THR Web Features   /   May 10, 2023

Encountering the High Arctic

How nature is revealed when you are most helpless.

James Conaway

( Ellesmere Island, Shutterstock, and a local sign in English and Inuktitut, BlueIce64 via reddit.)

How would you like to go to the high Arctic?”

It was the National Geographic calling, and no one turned down Big Yellow. Not because the prose was great—it wasn’t—but because the money was, and they sent you places you would otherwise never go. Since I knew nothing about the Arctic, I put the editor off until I could do some reading: The sun doesn’t set from May to mid-August… The vastness of the area is difficult to imagine… If we fail to appreciate the challenges we can expect to meet with difficulties…

Daunting photographs of harsh botanical deserts full of nunataks (rocky peaks on glaciers), fluvial braids, hanging tributary valleys, and lichen fields. Ptarmigans exploding from snowbanks and white wolves casting along silt-laden rivers and fjords gouged out by glaciers. Narwhals with twisted tusks in mythic, inky seas, ghosted by white belugas and killer whales stalking you under black ice. Polar bears doing with you whatever they please.

I agreed to go. “We want you to write for the armchair traveler,” the editor said. “No politics, nothing fancy, strictly factual.”

He sent me to a resident expert in Washington, DC, who dreamily twisted his Salvador Dalí mustache. “It will be summer there, which means daylight all the time. And flowers—mountain avens, locoweed, poppies, bumblebees. Maybe even songbirds.”

He once walked forty miles over ice without proper boots and consequently, as he put it, “I have shorter feet now.” He suggested that I wear pajama bottoms under my pants, “one of us old hands’ tricks.”

But no one at National Geographic seemed to know what I would need. The editor sent me down to the Geographic basement, full of old tenting, moldy sleeping bags, outdated frame backpacks. So for weeks I hounded clerks in Appalachian Outfitters, Hudson’s Bay, and other enablers of the wilderness-struck, lavishly spending the Society’s money for a down coat Michelin might have designed and a raucous little pack stove that would have to boil water for a hundred pounds of freeze-dried food. Ten thousand dollars went just for traveler’s checks. My editor didn’t even want me to think about buying a gun, but my contact in the Canadian interior department explained that a 12-gauge pump shotgun with a slug barrel was standard issue for anyone of their own in the Arctic. A friend in Virginia bought one for me, and I drove up to another friend’s house in Pennsylvania to practice with it.

Six white plastic buckets stand in a row on a freight platform at National Airport, scrawled over with Magic Marker hearts by my daughter Susanna to bring me luck. I collected them from Dunkin’ Donuts, washed out the smells of raspberry and chocolate mousse, and filled them with dehydrated lasagna, scrambled eggs, beef stroganoff, shrimp creole, all in foil. My interior frame pack holds an audio device the size of an aspirin tin for playing Pachelbel’s Canon, The Four Seasons, Patsy Cline. Also, a North Col sleeping bag, two pairs of gloves, a chamois shirt, a heavy wool sweater, wool trousers, goggles, binoculars, cook kit, fuel bottle, canteen, maps, a compass, a Buck knife, a Sierra cup, matches, parachute cord, Gortex rain gear, biodegradable toilet paper, insect repellent.

The ticket agent regards my shoal of utilitarian gear without enthusiasm. My jeans and corduroy jacket sharply contrast with the surrounding corporate tack. But I have a seat in first‑class—this is the old Geographic. I’ve just had a good night’s rest in Montreal, where I’ve been put up in a fancy hotel that sends up salmon and chardonnay on a trolley while my pack rests against flocked wallpaper: lip balm, antiseptic ointment, elastic bandage, moleskin, surgical blade, pemmican, suturing strips, tea bags, Hav‑A‑Wipes, morphine. I’m well provisioned, in great physical shape after working at it for a month, and scared.

Frobisher Bay’s radar dome beckons like a giant, teed‑up Titleist at the edge of a cerulean sea. This is the northeastern corner of the continent: sculpted gobs of melting glacier under white, desolate headlands, sunlight glinting off them in one continuous searing. Plumes of steam rise among a cluster of sheds and steel mesh nearby. The heavy equipment operators who got drunk as soon as we left Montreal noisily deplane. Out the window I see a coffin go into the hold, watched by an Inuit couple in matching Velour jogging suits, their soft, round faces passive. Then we are aloft again.

The plane’s bias is northwesterly, across an inky Arctic Sea, without the contracting longitudinal lines on the maps I have studied, all of which converge on the Pole. I am bound for Ellesmere Island, a vast orogeny still birthing after 300 million years, with an intermediary stop in the town of Resolute on Cornwallis Island under glaciated hills, the adjacent sea littered with ice shards. Distant cliffs levitate and then are gone, then back again, shimmering in the thermals.

I walk down the plane’s steel stairs, struck by the sweetness of air unlike any I’ve ever known. The baggage shack is crowded with men in open parkas, waiting for equipment and serenaded by a recording of “Cry Me a River” in Inuktitut. The map on the wall of the pre-fab hotel next door is smudgy from the many hands seeking tactile reassurance that places to which they are bound truly exist.

