OUTTAKES FROM THE ARCTIC
by Maureen Magee
by Maureen Magee
Maureen Magee took a journey by snowmobile from Baffin Island to the Floe Edge in Canada's Arctic as part of the television series Off the Map.
Below is her article first published in Room of One's Own literary journal entitled Outtakes from the Arctic.
Below is her article first published in Room of One's Own literary journal entitled Outtakes from the Arctic.
"My limousine awaits me. Solidly constructed from scrounged plywood, in an 'au naturelle' finish, she stretches 16 feet, and is to be my home for the next few days. The Inuit call it a komatik. I call it one ugly sled.
Standing atop the snowy slope leading down to the shoreline, I watch my guide load the sled with food, tent, tarp and rifle (rifle?) Under his feet, the sea ice flexes, translucent turquoise water sluicing below the thin covering, as if searching for an escape.
“He’s standing on the Arctic Ocean,” I whisper to my travel buddy, “and it’s shifting beneath him.”
Doug ignores me, busy videotaping two huskies snarling over the bloodied remnants of a caribou carcass.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have bargained so hard to find a cut-rate guide,” I continue.
"Maybe we should just wait and go with that big tour company coming in from Yellowknife.”
“Maybe we don’t have $4,000 to spare.”
He has a point there.
“The whole purpose of this trip,” he reminds me quietly as he turns off the camera, “was for me to film you, as a ‘Woman Travelling Alone in the Arctic.’” His decibel level builds. “Alone. Not with some damn tour, full of overfed, Kodak-clicking boomers who have more money than chutzpah!” His shaggy handlebar moustache, which ordinarily flutters gently away from his lips, has become close to airborne during this anti-tourist tirade. As he wipes away accumulated froth, he spots a tiny yellow flower pinched between rocks, and flips on the camera to zoom in slowly.
Flurries of June snow sift down, then float up and eddy around me, as if they can’t make up their mind whether to come or go.
Neither can I.
Down at the sled, the guide breaks open an elderly rifle. Pushing aviator-style glasses up on his broad brown forehead, he squints along the barrel and starts loading bullets from his pocket.
“What’s the rifle for?” I call down.
Joasie looks up. “Bear.”
“Uh-huh,” a whimper escapes as my stomach plummets toward my mukluks.
Sensing trouble, Doug straightens.
“I thought this was just a camping trip – to see the edge of the ice floe, baby seals, stuff like that!”
“Jeez, Magee, it’s bloody Baffin Island; if there are baby seals, there’s going to be polar bears too, looking for lunch. You’re not going to conk out on me now, are you?”
“But the ice – look at it – it’s MOVING…”
“Aaah cripes.” Doug disconnects his battery belt and thrusts the heavy camera into my arms.
“What happened to the adventurous woman I interviewed for this trip? The one who had travelled around the world by herself? Who hiked up volcanoes, slogged through rain forests. The one who slept where ever she had to – hammocks, grass huts, a broom closet!”
“It was a linen closet.”
“Whatever. You know, I chose you because you told me you were daring; you told me you were willing to try anything…”
“Well, I was…”
“Then where the hell’s all that spirit gone?” Doug huffed.
“It’s here someplace, I’m sure…”
“Of course it is! You’re spunky, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I’m not sure.” I ponder. “I think…I think…” Suddenly, the penny drops. “I was all alone on my other trips; there was no one for me to lean on. It’s easier to be spunky when I’m alone!”
Doug’s gaze drifts out over the landscape as he attempts to digest this bit of feminine psychology.
“Ignore me then! I’m just a camera; I’m not really here, OK? Just ignore me.”
I blink at him, unconvinced.
“And guts!” he roars, continuing his sales spiel. “You’ve got tons of guts! Look at all the things you’ve done! I couldn’t bungy jump off a bridge!” He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know you want to do this, Magee. How many women get the opportunity to…to…” he stumbles for words, “to EMBRACE THE ARCTIC like this?” he finishes, waving his arms grandly.
How many women want to, I’m about to ask when he interrupts.
“We’ll be a great team. You’re exactly what this documentary needs. The Inuit are going to love you. The seals are going to love you!”
I start to melt.
“You’re perfect for this.”
