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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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

Gratitude and the Polar Community

The other day, after a few hours of work, I got up from my desk and stepped outside. It was a beautiful spring day: snowmobiles drew lines across the sea ice far into the distance, meltwater streams trickled down the muddying roads, and somewhere, a glaucous gull cried out – an unexpected sound, suggesting the slow approach of open water, somewhere past the ice. School had finished for the day, and children in multicolored parkas played amongst the houses as far as the eye could see.

I lingered by the coastline, taking in the view. At that moment, a nearby door slammed open, and a young teenage girl burst onto the porch, screaming in delight. In a lace-set t-shirt and jeans, she sprinted down the stairs, shrieking all the while, and hurled herself at me in a hard, enthusiastic hug.

Moments like these – unexpected explosions of warmth and welcome – reinforce the feeling that coming back here was an excellent idea. Every time I leave the house, something good seems to happen, some positive encounter, new photograph, or idea.

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Taryn, 10, drives her friends on her parents’ snowmobile on the sea ice near Arctic Bay.

Every day, I am endlessly grateful for the many sponsors who helped make this trip, and this time, a reality. Since I launched the idea of Sea Ice Stories last November, over 30 people have contributed in the form of print sales, commissioned artwork, and direct donations. Nearly as valuable as the financial backing is the moral support – a polar community of sorts, spread far and wide across the world – that stands behind what I am doing now.

Now, with joy and gratitude, I’m pleased to announce that Quark Expeditions has also become a sponsor of Sea Ice Stories.

For the entirety of my professional life after university, I’ve proudly joined Quark as a photography guide on over 50 expeditions across the Arctic and Antarctica. From driving zodiacs amongst penguins and whales, to leading hikes across the Svalbard tundra, greeting the sunrise on a Greenlandic beach or landing in a helicopter at the North Pole, every voyage with Quark has brimmed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences ranging from extraordinary to profound.

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Leading a photography walk in Greenland – thanks Nix Souness for the photo.

I have Quark to thank for the privileged and adventurous lifestyle that I have been able to lead, and for seven seasons of life-changing wilderness experiences in the Polar Regions. Now, I can also thank them for supporting my personal development as a photographer and lecturer.

What is my vision, as a guide? I strive to help people understand the meaning and context of what we experience in the Polar Regions, to become better photographers, and to better understand the indigenous cultures of the inhabited Arctic. However, if I had to choose only one thing – my primary goal – I’d say that I hope to help people feel. I hope, ultimately, that people will come away irrevocably changed, with a new passion for these remote and beautiful regions that they may have never understood before.

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Mika and Jennifer, 2018.

So, a sincere thank you, to Quark and to all my other sponsors, for believing in me, and the power of photography to help the world better understand the beauty, richness and importance of the Arctic. And of course, thank you to the people of Arctic Bay, especially my friends and new housemates, for extending such warmth once again.

 

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.

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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.

 

The Worth of a Day

January 15th, 2015

How, I wonder, does one even begin? My dear readers, it has been far too long. The past three weeks have woven hazily in and out of sickness; days upon days have piled, differentiated only by a different book, a different mood. Slightly different symptoms, pushing me down and spinning my head, ringing in my ears, confining me to a perceived lifetime of stuffy, indoor solitude. Outside the daylight grows and the temperature plummets into the -30s, and I hardly dare leave the house, should the relentless cold destroy the small victories I have painstakingly won over whatever illness is waging war against my body.

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And yet. Interspersed with these periods of bleakness have risen adventures of new heights. Connections have finally been forged that I had been looking for all along. Even inside, something has changed – the strange timidity and nervousness that plagued me in the beginning has dissipated. There is nothing to do but to plunge ahead. Today, for the first time in a week, I can taste my morning coffee. Today, I will take a photograph again.

I thought it appropriate timing to compose a summary of sorts, for those who know little of my life aside from my lyrical ramblings, Facebook statuses, and stories shared by my mother. This is a time-space utterly removed from anything in my life experience. Sometimes its pace makes me restless, when my hard-won conditioning for efficiency and achievement crops up, a foreign and anxious reminder of the world I left behind. Yet this rarely happens anymore; I have succumbed to the flow of time, and sometimes wonder if destiny sent me here in an act of salvation, to literally force any dangerous degree of busyness to a shuddering halt. How do you measure the worth of a day?

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Each day is what you make of it, but the way I think about that idea has changed. I have been a person with an alarm set for 6 AM, every minute of the day planned in a frantic jumble of multiple work commitments, school, workouts, cooking, writing, studying, still attempting to be creative and, sometimes, have friends. I would deny I was wearing myself into the ground, time and time again, and my to-do lists spiraled off the pages of my precious day planner. Each day is what you make it! I would tell myself reassuringly, comforted in the fact that I was constantly achieving the maximum possible.

