Here is music. Songs For People Who Like Dark Pictures. The sounds that are motivating and driving life these days. Enjoy!
(Contains Graphic Imagery)
A Wednesday, December: The First Day of Stormy Weather
I awake too early. I awake too early on a couch in a house with a polar bear skin on the wall, in a sleeping bag that has been with me as long as I can remember. I awake too early to the sound of something moving around the outside of the building, hitting, scraping. Timidly I stumble to my feet, move the curtains from the window.
Wind. Telephone lines bouncing, tarps whipping, a river of airborne snow snaking down the street like a slithering, ephemeral mirage. There is no glow today, no faint tinge of twilight painting the outlines of the mountains. Only darkness, only indigo. I put on my parka, the one Tootalik made me, with a surprise ruff of luxuriant silver fox fur when I had been expecting dog. It is impervious to the elements. It is dark blue, like everything else.
Outside the blowing snow pulls me in its current, drawing me forward under the glow of the streetlights. I say the word aloud: December. I think that the sound the ‘c’ makes gives the word a magical edge, like an incantation, or a myth. The darkest month. The darkest day races towards us. I break from the snow-river’s drift, into the shadows. I think that without our presence, without our artificial illumination, no one would see this, and no one would know. Perhaps this visual phenomenon would not even exist, in December. It would just be, the Arctic, as it is, and those who traveled it by night-vision or starlight would draw pictures in their minds of how the wind moved, based upon the way it blistered their faces and tore at their clothing; on the patterns that emerged at something that could scarcely be called daybreak.
Yes, the darkest day races towards us. The darkness saps your energy and erases time; days blur, as in summer. I have often found myself restless, anxious for the outdoors, but today finds me contemplating the meaning of the word “hibernation,” startled at the strength of my desires to eat too much and sleep for eternity. Instead I run a few precious inches of hot water into a bathtub, lay on my back and stare at the yellow glow of the shower curtain (pattern: flowers). I think, I am so tired. It is probably because of the wind. But maybe, it is because of the seal.
With humor, I recall a lyrical artist statement I once wrote: When I dream, I dream of cold wind, I had begun. Hah! What little I knew of cold, then. Welcome to the world of forty-below-zero, of ice-encrusted door interiors, of painful frost burns covering your palms from the forgetful grasp of a doorknob. My fingers crack and bleed, hurriedly sewing myself sealskin mittens. Seals are life; they are everything. Sitting in circles we share ulus and gulp seal broth and slices of raw meat. Only then can you see the veins in your hands thickening, strengthening, and feel the heat pushing out into your extremities. You feel relief. You feel how badly your body wants the seal. You will feel unspeakable gratitude as you haul its sleek and blubbery body onto the ice. You will be reminded that beneath us in this vastness is a rich and thriving ocean, teeming with life, and only the trained among us, listening for the gentle exhale at a seal’s breathing hole, sense its presence. Yet it is always there. The cold brings for us a thin and fleeting boundary between worlds which we skim everyday, yet never cross except at our own dire peril. You eat the seal and they say, you will not sleep, tonight.
It is December. At first there was a star at noon, a single gleaming point in the sky that hung with all the weight and magnitude of the sun, suspended. When your eyes found it in the periwinkle sky, they couldn’t let it go again. It pressed the world silent under its weight. It moved me more than I can speak of. The first time I saw it I said aloud: There are stars at noon. The sky is dark. The sky is so dark, the pole stars can be seen at noon. These are words from the I Ching. This I know. And here we are.
