Paris in the spring? I know somewhere far better
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
I ache to go north again. The locals tell me it is Arctic Fever, an illness described as "constant restlessness, distraction and longing suffered by certain individuals in non-circumpolar regions of the world". I suffer from all the symptoms; "impatience with the confines of urban life, the pretensions of pop culture and manicured lawns. Shortness of breath and palpitations occur when conversation shifts to life north of the 60th parallel." It only took one land trip to be smitten.
It is three in the afternoon and pitch dark. There are only a handful of passengers on the plane and each dresses carefully before making their way down the shaky steps. As I leave the shelter of the aircraft the cold, raw air makes me cough. The tiny terminal building is brightly lit and I struggle towards it, bent double against the wind. I have arrived in Cambridge Bay, Iqaluqtutiaq the Fair Fishing Place, three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The small village sits on the coast of Canada's Victoria Island in the new territory of Nunavut, a land north of summer. Like most Arctic communities there are no roads and the only way in or out is by air or across the frozen ocean by snowmobile. A driver's licence is not a priority. My first morning is spent walking about town testing out my new insulated anti-gravity boots and the green furry monster that is my parka. I look like the Michelin Man but fashion is the least of my concerns at this temperature. In mid afternoon I star-gaze in an endless night sky, watch the playful twists of the aurora borealis before my eye lashes freeze to my balaclava.
There are two shops in the village and I am amazed to see the familiar signs for Pizza Hut and KFC outside one door. I'm also disappointed. I was relishing being the great adventurer. I hadn't come to eat greasy chicken. However, this was the reality of a culture in transition. I watched in bewilderment as old women, dressed in traditional fur parkas and seal skin boots, went in to order a deluxe pizza or a bucket of chicken wings.
Life in the far north is no longer the romanticised notion of dogteams and igloos that many southerners imagine it to be, but a much more realistic, if confused and contradictory mix of what is most important from the old times and most convenient from the new. Muskox heads sat on doorsteps, while inside women cleaned and chewed caribou skin as they watched Baywatch or Oprah. Two distinct cultures were merging to form an ambiguous third. Inside the shop seal pot pie, boil-in-the-bag seal, muskox jerky, wolf fur, hair dye, TV dinners, snow mobiles and nine inch nails were all for sale.
There are many facets of traditional culture that survive intact however, and the Inuit are fiercely committed to their communities, even the young people are reluctant to leave. Their attachment does not come from a lack of comparison or a blissful ignorance of the outside world but a deep appreciation for the land itself. Nunavut means 'Our Land' in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, and with only one person per every 100 square kilometres they are kings of the tundra.
My guide to the kingdom later that spring was Pujuk, a 37-year-old Inuk who had witnessed his small community of hunter gatherers, once isolated by its ten-month winter, change into one of the furthest outposts of the global village. His weather-beaten face was extremely calm as we waited for his weather forecast. The clear blue skies meant little in a land renowned for howling gales and incessant storms. In a matter of minutes clear skies can turn to white out, ground becomes indiscernible from sky and all sense of direction is lost. There are many stories of people perishing just a few metres from shelter.
Wind-chill charts pinned to the back of every door help calculate how many minutes you have outdoors before exposed flesh freezes solid. By the time Pujuk gave the all clear I had so many layers on it was difficult to bend over to help tie down the last ropes on the giant sled. Although almost everyone has a snowmobile now, a dog team is still considered the most reliable method of transportation. Even in the worst blizzard huskies will find their way home and they never run out of petrol. Pukuk's dogs pulled at their harnesses and yelped at each other, eager to be off across the snow. He pulled anchor and we lurched off.
For outsiders the desolate expanse of windswept ice and snow may seem inhospitable and hardly worth visiting but out on the tundra I begin to realise why this seemingly barren land is so precious to the Inuit. There is nothing there. Nothing for hundreds of miles in any direction. Flat, frozen and barren, the windswept ice and snow stretch as far as the eye can see and it is mesmerising. There are no vehicles, no sirens, no car alarms, no voices, no man-made objects for miles. Fragile lichens blaze with colour and the silence is only interrupted by the scratching, scurrying snow, the echoing cracks and groans of the ice and the howling of the wind as it sweeps across the tundra and sculpts the snow and ice into stunning angular shapes. It is Nunassiaq - the beautiful land.
It is difficult to explain how a landscape like this makes you feel. The space encourages contemplation of ideas rather than events and I am struck by my own insignificance in such a vast and dangerous environment and find it impossible not to reflect on my own place in the larger scheme of things. I am amazed at Pujuk's ability to navigate across a territory seemingly devoid of landmarks. He has no compass and no map but instead speaks of past events and family gatherings that create a series of vivid memories and emotional maps.
We stop on a large lake and pitch a blazing white tent, securing it with petrol cans and blocks of snow. It takes two of us to manhandle the auger from the sled and bore a hole through the eight feet of ice but as I lie there, my face inches from the surface, peering through a glassy cylinder at the fish circling my line I am entirely content. Meanwhile the dogs are getting restless and within minutes Pujuk has jumped on the sled and taken off in search of caribou. He arrives back with a large stag and I am surprised by my own clinical reaction to the blood and guts. I am soon helping to peel skin from flesh but decline the offers of fresh larvae from under the skin. Hunting is a necessity for the Inuit and subsidises every household income. It is not considered a sport and a good hunter is worthy of much respect.
Later that evening as the sun circles above our small camp I go back to my fishing. It is after midnight but the sun is still overhead and bathes the landscape in the soft glow of its gentle light. I have to remind myself that what I'm seeing is real. That there is no commentary by David Attenborough and the tinkling sounds of melting ice are right beside me. By the time my daydreams cease I realise it is 4am and I still haven't caught anything. The sun glows a deep red in the sky. There is perfect silence, birds swoop by and the stars twinkle in the low light to the east. It has to be paradise. Wilder than you can imagine yet very, very gentle. It is sublime and unforgiving all at the same time and nowhere on earth have I felt more alive. The warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape captures your soul and refuses to release you. After my trip friends ask if I have been cured but according to the Nunavut handbook the prognosis is not good "Arctic Fever is an affliction of the heart and soul for which there is no known cure except to go there."