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May 1999

Landscapes of the Soul: Canada’s Arctic

Like your first love, you never forget your initial visit to the Arctic.

The upshot is that each day we meet groups of international wilderness buffs. One day, while Jeff and I cool our feet streamside, a family from England wanders into view. Another time, we’re breaking camp when a French couple stops for a chat. At the next camp, we’re treated to tea by an elderly couple from Ontario. The one nationality we almost never encounter is American.

As with my current visit to Baffin Island, the goal of my first Arctic journey was to climb a mountain, in that case 9,020-foot Mt. Chamberlin, the highest peak in the Brooks Range. At least six of us were changed forever by the experience-not the climb, which was stellar, but the Arctic life. We became addicted to the endless horizons and the intimate details of this exquisite landscape, and we kept returning. By my final trip north in 1974, we’d seen tens of thousands of caribou, a dozen wolves, and even more grizzlies. But for all my early passion, somehow the midnight sun dipped below my personal horizon. Only its glow lingered in my dreams.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t needed the Arctic break-in time that Jeff seems to be experiencing on Baffin. He wants wildlife. I, too, would love to see more than a few honking geese and the weasel that poked its head from behind a boulder. But while caribou herds move on, the landscape endures. He also hasn’t adjusted to what he calls its barrenness. I guess that impression is in the eye of the beholder. While Jeff’s gaze tends to skip from trail to distant views, I’m often crawling on bended knees, poking my camera lens into thickets of lichen, lifting my sunglasses to make sure the tundra’s colors are for real. Fireweed, the splendid purple flower that bumps against your chest in lower latitudes, blooms just as intensely up here on Baffin. But since it has to complete its life cycle in just a few weeks, the entire plant, flower included, barely tickles our calves. Still, it grows in such a dense mat that the trailside seems painted by a gigantic purple brush.

Even willow, which at Alaska’s much higher latitudes grows head-high in sheltered nooks, is squashed flat against the ground. Once we spy a knee-high patch; elsewhere the willow elevates itself to boot height at best. We’re told that if we were to cut through a Baffin willow’s pencil-thin stem and examine it with a magnifying glass, we might count 300 annual rings. Baffin, like any Arctic land, is a harsh place. But barren? Hardly. At least not once your senses are attuned. I don’t argue the point with Jeff. Soon enough he’ll understand.

At the end of our fourth Weasel day, we confront a scarier side of the Arctic. This morning’s breeze has worked itself into a bluster. The formerly blue skies are sheeted the color of wet granite, and we’re mortified by the horrid current at whose edge we tremble. Inuit rangers we’d met yesterday had advised us to wait until 2 or 3 in the morning before crossing this notoriously ill-tempered glacial effluent. Despite perpetual daylight, the night air cools enough for glaciers to hold back a portion of their meltwater. Intimidated by what we see during the early evening and knowing of a Japanese hiker who was swept to his death at this spot last year, Jeff and I don down jackets and sit on rocks in the increasingly gloomy chill. But we’re not too good at waiting and soon cave in to our irrational, lets-get-this-over-with impatience. We unstrap hipbelts, link arms, and wade into the torrent.

In no time, the water is pressing unmercifully against my hips, tipping me downstream. Without Jeff bracing from below, I’d be swept away like a soggy rag doll. We shuffle slowly across, anchoring each other and praying that we can continue to stand up to the 30-foot-wide torrent of liquid ice. Neither of us has ever walked through such a powerful current, and if we could turn around, we would. But we can’t.

Suddenly, the water grows shallow and we claw our way onto the bank, delirious with joy. As we dance about trying to get the warmth to return to our legs, two young platinum blondes and an elderly Inuit stride up, obviously intending to cross in the opposite direction. “How was it?” they inquire. “A l-l-little t-t-too intense,” I reply. We implore them not to attempt it until the volume abates during the wee hours of the morning. The Inuit meanders over to commune with the stream for a while, and we learn from the women that their companion hikes this trail weekly while maintaining the outhouses. A few minutes later he returns, announcing that they should wait. I breathe a sigh of relief. Now I don’t have toface up to whether I was more concerned about their safety or about bruising my ego if they’d made it look easy.

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