Notes from north of the 68th parallel
I CROUCHED LOWER, as low as I could, behind my ATV’s stubby windshield, and spat dirt and sand back into the wind that had flung it at me. Ahead of me, growing more distant, my guides shared a second Honda four-wheeler; Paul’s parka hood flapped in the wind as he drove, and his wife Rebecca, perched on a foam pad behind him, twisted around every minute or two to check on my progress.
“The Inuit only have one speed,” I’d been told earlier that day: “Fast.” I shoved my left foot under the gear shift and kicked it up a notch, tightened my right hand on the throttle, and shot forward, bouncing along the meandering, potholed trail that led us across the tundra towards the shore.
I’d arrived in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, two days earlier. It was my first visit to Canada’s newest territory, born in 1999 after decades of negotiations around Inuit land claims. Northern Canada is my home — I live in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory — and I had always viewed the whole vast spread of the North as my backyard. But in Gjoa, I’d never felt further from home. The village leaned into the wind on the rim of a tiny, teardrop-shaped harbor, and beyond the tight cluster of buildings and dusty unpaved streets, there was nothing but a vast empty plain on the one side, and the cold blue of the Arctic Ocean on the other.
It was beautiful — in an almost painful, raw, minimalist kind of way — but I felt like a stranger here. I’d never expected to feel that foreign traveler’s rush, that off-putting and exhilarating sense of your own alienness, in my own country. I’d spent the past several years exploring North America, traveling through a landscape of shared language and pop culture and food and lifestyles, and I’d forgotten how intoxicating an immersion in the unknown could be. As I raced along behind Paul and Rebecca, a borrowed parka hitched up above my knees, squinting into the grey September day through safety glasses meant to save me from a pebble in the eye, I remembered how much I liked the feeling.
Charlie and Paul met me at the airport on my first day in town. They are the co-owners of Gjoa Haven’s lone tourism business, Central Arctic Ventures, and they were in charge of my itinerary for the next five days.
Gjoa Haven didn’t get many recreational visitors, Charlie told me — most of their business came from shepherding the occasional journalist or film crew around the region. We left the one-room airport and its dirt airstrip behind, and piled into his truck for the short ride across the tundra to town.
Charlie was tall and pale, with thin grey hair — he’d just returned to the village following two years of medical treatment down south, after a rare side effect to a flu vaccination had left him paralyzed. Paul was short and stocky, a middle-aged Inuit man with a big wide grin. After I’d dumped my bags and brushed my teeth and hair — much-needed after five flights and nearly 24 hours of travel to get here — the pair of them took me on a slow cruise around town. A persistent cold rain spattered the windshield as we drove the quiet, dusty streets, with Charlie and Paul taking turns pointing out the local landmarks.
It was a little bit like looking at a diagram of someone’s internal organs; I’d never been to a city or town where the inner workings of the place were so clearly displayed. There was the nurses’ residence, and there was the sewage lagoon; there was the played-out quarry, and there was the new one to replace it; there was the tank farm, loaded with a year’s supply of diesel and gasoline and jet fuel, and there was the lake that provided Gjoa’s tap water, a pumphouse hovering on its shore. There were the cemetery, the landfill, the post office, the Mounties’ detachment, the territorial government building. Charlie pointed out the water truck and the sewage truck; with no underground plumbing — a tricky prospect in the land of permafrost — every house in town had a holding tank for each. The water truck brought fresh water from the lake, and the sewage truck whisked the home’s detritus away to the lagoon. (“It’s getting pretty full,” Charlie noted.)
I’d never thought much about infrastructure, the half-hidden systems that make life “on the grid” function the way we expect it to. But in Gjoa, they fascinated me — they were all unburied, literally and figuratively. The village was powered by diesel-burning generators, and diesel furnaces heated the buildings. Alongside the water truck and the sewage truck, a fuel truck hurried from house to house refilling the supply, and the local landlines, TV stations, and internet connections were all at the mercy of a satellite network. There was no cell service, and few full-size vehicles. Everything came in by barge, once a year while the sea ice relented, or was flown in by plane. You could fit an ATV or a skidoo through an airplane cargo door in a pinch, Charlie explained to me, but a pickup truck was another story.
