive they would hold firm to tap shoes in zero gravity. I stopped in at Arctic Ventures (“Community Shopping”) and NorthMart (“Always a Great Shopping Experience”), where a two-liter of Diet Coke, I found, is C$4.50, a box of Capitaine Crounche is C$7.00, fruits and vegetables range from C$5.00 to C$8.00 a pound, and cigarettes cost C$14.00 a pack. This, in a land where explorers once stoically scarfed pemmican. This, in what is far and away Canada’s poorest territory. While virtually every Nunavut settlement is a maritime community, shipping is impractical due to the waterways’ unpredictable ice conditions. The region is completely insular, and not only are there no roads to the mainland, there are no roads connecting Nunavut’s communities to one another. Almost everything perishable thus comes in via the pricey conduit of air. These grocery mark-ups are actually rather mild. Construction costs in Nunavut, for instance, run as high as ten times what they would cost in the South. This, among other things, has led to Iqaluit’s housing crisis, often cited as the city’s most crushing social issue.

After my tour of the downtown, I wound up near Iqaluit’s cemetery, located along the edge of Frobisher Bay’s tidal flats. I walked past a sign displaying a snowmobile with a red line slashed through it and wandered among Iqaluit’s dead, row after row of stark white crosses moored in hard rocky soil. Many if not most of these graves were unmarked; a few were draped with plastic flowers. Those that were marked revealed a disproportionate number of people who died in their early to late twenties.

A consultation of Nunavut health statistics suggested some wretchedly reliable accomplices to these premature deaths. The territory’s rate of tuberculosis is eight times the Canadian average, lung cancer among women is five times the Canadian average, and three-quarters of Nunavut’s mothers smoke during their pregnancies. But the most tragic cause of death among Nunavut’s young is self-murder, which occurs with a frequency six times the Canadian average. Suicide is typically seen as a problem specific to Inuit people—Greenland’s Inuit have a troublingly similar suicide rate—and what can be done to stop it remains maddeningly elusive. What seems inarguable is that, for many Inuit, life in the modern Arctic is extremely hard.

Life in the Arctic has always been extremely hard, and the Inuit are a people whom death has always closely prowled. The Arctic’s earliest English explorers were shocked by the sheer indifference with which many Inuit regarded death. During winter months, corpses often went unburied for months. Infanticide was common, and old people with no dependents were often abandoned. One British officer, appalled when some Inuit in his company used the body of their own child as a kind of makeshift table, later complained of the culture’s “brutal insensitivity.” Mortality statistics for early Inuit societies do not exist, but it would be reasonable to imagine that, for most of these small, close-knit communities, death was a weekly occurrence. Malnutrition took the young, exposure took the old, and starvation took everyone in between. A measured acceptance of death’s inevitability was a matter of emotional necessity.

I was gazing upon one particularly heartbreaking grave—“Born October 17, 1989, Died October 17, 1989”—when from my eye’s corner I saw an Inuk (the singular and adjectival form of Inuit) man approaching me. He was wearing black jeans, a black jean jacket, and a black T-shirt. His long stringy black hair hung thinly about his face. As he bumped into one of the white crosses, I realized he was less approaching me than staggering in my approximate direction. He stopped ten paces from me, clearly roll-down-the-windows drunk. A fishy wind blew in off the water, clearing the hair from his hard, lean face.

“You new in town.” It took me a moment to realize I had been asked a question, as he spoke in a low, uninflected tone, common among Inuit, that fell locution-wise somewhere between emotional restraint and Tommy Chong in the “Dave’s not here” sketch.

“No,” I told him. “Just visiting.”

“I’m Pete,” he told me. Pete asked what I thought of Iqaluit. I explained that I had been in town for less than a day.

“They want to change it,” he said.

“People from the South?”

Again he nodded.

“Change what?”

He regarded me in a way that indicated my trust was being weighed. “Everything. They want it to be just like Winnipeg up here, or Yellowknife.” He paused. “You ever been to Yellowknife.” I shook my head. “They got a Wal-Mart.”

Pete then asked if I would like to see the seal he carved out of milky soapstone, for which he would accept C$50.00. The crafts of Nunavut are probably its most famous export, and many Inuit are peerlessly skilled carvers. As Pete pulled the seal from his jacket pocket, he told me, with a strange mixture of shyness and bravado, that he was Iqaluit’s “number-one artist.” I took the seal, turned it over in my hands, and with a pathetic smile handed it back to him. Pete recognized the stalemate, turned, and threaded his way through the crosses out of the cemetery.

Pete was probably not the ideal person to consult regarding the existential implications of the Arctic’s remoteness. Some Inuit communities, when first contacted by Europeans, had their understandable belief that they were only people in the world rudely shattered. Isolation is not an innate condition, emotionally speaking; it is achieved, either voluntarily or by force. Many believe that the Southern visions beamed at the Arctic by the Canadian Broadcast System first allowed the Inuit the realization of how scarily isolated they were. That is why, it is said, the hamlet of Igloolik long forbade television. But the Canadian government forced the people Igloolik to keep voting on the measure until, finally, in the early 1980s, the hamlet relented. Now the people of Igloolik, too, were aware of all the things they did not have.

