Arctic High

Ponderings and pancakes from the edge of the earth

Rating: NNNNN

cape isachsen — in a tent 200 kilometres from the North Pole, I’m downing pancakes made on a Coleman stove and pondering my ambivalent affair with the Arctic turf I’ll soon be leaving.I arrived here in a Twin Otter from the tiny hamlet of Resolute Bay yesterday, and the place blew my mind. Cape Isachsen, an unmanned weather station, looks like a ghost town, with hydro poles still leading to it from wherever the long-abandoned generating station used to be. It’s eerily reminiscent of those films of atomic test sites from the 50s.

A U.S. Air Force DC-3 is trapped in the ice like a bug in amber. The best guess anyone can hazard is that it crashed at around the same time as those nuke tests.

I’m here to cover the story of 29 Canadian Rangers who’ve just completed an 850-kilometre trek by snowmobile to the magnetic North Pole, a ritualized manoeuvre intended to assert Canadian Arctic sovereignty. Kigliqaqvik is the Inuktitut word for “the edge of the known world’ — that’s what they call this polar territory.

Kigliqaqvik pretty much sums up where we are. Magnetic north is where your compass needle points to, as opposed to geographic north, which is the very top of the earth. The location of the magnetic pole constantly fluctuates courtesy of changes in Earth’s magnetic field.

The weather is cooperating, but it can be notoriously fickle. A CBC reporter who accompanied the Rangers has little spots of frostbite on his face, and I’m not envying him one bit. An early lesson for people who come up north is that where the elements are concerned there’s no margin for error.

I chug some hot tea to keep me warm, light up a smoke between interviews, then go and find myself a nice patch of snow to piss on. Prior to jumping on this voyage, I debated whether I should bring an airplane-size bottle of booze or something a little more potent. The idea of lighting the most northerly spliff ever is tempting, but blitzed people tend to do stupid things, and this is not the place to be toying with mother nature.

Last spring, a Japanese adventurer got it in his head to get dropped off at the geographic North Pole so he could walk home across the sea ice. He made it to Resolute, then disappeared on the next leg of his journey. Paddy, one of the Rangers from Resolute, found his body in the water after an airplane spotted his sled. He’d evidently fallen through a crack in the ice.

Covering this ceremonial staking of Canuck borders is a swan song for me. I’m taking my leave of the north after 15 months at Yellowknife’s News/North. A daily paper in yet another boomtown just hired me, so off I go to Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The north and I have had a love-hate relationship for the last 15 months. Besides the darkness at 2 in the afternoon, I’ve had a lingering sense of never quite grasping the cultural ecology.

The Dene and the Inuit, for example, have this huge thing about “the land.” The Dene call the NWT Denendeh, meaning “the place of the people.” Call any given band office to speak to a chief or some other official, and invariably you’ll be told that he or she is “on the land.”

This always seems to be said with a reverential tone that I heard but could never deeply comprehend, coming as I do from a forest of concrete and steel. The closest I ever came was in Inuvik when a young man fell off his boat and drowned. When they found his body, I contacted the family and interviewed his mother, who told me her son “loved being on the land most of all.”

A picture of him skinning a freshly caught beaver hung in a place of pride in the living room. His skill with the blade, evident in the photo, was completely overshadowed by the smile on his face.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of lessons in tolerance, playing nicely with others and friendship. Leaving hurts, especially knowing that over time I’ll inevitably lose touch with anyone who meant anything to me here. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m supposed to learn from that one.

Back in Resolute at the Side Camp Inn, I’m struck by how different the place I occupy now is from the one I left more than a year ago when I said goodbye to the assembly line at DaimlerChrysler.

The sun is setting today, but just barely. This time of year it never gets completely dark here. In another few weeks the sun won’t even bother dropping below the horizon, and the eternal darkness of the winter months will be a distant memory.

Around the hamlet, the signs of subsistence hunting are everywhere. People keep their rifles lashed to their snowmobiles, and the roofs of their houses are covered with racks of antlers.

The frozen carcasses of about five ringed seals lie ready to be butchered nearby. In my time up north, I’ve eaten caribou, muskox, char and maktaaq (whale skin) in the traditional Inuit fashion — raw, but slightly frozen.

While vaguely new-wavey tunes play on the community TV channel, an important directive from the RCMP crawls across the screen. “Please don’t hit golf balls inside the hamlet. Only golf outside the ring road.” Oh, yeah? And what’ll you do if we ignore that request? “Violators will have their club and ball taken away,” the text says.

I suspect I’ll feel more than one pang of regret at my decision to vacate to Fort McMurray.

I think back to my last moments at Isachsen. Just as the commanding officer and his guests are preparing to board the Twin Otter back to Resolute, a sundog appears. It’s an atmospheric phenomenon caused by sunlight reflecting off ice crystals in the air, making it look like there’s more than one sun in the sky.

It grows in intensity until there are five distinct orbs linked by a shining line of gold. It looks for all the world like a halo above us. Even long-time denizens of the High Arctic are impressed.

“That’s a good sign,” laughs Debbie Iqaluk, one of the guides from Resolute. No doubt she’s referring to the Kigliqaqvik Rangers’ return trip home, but I think I’ll borrow it for myself.

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