The time has come to seriously reconsider that statement. What is value, really? How is worth measured? Weeks have now passed that my former self would have regarded as utter failure; a betrayal to myself and my capacities. The thought is not jarring, as it sounds. I think, perhaps, I am learning to see clearly. Real value is enjoying your life, learning new things, taking care of yourself and others, and spending time with the people you love. Listening. Seeing. Of the days I have been forced to remain in my room, very few have been losses. Every day is different. Subtle variances are richer than we care to acknowledge. While I will undoubtedly return to being a busy person with a lot to do, I hope that this period of calmness, this clarity, can somehow leave its mark.

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Okay, done reflecting. Time for an actual summary. Perhaps what I mean to say is that a lot of the things I actually do here in the Arctic don’t sound so exciting written down. It is dark outside, and cold. I sleep a lot. I play with kids, when I’m healthy. I sew things that Sheba teaches me how to make. I read books I always wished I had read – books on English language writing, polar exploration, philosophy, poetry, academic ponderings on nordicity, joyous fiction. I write. I go to the grocery store, because going to the grocery store here is inevitably a social event, and everyone knows everyone. There, I purchase expensive fruit and vegetables. I take naps. Sometimes I cook; most of the time Joe cooks and we all eat together in front of the TV with plates on our laps, on the couch or on the floor. After dinner, Sheba and Joe usually take the kids to visit a family member or a friend, and often I go. There, we sit, talk, share food, and often stare at the screens of the television and our mobile devices. The kids can play together and get their energy out. When I am healthy I try to exercise, running laps around town in the cold, past the rumbling trucks delivering drinking water to houses, billowing steam as they pass. When there is an event at the community hall, I go, and slowly I get to know people. Sometimes I go to church, although I admit I’m not particularly religious. Sometimes I watch people playing sports, or go to square-dances, or youth and elders meetings. Sometimes I meet people to photograph them. This is how the majority of the days pass.

In between periods of this existence, however, are tremendous experiences of what I call magic. I love going out on the land here more than I can possibly convey, but it has been exceedingly difficult for me to find people to take me with them. Yet now and again: magic. I feel that I live for it, here, for the few-and-far-between instances where some kindly soul, after my persistent badgering, has finally agreed: yes, you may come with me. Who would have known that I – who love animals and had never been hunting before – should find seal hunting to be the most wondrous thing in all the world?

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Perhaps it is because I am an outdoor person and connect easily with others who are, and that the majority of people who go outside in the winter here, do so because they are hunting. But there is something almost spiritual about it, in the poetic way I see things. Combing the ridges and cracks of a frozen sea, hunting the stillness for the subtle breath of something utterly invisible. Bringing life upwards, beyond this frozen border. You go out; you are engaging with the landscape, with the animals. You are breathing it in and tracing the patterns of life. You are alive.

These have been, without question, the radiant highlights of my time in Arctic Bay. I absolutely love it. I try to photograph it, and often I have to resort to digital, because what else are you going to shoot in the dark on the back of a moving skidoo or dogsled at thirty degrees below zero? At first I perceived this as a failure of some sort, on my behalf. Now I can see it is actually a miracle. That the ISOs of digital allow us to capture images that never could have existed. The best camera is the one you have with you. There will be photographs.

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In Glenn Gould’s radio piece The Idea of North, someone says that you can’t talk about the North until you’ve gotten out of it, and I think about that almost daily. Sometimes I speak on the telephone with people far away from here, who ask with breathless exhilaration how it is going, this adventure of mine, as if I were some pioneering explorer. And to be honest, I don’t know what to tell them. You’re so brave, Acacia. Brave? It may have taken courage to come here alone, initially, but now? I’m chatting with my Inuit friends on Facebook and walking to the grocery store.

These intentions are good, yet I can hear in their voices the way that the Arctic evokes these exotic ideas, this Otherness, this notion of danger or primitivism or who knows what. This exasperates me.  I’m living normal life, I tell them. Just like anywhere else. Of course people will live somewhat differently based upon culture, environment, their experiences – these are not differences worthy of judgement. I wish to live in a world where people do not other-ize each other, even subconsciously – where people can see past differences, past stereotypes, and recognize only the human qualities that tie us all together. On a large scale, this is perhaps impossible, but at least we can all do a small part to spread compassion and understanding. These are things I think about.

This Arctic world has become home to me now, and it is impossible, while still immersed in it, to evaluate what might be of interest, or educational, to readers elsewhere. In time, I will see these things, and I will write in detail of my experiences, but as of yet they remain out of reach. This is a time for me to live here, now. Time spent writing, now, is experience lost, and with that in mind I will now strive to make the very most of my last weeks. Until later!