We sat around a table in a little mountain cabin, warming up. The exposed skin around my eyes had been frozen, brittle when we arrived, painful to squeeze my eyes shut against the sting of ice-coated lashes. Here there was fire, laughter, bright blue walls that at a certain time of day must blend precisely with the vast landscape of Victor Bay outside the window. The entire cabin, down to the last detail – windows, flooring, matching curtain rods – had been found and salvaged from the dump. You would never have known, in this cozy, peaceful space, seals by the doorway and skidoos parked outside, everything sparkling intensely when you moved, as if alive, doused in a deep layer of glittering frost. Water was heated and passed around; I downed cup after cup of hot coffee, hot chocolate. I felt the heat sink down, down into my body, bringing it back to life. My discarded clothes grew into a mountain on the floor. I think people probably laughed at how much I was wearing; I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to. I listened to the women speak, watched their eyes light up, the soft tones of Inuktitut and huge smiles and calm gestures out the window. I watched them attentively, guessing, piecing together the tiny bit I could understand.
Joe turned to me.
“She is saying that last night she saw a falling star. A giant one, bright orange, streaking slowly through the sky, with a huge tail after it, like a comet. It was right out there.”
The women smiled at his translation, turned to me for a moment. Then they looked out the window. I thought about what it must be to stand there under that vault of stars, in the silence of this place, and bear witness. I thought about how much I still do not understand.
It has been three weeks now, and more and more it is difficult to find time to sit at the computer. It is strange; a different kind of busyness. Gone are the days of rampant achieving, doing, completing – frantically ticking boxes off my pages of daily to-do lists. Instead, the events in the in-between, the living, the getting the thing to happen, find you and sweep you away, fill the hours. Although sometimes, in the world where I came from, we might say I am not doing a lot – days here are full, rich, and memorable, a lot of time spent just being with people. Small things seem momentous. There is not even time to write it all down. At night sometimes I whisper the events into an audio recorder so I won’t forget. Even then I am surprised at how long it takes me to explain it all. You could never explain it all.
It is getting colder, inevitably, and rapidly darker. I am, hopefully, getting used to it. It no longer seems strange to get dressed to leave the house bundled to the point of waddling; yesterday I pulled out my best, warmest down jacket and thought, quite matter-of-factly, hmm, this would be great for springtime! (Again, an immense thanks to Clare for the parka I am still borrowing). It is getting colder, but I am learning how to dress, how to deal, and how to accept it. Anyone can stay warm enough if they are moving; what gets me is hours on the snowmobile at high speeds, or a whole day on a dogsled, sitting still. But unlike heat, my nemesis, there is always something you can do. You can bring hot fluids with you in a thermos. You can hop off the dogsled and run alongside it until you are out of breath and panting, fling yourself back on. You can buy skidoo goggles at the grocery store. There are ways.
Many things have happened. I have continued to accompany Joe to Nanisivik by skidoo; one time we stopped briefly at some people’s cabins, which was amazing. I hope to go back. We looked for polar bears, but never found any – just tracks. We went to the site of a summer camping place with the remains of old sod houses at the base of the mountains. I was a bridesmaid in Sheba and Joe’s wedding, an immense honor and remarkable experience. We all played bingo every Friday night. I played one night of floor hockey with the girl’s team here, and was so bruised afterward I could hardly move for days, but I will probably go again. Recently, I went dogsledding with a man who has a dog team here, out there all day in the silence, telling stories and drinking tea and waiting for him while he attempted to hunt a seal. The seal didn’t come, but he tried, and I got to witness. I learned so much that day. I learn so much all the time, just existing.
Time to go outside, to make the most of the dwindling daylight! It will break twenty below zero this week – got to get out there before that number is doubled.
Already a week has passed, and things begin to feel like home. It’s hard to write about poetically, at this point, it is all too fresh. Here are some photos. A timeline of sorts.
The morning I flew to Arctic Bay, Gwen bequeathed me with these beautiful, handmade sheepskin slippers. She had been my roommate aboard the Sea Spirit, and knew how often I came home with desperately frozen feet, running straight into the shower to thaw them back to life. Hopefully that won’t be so common an occurrence, anymore.
I arrived, and was warmly welcomed home by my host family, Sheba and Joe. I’ll post pictures of my house another time – it is spacious, warm, and very new, only three years old. My room has a view over the frozen sea (see above) and my bed has Spider-Man sheets. Success.
On my first day, a young girl gave me a handmade magic wand as a welcome present. It seemed like a good omen. I made a photograph of it.