“Perfect? You think so?”
“Absolutely.” He moves close, putting his arm around my shoulders. “You know, I can’t do this without you, Magee.”
I sigh. How can I resist? I’m gutsy; invaluable; perfect. I’m attempting something no other woman in her right mind would do.
“Ah, Doug, that’s really sweet of you…”
“Great. Now shut up and give me the camera. We’re losing the light. When I get to the bottom of the hill, I want to film you hoisting your backpack and walking down the hill to the sled, got it?”
The man is all charm.
The signal comes. A Lone Heroine – courageous and perfect, I prepare to stride ahead into the great beyond. Swinging my pack over my shoulder and avoiding the trampled path used by the others, I launch myself across virgin snow which immediately gives way with a whoosh and the lower half of me disappears as I sink crotch-deep. I am stuck.
Doug keeps filming.
“In our language,” Joasie pants as he hauls me out by my armpits, “we have many, many names for different kinds of snow.”
“Really? What’s this kind called?”
“Loosely translated – ‘just for the birds.’”
It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Doug was a wannabe film maker, who dreamed of a travel series: ‘Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things.’ He would sneak as much time as he could from his day job to drag his unwitting recruits into far-flung corners of the world in search of adventure.
Pond Inlet is a village at the northern-most tip of Baffin Island. A narrow strip of houses hunker down with their backs to the barren, rocky tundra; they are rewarded with a frontal view over the water to the mountainous Bylot Island. High above the Arctic Circle, ‘Pond’ is acknowledged as the most ancient Inuit settlement in Canada, and is accessible one month a year by ship, otherwise only by air. Over 90% of the population is Inuit; most of the elders speak no English.
Heavy melt-down time occurs in June – walrus and narwhals frolic a few feet from the floe edge. Seals scatter themselves over the ice, reclining lazily to soak up the sun. There is plenty of sun; at this time of the year, it never sets.
Joasie mounts his snowmobile and glances back to check that I am secure in the sled. Kneeling on a pile of sleeping bags, I peer over the windbreak and give him the thumbs up; he lowers his sunglasses and kicks the engine into life. My heart pounds as the snowmobile creeps forward. The bright yellow rope linking it to my sled slowly uncoils from the ice and straightens out. It stretches taut between the two vehicles; there is a stand-off when nothing moves. The engine whines in agony; the heavily-loaded sled resists. Finally, the cumbersome beast gives way and jumps forward with a groaning lurch. We’re off! At last, I’m on my way to the open waters of the Arctic Ocean…
“Cut!” screams Doug.
He’s going to be hard to ignore.
Three hours of sled travel is an awfully long time. My spine and knees stiffen; my face is prickled red where icy snow pellets have zinged into it. Brilliant white rebounds everywhere and in spite of sunglasses, a deep frown line hangs in my brow. I wiggle toes and fingers trying to keep the circulation going, but there’s that one body part that reacts most sensitively to the cold; swelling up and complaining more and more with every bucking crunch of sled runners over choppy sea ice. It demands instant attention, and when ignored, can prohibit all thought, inhibit any movement and take over one’s whole existence until even the most intrepid explorer is conquered, and forced to deal with it.
“I’ve got to pee-e-e-e-e-e!” I yell at Doug over the roar of the snowmobile.
We crawl to the front of the sled and brace ourselves against the windbreak, hollering in unison to Joasie. The wind snatches our words and whips them away; Joasie remains hunched and intent over the engine, the James Dean of the North. Eventually he glances back and at the sight of our frantic gesticulations he cuts the engine and slowly, agonisingly slowly, coasts to a stop.
“Good idea,” chirps Doug as he clambers over the high edges of the sled. “I’ve got to go, too.” Joasie joins him as they walk a few feet away and with their backs turned, providing all the privacy they need, they unzip and are soon sighing as the snow steams in front of them.
Ah, the simplicity of manhood.
I, on the other hand, am left gazing north, south, east and west, searching in vain for shelter. We have been zooming along the Pond Inlet. Anywhere from 20-40 km wide, it is the frozen finger of water that separates Baffin Island from Bylot Island. The Baffin land progresses bumpily up from the ocean’s edge to become dark mountains. As a contrast, Bylot thrusts itself angrily several hundred feet straight up from the frozen water, its iron-brown cliffs shredded by some vicious geographical force. And there is nothing, nothing in between but waves of ice. Nothing except the sled.
