Spring Arrives; It Takes Us With It

Time is different, here. I came from a world of schedules and deadlines, where plans made six months ahead of time are stuck to, where you call before coming over, knock before entering a house. Here time is different – you enter it like stepping into a river, slow but strong, and float into the current. Time flows; you flow. The snow melts; the river speeds up. The water is pouring from everywhere, suddenly, carving miniature canyons in the roads. You show up unexpected; you enter unannounced.

A few nights ago, over dinner, Susan and Darcy burst into laughter at something that Alana, the 6-year-old, had said.

“She says we need to take the first flight out on Monday,” Susan said. “She thinks it’s the end of the world, all the melt water making rivers in the streets. That soon it will break up the land, and we’ll have no place left.”

We laughed. I listened to the sound of the rushing water outside the window, looked at Alana, thought about how big those rivers must seem to her.

 

The world has warmed up, and time has sped up. There were days, times, where I felt like I would live here forever; that these days in Arctic Bay would stretch on and on into the future. Suddenly, I’m leaving tomorrow for spring camping with another local family. Who knows how long I will be out there? 12 days, 18 days? Every single day until I leave to come back home?

Lots has been going on.

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A train of snowmobiles pull high school students on qamutiks to Arctic Bay’s school camp. 

Last week – which already feels like a lifetime ago! – the school held a Spring Camp, a 15-minute skidoo ride from Arctic Bay. Here, a group of high school students were camped together with elders, and every day, a few grades of school kids would come for a day trip. The men would take the boys seal hunting on the ice, while the female elders taught traditional skills to the girls – how to make bannock, for example, or treat a sealskin, or traditional games. Many of these lessons were infused with life wisdom that went much deeper than the literal task being taught.

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In a floral-patterned tent, elders Tootalik, Hannah and Tagoonak teach bannock-making to a group of teenage girls, imparting their perspectives on resourcefulness, feeding a family, and keeping healthy by avoiding processed and sugary foods. 

I know this, now, because I was lucky enough to go camp with them, for two nights last week. I got to tag along, photographing and observing, while many of the students translated for me. We ate the seals that the men caught, slept in gloriously heated tents together, and generally enjoyed being out on the land.

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Qamutiks pull middle-school boys out on a seal hunting trip. For some of the students, whose families don’t go out on the land, these trips can be quite influential. 

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Elder Paul Ejangiaq getting something from the qamutik at camp. 

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High-school boys drink juice boxes around the seal that elder Paul Ejangiaq has just caught. 

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Elder Tagoonak teaches Karen, 17, how to play a traditional game with string. 

“The kids are so happy”, some of the teachers, visiting, commented. I had never seen them in the classroom for comparison, but even I was struck by how cooperative, helpful, and all-around positive all the young people seemed in camp. (Later, one of the high school students would tell me that she almost cried when they had to leave).

Being on the land is good for you, that much is certain, and it was awesome to see that the school in Arctic Bay, at least, has incorporated at least a little bit of “land time” into their annual curriculum. The high school students who camped with the elders for a full week got one academic credit for that time, but seemed to enjoy it immensely.

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Angie, Shannah and Jocelyn taking in the view. 

As someone interested in how traditional land skills are passed on to young people to prepare them for the future, this camping experience could not have been of greater interest to me. I returned to Arctic Bay with over 4,000 photographs, which needless to say I am still sorting through.

A few days after I left the camp, Susan and Darcy invited me on a day trip with them to a fishing lake known as Iqalulik. During the Fishing Derby, this was the only lake which we did not visit, and I was absolutely stunned at how gorgeous it was. The place was so overwhelmingly beautiful that it seemed to have an almost spiritual power. Of course, I took pictures, but more than anything I just stared in total awe. Walked, stared, hiked a little up into the hills.

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Our qamutik parked by the side of the lake, with people ice-fishing for char in the background. 

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Somebody’s totally, epically, beautiful camp. 

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Kara, Alexis and Alana on our little pink qamutik, which has a surprisingly varied range of uses aside from pure fun. 

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My favorite part, however, may have been the ride home. We left Iqalulik around 10 PM, and the low-angle midnight sun swept over the sea ice the entire ride back to Arctic Bay in a beautiful array of colors and patterns. Sure enough, at exactly midnight, the sun was still shining brightly above the mountains. I felt deeply refreshed, on an inner level, after that excursion.

