Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Far, Far Away

I've only been home two weeks from our expedition to the Canadian high arctic and Greenland and already it seems as far away as it is on the map.

But when friends and famiiy ask me, "So, how was it" it's easy to recall. I say, "Bleak, desolate." And, even as I recall the welcoming smiles of so many Inuit in the three villages we visited, I also remark, "Sad."

Everywhere is evidence of global warming. I'd expected that but not the extent of the damage. Until we got far, far north in Baffin Bay, ice was hard to come by. As Jimmy, one of our two Inuit cultural guides on the expedition ship Akademik Ioffe, pointed out when we arrived in his home town of Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, the glaciers are decidedly retreating. The massive one behind his town used to come down to their backyards; we craned our necks to see its foot -- easily two miles up into the brown hills overlooking Grise Fjord. Seal hunting has become more difficult for Inuit and polar bear alike. The floes where they hunt are going, going, gone.

The arctic's is a sad history too. Inuit were relocated, their children sent off to "residential schools" far from their parents to be starved, beaten, raped. Whites stole their language by forbidding it. Anglican priests eradicated the First People's shamanic traditions. Thankfully, some restitution has been made; the Inuit are now celebrating the 10th anniversary of the creation of Nunavut, a vast northern territory of Canada that is theirs to govern. And parents and schools are now teaching Inuktitut. Children are learning to hunt; they're learning how to drum and dance and sing once again in their native tongue.

Although whites eventually conquered, theirs is a sad arctic history as well. Shipboard lectures and a subsequent visit to the graveyard on Beechey Island attest to the fatal follies of 19th-century arctic exploration. I've long been haunted by the saga of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845-47. Both of Sir John Franklin's ships went down; all of the 129 men died seeking the Northwest Passage to the Orient. A 150 years later it's pretty much been proven that lead poisoning was the principle culprit -- lead in the solder of the tin cans of food they consumed, ingesting the metal with the meat -- and driven mad by it. Many, many contemporary searchers after Franklin met much the same fate. Their bones are scattered across the brownscape of the arctic and buried in the sands beneath the sea.

I spent considerable time contemplating the fate of Franklin and his men in a series of poems, including the one below in which I imagined what the the fate of the pet dog that accompanied the crew on their journey to an arctic death.

Unleashed, 1847

A frigid ocean away
from heathered highlands,
one border collie
with no sheep to herd
aboard the Erebus
trotted aimlessly among
scurvy-weak sailors,
lead-demented officers.
But when Jocko,
the ship’s pet monkey,
nipped her heels
and the boatswain’s
swift kick clipped her ribs,
Neptune let over the rail
and followed the trail
of arctic wolves
into the icy mists—
the Franklin Expedition’s
sole survivor.


P.S. Roger took this photo of me at Lemieux Point on Devon Island; the landscape is quintessential high arctic.