“Uh, guys…I’m just going to be back here…on the, uh, LEFT side of the sled, ok.?”
“Sure, we’re just stretching our legs.”
“Well make sure you stay up on the right front, will you?”
“Sure, sure,” replies Doug. “Just hurry up, huh?”
Hurry up? The man has no concept of what is involved here. I pull off thick mittens and unzip my ski jacket, unbuckle the bib and unsnap the sides of my ski overalls and let them drop. I yank down the long underwear, peel away tights, and just before I expose my bottom to the minus 10 degree air, I realise that all the shed clothing is piled high between my legs, directly in the path of my potential relief. Cursing the female’s lack of flexible plumbing, I face the fact that I am actually going to have to vacate portions of my dress.
Scrimmaging beneath the mound of clothes, I unlace my left boot and pull my foot out. Balancing against the sled on my right foot, I pull off a pant leg, then a long underwear, then a tight. With it comes my sock, which flutters a few feet away in the snow. When the final piece of lingerie comes down and off, my bare foot goes back into a frigid boot and, pulling the pile of clothes up my right leg and out of the way, I try to relax…
“What the HELL is taking you so long?” bellows Doug from just behind, throwing me off balance and landing me bare-bummed in the snow.
“It’s complicated.” I hiss as I scrabble to my feet. “Get back on your own side of the sled!”
“Hey! did you know you’ve got a heart-shaped tush?”
“I’m going, I’m going! I was just making sure you were alright. We thought you’d fallen down a seal hole!”
“I’ll – be – finished – in – a – minute.”
He rejoins Joasie, who remains imperturbably gazing ahead into nothingness, a cigarette dangling from his lip. He’s a man of minimal words and less facial expression. I can only wonder what is going through his mind.
“Sheesh,” I hear Doug say, “women!”
“Yep,” Joasie replies.
Oh, damn. They’ve bonded.
Having managed to lace, buckle, zip, snap, button and tuck myself together again, and with a smile on my face, I am nestling down in the sled when Joasie announces “There’s goin’ to be some cracks comin’ up soon.”
“Like, cracks in the ice?” I quaver.
“Yep. You’ll have to get out of the sled.”
“To do what?” I ask, but he’s already plodding back to the snowmobile.
I turn to Doug. “Cracks?”
“Hey, it’s June. The closer we get to the floe edge, the more the ice is breaking up.”
I close my eyes and deep breathe. Doug continues to talk.
“That Joasie’s pretty cool, eh? Do you know, this is his first time out guiding?”
My eyes fly open. “WHAT?”
“Yeah, he’s only twenty-two. He’s real excited about it.”
“I’m amazed you can tell. You mean he’s never done this before?”
“He’s done it before,” Doug reassures me. “He’s been doing it all his life. He’s just never been a guide. Don’t worry…he knows what he’s doing!”
“How would you know, city boy?” I snipe, as the snowmobile engine roars to life.
Doug shrugs. I crawl over to his end of the sled as it jerks forward, and raising the earflaps of his sheepskin hat, I yell.
“Why do we have to get out of the sled at the cracks?”
He shrugs again, with a ‘who cares’ smile on his face.
A few miles along we slither over our first crack, a six-inch ribbon of black water creasing jaggedly through the ice. Another few miles, another narrow crack. And another. They are quite innocuous, and I soon forgo peering over the edge of the sled to remain huddled below, protected from the biting wind.
I have entered some form of limbo land – the grey sky and snow squalls obliterate all sun and sense of time – there is no way to gauge distance – I know we are moving; the sled’s thunky, rocky jolting and the ferocious scream of the snowmobile never let me forget it, but I feel like I’m in some old movie, bumping up and down in the same place while panels of scenery scroll by, over and over, in a dizzying continuum; cliffs on my left, snowbanks on my right, cliffs, snow, cliffs, snow. And a highway of ice straight ahead. Somewhere beyond this insane noise and endless movement is my reason to be in this immeasurable land, but I’ve lost it. I wonder if we will ever get there … I wonder where “there” is; I can’t picture what it looks like. I catch sight of someone in Doug's reflective sunglasses; a hat pulled low, a scarf tucked high over the nose, frost growing on both. Sunglasses mask the eyes. It must be me, but I am incognito.
