Saturday, September 13, 2008

Return from the Arctic

I'm flying home from another of my arctic sojourns. Yesterday started a little before daylight as we left the ship anchored in snow-covered and breezy Resolute, and zodiaced to the nearby shore to catch our ride to the airport. We were met by a grizzled and burly man in a thick, faded, plaid shirt that looked like it was rarely removed, and then, only when absolutely required. I said, "Good morning." and he grunted something not unpleasant, but not entirely intelligible either, clearly not a morning person. This was the only sound he made until he departed again in his battered and rattly van with a simple, but reasonably clear, "See you." How such a brief exchange could endear you to someone I don't know, but I felt a fondness for his thrifty style. He looked and acted like the iconic working man of the north.

The little airport terminal was still dark and empty but the doors were eerily open. I looked around for a light switch. Finding it behind one of the airline counters, I switched it on. "You can't do that at JFK," said one of my co-travellers, a journalist from London. We smiled together at how the north was so different in so many ways from our more southern lives.

After more than ten hours of flying, the September green of Ottawa became evident as we descended through the thin cloud. Lush tree tops, farmers fields at season's end, networks of busy roads. Normal felt topsy-turvy. These were the conditions in which we lived our day-to-day lives but they felt strange. We had just spent 11 days in the arctic that was packed with so much adventure that you couldn't possibly imagine cramming it into such a short time. But the wide-open landscapes, the simple austere beauty, the richness of small when you paid attention to the ground cover, the eye-watering clip of a glacial wind, the unlit dark of night - all this had come to feel normal, in contrast to the movement, the green, the warmth, the neon of the south. Two worlds.

As a traveler, this is one of the things I love about the arctic. It takes you out of yourself and your day-to-day life. You greet each day with new wonder. You suspend your expectations and accept that the coming day will be different from any other of your past. But how, you don't know. You feel close to the elements. You feel humble in a huge land that lacks all sense of scale. A cliff face that at first looks to be 300 feet high looms higher and higher as you inch toward it becoming 3000 feet when you reach it's base. Without trees, or people, or cars, or dwellings, you find it impossible to judge height and distance. You are a mere speck in this immense and indifferent land. You matter not in the flow of time and the vastness of this great, silent and beautiful space. But somehow this is good - simple humility in the face of something so grand.

We had travelled from Kuujjuack in Ungava Bay, along the east side of Baffin Island, across Lancaster Sound to the bleakly beautiful and uninhabited Devon Island, touched onshore at Beechey Island where Franklin's lost men lay "frozen in time", and ended at Resolute. I little over a hundred of us were aboard the expedition ship that brings travellers to the Arctic waters from June to September or so, and to Antarctic waters from November to April.

I was working again with Adventure Canada as the photographer/naturalist on board. It's a job I love. I've been doing it since 2002 - three or four trips per year. I've covered a lot of ground and water in this role and the joy of it doesn't seem to fade. I get a chance to practice my craft of making photographs and helping others do the same in some of the earth's most dramatic landscapes. I work with a team of others who, at the top of their game, bring their own expertise in archaeology, marine biology, local culture, geology, music, literature and the visual arts. It's a wonderful mix of personalities all of whom share a passion for the north.

A typical day goes like this. The ship travels through the night so you wake up in a new destination. After breakfast on-board we off-load into zodiacs and go to our landing site. It might be a totally wild place that is very rarely visited by people, or it might be a small Inuit community. We then spend a few hours onshore exploring or mixing with the local people. Then it's back on board for lunch as the ship moves again to a new destination. If the next landing is more than a couple hours away, there are presentations made by the bevy of experts to fill the time until we arrive for our next landing. During the night the ship moves to yet another location. That is the rough pattern for each day. It is punctuated with exclamation points when we see a polar bear on an iceberg or scores of bowhead whales like we did this past trip in Isabella Bay in south-eastern Baffin Island.

For photographers these trips afford priceless opportunities. The light is always good in the arctic because its acute angle to the earth casts nice long shadows. As well, it starts early and ends late. The air is crisp and clean. The landscape is stark, empty, and immense. Almost every day there is a heart-stopping sight. Icebergs are common and the glaciers that spawn them wind between the mountain tops and the icecap further inland. Northern fulmars are our constant companions at sea as they float on the wind currents. On land you end up staring at the tiny details of the immense landscape like the ground-hugging plants or the lichen-covered granite.

All in all, these trips have become an essential part of my annual routine. We talk about THE DISEASE. It's highly infectious. That's when you have this arctic itch that just has to be scratched. Hey, why not see if you can catch it too and join me on one of these trips? I list them under the Human Nature Adventures part of this website.

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