Arctic Homecoming: A Week in Pictures

A week has passed, and the mornings grow brighter still, the number of qamutiks on the sea ice slowly increasing. The day after I arrived, a white canvas tent appeared, pitched on the ice in front of town. This morning, there were two more – one white, one pale, pale pink – on the western shoreline. A polar bear skin was stretched to dry; people played baseball on the ice. A boy at work in the supermarket told me “welcome home.”

It occurred to me that Arctic Bay was the place where I had lived the longest, consecutively, in my entire adult life.

Miniature potted cactus appeared in the Co-Op grocery store. There was a swarm of children around them, wide-eyed and marveling, daring each other to touch the needles.

“Cactus,” I said to the cashier. “Are those new?”

“It was a mistake, actually,” she told me. “Nobody ordered them, they just appeared. The aloe is selling well, though.”

I wondered where the cactus had been cultivated; how far they had traveled. What they would think, if their light-eating bodies housed any consciousness, about the ecosystems and continents they had undoubtedly traversed.

“You’re a photographer, huh?” said the cashier. “Are you the one leaving the mystery pictures around? We found one in the freezer, here, and there was one in the post office at Northern. No one knows who it is.”

“That’s not me,” I replied, which was true. “What are the pictures like?”

“Beautiful pictures, little artworks,” she said. “Nice messages on the back. ‘I hope this brightens your day,’ that sort of thing. The whole town’s talking about them.”

I smiled. The thought of mystery pictures, meant to better people’s days, filled me with warm curiosity.

*

A week has passed, and of course, photographs have begun. I’ve been easing into it, spending time just being with people, observing, and writing more than I used to. Drawing, too, by some surge of unexpected inspiration. Regardless, here are some photographs, from the first week.

On one of the first evenings, I met Apitah and Tara, two teenage girls who I’d photographed three years ago. Now, aged 18 and 16, respectively, they both had their first babies. We drove up the road towards Victor Bay, flying through the night air on their bright red four-wheelers. They’d both worn their amautis, parkas designed to carry babies in the hoods. We could compare the photos, we thought, between then and now.

I hadn’t used my 4×5 camera in months, but it felt good and natural in my hands. As with most times I use it, I hardly remember taking the pictures at all – I go into some sort of other state, where the world disappears, and all that exists is the picture. The film will be a long time coming, but here are some digital results from that night.

tara_apitah_babies_17.jpg

Trying to accept the sun, and play with making the most of it. This one looks a bit too much like throat singing, perhaps, but I wanted the symmetry and the lens flare. 

arctic_girls_020.jpg

Apitah, in 2015.

girls_blog__1.jpgApitah, 2018. 

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It was good to see the girls again.

A few days later, Darcy let me come seal hunting with him after work. Roaring along on the back of the snowmobile, visiting many of the same sea-ice cracks and coastlines that I’d been to years ago, I realized I was now more interested in the actual hunting than the photographs. What was different, in the spring? I was surprised to see how large an aglu, a seal breathing hole, becomes at this time of year. In the winter, it’s barely larger than a quarter. Now, if you were lucky, you could see the whole seal’s face, emerging from the deep, in large, perfectly rounded holes.

We didn’t catch any seals that day, but it was good and refreshing to be out. On the way home, we stopped by the King George Society Cliffs (what a name, right?) where I took some pictures.

hunting_cliffs_insta_2.jpg

Until this weekend, I had only ever been driven on snowmobiles by men. This changed dramatically yesterday, when Darcy and Susan let me accompany them for a drive out to Darcy’s parents cabin near Victor Bay. Their 10-year-old daughter Taryn, clad in a glorious pink parka, drove me on her Bravo snowmobile, a recent gift from her parents. As someone interested in Arctic femininity, I found this absolutely delightful.

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All was calm and quiet at the cabin, which had originally been one of the first buildings in Arctic Bay. A sense of deep peace hung over the land. I took a walk with the girls on the sea ice, climbing around on the pressure ridges and making shapes in the snow.

sunday_excursion_.jpg

It’s been a good first week, full of warm meetings and beautiful spring weather. I’ve shot a couple rolls of 6×7 film, and three 4x5s. Collected stories, reunited with friends, taken in the landscape. This week, I’ll be starting a photography workshop for high school students – I’m curious to see how many will join in.

Meanwhile, the days grow, incomprehensibly, longer.

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