Suddenly, the pitch from the snowmobile simmers down, and then stops entirely. I close my eyes and breathe in a few moments of precious silence before uncranking my body to check out the situation.
“Wow!” Doug says. “Nobody move until I get the camera fired up!”
The situation is a four foot wide “crack” of open water. Joasie stands at the edge, a short, stocky figure gripping a long pole with a metal hook on the end. He plunges the pole into the ocean, hooks the bottom of the ice we are standing on, then draws the pole back out to take a measure.
“How thick is it?” I ask.
“Coupla feet.” Slamming the pole down the edge of the ice, he chisels away a small bit, and seems satisfied.
As Doug films, Joasie unhooks the snowmobile and drives it back a hundred yards or so from the direction we just came. Walking back towards me, he breaks his silence.
“We’re gonna push the sled over the crack to make a bridge.”
“Ah.” My eyebrows are still raised as I try to guess the next move. “Then what?”
Joasie fingers his wispy moustache as he stares at me for a moment. “Then you’re gonna crawl over the bridge. When you’re on the other side, you pull the rope and I push the sled until it’s all the way over.”
I would have figured that out. Eventually.
The two of us get behind the sled and, on the count of three, throw our weight against it. It slides slowly over the black, opaque water and creaks to a halt, gouging a few inches into the opposite side. Bits of ice crunch away from the tips of the teetering runners. It is obviously not secure enough to support any weight.
“Again,” says Joasie. “Quicker.”
We heave again and the sled straddles the water evenly. I scramble over and jump down on the other side. Joasie turns to Doug, who continues to film. “Turn it off.” His soft, laconic voice has turned deadly. “Now.” I am amazed as Doug obeys, quickly and without a word.
When the sled has been negotiated to the far side, Joasie strolls back to the snowmobile, adjusts his cigarette between compressed lips and revving the engine to a screaming pitch, hurtles it down the icy runway, then somehow lifts it up, letting it soar over the watery gap. The skis hit the ice with a ‘thwack’; the body of the machine shudders.
“Well!” I exhale shakily, and realise I have been holding my breath captive for quite a while.
The situation seems to call for some reaction, but I can only sputter ineffectually.
“FANTASTIC, man!” Doug spews, “Ef-fin fantastic!”
“Let’s eat,” replies Joasie.
After seven hours of racing due east, we approach a dark line that divides the antiseptic glare on the horizon, and emerge from our icy, mountain-flanked alley into the widening mouth of the inlet. Baffin Island has disappeared completely from our right, and the Bylot precipices have turned left and headed north. The squalls remain behind, content to whistle through the passageway, and as we close in on the elusive edge, we lift our frozen faces to the warmth of a deep evening sun. Our day of flat, dull tones has crystallised into diamond white and sapphire blues. Icebergs drift a few yards away, capturing the sunlight and radiating fieriness against the bruised sky and water. I have an insane desire to swim over, to touch them, as one wishes to swim with dolphins. The wind, the engines have died; we stand silent, the only sound an occasional crunch of snow as someone shifts. Every breath is both a relief and an energiser, like a hit of oxygen. There is a purity here that clears away all thought, all practicalities, and allows me to just – be, as if there were no past, no future, nothing but ice, water and sun. I turn and see the ragged cliffs of Bylot behind me; we will follow that coastline tomorrow, venturing further north, but for now, they are an intrusion; they clutter the new-found cleanliness of my mind and I turn my back on them again, to gaze, as I have seen Joasie do, into nothingness.
Suddenly, a trio of walrus surface close in front of us, all limpid eyes and quivering whiskers. They roll, undulate, disappear. I have the feeling they have checked us out.
Joasie shakes his head. “Never seen that before – they don’t travel in three’s. Let’s set up camp.”
Gazing hopefully into the ocean, I wait for their return, but obviously, we are not as fascinating to them as they are to us. “Yeah, let’s set up camp.”