*  *  *  *  

Unlike the aboriginal peoples of the United States, who were conquered, forced to sign lopsided treaties, and systematically stripped of their land, the Inuit were never defeated militarily; nor did they enter into any pacts. History provides no Inuit Trail of Tears, and for decades Ottawa ignored them. One of the first times Canada was forced to reckon officially with its strange, walrus-eating northern inhabitants—who were not permitted to vote until 1962—occurred in the beginning of the twentieth century, when Canada’s claims of Arctic sovereignty were questioned. After World War II, Canada set out decisively to end the matter. As hunter-gatherers who followed game and lived in impermanent iglus (the preferred spelling), the Inuit had no fixed communities, though some areas were known as traditional gathering places. Canada used these ancient sites (or areas near these sites), along with Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachments and military bases, to relocate groups of Inuit and permanently settle them, thus establishing, for once and all, the Canadianness of the North American Arctic. Most of these Inuit—some pulled from as far south as northern Quebec—went willingly to these artificial settlements, having been promised a bounty of public services once they were there. Almost none were given any real idea of what they were getting into, and in some communities near starvation ensued.

By the end of the 1970s, Inuit demands for autonomy gathered enough momentum that Ottawa entered into negotiations, though some older Inuit worried that “autonomy” was similar to the Communism they had been warned of by missionaries. The remarkable speed with which the Inuit politicized is not surprising when one reads of the casual humiliation many experienced. Because the Canadian bureaucracy was routinely vexed by Inuit names it gave them “Eskimo numbers,” with these instructions: “Every Eskimo should have a disc bearing his identification number. Do not lose your disc. You will need it to obtain the King’s help.” In pleading their case to a government notoriously insecure about separatism, Inuit leaders had the excellent sense to avoid any rhetoric of ethnic confrontation. Even so, autonomy took the Inuit over 22 years of steady lobbying to achieve, and the Nunavut Agreement was signed in 1993. Nunavut received its own government (though not, as had originally been demanded, “aboriginal self-government” but rather “public government,” in which people of any ethnicity could participate); priority rights to harvest wildlife; more than one billion dollars in transfer payments, payable over 14 years; and a five percent share of royalties from oil, gas, and mineral development on Canadian land.

On the official launch date of Nunavut in 1999, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said at an Iqaluit ceremony: “As Nunavut takes flight, you are dealing with immense challenges. Whether it is educating your fast-growing population, alleviating poverty and social breakdown, or building the capacity within your government to address these challenges, you have your work cut out for you.” The Toronto Globe and Mail called Nunavut “a powerful and worthy experiment,” while in the National Post, Canadian-turned-Bushevik speechwriter David Frum (the maestro of geopolitical analysis who gifted us the phrase “axis of evil”) wrote: “The new territory of Nunavut is shaping up to be a mess of corruption and maladministration that will prove catastrophic both for the Inuit and the Canadian taxpayer.”

But maintaining and servicing Nunavut had always been a massive drain on Canadian coffers. Prior to 1999, these costs were hidden away in various departmental mazes. Nevertheless, the first budget for Nunavut, when announced, hit Canadians with the force of an iceberg. At $610 million, Nunavut was spending $23,000 per person, or about twenty times the per capita spending of Canada’s other territories and provinces. Many Canadians reflexively agreed with the scholar who called Nunavut “a monument to national idealism and goodwill,” but this was a lot more idealism and goodwill than most Canadians were expecting.

Simply put, one of the world’s biggest, richest countries attempted fair play with a historically aggrieved native people who inhabit one of the most remote and meteorologically untenable places on earth. Wacky, is it not? No wonder David Frum is so upset. How dare these ice niggers?

*  *  *  *  

I set up an appointment with Keith Irving, a city councilperson and architect who has lived in Iqaluit for 17 years. Our appointment took place near Irving’s house, where I watched him overturn a wooden cart and pull a blue tarp from a little something he had been saving to feed his sled dogs since winter.

Irving, a bearded, middle-aged white man with gray-blond hair, was wearing a blue jumpsuit, yellow rubber gloves, and two mismatched boots. Before us was sprawled the thawed carcass of a magnificently streamlined 300-pound harp seal, named for the black harp-shaped pattern upon its lightly white-furred body—now looking like an international airport for flies. “You have to treat seal like nuclear waste,” Irving told me, kneeling next to the carcass and sawing off its clawed fins (the only part of the seal his dogs will not, as he put it, “crunch up”). “Especially this time of year. It can be quite stinky, and once it gets on you, it’s hard to get off.”

When Irving plunged his knife into the seal’s belly, a good deal of radioactive seal gunk squirted from his incision and landed with a small splat on my boot. As Irving cut open the thorax the smell hit me, somewhere between an eggy fart and long-dead fish but with a strange sweet tint. The seal’s thick blubber layer glistened like wet pearl, its meat as dark as liver. Irving pulled the layers apart to reveal organs sliding around one another in deepening pools of shockingly red blood. One seal chunk after another was sliced free by Irving and tossed into the gore of a nearby bucket.

When I asked what living in the Arctic was like, Irving wiped his brow with an exposed forearm and said, “I think we’re less anxious here than in the South. We cannot not be affected by the events of the world. But they don’t touch us.” Except, of course, when they do. In the 1970s and 80s, the eastern Arctic had a crucial pillar of its economy obliterated when American and European animal-rights activists effectively ended the sealskin trade. The problem was, the brutal seal-pup-clubbers the activists had targeted were all based in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not the Arctic, and most were white Newfoundlanders. To say the word “Greenpeace” in Nunavut is, even now, Irving told me, to risk a split lip.

