Polar Dreaming, Polar Drawing

Late last night, we returned from a epic 4-day adventure to a place called Kuugarjuk for the annual Fishing Derby. The experience was amazing, eventful, and significantly photogenic. I took thousands of pictures, wrote pages and pages of journals, but the experience will take some time to settle in, to formulate. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s another drawing I made, based loosely off of a story my friend Sheba once told me, about falling asleep while polar bear hunting.

Sheba’s Dream, ink on paper, 2018.


A quiet Saturday in Arctic Bay today. I made a new drawing, based off of Inuit legends surrounding the aurora borealis. Most stories I’ve heard across the Arctic say that the northern lights are spirits playing soccer with a walrus skull, but some – especially in Greenland – say that they are walrus spirits themselves, playing a ball game very much like soccer. There’s also a warning, given to children, never to whistle at the northern lights – as the spirits may come and collect your head for the game, instead.

Here’s a picture.

No Whistling, Ink on Paper, 2018

Under the Surface: Drawing from Photographs

In my last days of preparation before traveling to Arctic Bay, I was struck with an overwhelming urge to print a selection of photos from the last time I was here. The process of selecting and printing them was long and tedious, keeping me up at night for days. I couldn’t justify it at the time, but had a feeling that the prints could lead to something.

Fast forward a week or so, and I found myself spreading the photos around in my room in Arctic Bay, seeing what scenes could fit together. I started making imaginary collages, and drawing from them, driven by some unexpected motivation that seemed to appear from nowhere. I’ve made two now, and am close to finishing a third.

under_the_surface_acacia_johnson.jpgUnder the Surface , 2018. Ink on paper.  (iPhone photo)

This is the first one I made, ink on paper, based loosely on a photograph I took of local hunter Tom Naqitarvik a few years ago, searching for seals on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve drawn pictures all my life, but it’s been years since I’ve attempted anything with a vague degree of seriousness. Suddenly I’m overflowing with ideas – it’s exciting to blend the reality of photographs with whatever strikes the imagination, and create composite scenes that are more layered with meaning than photographs often are.

Although I’m far from a pro, I’ve decided to create a series of drawings in addition to photographs and writing. When inspiration strikes, and time is available, I cannot resist the opportunity to produce artwork. This time in Arctic Bay is beginning to feel, at times, like a multifaceted artist residency, and every day I wake up excited to create something new. I’ll look forward to sharing more as time passes.


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.


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. 


Apitah, in 2015.

girls_blog__1.jpgApitah, 2018. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


Arrival; Adapting to Light

Every morning, I awoke to blinding sun. From my bedroom window, I could see clusters of snow-laden buildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers in disarray, on the slope descending to the sea. A pair of ravens, silhouetted in the morning, pecked at scraps of seal meat. Beyond, all was white, radiant, reflecting the sun like a vast, snowy mirror. The shoreline grew buckled and jagged where it met the tide-worn edge of the sea ice, then flattened out again. If you squinted, you could see snowmobile tracks, distant dog teams tied up in rows.

The sea ice expanded, it seemed, to every corner of the known earth, every inch between every coastline. All topography, therefore, was connected; made equally traversable. It was difficult to imagine, as it always is at first, the wealth of life that churned below those wide plains of ice.

“Where’s the floe edge, these days?” I asked Darcy.

“Probably no floe edge yet,” he said. “Just ice.”

My view from the airplane hadn’t been an illusion – even from the air, the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see.

Blinking out the window, I felt strangely lost for words to describe it. The cloudless Arctic spring was overwhelmingly luminous, full of whites and silvers I’d never fathomed. Each shade seemed subtly metallic, capable of emitting its own light. Yet it wasn’t glaring, in a malevolent sense, the way desert sun feels in blistering heat. The day simply never ended. It felt, I thought, like the word clarity.

Even without looking at them, I could feel the mountains rising up behind the town. This was Ikpiarjuk, the pocket, in Inuktitut – the town of Arctic Bay where I lived that life-changing winter, those years ago. The mountains, red under the snow, wrapped around this little crescent-shaped town, in its little crescent-shaped bay. They felt comforting, as if reigning in the vastness.

