Snow-capped mountains. Colliding slabs of sea ice. Polar bears, narwhals and ringed seals. These are the images that I had in my head of the Arctic.
That was before I went to Resolute.
I feel lucky for the chance to travel to the High Arctic. Apparently, at 75°N, above the Northwest Passage on Cornwallis Island, it’s a polar desert. I have never been to the Arctic before, and as I embark on designing the museum’s new Arctic Gallery, it’s time I had a look for myself.
My flight to Iqaluit, Nunavut, is delayed. “Bad weather up there these days”, they say.
On the plane from Iqaluit, I watch the landscape roll by—for 800 km. No sign of civilization. The land’s skin seems to have been peeled off to expose its muscle. No trees, no roads, no houses.
After landing, I’m brought to Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program compound in Resolute Bay (PCSP for short). Scientists and researchers use the PCSP as a launching pad for fieldwork in the High Arctic. PCSP is an island on an island: self-sufficient, yet totally dependant on the south—for supplies, fuel, food, equipment, buildings, materials, people.
I will need to sleep tonight: it’s Community Day at the PCSP tomorrow. I’ll be showing off Museum of Nature materials—a Mammals of Canada poster, a beaver skull, a piece of birch tree and other wildlife from “down south”—to visitors from the nearby community. There will be a barbecue and traditional throat singing. I try to close the ineffective horizontal blinds against the light outside, which at 9 p.m. looks just like the overcast 6 p.m. of when I arrived.
Two days pass; the rain stops but the fog remains. I venture out for a short walk around the compound. Various heaps of rusted machinery and fuel drums and neat piles of broken-building parts litter the site. Clearly the cost of removal is higher than the value of steel. Everything brought up to the Arctic will be there, for better or for worse, until it is returned down south. On my way back to the compound, I stumble on three curious Arctic fox pups that seem unperturbed by the absence of vegetation, darkness, or clear skies.
The intense fog remains the next day, the day after that, the day after that… The light never changes. As everyone waits for a window in the cloud-cover to fly to their destination, it feels as though time stands still. We talk about research, the weather, experiences in the field. People bond quickly in this remote place. Someone corrects me: Resolute is a community, not a village. I get it—it’s people, not things, that turn a place into home.
Five days in, at 10:30 p.m., the sun comes out. Micheline Manseau, a Parks Canada biologist up here to track caribou movements, asks if I want to accompany her for a walk to the beach. Distances are deceiving in the North. No trees, no familiar landmarks to gauge distances. I can see five days’ walk in front of me in any direction. I feel a strange contrast of freedom and exposure. Although I can go anywhere I want, I’m most certainly visible. Ninety minutes later, we are at the beach. Low tide, I learn. Quiet and still as a desert, covered in ice; Arctic Terns dancing overhead.
“Remote” used to mean “picturesque” for me. Now it means that you have nothing more than what you brought with you, and no amount of technology can rescue you if Mother Nature refuses. If you’re weathered in, all you can do is wait. And when the weather breaks, you take advantage of it, whatever the time of day.
“The ice is still so thick for the end of July,” comments Micheline, back at the base. “This is an unusually cold summer.” I look around the barren, snowless landscape. No ice-capped mountains, no polar bears, no seals. The Arctic is a vast, diverse land, and cannot be reduced to a mere handful of clichés. It seems that the only Arctic I recognize is the ice on the ocean, and with it, the sense that this place is entirely different from my life back home in Ottawa.