“The world is small,” Irving went on, twisting off the seal’s head, “and we’re all connected. The issue on my mind these days is global warming. I went out sledding in January, and I had a flock of birds flutter up in front of my dog team. I looked a little more closely and there were little black spots on their wings. Those weren’t birds that over-winter here. I talked to some Inuit and biologists and they said we’re getting birds we’ve never seen before.” Into the bucket with the head. “A fellow councilor of mine went through the ice two winters ago in -35 weather. I went to see him in the hospital. He’s an experienced hunter, and told me there was no way he should have gone through the ice. Several days later, his legs were amputated. We’re the canaries in the mineshaft here.” Indeed, as Irving and I stood there, the largest ice shelf in the Arctic, which had been frozen solid for 3,000 years, was breaking up off the north coast of Ellesmere Island.

This, I suggested to Irving, might be one of the prime contributors to the emotional difficulty felt by many Inuit: the growing sense that these most superbly adapted people have reached the utilitarian end of their adaptation.

Irving looked upon the oddly clean sealskin before him, now weighed down only by the creature’s bloody spine and pelvis bone. He nodded. “Someone my age, an Inuk, would have been born in an iglu, living a traditional lifestyle, on the land, what they were taught by their parents—the traditional skills of that society. Elders were always a very valued part of Inuit society. They were the ones who passed on knowledge and advice for survival. And they feel they’re losing their role in Inuit society, and can no longer advise about weather and ice conditions. Now it’s meteorology and global positioning systems.”

Even when the Inuit have received chances to reexperience their ancestral ways of life, the results have not always been happy. In 1996, after years of negotiation, the Inuit were granted the right to hunt and harvest one bowhead whale (though illegal whale-hunting had been practiced on the sly for years). The hunt’s rigors were plotted out during a “workshop” in Iqaluit and took place near the hamlet of Pangnirtung. It had been decided the hunt would be “traditional,” with harpoon strikes from kayaks and a final killing blow from a whale gun’s explosive shell. When a 15-meter male bowhead was spotted in shallow waters off the coast, hunters went out to meet their quarry. The hunting party harpooned it several times, then filled it with ordinary rifle lead when it became clear no one knew how to use the whale gun. The whale was slain, but it sank. Two days later it resurfaced, gas-bloated and largely inedible.

*  *  *  *  

Kenn Harper, whom I visited a day after meeting Irving, appeared as well adapted to Arctic life as imaginable. “This looks like a beautiful, peaceful town,” he told me as we stood in his living room and looked out on Iqaluit, “but it’s not. It’s a sick and twisted town in many ways. Drugs are rampant here. Suicide is a huge problem. Everybody’s in denial, everybody’s got their head stuck up their arse.”

Harper—a large, friendly, somewhat bearlike man—was a white Toronto native. A fluent Inuktitut speaker and the author of Give Me My Father’s Body, a fine book about the life of a luckless Inuk boy the American explorer Robert Peary abandoned in 1897 New York City, Harper first came to the Arctic at the age of eighteen. He began his work as an English teacher and eventually became a school principal. When, after four years, he quit, he opened a pool hall in the hamlet of Arctic Bay, the first of his many regional business concerns. That was in 1970. Today he is the most prominent businessman in Iqaluit, quite literally owning half the town.

I looked around Harper’s living room. A framed movie poster of Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s cinematic stone-age relic Eskimo loomed on one wall, while a 1921 Hudson Bay Company “indenture certificate”—which bound Inuit to unfair trading agreements—was centered upon another. In Harper’s adjacent library I scanned priceless first editions—Kane, M’Clintock, Nares—of notable nineteenth-century Arctic exploration memoirs, as well as one of the largest private collections of early Inuk and Greenlandic literature in the world. This was a man who, clearly, loved the Arctic. Why, then, did he have such sharp words?

Because in a community as isolated as Iqaluit, Harper informed me, “you’re in a fishbowl. You can’t go out for a drink. If a guy like me goes to a bar, drunks follow him and say, ‘Buy me a beer, millionaire.’ If you say no, you’re a fucking asshole. If you say yes, half an hour later you’re a fucking asshole.” But the Arctic had laid its word across Harper in darker, more intimate ways. “This beautiful boy here,” Harper said, showing me a framed photo of one of his sons, “committed suicide in Greenland eight years ago.” He was twenty. I learned, too, that the mother of Harper’s two youngest children also took her own life.

Why, I asked Harper, a little hesitantly, do you still live here, then?

“I could give you a trade answer,” Harper said, “and say, ‘You gotta live somewhere.’” He shrugged. “I like being in the North. I wouldn’t want to be any place smaller than this, where you couldn’t get a daily newspaper, or where you couldn’t get all those TV channels.” He hesitated, and I wondered if he was thinking about his son. “I can put those channels in perspective. I can turn them off. And when I do turn them on, I don’t have to believe what I see.”

Harper said he would like to take me somewhere, and we climbed in his truck and drove out behind Iqaluit’s airport. After blowing past several sternly worded warning signs, we looked upon a deserted U-Haulish warehouse, all six of its pleated metal gates discreetly pulled down. This, Harper explained, was called a Forward Operating Location, or FOL. Inside this structure was space for six fighter jets. In the event of world-wide war, the American armed forces would be working from this site within five hours of its initial outbreak. A few hundred yards behind us stood a massive concrete block surrounded by razor-wire fencing—barracks where our current Rippers and Strangeloves would ride out the first quarter of Armageddon. In a city with housing problems as dire as Iqaluit’s, two hundred unused bedrooms seemed more than a little perverse.

I asked if most of Iqaluit was aware of these facilities.

“Oh, yeah,” Harper said. “First Air rents it out every year for its Christmas party.”