Also on my first day – a tour of the town by snowmobile, learning where everything is. So fun to travel by skidoo!
My new home in the lovely blue light that takes up a large part of the day.
Selfie during my first excursion with a 4×5 since photographing at Reid’s wedding in June.
I went out onto the ice in front of town, and was followed by these two puppies, who approached me soundlessly from behind and scared me half to death, at first.
Then, the first magic day. The first day out on the land, with clear skies. I accompanied Joe to Nanisivik, about 45 minutes away by skidoo, where he has a job as a sort of security person and wildlife monitor (aka: look for polar bears). It was my first time out for that long by snowmobile, and I absolutely loved being out there. The landscape around Arctic Bay is intensely beautiful and very diverse, and Clare was right – the winter turns the ocean into a giant highway, where you can easily push 90 km/hour on the snowmobile with no problems. The twinkle of other snowmobile lights dotted the horizon line like stars.
Joe and his new skidoo. They are actually incredibly comfortable to ride on, and especially to drive – with heated handlebars and a good windshield, it is a lot warmer than driving a “quad”, or four-wheeler.
We eventually arrived at Nanisivik, to beautiful pink skies and patches of reflective ice. Joe walked around doing his job and I tagged along, relieved to get my blood moving again after so long sitting down. Clare had lent me a giant parka that fit me sort of like a tent, a giant flapping sheath of warmth that the wind still managed to creep into around the edges. It was much better than the short insulated jackets I had brought with me, but I could tell I was going to need an upgrade as winter progressed.
I stood there, trying to absorb the beauty of it all, when suddenly Joe asked if I wanted to head back to Arctic Bay to try and see the sun before it disappeared for the winter. I realized then that we were behind a mountain, and today was the last day of sun! Suddenly it seemed like a race against time, but as we rounded the point, there it was. Beautiful and huge, sinking down into the horizon, permanently. I made the last-sun picture that I had dreamt so long about!
It was a spectacular first outing. I loved it. It made me want to go out on the land every day, and I was so excited that I had ended up living with Sheba and Joe, as Joe goes to Nanisivik twice a week for work, and there is always room in the passenger seat.
What really struck me, after returning from Nanisivik around lunchtime, was how exhausted the cold made me. I felt I could hardly move, and laid in bed for the majority of the day’s remainder. It had only been around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, relatively warm – it was going to take getting used to. I resolved to spend time outdoors every day, to slowly convince my body that this was normal.
Life continued. Now inhabiting a world free of gluten-free products at the grocery store, I made a cauliflower-crust pizza for my host family.
I also went shopping for fabric for a parka. Here is the seal section of the local fabric store.
One moonlit night, I went out with Clare to photograph near a lake. I was deeply, almost painfully tired, and didn’t have it in me to use a tripod, but here are some quick, handheld test-shots of the landscape.
Then yesterday, back out to Nanisivik under the full moon. It was utterly glorious.
Here, at Sheba’s parents’ cabin – a sort of veranda for seal hunting. Looks pretty luxurious, if you ask me.
On Saturdays, Joe goes up into the hills behind Nanisivik, so I followed. What should await us there but jagged, colorful canyons, turquoise rivers weaving their way through the base of them. The light wasn’t quite right for a 4×5, but one day, it will be.
On the way back, we met some seal hunters, who had just shot a seal but failed to retrieve it before it sank. I had never seen a seal’s breathing hole – an aglu – before, and was fascinated by the idea of the hunt, by skidoo and by quad, out there on the ice. One day, I resolved, I would have to find someone to take me with them. It’s amazing to speed over the ice like that, trying to imagine all the vibrant life going on beneath you at any given moment.
It is now Sunday – a week ago since I woke up here my first morning. Inuktitut vocabulary words newly posted onto my wall – it’s a challenging language. Outside the horizon is glowing golden-orange, a sunrise surely just beneath it, the sky clear and cold.
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.
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.
…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.
The view was spectacular.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had arrived.