Flight and Landing: The Journey North

My last day in Toronto was cold and overcast, the smell of snow in the air. I heard chatter here and there amidst the transit that it would snow the next day. The last day was chaos; packing and repacking, time and time again, watching my bedroom and studio and kitchen cupboard become a series of bags, packed and stowed. I took my last lakeside run on the soft and fragrant grass. At last, there was no more time, and I left the island.

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April was there too, on the ferry, wishing me luck and a good winter. On the other side, awaiting me in the flurry of rush-hour traffic, was Verity. I would traverse worlds; Verity was my pilot for the first leg of the journey. In the car we navigated the buzz of downtown, fleeing towards the suburbs. We bought groceries in a giant store like the ones they have where a lot of people actually live. We went to her and Alex’s house and made Thai curry and they modeled potential Halloween costumes.

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…Like this one. Doesn’t lend itself well to eating or drinking anything, we decided.

After a few hours of delicious sleep on their living room floor, it was four in the morning and time to go. It seemed somehow only natural that Alex, my Arctic expedition leader, should be my chauffeur to the airport. I waved goodbye in the morning darkness on the airport concrete. Then I was going, going, gone. I flew to Montreal, and boarded my much-anticipated flight to Iqaluit with First Air, the Most Expensive Airline Known to Man. They served me a very nice gluten-free meal. The coffee was reminiscent of the smell of rural bushplane airport waiting rooms in Alaska in the 90’s. A very, very specific taste.

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The view was spectacular.

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I made extremely nerdy photography references on my Instagram. We landed briefly in Kuujjuaq; I stepped off the plane and into a blizzard and couldn’t stop myself from breaking into a huge smile. Winter, at last!

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And then, Iqaluit! On the south end of Baffin Island, Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, with over 6,500 inhabitants. I watched the snow-covered mountains passing below as we neared, recognizing the place we had moored the Sea Explorer when we had disembarked there in September. Winter had transformed the landscape in a beautiful way, but it was still unseasonably warm, and the snow was wet and slushy underfoot. I took at taxi to the hotel where Gwen, my dear Inuk friend and roommate from aboard the Sea Explorer, would be staying that night.

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I wandered the town. It looked a lot like Alaska. The stores were full of kids purchasing the last essential items for their Halloween costumes.

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When I returned from town, Gwen had arrived! She was sewing me slippers on the couch when I walked in the door, a gift I felt deeply honored to receive. We were both utterly exhausted from traveling, but went out for a last dinner together at the Navigator Inn, a Chinese/Canadian restaurant highly reminiscent of the one and only restaurant open in Whittier, Alaska during the winter (if you have ever been there, you will know). Prices were pretty extreme, but nonetheless the cheapest in town. I opted for what I felt certain could have been the very last salad I would consume until spring. You never know, though.

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As we ate my eyes kept drifting to the table behind Gwen, where two men were dining next to the dessert section of the buffet table: an assortment of neon-colored jello blocks, globular and quivering, stacked next to a garish plastic flower arrangement. I stared at that jello, watching it dance around on little saucers as people carefully carried it away to their tables, piece by piece. Welcome to the North, I thought, relishing the bland iceberg lettuce to the best of my ability. I thought of being on camping trips in Alaska as a child and making instant chocolate mousse from little paper packets.

We spent the rest of the night in Gwen’s hotel suite, drinking tea on the couch and watching the news in Inuktitut (I tried my best). Protests about food prices, break-ins in Iqaluit, the failures of the Nutrition North food subsidy program. After the weather (8°F in Arctic Bay), Happy Birthday came on in Inuktitut. “I always like this part,” Gwen commented over her sewing, and together we watched the faces go by of everyone in Nunavut who was celebrating a birthday that day. Halloween.

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The next morning flashed by – breakfast at the Navigator, a hurried re-packing yet again, a taxi to the airport. I sat for a long time, alone in a plastic orange seat, watching people board their flights. Rankin Inlet, Ottawa, Hall Beach. I’ll admit I finally felt nervous, alone with my camera gear, watching the small little planes taxi off towards the vast northern sky. Then, finally – Ikpiarjuk. Arctic Bay.

The plane was tiny – the narrow back quarters of a small turboprop cargo plane. There were fifteen of us on board with no room to spare. This was it. There was no going back. The engines rumbled, and the frozen landscape surrounding Iqaluit sped away beneath us as we took off into the clouds.

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As we cleared the cloudline and the sunlight of an Arctic afternoon filled the cabin, any lingering fear disappeared, and was replaced with excitement. What was there to fear, anyway? You do it and it’s done, you go and you’re there. This was the start of something immensely exciting. I watched the sea ice in great circular sheets, glowing gold and magenta beneath us.

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Then: the dull drone of the plane descending, the familiar mountain formations of Admiralty Inlet below us, blanketed in snow. The gleaming of snowmobile headlights like constellations around Victor Bay (seal hunters, I would learn). And finally, finally, the glittering town of Arctic Bay. My new home.

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We had arrived.

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