In the mornings I’d imagine I heard songbirds, greeting the day. Do snow buntings sing in the mornings? How do animals keep themselves from going døgnvill, as we call it in Norwegian – losing all sense of what time of day it is? At a certain point, does it matter?

On the sea ice, the trajectories of dogs, people, and snowmobiles intersected and paralleled, their times and origins unknown. A single Croc shoe, starkly black, rested on an ice-ridge near the Northern Store; a lone hockey skate lay sideways on the ice near the arena. It was difficult to imagine loosing a single shoe in this cold, much less wearing Crocs. I wondered how long it would take for the shoes to sink into meltpools of their own making, the sun warming the black material faster than everything else.


Housing is notoriously limited in the Canadian Arctic, and I’d been nervous about finding a place to live. (I know families of ten who live in two-bedroom houses, kids piled on mattresses on the floor.) A few days before departure, however, I’d received a message from some friends of mine, Susan and Darcy, who used to take me out seal hunting. They had a spare room, and better yet, they were people I already knew. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I live with them now, in a box-shaped house on the east side of town. My room has a window facing the sea, and the light pours in without end.

My first priority has been visiting people, catching up, trying to gather in what is new and what has remained. With the light, it feels like a different world, but most of the people are still here. Some people have new jobs, new kids, new houses, new relationships. Others have split, separated; some have passed away. The first morning, I tried to find my friend Peugatuk’s grave in the cemetery, but the snow was deep, and I’d forgotten how to read the Inuktitut syllabics on the gravestones.

“I can’t believe you came back,” kids say, yelling or in hushed voices, rushing to me on the street. Most of them have grown up so much that I don’t recognize them at first. A lot of the teenage girls have children now; they seem happy, proud. They pick me up on their four-wheelers, babies on their backs, and we drive fast in the nighttime sun, cold wind frosting our cheeks and hair.

Spring is on its way, and the landscape will transform dramatically in the time to come. I’m continuously surprised by the changes brought on by the new season – how much warmer it is, for example. I’d grown used to Arctic Bay at 40 below; now it gets above 10° Fahrenheit some days. People are outside all the time, getting ready for spring – fixing up their longer qamutiks (sledges), setting up tents on the ice, sewing new parkas and amautis.

A qamutik – sled designed to pull behind a snowmobile or dog team – awaits use on the sea ice outside of town.

Only four days have passed, but it feels longer. There have been friends to visit, errands to run. Among other things, I have been approved to teach a photography workshop at the high school, starting next week! Two weeks later is the Fishing Derby, when a huge part of the community camps at a freshwater lake to jig for artic char. In between, I’m hoping to work on some portrait series, and of course, get out on the land – meaning, out of town – as much as possible.

Of course, the photographs have slowly begun, too. No matter how well-crafted an idea is before departure to a place, however, the realities of arrival will bring adjustments, suggestions, new perspectives. What are the most important stories to tell, here? In my photography, I’ve relied aesthetically on the ethereal qualities of darkness for a very long time. How does one grapple with endless whiteness and sun, capture the magic that is inherent here?

Late one night, we set out for a drive into the mountains, in a borrowed SUV draped in Christmas lights. The road zigzagged up the hill behind town, and crested the saddle into a glorious wash of golden sun. There, a field of qamutiks lay scattered about in the snow. In the pink shine of arctic evening, the sun glowed through their frosted windows like a constellation of illuminated homes. Soon, these would all be in use, the spring season beginning.

I stepped out of the car into the deepest silence I’d heard in years.


The Journey North

The boots I wore on the plane were rated to sixty degrees below zero, ice-grip soles inlaid with artificial, coarse stone. Airport security workers squinted at the x-ray machine, re-running the purple neoprene with resigned suspicion. But it was Alaska, and still winter, and I was eventually released to ponder various Arctic taxidermy on the way to the gate. Polar bear behind glass, eiders labeled on shelves, Inupiaq hunter mannequin in a life-size floe edge panorama. A bull moose, hooves on the granite floor, stood at a crossroads as if debating its travel route.

I sweated profusely in the boots, kicking them off under airplane seats and café tables, pattering around in socks. They were overeager, protective things, destined for ice and snow, but the route to Arctic Bay was long, six flights, warmer climates between the cold ones. I slept, wrapped in my parka, upright in chairs.

