You booked the trip, paid your money (a lot!), scheduled your vacation. You have twelve days to raft the tundra, see the caribou migration and cross the Arctic Circle. Except, the ice is breaking up later than usual and you can’t move. So you sit on a rock, contemplating the rhythm of the river and your own insignificance. Be thankful for the lesson; it’s one that city dwellers never learn.
The Burnside eventually relented and let us complete our journey.
Wild flowers in the Arctic? Think of a subalpine meadow in the Canadian Rockies. The growing conditions are much the same, and so are the flowers. There are places in the Arctic where you cannot walk without stepping on barren-land beauties (as Page Burt calls them in her book of that title).
With twenty-four-hour sunlight, a tiny window of summer, and an often fierce and frigid wind, a few adaptations are necessary. Any plant that wants to grow had better do so quickly. I have gone to sleep in my tent with nary a flower in sight, only to waken to a meadow burgeoning with colour. There’s no time to grow tall, and given the harsh conditions, hugging the ground is the safest strategy.
We live in an astonishing world, where heather can be a tree on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and rhododendrons shrink to two-inch-high shrubs in the north.
The Inuit have lived in the western Canadian Arctic for thousands of years. If you know how to look, it is not difficult to find evidence of their earlier culture: stone caches for meat, kayak stands, rings for houses, stone men and hunting blinds. The structures they made from snow, animal skins and wood have long since disappeared, and such will no doubt be the fate of this lonely church, which in 2008 was being used for storage.
Bathurst Inlet in western Nunavut is a tiny community of a few dozen Inuit and a few billion mosquitoes. According to the 2011 census, the population was zero, but a wonderful lodge there was my home for a week in 2008. A joint venture with the local Inuit, it still seems to be operating during the brief Arctic summer, and is well worth a visit.
In the northwest corner of the Yukon, where the Firth River Delta meets the Beaufort Sea, lies a narrow strip of land called Nunalik Spit. Scoured by winds so strong that driftwood shelters have been built to protect the tents of the few hardy souls who visit during the brief summer, this barren spit seems to offer little that would justify my love for it. It’s cold, wet and monochrome, with a view that stretches unbroken to the horizon. And yet…
I turn my eyes to the ground as I walk, and eventually am rewarded. An arctic bladder pod! Farther on, a patch of ground-hugging sandwort. How can anything so fragile live here? These tiny flowers survive unprotected while I draw my parka tighter around me and wait for the Twin Otter that will whisk me away to warmth and a soft bed.
To me, much of the lure of the Arctic is the challenge it presents to life, whether it be a flower that stubbornly thrusts its roots into a gravel beach, or a human who leaves comforts behind and steps into a world where nature wields a ruthless power. And yes, I also find haunting beauty in the scene above.
Full moon over unknown mountain. Baffin Island, 1979
I have been devoting so much time to my latest passion (writing mystery/thrillers set in the Canadian wilderness) that my blog has suffered neglect. So I have decided to start a new series of short posts that will document my love affair with the Canadian Arctic and far north. What better way to start the day than by reaching into my grab bag of treasured memories and sharing them? While I write this at 0700, I am listening to my favourite music (Beethoven Trios this morning) and reliving a moment of joy.
No photo sums up my arctic experience better than the one above. In 1979, the Alpine Club of Canada held a climbing camp at Ayr Lake near Clyde River on Baffin Island. With twenty-four-hour daylight, normal routine meant nothing, especially as we were in a wilderness that we would probably never visit again. Two other women and I left our base camp in mid day and skied into a land of magic. What lies over the next pass? Has anyone ever stood on that summit we see on the horizon? And so we continued for perhaps twenty hours. We weren’t climbing granite walls or trying to establish new routes. We just wanted to explore and experience this world that was so new and strange to us.
It was well after midnight when we saw this glacier-capped mountain in the distance, shining clear in the light of a full moon. It seemed to be issuing an invitation. And of course we had to climb it.