Supper is anticipated with a mixture of hunger and trepidation – what did Joasie have tucked away in his larder? Back in town, I’d been served caribou stew, caribou on toast, dried caribou with Peek Freans and apple juice. I’d watched fascinated as elders and babies chowed down on raw seal. As I chisel chunks of ice to fill cooking pots and kettle, my stomach rumbles in suspense.
“Chinese or Italian?” Joasie asks.
I chuckle in appreciation – it’s the first sign of humour he has shown all day.
“Oh, gosh, I was really hoping for some Ukrainian food, Joasie,” I joke back.
His face crumples in confusion, “I don’t think they had that at the Hudson Bay store.” And he pokes his head back into his box of supplies, surfacing with a worried expression and an armful of frozen egg rolls, chow mein, lasagne, spaghetti, and a tiny tin of Viennese cocktail wieners.
“Isn’t this what you guys eat down south?”
Not in a million years, I’m about to quip when I realise he is dead serious. There’s a pause as I try to cover my dismay at the thought of Chung King in the Arctic, then Doug comes to the rescue, thundering, “Hey, I love Chinese! Did you remember the plum sauce?”
“Are you sure we should be leaving the food in the sled?” I ask as we prepare for bed.
“Yep,” replies Joasie, as he fiddles with the knobs on the short-wave radio.
“I thought the first rule of camping,” I whisper to Doug, who is brushing his teeth, “was to never leave food out for bears.”
“Maybe it’s different up here,” he mumbles.
I look over to where Joasie has what appears to be a wire antenna in one hand. He is turning the radio at all angles.
“Maybe our guide is twenty-two years old and has never guided before. Maybe he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
“You worry too much. Everything is frozen. The bears probably can’t smell a thing.” He flosses violently.
I hang over the edge of the sled, picking through the pile of food for the next few days.
“Of course, on the other hand, maybe they wouldn’t want it, even if they could smell it.” Relaxing a bit, I am prepared to give polar bears some culinary credit.
“Atta girl,” comments Doug. “You just got to learn to trust more. Hey, Joasie. Are you trying to call Pond?”
“Yep,” he replies, “Supposed to call in our location.”
I relax even more, knowing we have contact with civilisation.
He shakes the radio. “Can’t raise ‘em.”
“What, too much interference?”
“Nah. Forgot the call band.”
Doug crawls into his sleeping bag, pulling his battery belt in with him. Joasie sleeps with rifle tucked into the crook of his arm; bag unzipped. I opt for the centre position, between them both; it seems the most bear-proof choice. My body begs to “sleep”, but there is no escaping the sun that beams unmercilessly through the white tent walls. As the men’s soft, stereophonic snoring alternates with the sound of waves lapping the ice, I lie restless and alert, positive that if I do drift off to sleep, I will drift off to Greenland, as well.
The snowmobile has been throttling along the cliff edge for a couple of hours when I notice a steady, high pitched noise surfacing over the roar of our engine. It rises and envelops us completely and as we round a bend we plunge straight into a wall of screeching, all-pervading pandemonium. Thousands of small, gull-like birds are circling overhead and papering the cliffs above us, and every one of them, black or white, seems to be very upset.
It appears that Joasie wants us to see something at the base of the cliff, but though his lips are moving, I can’t catch his words through the mindbending din. We follow his pointed finger, and find a small opening in a pleated cleft of rock. Doug pokes his head in, pulls it out, then turns around to back into the hole and with a crooked finger, beckons me to follow, setting up his equipment to film.
We seem to spend a very long time inching through the narrow tunnel, and as I haul myself along on my elbows my clothes become slick with bird guano and I think I must smell very, very bad.
"Is this what you meant by ‘embracing the Arctic?’ ” I ask, my one consolation being that, in order to film me, Doug is forced to muck through as well, only backwards.
“Jeez!” Doug stops suddenly and switches off the camera. I come within a nose-length of colliding with him.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to talk to me when I’m filming you?”
“Anyway,” Doug continues, “Joasie says it’s worth it – the cave is fabulous – like a cathedral.”
“Then how come he isn’t in here with us?” I ask. “How come WE’VE been grovelling through this bloody wormhole for God-knows-how-long, and he’s outside in the fresh air, probably catching a few rays and having another ciggy?”