*  *  *  *  

The epicenter of Iqaluit social life was a watering hole locally known as the Zoo. Its darkness, church-basement tables and chairs, strings of blinky Christmas lights, and handy on-site cash machine suggested nothing so much as a dungeon miraculously allowed happy hour. Alas, the Zoo’s days were numbered. In two weeks it would be closed down and replaced with the Store House, a brew-pub-classy establishment replete with air hockey tables, an antique Galaga video game, caribou-antler chandeliers, and all the bacon-cheeseburger pizza one can eat.

Alcoholism runs high among Inuit and, like most of Nunavut’s communities, Iqaluit enforces various alcohol-intake restrictions. (The first recorded instance of Inuit imbibing occurred around 1822, courtesy of a British officer, who offered some Inuit rum. It was promptly spat out.) Today alcohol in Iqaluit cannot be purchased in stores. One cannot drink anywhere in town before five p.m., unless one is eating. After five p.m., one may drink without eating, but there is a cutoff point. This cutoff is usually said to be four drinks (or five), but in practice the cutoff wanders. One bartender would tell me he permitted fifteen drinks, “but that’s my absolute limit.”

I had been invited to the Zoo by some younger Iqaluit white people I met through my bed and breakfast. While my invitee was native to Iqaluit, most of her friends were college kids from Thunder Bay and Halifax and Vancouver working for the summer as waiters and clerks. Wages are adjustedly high in the Arctic, and jobs widely available. Why, then, is there so much unemployment among the Inuit? “They don’t want to work,” one young man told me, sipping his beer. Our table, I probably do not need to point out, was all white, and ours were some of the only white faces scribbled in among the room’s many cuprous faces. The young man made it clear that he did not intend to sound racist. It was, he said with a shrug, the way it is. Others concurred. Inuit people, I was told, toil not—at least, not toward the same ends as their fellow North Americans. They tend to “live in the moment,” I was additionally told, and a good number thought nothing of lighting out on a week-long camping trip without bothering to consult their supervisors. Meanwhile, all around us, the Zoo’s small, light-spattered dance floor was filling up and the DJ was spinning Eiffel 65’s “Move Your Body”: Inuit people were getting their freak on. The mind-boggling spread of urban American ghetto pathology had reached Ultima Thule: low-riding jeans, backwards Expos ballcaps, even a Kangol and a glimpsed pink thong or two.

“That guy there,” a young white man named Andrew suddenly told me, pointing across the room at a solitary Inuk, “has contacts all over town and is incredibly knowledgeable about Iqaluit. He knows everything that goes on here. You should talk to him.” Andrew, abruptly, grimaced. “Unfortunately, he fucks dogs.”

Andrew was getting his master’s in philosophy down South—not the sort of person I expected to meet in the Arctic. But between philosophy tenderfoots and dog-fucking impresarios, I had stumbled across many interesting people in Iqaluit. For instance, the Iranian Tourist, an unapologetic white supremacist who needed to be sure that I understood that Iranians were, in fact, white people, and who before flying out gave me—as a token of thanks (I guess)—a can of Farsi-covered Pif Paf roach killer. Such as the Calgary Oil Man, up for the fishing, who I first met while he was reading Gore Vidal’s Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and who, shaking his head, informed me, “I was 100 percent with Bush before I read this, but now. . . .” Such as Polarman, who I had not yet actually met, only seen. Polarman? This is the Arctic’s first and only superhero (secret identity: Derrick Emmons) whose apparent superpower was his ability to survive any temperature in his costume (white construction hat, black ski mask, full white body suit made of home-insulation material, fanny pack crammed with a small tape recorder blasting the Star Wars theme), which he never removed, no matter how howlingly cold. Polarman!

The Arctic has always attracted bizarrely driven and, sometimes, simply bizarre people. Many came for its secrets—such as the gigantic magnetic mountain Gerardus Mercator theorized existed at the North Pole in his 1595 atlas—others for its seclusions, others for its supposed glories. Around the time William Shakespeare was discovering girls (or boys), the Arctic lured Martin Frobisher, a pirate who occasionally leased out his navigational skills to the throne of Elizabeth I, and who mistook Frobisher Bay for a strait that led directly to Asia: the fabled Northwest Passage. Shortly thereafter the Arctic lured Frobisher’s fellow Elizabethan John Davis—the largest strait within the Arctic’s insular maze is today named for him—who in seeking Frobisher’s passage rediscovered Greenland but was ultimately repulsed by ice. Nevertheless, Davis returned to England with the thought that “the passage is most probable, the execution easie.” The Arctic then pulled into its frigid flame Henry Hudson, who in 1610 sailed off to find the Northwest Passage, went lost in the huge subarctic bay that is today named for him, and was abandoned by his mutinous crew. From the United States, the region lured men such as Elisha Kent Kane, the chronically ill son of Philadelphia aristos whose Arctic writings influenced an entire generation of explorers—Charles Francis Hall among them. Hall first went north in 1860, after preparing for his journey by living in a pup tent on the slope of Ohio’s high mountain, but who became the first white explorer to use Inuit survival methods as standard operating procedure rather than a last resort. He was also the first American to try for the North Pole, and managed some profoundly successful exploration until he was poisoned and killed by a member of his own expedition. And of course there was sad, disgraced Frederick Cook and the nasty braggart Robert Peary, who began in the Arctic as friends and ended as the bitterest enemies, both having fought their way to the North Pole and lied about having reached it.

Strangeness and isolation feed off each other so tenderly it is difficult to know which is the parasite, which the host. It is also difficult to determine, when you are in an isolated place, if you, in fact, are the strange one. I certainly felt strange in the Zoo after asking my new friends whether they could sense up here the palpable global unease currently warping life in the United States, where the worst lacked all concession and only cable news seemed full of passionate intensity. All around me were nothing but blank, first-hour-algebra stares. “Time just kind of … stops up here,” I was told. “It’s pretty hard to think about stuff like that.”