That was Saturday. On Monday, I went with Susan’s brother-in-law Michael, and his two kids, on a short dog team ride after dinner. Michael is one of several people in Arctic Bay who still has a dog team, the traditional method of travel over the sea ice in this part of the world. He recently participated in the Nunavut Quest dog team race, where he came in 6th place.

It was fun.

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I mean, how can you resist? 

This week, however, is a critical week – the week that school ends, and a huge number of people go out for Spring Camping, hunting for birds, seals, and fish for weeks at a time. My plans had been very up-in-the-air until today, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find anyone to take me with them. However, within the past few hours, all that has changed, and I am infinitely grateful to the family of Rex, Darlene, and their 4 kids, who have agreed to let me join them. Departure: confirmed for tomorrow.

Life in the Polar Regions never stops in its frequent demands for flexibility and adaptability, regardless of the region or circumstance. This evening, I’ve been hurriedly packing, charging batteries, washing clothes, baking camping food. I am going out, now, for at least 12 days, but could be essentially off the Internet for as many as 23. There is a chance, dear readers, that I may not have the internet resources to update this blog again until I am back in Alaska. However, you never know!

Thanks for following, thanks for reading. I’ll look forward to sharing stories of whatever comes next, whenever I am able. Until then, we’ll be out there, somewhere, on the land or on the ice.

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Out on the Land, Out on the Ice

Spring arrived, and qamutik season began. The sea ice edge now looks sort of like a parking lot.

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Time is racing past, as time likes to do. Lately I’ve adopted a more production-oriented mindset: “Make now, edit later!” I’m creating new content far, far faster than I have time to edit or work with, but that’s okay. That’s the point of being here.

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Some of you may recall my mentioning a photographic workshop for young people. Ever since I got here, that has actually been happening! I have three dedicated students who I meet twice a week if the schedule works for everyone (which is rare, but we do what we can). We talk about pictures, then go out and make them. Here are a few from a memorable excursion, themed “Nature & Adventure Photography”.

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Photo workshop participant Ruben, near the summit of one of the mountains surrounding Arctic Bay. 

workshop_mountain_.jpgLawson, taking charge of the safety of the camera gear while the other students climb a challenging hill. 

Recently, there was the Fishing Derby, one of the main reasons I chose to visit Arctic Bay in May. Over the May Long Weekend, four lakes were chosen for an ice fishing competition. People went out camping in groups, visiting and socializing, and fishing as much as they could or wanted to. The person who caught the largest fish at each lake won a considerable sum of money, but for many people the social/community aspect was the big appeal.

So, we went – to Kuugarjuk, the furthest destination, some 9 hours away by snowmobile. This was the first significant trip I’d made riding on a qamutik (sled), and was surprised how pleasant it was to travel that way. The 9 hours were an adventure, hanging out with the kids on the back of the sled as the world passed quietly by. We traveled over the sea ice for the majority of the journey, then drove onto the land and followed a riverbed to the camp.

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Getting the qamutik ready in Arctic Bay. 

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View on the back of the qamutik. 

When we eventually arrived at camp, I was surprised to discover that I already knew almost everyone there! For three nights, we camped, fished, and visited with friends. While we didn’t have especially good luck actually catching the fish, that wasn’t the point, for us. I took, as you might expect, thousands of photographs, and had a generally amazing experience. The “real” photographs, reflections, and stories are going to take much longer for me to work through and edit, but here are some snapshots to start.

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Arriving in camp. 

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Our massive Arctic Oven tent, manufactured by Alaska Tent & Tarp! By my standards, this is a huge tent. “Living large,” Susan and Darcy teased me. 

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The inside of the tent – plenty of room for everyone to sleep, cook, eat, and hang out. 

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Camp, as viewed from a hilltop in the early morning. 

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My friend Mavis teaching her son Martin to jig for char. 

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Clara teaching her son Spencer to fish. 

After three and a half days, we drove back to Arctic Bay in a huge procession of skidoos and qamutiks, stopping at several different lakes along the way to visit people.

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Packing the qamutik. 

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A rest stop on the sea ice, where we celebrated Samson’s birthday with cake and tea, served off the back of the qamutik. 