“My, you’re getting testy. Listen, Magee. I am going to turn on the camera. I will say ‘action’ when I turn it on. That is your cue to stuff a sock in your everlasting commentary and start crawling. This is an adventure. Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself, ok.?”
“Oh, I’ll stuff something, alright, but it won’t be – ”
We squeeze through the last few inches of the tunnel, and emerge into a vast cavern several stories high. The space stretches off around a corner to our right. Immense stalactites drip fairy-tale-like from the ceiling. Panting to catch our breath, we gawk.
“In-cred-i-ble!” Doug breathes as he wanders through, looking for shots. “And the light is so good! I mean, here we are, inside a mountain cave, and the light is…just a minute.”
We stop and eyeball one another.
“How come there’s so much light in here?” he asks. We trudge to the bend in the cavern and round the corner where we are halted, temporarily blinded by shafts of sunshine pouring through an opening wide enough to fly a small plane through. Beyond, Joasie lies fully stretched out on his snowmobile, face to the sun, smoking.
“Hi, guys. Great cave, eh?”
The corners of his mouth crinkle up, ever so slightly.
“But we crossed this crack just a few hours ago!”
“It was much narrower then.”
A pause. “Yep.”
The three of us line up in a row, a gulf of open water lapping at our feet. The word ‘crack’ no longer applies; there is more than 20 feet of frigid ocean separating us from our route home. The uncompromising cliffs of Bylot loom a few yards on our right, their solidity the antithesis to the shifting world beneath our feet.
After a long silence, I venture, “The cliffs have got some good hand and footholds. Even with our boots on, we could probably traverse across…”
“And leave the sled, and the snowmobile, and all our food and equipment behind?” finishes Doug. “And then walk a day and a half back to Pond, swimming across the other cracks?”
“I’m just thinking out loud! Have you got a better idea?”
Joasie ignores us both. He appears deep in thought, but it’s uncertain whether he’s devising an escape route or saying his prayers.
Eventually he stirs. Unhooking the snowmobile from the sled, he backs it up from the water, as usual. “We’re going to push the sled right up to the edge of the water,” he instructs. “Then, when I get onto that piece of ice, I want you to throw me the 2 x 4 we used for the tent roof.”
“Get onto that piece of ice…?” I repeat to his back as his shadow lengthens. Joasie has seen what we missed; a large piece of ice, a little bigger than my living room at home, is jammed against the opposite side. He climbs a few feet up the base of the cliffs, and starts shimmying his way slowly across the rock face, hanging over the water as he gropes for a foothold here, a hand grip there. I’m terrified to watch; terrified to look away. Finally, he reaches a point in his traverse where he is in jumping distance to the free-floating ice. He rests for a few moments, breathing heavily, his small, stocky frame spread-eagled against the cliff, then turns quickly and springs away, over the black waters beneath him, and lands with a tumbling roll on the island. It rocks gently with his weight.
I breathe again, and manage to chuck the awkward 2 x 4 into the water and sail it towards him. He hooks it, and dragging it to the far side, uses it as a lever, leaning his weight against it to slowly, very slowly, push the island away from stable ice on the far edge. Inch by inch, the gap starts to close. Joasie manoeveurs his way along, heaving, prodding, coercing the huge piece of ice against the current, towards me.
It takes an hour to narrow the 20 foot gap of water to the point where I can jump across.
“OK” Joasie pants, “you lean all your weight against the pole and try to keep the current from carrying the ice back.” He leaps over to the sled, orders Doug to shut off the camera, and they race to push the sled onto the island. My strength can’t compete with the current and we start to drift back. Doug slams his weight against mine as Joasie rushes back to the idling snowmobile and flies it across the narrowed crack.
“OK, let go now.” The island tilts slightly with its load; water laps over the edge and we shove the sled and snowmobile to the centre.
No one says a word; Doug and I exchange glances. His mouth opens, then shuts. Having had no time to succumb to fear; now that the danger is over, the terror begins to surface. There is everything to say and no way to say it. Our ice ferry bobs gently with the current. I watch Joasie’s face – flushed and covered in sweat. His hand shakes slightly as he lights his cigarette.
“Maybe when we get to the other side,” he says quietly, “we can make a cup of tea.”