I eat in the cafeteria and go into the bar for a beer. The bartender says, “Twenty minutes, sir,” and explains why the beer tastes funny. He later actually says, “Hurry up please, it’s time.”

The oversized tires on the stubby Twin Otter transport plane have been cut down on a lathe to provide the soft-skinned buoyancy necessary for landing on tussocks. The pilot and co-pilot grip the overhead throttle as we accelerate, the big droning De Havilland engines changing tone once we’re in the air. I can smell the fuel in fifty-gallon barrels stowed behind my seat.

We fly over a pink smear on the sea ice below where a seal was recently killed by a polar bear—Ursus arcticus. I’ve already heard too many stories about the polars: an archeologist on Admiralty Inlet pulled by his head from his sleeping bag, two roughnecks on a drilling rig in the Beaufort Sea walking out onto the metal deck to relieve themselves and a bear crouching in the darkness breaking the neck of one with a single blow. Twice I’ve been told that the last thing you see in a blizzard is a black tennis ball, which is, in fact, the polar bear’s nose.

A thawing world, violet clouds, sun reeling on the horizon. The pilot hugs the southwestern coast of Ellesmere, popping up over capes of gravel to surprise racing bands of Arctic hares that stop and stand on their hind legs to watch our passage. This truncated land mass is 400 miles of nearly unsullied wilderness reaching for the Earth’s apex, hoary with glaciers, its folded mountains protecting an interior where wildflowers unfold with the coming of summer, under a sun pirouetting on the horizon.

Ice caps atop sandstone granite columns, brilliant green grass in the valleys, purple saxifrage blooming luridly on sunny slopes. Big glaucous gulls hang in the wind at the top of Tanquary Fjord, the last inland waterway before the Pole. The pilot lands on a strip of worn tarmac, a helicopter parked nearby, and I step out into the ringing cries of crested plovers and split-tailed jaegers, hovering like nighthawks. Waves sling spray onto dark rocks in a wind that seems to blow from every direction at once.

Quonset huts used by geologists stand in a row, and the cook—a warm, ample woman and a veteran of such camps—feeds me mashed potatoes with gravy, corned beef, and iceberg lettuce. I ask the helicopter pilot if he will take me to the far side of the Viking ice cap looming to the east and he agrees. I’ve planned to walk the upper Lewis River Valley alone since the Geographic photographer dislikes hiking and prefers to smoke pot and shoot near camp in the lovely eternal sundown of the Arctic in summer.

Two geologists board the Sikorsky Long Ranger and fly around the north side of the ice cap. My route out is on the south of the glacier I have studied on the topo map, now stuffed into my pack. We cross the well-watered plain and finally set down among tufts of cotton grass within view of wandering musk oxen. The bones and massive sloping horns of a dead ox lie right next to the chopper, grass growing up through its ribs.

I tell the pilot that if I am not back in camp in two days I will be over on the Lewis River, headed back to camp, and I gesture. The casualness of this request will come back to haunt me, but for now I am walking across what feels like a newly minted, untrod land.

Three hours later I still haven’t found the river. Then the ground begins to slope away and I see flowing melted snow, hazed with silt, trending southwestward toward what must be Tanquary Fjord. Judging by my map, this has to be the headwaters of the Lewis. Too tired to go on, I spread my sweat-soaked chamois shirt on the rocks to dry and pitched my geodesic tent.

My blowtorch of a stove was soon boiling water for black tea and dehydrated beef stroganoff, a dust-like substance poured from a Ziploc bag into the boiling water. The sun was halfway to the bottom of its daily circular path in the sky, and the air was growing chilly. I slipped on my parka, grateful for the warmth, and sat in the tent’s entrance, Sierra cup in hand while across the braided stream came something white. It was too small and lean to be a bear, but not an Arctic wolf. Nose high in air drawn by the smell of protein, she didn’t pause until she was a few yards from the pot. I reached behind me for the gun, just in case, and she bolted.

Breakfast the next day was pemmican, hot cocoa, more tea. The lower slopes of the mountains were tussock-covered and almost impossible to walk among, so I put on running shoes and hung my boots and then my jeans from my pack and hiked happily in bright sunlight out of the wind, naked from the waist down, only a couple of hundred miles from the Pole.

Two hours later I hear a cataract ahead. Coming around a bend in the river, I see a massive glacier that has collided with the opposing mountain. The partially dammed river forms a lake upstream that over time has eaten through rock and now plunges thirty feet into a savage, hairpin curve and disappears into a black hole under the glacier. Rocks the size of softballs rain unceasingly, some having fallen more than a thousand of feet. What lies before me is a prime example of old-fashioned sublimity, but it inspires more dread than pleasure. 

James Conaway on Ellesmere Island; courtesy of the author.

The only possibility of continuing, it seems, is to climb the near-vertical mountain facing the glacier, all broken rock seemingly hanging on by its fingernails. Then I will have to laterally traverse the high, more unstable terrain above, extending as far to the west as I can see. A glacier sits atop that mountain, too, mounted on formidable sandstone hoodoos which are unclimbable.

