Arriving; Adapting to Light

Every morning, I awoke to blinding sun. From my bedroom window, I could see clusters of snow-laden buildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers in disarray, on the slope descending to the sea. A pair of ravens, silhouetted in the morning, pecked at scraps of seal meat. Beyond, all was white, radiant, reflecting the sun like a vast, snowy mirror. The shoreline grew buckled and jagged where it met the tide-worn edge of the sea ice, then flattened out again. If you squinted, you could see snowmobile tracks, distant dog teams tied up in rows.

The sea ice expanded, it seemed, to every corner of the known earth, every inch between every coastline. All topography, therefore, was connected; made equally traversable. It was difficult to imagine, as it always is at first, the wealth of life that churned below those wide plains of ice. 

“Where’s the floe edge, these days?” I asked Darcy.

“Probably no floe edge yet,” he said. “Just ice.”

My view from the airplane hadn't been an illusion - even from the air, the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see. 

Blinking out the window, I felt strangely lost for words to describe it. The cloudless Arctic spring was overwhelmingly luminous, full of whites and silvers I’d never fathomed. Each shade seemed subtly metallic, capable of emitting its own light. Yet it wasn’t glaring, in a malevolent sense, the way desert sun feels in blistering heat. The day simply never ended. It felt, I thought, like the word clarity.

Even without looking at them, I could feel the mountains rising up behind the town. This was Ikpiarjuk, the pocket, in Inuktitut - the town of Arctic Bay where I lived that life-changing winter, those years ago. The mountains, red under the snow, wrapped around this little crescent-shaped town, in its little crescent-shaped bay. They felt comforting, as if reigning in the vastness.

In the mornings I’d imagine I heard songbirds, greeting the day. Do snow buntings sing in the mornings? How do animals keep themselves from going døgnvill, as we call it in Norwegian – losing all sense of what time of day it is? At a certain point, does it matter?

On the sea ice, the trajectories of dogs, people, and snowmobiles intersected and paralleled, their times and origins unknown. A single Croc shoe, starkly black, rested on an ice-ridge near the Northern Store; a lone hockey skate lay sideways on the ice near the arena. It was difficult to imagine loosing a single shoe in this cold, much less wearing Crocs. I wondered how long it would take for the shoes to sink into meltpools of their own making, the sun warming the black material faster than everything else.

 *

Housing is notoriously limited in the Canadian Arctic, and I’d been nervous about finding a place to live. (I know families of ten who live in two-bedroom houses, kids piled on mattresses on the floor.) A few days before departure, however, I’d received a message from some friends of mine, Susan and Darcy, who used to take me out seal hunting. They had a spare room, and better yet, they were people I already knew. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I live with them now, in a box-shaped house on the east side of town. My room has a window facing the sea, and the light pours in without end.

My first priority has been visiting people, catching up, trying to gather in what is new and what has remained. With the light, it feels like a different world, but most of the people are still here. Some people have new jobs, new kids, new houses, new relationships. Others have split, separated; some have passed away. The first morning, I tried to find my friend Peugatuk’s grave in the cemetery, but the snow was deep, and I’d forgotten how to read the Inuktitut syllabics on the gravestones.   

“I can’t believe you came back,” kids say, yelling or in hushed voices, rushing to me on the street. Most of them have grown up so much that I don’t recognize them at first. A lot of the teenage girls have children now; they seem happy, proud. They pick me up on their four-wheelers, babies on their backs, and we drive fast in the nighttime sun, cold wind frosting our cheeks and hair.

Spring is on its way, and the landscape will transform dramatically in the time to come. I’m continuously surprised by the changes brought on by the new season – how much warmer it is, for example. I’d grown used to Arctic Bay at 40 below; now it gets above 10° Fahrenheit some days. People are outside all the time, getting ready for spring – fixing up their longer qamutiks (sledges), setting up tents on the ice, sewing new parkas and amautis.

  A  qamutik  - sled designed to pull behind a snowmobile or dog team - awaits use on the sea ice outside of town. 

A qamutik - sled designed to pull behind a snowmobile or dog team - awaits use on the sea ice outside of town. 

Only four days have passed, but it feels longer. There have been friends to visit, errands to run. Among other things, I have been approved to teach a photography workshop at the high school, starting next week! Two weeks later is the Fishing Derby, when a huge part of the community camps at a freshwater lake to jig for artic char. In between, I’m hoping to work on some portrait series, and of course, get out on the land – meaning, out of town – as much as possible.

Of course, the photographs have slowly begun, too. No matter how well-crafted an idea is before departure to a place, however, the realities of arrival will bring adjustments, suggestions, new perspectives. What are the most important stories to tell, here? In my photography, I’ve relied aesthetically on the ethereal qualities of darkness for a very long time. How does one grapple with endless whiteness and sun, capture the magic that is inherent here? 

Late one night, we set out for a drive into the mountains, in a borrowed SUV draped in Christmas lights. The road zigzagged up the hill behind town, and crested the saddle into a glorious wash of golden sun. There, a field of qamutiks lay scattered about in the snow. In the pink shine of arctic evening, the sun glowed through their frosted windows like a constellation of illuminated homes. Soon, these would all be in use, the spring season beginning. 

I stepped out of the car into the deepest silence I'd heard in years.