I first travelled to the High Arctic in the summer of 2009 after my first year of university. After months of pestering, I was signed on as a field assistant and I found myself participating in the preparations for three months in the field at a remote camp on Ellesmere Island. In the space of a couple of weeks in late spring of that year I took first aid and firearms courses, I learned to bulk buy food, I built a tundra-cart for transporting gear and brushed up on my bird and plant identification. This wasn’t the dangerous first taste, I’d had that years before on family trips to northern Norway. This was the addictive stage, the stage of my Arctic experience that had me hearing the whisperings of the tundra, “Come a little closer, come a little closer… there’s magic in the air.”
That first experience, a dream of sunlight, cloud, the glare of sea-ice and the minutae of insects, pollen, buds and sedges was to be the last for a little while – the next couple of summers were spent in the Coast Range, the Rockies and around Vancouver. In 2012 when I began a Masters at McGill University I was offered the chance to begin my work early and so in August of 2012 I found myself on the plane from Montreal headed to Iqaluit. It’s now March of 2014 and I have spent close to three wonderful months over three trips in Iqaluit and out on the surrounding land and ice. Some more academic focused accounts of these trips can be found on our lab webpage at ccadapt.ca, but I wanted to write something rather less formal and to describe some of the landscapes I’ve had the good fortune to experience.
This should begin with a preface that I regard my field trips as ‘field-trips’ in an academic sense only – it is essential to remember that Iqaluit is a community of 7000 people, and that in all of the communities of Baffin Island people are living this landscape everyday and have been doing so for thousands of years. What is an adventure to me is everyday life to lots of people. While Baffin seems remote it is by no means unoccupied and the landscape that I have travelled through is richly storied by all of those Inuit and Qallunaat who have walked it before me.
I want to make that clear because all to often the outdoor/adventure media likes to approach places like Baffin and suggest that somehow the epic adventures people go on are through some barren and empty landscape, that we are the first to walk in these places. Sometimes that’s true, but more often than not it isn’t and instead simply ignores the lived realities of the people who call the place home.
For many of us our image of Baffin is of the fjord country of the east coast – the steep sided valleys, a landscaped carved by water frozen and flowing down to the sea. My experience of Baffin has included some of this landscape but it has primarily been focused on the rolling tundra to the south around Iqaluit and the end of Frobisher Bay. This is a landscape of gentle hills, rivers and along the two peninsulas which hem the Bay, occasionally steep cliffs and deep ravines. On my first few walks around town and out on the tundra I can remember thinking that the landscape was remarkably flat, but that perspective soon changed when I had the chance to travel across it on hunting and fishing trips.
Lots has been written about tundra, describing the flat white of snow in winter, the way the grey of the sky blends with the land, the smell of sedge and moss in the summer and fall. My Baffinland has been all of these – I have jogged across the frozen pack ice of Frobisher Bay, watched the sun set behind the hills away to the south, and felt howling winds scrap across the rocks. The hills towards the centre of the island roll very gently and rarely rise very high which can easily lead one to feel a little lost. On a fishing trip to a river inland, I fell behind my companions on the trail and for a few minutes found myself turned around. Despite the fact that there were no trees and zero fog, I had a moment of feeling more lost than I have ever felt before. I felt as though the trail could lie in any direction, that I might travel 100km in any direction and simply disappear into the land. Despite the fact that I regained the trail in minutes, they were minutes of an intense aloneness I have never felt anywhere before.
When I felt lost it was wrapped in a sense of the expansiveness of the land, that I would simply disappear – melt into the snow. On a hunting trip out on the sea-ice I felt a sense of almost the opposite, that the sea and the sky would swallow me – a remarkable sense of containment. We were hunting close to a small polynya (saqvaq in Inuktitut), an opening in the ice kept open by tides and currents. A good place for seals and bears. The broken ice, the blizzard around us, the heavy cliffs on the shore – I had a strong feeling of being surrounded and encompassed as though the storm and cloud would close in on us and we would be eaten by the Bay. When we were successful and sat by our sleds eating snacks, Ryvita with fresh seal blood, I felt that with our companionship and talk we might push back the edges of the storm.
Baffin is a beautiful place, a hard place undoubtedly, but one which softens with experience. Every time I stand on the landing strip ready to depart for Montreal I find myself excited to return, and when I unpack boots and parkas back in the south I smell sedge, seal blood and the crisp scent of cold.