I shed pack and gun and set up camp. Dinner is labelled shrimp creole, but it doesn’t lighten the mood. Neither does Pachebel’s Canon played on my little cassette player or the lamentations of Patsy Cline. This land has the ability to shape-shift, defying depth perception, and it occurs to me now that I will be very hard to spot from the air, if it comes to that.

I have freeze-dried protein but dwindling fuel, and here no trees grow, just scrubby willow bushes. I have no radio or flares, and in my scrambles I have lost my notebook, a first. Notes taken at the source of any experience have a grounding quality and provide some comfort, as I know from experience. It won’t be happening here.

I sleep with my very own glacier that night. Try it sometime if you want to know just how insignificant you can be. Melting throughout day, the ice releases what sounds like barks, then pistol shots. It groans, a sound like no other, and shoots out thick streams of snowmelt that arc high above, luminous in the half-light of a dim reeling sun, before plunging down, down into the dark lake.

The next day I climb the rock pile for two hours but make it barely halfway up. The sweat soaking my shirt comes as much from fear as exertion. The vast field of boulders bows alarmingly in the center, perilously close to giving way. Crossing that stretch seems much riskier than waiting for the helicopter, but even that option now seems like a long shot.

I pick my way back down to the campsite and spread my red rain pants on the rocks, in what feels more like cargo cult sorcery than a real effort to signal a passing pilot. Then I dig into my pack for the metal shaving mirror I learned to use as a Boy Scout for sending signals in an emergency. Punch a hole with the tip of your knife, hold the mirror up so that sunlight shining through it appears on your forehead; align sunspot, hole, and distant airplane, and jiggle. No problem. Except that without the sun in your face it won’t work; ditto if a storm rolls in, which is highly likely in Arctic summers.

I crawl into the tent to get away from the big, lazy mosquitoes that dot the outside of the ripstop fabric like creeping black stars. They are so noisy that at one point I rush outside expecting to see the chopper.

I try to read the only novel I brought, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, but the suspension of disbelief required to transport myself to Naipaul’s equatorial Africa is too difficult in this forbiddingly insistent setting. I also have a small copy of the Bible my mother-in-law asked me to carry, even though I am a long-lapsed Episcopalian. I have no poetry; so I attempt to recite from memory. Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening evokes utter hopelessness, as does Eliot. The New Testament is useless, but not the Old.

The helicopter does not come that day. Or the next. Waiting is exponentially soul destroying, I’m discovering, but the Arctic hares are coming regularly now, nibbling at the sparse grass instead of running away on their hind legs, looking back to see if I am chasing them. A bull musk ox also makes regular appearances and looks me over with great solemnity. As much goat as ox, with mythically curled and hefted horns, he poses no threat, though he is possibly concerned about the impropriety of all the stuff I have hauled into his wilderness.

I remember reading in Black Elk Speaks that nature reveals itself when you are helpless. I could shoot and eat the musk ox, I suppose, but the idea of cooking a musk ox in a two-quart aluminum pot over little branches of ground-hugging willow is ridiculous. The Inuit have been dealing with starvation in such circumstances for a thousand years before the arrival of steel and gunpowder, savoring raw flesh as well as meat and fish dried in the sun. They seem to me at this moment the most remarkable people on Earth, prevailing in a place unforgiving in every way.

Meditation might have helped but I have never tried it. I know no mantras. Lines from The Lord’s Prayer, learned at St. John’s Church in Memphis when I was small come back in bits, less as prayers than as mnemonic distractions. But then I am remembering the bishop’s soft pink hands at my confirmation, the thin wafer that stuck in my throat, stumbling over kneeling boys’ legs to escape before I faint. 

First among all thoughts, of course, are those of family. Penny and Susanna had bravely seen me off in Washington. What if I never again see them, or Jess and Brennan? I have nothing to leave a note on. So again using the Buck knife, I scratch a message on a piece of slate, just in case, stating love and what I hope will be assurance if things turn out for the worst.

Hares and musk oxen, an Arctic owl, a tentative little Arctic fox in summer coat, soaring jaegers, even the mosquitoes put my anxiety to shame. We are here, they all seem to be saying. We are not your friends, but neither are we your enemies. We just are. You might try that sometime.

The helicopter eventually comes, of course, riding its Doppler effect up over the glacier’s lip in a thunderous epiphany. The sun is at the right angle, the mirror trick works, and soon I am lofting over all obstacles in a miraculous machine. I look back to see where I was, but already that daunting terrain has been swallowed in the immensity of the Arctic.

Many years will pass before I can bring myself to check western Ellesmere Island on Google Maps, in part because I dread what I will find. Much of my path down the Lewis to Tanquary Fjord has been swallowed by melt and rising seas. My bedmate glacier is gone, as is the one atop the opposing hoodoos. Others have been reduced to grubby morainic shadows of their former selves.

I think often of the person dropped off at the headwaters of the Lewis. He is down there yet, still waiting.