One event, though, reached them. Those who were in Iqaluit on September 11, 2001, remember the soft panic of everything shutting down, people rushing home, huddling for hours around the heatless ionic fire of their televisions. Due to the compulsory North American plane grounding, many worried about dwindling supplies. By the end of the day the earth stood still; all that remained on Iqaluit’s store shelves were dustily ancient jars of pickles and olives.

*  *  *  *  

Iqaluit is the town Arctic travelers love to hate. It is not even above the Arctic Circle, such folks complain, Capitaine Crounche is available to all, and its people are something less than boreal cowboys living on the weirder edge of human experience. I regarded such views as fairly silly until my third week in Iqaluit. Its languours and strange near-isolation had dulled my faculties to such an extent that, when I finally lit off for Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, the second-highest civilian community in North America, I was thrilled. To look past the wing outside my window was to see nothing but striated sheets of ice, islands of rock, a world of silence and sunlight and wind. Finally, the Arctic!

Resolute exists largely because an Englishman—and 128 of his colleagues—went lost. The Franklin Expedition, launched in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage (known by then to be a chimera of basic commercial worthlessness), was the most elaborately equipped expedition in history. Into Sir John Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and the Terror, the British Admiralty had crammed 2,900 books, almost 5,000 gallons of West Indian rum and ale, more than 30,000 pounds of salted pork and beef, 100 gallons of brandy, 1,100 pounds of tea, 4,600 pounds of lemon juice (or about one-sixth of the amount needed to save the crew from scurvy), and a pet monkey who answered to Jacko. Every man in the Franklin Expedition perished; most were never found. Resolute Bay is sixty miles from an island where Franklin’s officers, sailors, and seamen wintered for nineteen hellish months before abandoning their iced-in ships and embarking upon a final southward push across 900 miles of merciless terrain. The last members of the Franklin Expedition to be seen alive—Franklin himself died aboard the ice-bound Erebus—were skeletal, gum-blackened, scurvy-ridden men. They were, tragically, only a few dozen miles from their destination, a river mouth in the inhabited sub-Arctic. They were also carrying human limbs. We know this because of the eyewitness of some Inuit across whose path these spectral cannibals stumbled.

Meeting me at Resolute’s airport was a Tanzania native named Aziz Kheraj, owner of the Southcamp Inn, its best hotel. Kheraj was wearing a large, cushy red jacket, and looked not unlike Salman Rushdie on starkly reduced rations. I had been to Resolute once before, three years ago, for two days, while writing a piece about the NASA researchers who use next-door Devon Island as a Mars simulation base, and had attempted some delicate investigation as to what, exactly, a Tanzanian Muslim was doing in the high Canadian Arctic. Kheraj’s caginess proved formidable, and about the best I had gotten out of him was, “Home is where the heart is.” Kheraj only vaguely remembered me, and it was easy to see why. Resolute’s tiny terminal was clogged with NASA affiliates, oil workers, and meteorologists, many of whom would be staying at his Southcamp Inn. For Kheraj, I was—and in a month would be—another in a mental gallery of half-remembered faces.

During the impressively bleak four-mile journey from the airport (a former military base now known as North Camp) to Resolute’s nerve center (South Camp), I learned that Kheraj is currently the hamlet’s mayor. “This was my third attempt,” he told me. “The first time I lost by seven votes, the second time by five, this time I won by one.” I could also dismantle the various private scenarios I had constructed to explain Kheraj’s presence here (international fugitive? mastermind of some elite al-Qaeda polar commando unit?): the man had lived in the Arctic for almost as long as I have been alive. Beyond that, he said, “I’m just a simple worker.”

Cornwallis Island’s empty, slopey terrain broke across the windshield. The common image of the high Arctic is a land that wears an eternally snowy shroud—Santa’s Arctic, Superman’s Arctic—but most of the area is without snow for a large part of the year, and now, at the summer’s height, in every direction, a boundless panorama of oatmeal-colored scree filled up everything to the horizon line.

Resolute is named for the H. M. S. Resolute, which landed near the hamlet’s current site during a search for some of the men who had gone lost looking for Franklin. The Resolute, one of the most poorly suited Arctic vessels of all time, became iced-in and in 1854 was abandoned (to the ultimate court-martialing of its commander). Miraculously, the following year American whalers found the Resolute crewlessly afloat in the Davis Strait. Congress was persuaded to buy the Resolute for $40,000 and present it as a gift to England. The ship was eventually decommissioned and dismantled, its timbers used to build a grand desk that, in 1880, was sent to the White House as a gift from the Queen. It still occupies the Oval Office today.

Cornwallis Island received its first willingly permanent inhabitants in 1953, when four Inuit families stepped ashore Resolute’s forbidding gravel beaches as part of the Canadian government’s relocation scheme. A white filmmaker documenting the occasion later said that “the whole thing was a smozzle from beginning to end. . . . Everyone thought the Eskimo could live in their land anywhere.” Everyone was mistaken. Game was scarce, winter was already underway, the tents the Inuit had brought with them from their native Quebec were inadequate, the boat supplied by the Canadian government was missing its propeller, and the fish they caught were inedibly filled with worms. A pre-existing military base was at first off limits to Cornwallis Island’s Inuit pioneers—the Canadian government did not want them “looking for handouts”—but this Arctic apartheid was scuttled when the lunacy of segregating the only people within hundreds of miles of one another grew apparent. But no one had told Resolute’s newest citizens that here the sun would completely vanish from November to February, nor that they would essentially have to learn how to hunt all over again. Power lines and the first prefabricated houses did not arrive in Resolute until 1956, and for a time the only school lessons were taught by a sixteen-year-old girl. A measles outbreak in 1957 led to the hamlet’s virtual quarantine. Something of all this accumulated despair still lingered here: scarves of creeping fog as the low sky pushed down upon the gray hills and rocks, an onslaught of chilly sunlight as it lifted.

