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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.

In the two rainy, foggy days after our stream crossing, we scramble the moraine above Summit Lake, cross the gray highway of the Caribou Glacier, and finally arrive beneath Mt. Asgard. We wait four days for the weather to improve so we can climb the mountain, all the while staring dumbly at the shroud of sodden clouds, only occasionally glimpsing the peak’s 3,500-foot skyward sweep. We shiver, knock fresh slush from our tent fly, and brew yet another pot of hot chocolate.

On the fifth drippy day, we make the gut-wrenching decision to abandon our dreams of granite. We collapse the soggy tent and leave this inhospitable world of rock and ice above the tundra. A dejected shuffle eventually takes us across the glacier to a moraine-top camp above Summit Lake.

By now it’s early August, and under thick clouds it has become impossible to read during the night’s darkest hours. So I’m asleep when the rain stops falling. In the morning, we feel an unaccustomed brightness on the tent. Over breakfast, we more sense than witness the fog thinning. Then a distant summit pops out from its gauzy blanket. Then another. Soon the clouds lower until they merely carpet the Weasel Valley and leave us warming under a high ceiling of bright vapors. We decide to race back toward our summit, leaving everything here but our climbing hardware and some food and bivy gear.

During the following days, sporadic rain splatters us in waves. But in between, the sun breaks through to dry both rock and climbers. The icicles we’d seen earlier have retreated deep into recessed cracks, and we scamper up the granite with unbridled glee. We drag a backpack behind us and stop every 1,500 feet or so to spend the night on small ledges. At noon on the third day, we haul ourselves over the edge to the perfectly flat, snow-covered summit. In an hour we’ll have to begin the arduous process of rappelling and scrambling down a different, less challenging route, but for as long as possible we let ourselves linger at the apex.

As we climbed the last rope lengths up the mountain, the clouds had gradually dissolved into atmospheric haze, and now bright sunshine does its best to warm our cold hands. In all

directions and as far as we can see are granite monoliths and twisting glaciers. Two great earthen valleys are the only rents in a sterile monotony of endless rock and ice. In the northern rift, we see the Owl River braiding to parts unknown. To the south, the Owl’s twin sister, Weasel, surges down our familiar sun-dappled valley. Here on our frozen summit, we melt snow for tea and dangle our feet over the edge while we sip. We sit quietly, absorbing this ice age landscape, and then I turn to ask Jeff what he thinks about all this. But the mood is one of private contemplation, and instead I leave him to survey his own horizons.

A few months later, I get a letter from Jeff describing his Arctic experience. “Looking out across the landscape one day,” the letter begins, “it felt like we were on top of the world. In this isolated place-something that’s so hard to come by anymore-it seemed that nothing counted other than ourselves, but everything about life mattered. I marveled at how tenaciously life clings to what I had thought was a barren land, and it awed me. At that moment I fell in love with the Arctic.”

As I reread Jeff’s letter, my mind drifts back to youthful northern passions. In my heart I feel the warming glow of the midnight sun, and I realize that first loves never die.

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