Even on the way to get there, there was magic. It had been building, perhaps, in the gazes of all those Arctic animals, but I had been too tired to notice. It wasn’t until I woke up in Ottawa, and finally saw the fountain, that I knew the journey had begun.

It was, to the frequent traveler, a simple decorative fountain, passed impatiently, without much notice. To the children of the Arctic, however, this fountain was shrouded in myth. A dark, tiled wall, spanning two stories between arrivals hall and baggage claim, was veiled by continuous falling water. Multicolored lights pulsed upward, making the water glitter like ice, writhe like something alive. It suggested the mystery of aurora, the slow flames of a smoldering fire, and something celestial beyond description.


I remembered, vividly, the eager face of a young Inuit boy from Arctic Bay, eyes sparkling, telling me about seeing the fountain on his first trip to Ottawa for surgery. The rainbows! The boy beamed. It’s all full of light! He raved, ecstatic.

What ever happened to that boy? He must be a teenager now. Once, when the whole town was on lockdown during a winter blizzard, this boy had braved severe subzero temperatures to meet me at the store, to show me a tent he had made. I hadn’t forgiven myself for staying home that day, for thinking he wouldn’t show up.

For some reason, I had thought about the boy for years, hoping he would have a safe and trouble-free passage into adulthood. I prayed for his innocent jubilance to remain with him throughout his life, free from the weight of adult self-consciousness. Where was he now?

I stared into the falling water, wondering what he had seen here. Was it wonder, surprise, or something deeper, here at the baggage claim? Did he recognize, in these watery flames, allusions to burning thoughts, inner drives, the fleeting nature of memory and time? Or was it just novel?

What makes some people see more than what is immediately obvious? I thought. Recently, someone told me I sleep with my brow furrowed in deep concentration. The older I get, the more I can see these lines, becoming a part of my face.

Did you see it? He had asked. Did you see the fountain?

I wanted to believe, then, that I had.


I had grown accustomed to boarding Arctic-bound aircraft. These days, I was usually accompanying large groups of jet-lagged tourists, negotiating their dietary restrictions with the flight crew and answering endless streams of questions. In brief moments of solitude, I would consult my notes or guidebook, hoping to have all the answers.

Going North alone, however, is a different thing entirely. No longer concerned with having answers, you can focus entirely on having questions. Better still, you have the choice to simply observe. Sometimes, the most important revelations rise from periods of stillness, of simply paying close attention.

Leaving Ottawa, my eye first caught on the mottled white of frozen lakes, still intact despite the warm spring. Rivers, too, cut white lines through the blue forests. Some straight, some curved, some bisecting and intersecting, intricate as lace. Clouds came and went, with their ashy shadows. What was nature, what was man? It was impossible to tell.

On the plane I read an article about a young woman who wanted to hunt caribou. To do this, she had quit smoking, and saved up the money to buy an ATV. When she eventually shot her first caribou, she ate nothing, but gave the meat away to the elders and the hungry. As is custom, the article said. The article, in the in-flight magazine, was about financial literacy and goal-setting.

I looked down over the land. The tree line had given way to a vast and undulating landscape, presumably akin to tundra, every depression and concavity brimming with windswept snow. I thought of the patterns that play over ocean floors, or desert sand. White and blue gleamed from every corner of the earth.

At last, we crossed the coastline, and the sea ice came into view. Massive lunar discs, fractured and fissured by tide and current, blanketed the ocean. What had bewildered Western explorers thought of this? How could the untrained eye differentiate between ice and land, fixed and moving, before the floes crushed in and it was all too late?


In Pond Inlet, the wind gusted over 45 kilometers per hour, but the soft-spoken airport workers shrugged and smiled. No longer out of place in my parka and boots, I stepped gingerly into the coldest wind I’d felt in years.

That was it. Engines roared to life, we ascended, the airline had recently improved the quality of their coffee. Outside was the brightest landscape I had ever seen. It grew progressively more glaring, more brilliant, more overwhelmingly white, until it was like staring down at the surface of some cold, luminous sun.


I sat back in my seat, feeling optimism welling, my heart beating harder, and recalled a sentence by Annie Dillard.

“If we are blinded by darkness,” she had written, “we are also blinded by light.”