I asked Kheraj about hiking. During my last stay the appearance of several polar bears skulking around the hamlet’s edge hindered much exploring. “There aren’t any bears around right now,” Kheraj told me. “But don’t walk very far.” Five years ago, a hungry three-year-old female polar bear attacked and very nearly got a hold of Kheraj and his wife, Aleeasuk, after they had cleaned a seal down by the bay. The bear was later hunted down and currently occupies a conference room in the South Camp Inn.

Kheraj then asked me if I would like to join him for Resolute’s celebration of Nunavut Day, already in progress. I told him yes, and we bypassed town for a side road, plowed through a wide, shallow river, and pulled abreast of the festivities. The entire hamlet of 200 appeared to have turned up, and I shadowed Kheraj as he made his way around the barbeque shaking the hands of Resolute’s elders. “Elder” looked to be not only an Inuit honorific but something approaching a medical diagnosis. These people were old. Many were sipping from cans of orange Crush and eating little greasy nuggets of sun-dried char, the Arctic form of sushi. A few were also partaking of the headless (though far from hairless) raw caribou carcass heaped on a nearby sheath of cardboard. One elder cut redly glistening bits of vermiform meat from the caribou’s ribcage and popped them into her mouth.

A grunting, heavyset Inuk man began whacking at the caribou carcass with an axe, and soon the cardboard the carcass rested upon was so blood-spattered it looked like evidence. My fellow whites (and several Inuit) were happily stuffing precooked hotdogs into their mouths just a few feet away. I observed the Inuk man so closely he soon realized what I wanted, and he plucked from the carcass a small chunk of meat and passed it over. I quickly consulted Resolute’s resident nurse practitioner, luckily on hand for the celebration. With some breeziness, she pointed out that the Inuit have been eating raw meat for a thousand years. Not bad, then, was about the best I could say for this staple of Arctic gastronomy.

A few hours later, after ingesting a bottle and a half of Pepto-Bismol, I took a restorative walk around the Bible-college ambiance of the South Camp Inn. Were it daytime, the place would have been filled with cute, screaming Inuit children who generally had some cuttingly accurate thing to say about one’s personal appearance. (I, apparently, resemble a monkey.) I wondered about these children—most of whom were not Kheraj’s—until a visiting Nunavut government worker explained something to me. The Inuit concept of family is highly fluid, he said. Many Inuit children are raised by people other than their birth mothers, who, in many cases, will be thought of as “mothers” to these children only in the most tangential sense. And these birth mothers will often have non-biological children of their own. One Inuk can be a “brother” or “sister” to another, unrelated Inuk, and the bond will be thought as strong as any blood tie. What the government worker explained to me was this: As Inuit hunters grew prosperous, their tables grew bigger, their “families” increased. If the hunters saw lean years, their families got smaller again. An unregimented concept of family was necessary for a culture in which so many families could not make it alone. Aziz Kheraj was the modern equivalent of a successful Inuit hunter. His family was large, and his facilities always free. This was all incredibly unspoken and tacit. There were no copious displays of thanks, and none were expected. That was the Inuit way.

*  *  *  *  

A few nights later, just after 3 a.m., I was out walking through town, which takes roughly seven minutes. I was unable to sleep due to the midnight sun, though the 1 a.m. sun, 2 a.m. sun, and 3 a.m. sun had not helped either. This was to say nothing of the 24-hour growl of Resolute’s four-wheelers and the banshee yowls of the sled dogs tied up a few hundred yards away from my hotel-room window. The Arctic Ocean loomed hugely to my left, still ice-clogged and silent wherever it met the shore. The sun lurked low in the sky, weakened but stubbornly unset, casting upon the rocky terrain a pink dusky light and long orange shadows. My watch had become all but useless: 3:12 might as well have been a passage from Leviticus, for all the temporal good it did me. Yesterday a young Resolute native told me that any disciplinary day-and-night division between work and sleep is viewed as highly artificial up here. He went on to say that he slept when he was tired and worked when he was not. When I asked where he worked, I learned he was currently unemployed.

This young man was Inuk, and though he was unemployed he managed to survive, I suspect because the Inuit are the most ingenious people in the world. (The first Inuk in want of a magnifying glass, for instance, caught a seal and removed the clear inner spheroid of its eyeball: voila.) But the Inuit have proven less adept in adapting to a North American world which comes more ready-made, and it is often lamented that these lords of the Arctic have become wards of the state. But the people of Resolute, at least, live in the Arctic hamlet regarded as having the lowest rate of “income support” (the polite Canadian gloss on welfare). My young, unemployed friend survived, then, by traditional means: hunting caribou, fishing for char, doing an occasional odd job.

Any talk of the “traditional” for modern Inuit is, of course, something of a prevarication. The Inuit have been in steady possession of rifles for a century and a half, and enjoyed the dieselly fruits of newer technological advancements such as snowmobiles and four-wheelers for decades. Is the Inuit way of life slowly vanishing from this world, as is often claimed? In 1861, Charles Francis Hall wrote, “The days of the Inuit are numbered. Fifty years may find them all passed away, without leaving one to tell that such a people ever lived.” Let us hope current laments prove as baseless.

