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.


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.


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.


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. 


Elder Paul Ejangiaq getting something from the qamutik at camp. 


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


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.


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.


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


Somebody’s totally, epically, beautiful camp. 


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


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.



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.


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.

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.



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.


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



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!)



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.


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.




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.



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


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.

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.