The Journey North

The boots I wore on the plane were rated to sixty degrees below zero, ice-grip soles inlaid with artificial, coarse stone. Airport security workers squinted at the x-ray machine, re-running the purple neoprene with resigned suspicion. But it was Alaska, and still winter, and I was eventually released to ponder various Arctic taxidermy on the way to the gate. Polar bear behind glass, eiders labeled on shelves, Inupiaq hunter mannequin in a life-size floe edge panorama. A bull moose, hooves on the granite floor, stood at a crossroads as if debating its travel route.  

I sweated profusely in the boots, kicking them off under airplane seats and café tables, pattering around in socks. They were overeager, protective things, destined for ice and snow, but the route to Arctic Bay was long, six flights, warmer climates between the cold ones. I slept, wrapped in my parka, upright in chairs.

Even on the way to get there, there was magic. It had been building, perhaps, in the gazes of all those Arctic animals, but I had been too tired to notice. It wasn’t until I woke up in Ottawa, and finally saw the fountain, that I knew the journey had begun.

It was, to the frequent traveler, a simple decorative fountain, passed impatiently, without much notice. To the children of the Arctic, however, this fountain was shrouded in myth. A dark, tiled wall, spanning two stories between arrivals hall and baggage claim, was veiled by continuous falling water. Multicolored lights pulsed upward, making the water glitter like ice, writhe like something alive. It suggested the mystery of aurora, the slow flames of a smoldering fire, and something celestial beyond description.

  iPhone video still - click through to view video on Instagram.

iPhone video still - click through to view video on Instagram.

I remembered, vividly, the eager face of a young Inuit boy from Arctic Bay, eyes sparkling, telling me about seeing the fountain on his first trip to Ottawa for surgery. The rainbows! The boy beamed. It’s all full of light! He raved, ecstatic.

What ever happened to that boy? He must be a teenager now. Once, when the whole town was on lockdown during a winter blizzard, this boy had braved severe subzero temperatures to meet me at the store, to show me a tent he had made. I hadn’t forgiven myself for staying home that day, for thinking he wouldn’t show up.

For some reason, I had thought about the boy for years, hoping he would have a safe and trouble-free passage into adulthood. I prayed for his innocent jubilance to remain with him throughout his life, free from the weight of adult self-consciousness. Where was he now?

I stared into the falling water, wondering what he had seen here. Was it wonder, surprise, or something deeper, here at the baggage claim? Did he recognize, in these watery flames, allusions to burning thoughts, inner drives, the fleeting nature of memory and time? Or was it just novel?

What makes some people see more than what is immediately obvious? I thought. Recently, someone told me I sleep with my brow furrowed in deep concentration. The older I get, the more I can see these lines, becoming a part of my face.

Did you see it? He had asked. Did you see the fountain?    

I wanted to believe, then, that I had.

*

I had grown accustomed to boarding Arctic-bound aircraft. These days, I was usually accompanying large groups of jet-lagged tourists, negotiating their dietary restrictions with the flight crew and answering endless streams of questions. In brief moments of solitude, I would consult my notes or guidebook, hoping to have all the answers.

Going North alone, however, is a different thing entirely. No longer concerned with having answers, you can focus entirely on having questions. Better still, you have the choice to simply observe. Sometimes, the most important revelations rise from periods of stillness, of simply paying close attention.

Leaving Ottawa, my eye first caught on the mottled white of frozen lakes, still intact despite the warm spring. Rivers, too, cut white lines through the blue forests. Some straight, some curved, some bisecting and intersecting, intricate as lace. Clouds came and went, with their ashy shadows. What was nature, what was man? It was impossible to tell. 

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On the plane I read an article about a young woman who wanted to hunt caribou. To do this, she had quit smoking, and saved up the money to buy an ATV. When she eventually shot her first caribou, she ate nothing, but gave the meat away to the elders and the hungry. As is custom, the article said. The article, in the in-flight magazine, was about financial literacy and goal-setting.

I looked down over the land. The tree line had given way to a vast and undulating landscape, presumably akin to tundra, every depression and concavity brimming with windswept snow. I thought of the patterns that play over ocean floors, or desert sand. White and blue gleamed from every corner of the earth.

At last, we crossed the coastline, and the sea ice came into view. Massive lunar discs, fractured and fissured by tide and current, blanketed the ocean. What had bewildered Western explorers thought of this? How could the untrained eye differentiate between ice and land, fixed and moving, before the floes crushed in and it was all too late?

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In Pond Inlet, the wind gusted over 45 kilometers per hour, but the soft-spoken airport workers shrugged and smiled. No longer out of place in my parka and boots, I stepped gingerly into the coldest wind I’d felt in years.

That was it. Engines roared to life, we ascended, the airline had recently improved the quality of their coffee. Outside was the brightest landscape I had ever seen. It grew progressively more glaring, more brilliant, more overwhelmingly white, until it was like staring down at the surface of some cold, luminous sun.

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I sat back in my seat, feeling optimism welling, my heart beating harder, and recalled a sentence by Annie Dillard.

“If we are blinded by darkness,” she had written, “we are also blinded by light.”