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Nap time on the ride home to Arctic Bay. 

For me, the Fishing Derby was a huge adventure, and I spent the following week in town, working on photos, drawings, and writings based on the experience. I also began preparing to spend a few days at the school’s Spring Camp, which I just returned from last night – another adventure on the land, resulting in thousands of photographs and great stories that I look forward to sharing.

However – everything in its time. After all, I’m here to create, and if I appear to be somewhat absent from this blog or social media, it’s a sign that great and more important things are probably going on. School ends next week, and thus begins Spring Camping season, where people go out on the land for weeks at a time. We’ll see what happens next!

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.

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Sheba’s Dream, ink on paper, 2018.

The World, Warming: Week Two in Pictures

Along the side of the road, the melting snow took on the most astonishing formations. Where only days ago it had been white, piled high and uniform, it now looked like a raging sea of grey waves, wind-chopped and frothing. Time, it seemed, had stopped, freezing their turmoil along the muddy roads, blending them into the silence of the spring.

But it wasn’t so silent, anymore. There was the sound of running water, now, and frequent cries of gulls or snow buntings. There were standing pools of water on the sea ice, replacing the beautiful blue slush that Darcy had warned me not to step in.

Of course not, I’d laughed, but he had a point. What did I know, really, about sea ice in spring? Very little, actually.

Another week has passed, and the activities of spring are racing towards us. We dug out the qamutik this week – a big wooden sled with an iglutaq (little house) on top, and boxes for storage. Next weekend, we will pull this behind the snowmobile on a 4-day camping trip out onto the land, for the annual Fishing Derby. Everything these days seems to revolve around preparations for this event, which is looked forward to with great enthusiasm.

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When I was buying my fishing license, I got to see a large-scale map of the area around Arctic Bay, including all the (four) areas where the Fishing Derby will take place. We are planning to go to a place called Kuugarjuk, indicated in the picture. Entering Admiralty Inlet from Arctic Bay, we will drive down Moffet Inlet before heading onto the land, following riverbeds down to Kuugarjuk.

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I also had a few portrait sessions this week – the first one with Mika (18) and Jennifer (25), at Victor Bay one evening.

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One day, we were invited to eat frozen caribou meat – one of my favorite delicacies! We had it with soy sauce this time, but it also tastes amazing with a curious blend of Crisco oil, chopped onion, and salt. (Note: it’s not every day that we get to eat traditional Arctic foods, which we call country food – most meals are purchased from the store. However, every opportunity that we do get to eat local food is a cause for celebration!)

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A few days ago, I got to photograph sisters Lorna, Teena, and Ashley, out on the nighttime sea ice. The older two had spent their first years in Grise Fiord, and had some wonderful stories about their adventures on the sea ice during their childhood.

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Yesterday was epic. A kind woman I had met, Aapak, agreed to let me join her for “tea out on the land.” We were also joined by Rebecca and her daughter Judy, pictured above. Little did I know that “tea” meant an extravagant picnic, with socializing, sledding, hill-climbing, and exploring the area by snowmobile for about 6 hours! It was an incredible day and exhilarating to be out in the spring sun for so long.

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When I finally returned home, happy and exhausted, I got a phone call: Valerie, Susan’s sister, and her husband Mike were ready to pick me up for a photoshoot in their caribou-skin winter clothes! The time was nearly 10:30 at night, but the light was soft and beautiful, and we all piled into the qamutik (sled) for a short photo trip out onto the ice.

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I had never really ridden a qamutik before, and was beside myself with childlike excitement.

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Their outfits, too, were beautiful. These caribou-skin clothes are most often used in the depths of winter, and are usually too warm for springtime. Valerie won her amauti (parka) in a game at a community event, but sewed the rest herself. There’s a lot more from this particular photoshoot, but internet is limited, so here’s just one to start.

Time is flying – the days just seem to disappear! – but adventure is fast approaching. Already I have taken nearly 8,000 digital photographs, 10 sheets of large-format film, 7 rolls of medium-format. Four drawings, twelve pages of writing, ten workouts (critical for creativity) and a whole bunch of social events and experiences. Slowly, the pieces are coming together – it will be exciting to see where, in the end, it all leads.

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.

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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.