I passed by Resolute’s handsome new school, a Little House on the Prairie-style clapboard church, the town co-op. Community-owned co-ops are the single largest employer in Nunavut. Despite how expensive they are—my purchase of a stick of Gillette Deodorant, two cans of Pepsi, a copy of the Nunatsiaq News, four postcards, and a battery came to a head-ringing C$49.00—most do not break into the red, and virtually all are managed by a non-Inuk. When I asked why this was, I was told (by an Inuk) that no Inuk on earth would be willing to get up at 7 a.m. six days a week to open shop (whereupon I quickly volunteered for honorary Inuk status). All of Resolute’s houses were up on cinderblocks and most bore a strong resemblance to the little farmside abodes of monochrome Christian modesty one streaks past in back-road rural America.

Toward the hamlet’s edge I passed by a home with a bedspread-sized polar bear skin drying out on the clothesline. The fur was as soft as moleskin. I would say that I have a raving polar bear phobia were it not for the fact that every Arctic person I had spoken to told me that to be frightened of polar bears cannot be rightly considered phobic. A phobia, after all, implies irrationality. Let us explore Ursus maritimus.

Polar bears are, with lions, the only animal, on land or in sea, known to attack people for reasons other than fear or confusion. Kodiaks and grizzlies are as comparatively hazardous as a cow, since both beasts live in food-rich environments. Polar bears live in a food-scarce environment; for them, human beings are food. We’re food! Their yellowy-white coats conceal a Mama Cass-layer of fat and a hide of dark black skin—perfect for storing warmth. They move slowly, careful to keep from expending unnecessary calories, as exertion unrewarded by nourishment can starve a polar bear to death. If you see a polar bear running at you—and despite their recreational-vehicular size they are stunningly fast runners—know that the creature has made a conscious, life-endangering decision to digest you. Polar bears are also the commandos of the animal kingdom. They have been known to sneak up on people. They have been observed using fog for cover. They have attacked submarines and been spotted swimming as far as 100 miles from shore.

It was unlikely that the polar bear skin I was (still) rubbing between my fingers was hunted recently, for Inuit never kill polar bears unnecessarily. This is not because of Inuit Oneness with All Nature but rather simple economics. Every year, the Inuit are granted a certain number of licenses to kill a finite number of polar bears. Professional Inuit hunters are paid as much as C$10,000 for guiding great white hunters in want of the instant Viagra of dropping a polar bear. If a polar bear wanders into town, the Inuit will at first chase it away with dogs, snowmobiles, and something called a “bear-banger,” which basically launches a large firecracker. If a bear-banged polar bear wanders into town a second time the Inuit have no choice but kill it, because they know the animal is likely starving and desperate. It should come as no surprise that the polar bear—the ultimate Arctic symbol of loneliness, endurance, and adaptability—is the bald eagle of Nunavut.

*  *  *  *  

An early manifestation of clinical depression is the inability to get up in the morning, and after two weeks in Resolute I was diagnostically sidestepping clinical depression by repairing to bed around 9 a.m. Four p.m. would find me throwing aside body-soured sheets and preparing for the summer Arctic’s most grueling block of time: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. It seemed to me no coincidence that these long, flavorless hours concluded with the injection of sit-com sedatives. Beyond that, each hour was an addition to some merciless chronological cellblock.

I had exhausted the books I brought with me and had sprinted through the few appealing paperbacks I found among the syllabus of abandonment that was the South Camp Inn’s modest library. Thus I watched an appalling amount of television, usually while eating bag after bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips and drinking C$5.00 cans of Coca-cola. The South Camp Inn’s cable movie channels offered the same splendid eccentricities as its library: Goodfellas, Superman II (“Kneel before Zod!”), Fire in the Sky, Mulholland Drive. On Canadian talk shows, I watched one Canadian celebrity after another discuss with passionate anticipation albums and films of which I had never heard. To watch television in another country is often disarticulating, but these were my English-speaking North American countrymen. O Canada!

I had done some hiking, but never far from town and always at a Defcon Two state of polar bear vigilance. One of these hikes was interrupted by the sudden blast of an air-raid siren. I hurried back to town, worried of a polar bear sighting. When I returned to town I asked why the siren had been sounded. “Lunch,” I was told. One morning, after more than a week of vegetative inactivity, I stuffed my backpack with water and Pop Tarts (C$6.00 a box) and headed out across the sunlit rocky desert of Cornwallis Island. It was a ludicrously nice day, the sky a great blue pasture of roaming cumulus wool. I made for a ridge that looked to be about 100 yards away. A half an hour later, it looked to be about 100 yards away. Hills that appeared gentle slopes were, when I found myself at their base, unclimbable. The ground appeared smooth and rocky, until one of its sharp, plate-thin rocks, arranged in rows discomfortingly reminiscent of shark teeth, sliced through my boot tread. This was funhouse landscape, madness terrain, and I picked my way across the rocks to an immense racket similar to that of snow-shoeing through a silverware drawer. But it was not merely rocks out here, for soon, under my feet, were mossy, Seuratish bursts of purple, yellow, and blue vegetation.

I then stumbled upon the edge of one of the plane-crash sites scattered around Resolute. There are at least four. All are military or bush planes and several decades old. The wreckage was announced by a large, thick door that upon impact was ripped from its hinges and sent skipping across the terrain. The remainder of the plane quickly followed. At the radial center of the wreckage was the still-upright passageway to the pilots’ cabin. I muscled through it into a medieval torture chamber of twisted metal. The plane’s snout was just discernible, as was one of its mostly intact wings, while the other wing and tail were chewed up beyond recognition. One propeller was still attached to its fuselage, its blades sheared off but for the one ploughed deeply into the ground. Why does no one clean this up? Ask yourself: Do you want to come up here and do it? Neither does anyone else.

I doubled back and plunged into the island’s empty interior. It was perhaps inevitable that, within minutes of clearing the cradle of rocky hills surrounding Resolute, I found tucked beneath a spongy, moss-covered caribou tibia a Trojan wrapper. I hiked alongside a glittery rope of trickly blue water known as Mecham River, and on one ridge spotted an inukshuk, a small, person-shaped pile of rocks used for purposes ranging from directional guideposts to caribou-wrangling to polar bear scarecrows. Heat mirages undulated above the island’s snow mounds. When I got close to one mound I could actually hear it melting: a tiny sound not unlike a hamster micturating. The sum total of the vegetation I saw could have probably fit in my backpack—until, that is, I found a tree, then another. These were Arctic willows, the only trees on Cornwallis Island. Their tiny, veiny purple trunks stood perhaps an inch off the ground.

At 5 p.m. I decided to climb one more hill before heading back. Overhead, big white dreadnaughts of cloud drifted by at several knots per hour. I walked up what looked to be an old four-wheeler path, reached the hill’s loose-gravel ridge, and looked out upon endless waves of motionless rock and millions of skull-sized stones: nothing but elements, the firmament foretold. It was beautiful, but in the highly circumstantial way that empty ocean can be beautiful—the beauty solidly dependent upon one’s relative safety while contemplating it. My emotions felt defiantly cross-wired. Everyone who had visited Resolute had likely hiked this same path. But how many people have even been to Resolute? My vague plans to isolate myself seemed fulfilled. I had no idea, anymore, where to center myself. The Arctic was now my reality when, only a few weeks ago, it was the eye of some transdimensional needle.

I had believed I wanted not to need people for a while, to drift out of the various slipstreams in which we all live, feel in my face the raw cold wind of solitude, and experience a paradise of loneliness. Here was a part of the world so isolated that never in history had it once known war. To a citizen of Nunavut, I imagined, war likely had the momentary impact of an unpleasant rumor, and I had thought, perhaps, that the world might make more sense from these edges. That I would receive whole sight, rather than my mob’s-eye-view from the filthy center. So what was I seeing? Everything had the shifting, quiet stillness of dust; my heart quietly pumped. Which is when an Arctic raven the size of a human newborn swooped up from below the ridge and hung before me—its huge black wings beating like a dragon’s—before flying away, cawing in a sore-throated way.

“To men of a polar turn of mind,” Frederick Cook once wrote, “it is easy to be diverted from solitudes of the Arctic ice.” Such distracted, dreamy men, Cook believed, would always drag behind them a “somewhat similar train of joys and sorrows.” I thought about the determination of men such as Cook and Peary, Franklin and Frobisher, a determination as childlike as it was savage. During their Arctic travails it must have sometimes seemed as though God himself were keeping them from reaching their destiny. Maybe God should have been. Maybe he was. There was, after all, nothing for them here. There was hardly anything for the people who lived here. Was that the sorrow of this isolated, frozen world, or its joy?

*  *  *  *  

Later that night, about a mile from Resolute, I pulled up a stone on the shore of Barrow Strait and watched and listened to pools of water form in the sea ice’s slushy depression areas. The evening clouds—ice themselves—were finger-thin and streaky. Water burbled and plinked amid the hard grainy shelves of remaining sea ice and, suddenly, to my left—SPLASH!—a huge platform of ice dropped into the bay. I turned to look and, to my right—BLOOSH!—another had done the same. Ice peninsulas became islands and then smaller islands and then disappeared.

Barrow Strait was named for John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the British Admiralty and all-around Arctic nut, who reluctantly offered Sir John Franklin the hallowed mission of finding the Northwest Passage. There was such gloriously desperate poetry—from Turnagain Point to Repulse Bay to Starvation Cove—within the cartographical Arctic. The water body named for a man who sent so many to their deaths was now a blameless stretch of open blue sea. I think about all those ice-trapped souls who watched this ice melt, summer after summer, waiting for their one chance, their one break to get free, and I imagine their despair when, as often as not, the ice did not break, they were still stuck here, another winter, another year, stuck here, with less food, and more disease, and shorter tempers, and I thought about those awful moments when they decided, finally, to go across the ice, through the vast deadly terra incognita of the unmapped Arctic, with little food, no water, no plan but movement, the ice, that damnable ice, everywhere you looked, every distant black hill frosted with it, every bay choked with it, it was in your beard, on your cheeks, which were soon getting hard, and dull, and your legs were weak, and you weren’t so cold and hungry anymore, and I suddenly wanted to excuse myself from the idyll of Barrow Strait, brush the moss from my backside, walk back to my comfy hotel, and start calling everyone I love. Because I knew now I was so wrong to come here.

But I did not leave. I stayed. Earlier in the evening I finally got my interview with Aziz Kheraj, hoping against hope that he might finally help me understand what it means to live so distant from the dreads of the inhabited world. Kheraj told me that Nunavut was not all that different from his homeland of Tanzania. And, I suppose, other than differences of language, culture, religion, ethnicity, politics, geography, terrain, topography, trade policies, and cash crops, no, they are not that different at all. The planet imprisons us all, terror floats along the currents of human disconnection, and there is no peace to be had in this world, which is so huge, and lovely, and terrible.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Gerhard 's picture
Gerhard · 9 years ago

thannks for the well rounded article...


Recommended Reading