There were two general stores in town — the Northern and the Co-op — and my hotel (the only hotel) housed Gjoa’s only restaurant. And that was it, the sum of the settlement’s commercial existence. I was latitudes away from the nearest coffeeshop, the nearest movie theater, the nearest shopping mall. The entire urban infrastructure of my youth was nonexistent here. Gjoa Haven seemed to me like a community stripped to the basics, to those most necessary internal organs: Food. Fuel. Water. Waste removal.
Four and a half years ago, before I’d visited the Yukon and decided to move there, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time. Beer in hand, I told a friendly French Quarter bartender that I was dying to get up north. He laughed. “When you say ‘up north,’” he asked me, “what exactly do you mean by that? Because when I say it, I mean somewhere a long ways south of where you live.”
It was a traveler’s lesson in relativity. All my life, “up north” had meant the territories, the Canadian hinterland north of the 60th parallel. I had never thought about what it might mean to a Mississippi boy in this steaming city. Tennessee? The Mason-Dixon Line? Upstate New York?
Gjoa Haven provided another demonstration of that same lesson. Here, two parallels north of the Arctic Circle, on an island north of the North American mainland, on the north shore of the Northwest Passage, “north” gained a whole new meaning. Here, the small sub-Arctic city I called home lay far, far to the south. The 60th parallel — itself sometimes seeming impossibly remote from modern urban existence — was a world away.
Rosie came across the ice in 1968 or 1969; she couldn’t remember for sure. She came from Back Bay, on the mainland, here to Gjoa Haven, on King William Island, with her six children and — she counted on her fingers, reciting the numbers out loud — four others. They came by dog team, she remembered. It was cold. All this she told me in Inuktitut, holding eye contact with me while Paul, her son-in-law, translated. We sat on the floor in the living room of a townhouse in “uptown” Gjoa, facing each other, with Paul on the couch beside us. At the dining table against the wall, two teenage girls watched us silently.
Rosie is 81 or 82; she doesn’t know for sure. She has smooth cheeks, wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and hair that hasn’t gone entirely grey yet. She laughs a lot. When I first arrived, and asked Paul if she was his sister, and he translated my question for her, she laughed extra hard.
Paul had offered to arrange an interview with a community elder for me, a man or woman who’d seen their world entirely transformed over the decades since the Canadian government decided to take a more active hand in Inuit life. I’d been excited about the idea, and Rosie seemed totally game, but once I sat facing her all my questions seemed obvious, trite, and tired. I asked her, “What was it like moving from an igloo to a house?” Paul translated her answer, shifting her first-person to third.
“When she first moved to a house, she was so excited because it was clean and warm. She thought it was the greatest thing, but now she knows it’s not so good to be in the house all the time. When she first got here she was always hungry for the country food she knew back home.” As the interview went on, I was startled to realize that Rosie thinks of herself as an exile, an expat, here in this government-built town across the ice from where she grew up. “In May and June, she never forgets her homeland,” Paul said, repeating her words in English. “She gets homesick mostly at those months.”
Paul said, “The whole family never used to stop working: getting ready for the winter, getting oil for the lamp, cooking for the people that are hunting out on the land, sewing and working at home. They never stopped.”
I stared at Rosie, and she smiled encouragingly. I glanced around the room, at a loss, and landed on the video game console sitting beside the TV. I asked if she ever plays video games with her great-grandchildren. She laughed. She doesn’t, Paul told me. “But if she tried, she could probably learn.”
Paul and Rebecca led me down a dusty trail to the shore, where we followed a bright white beach around a long, slow-curving bay to Paul’s brother’s cabin, a one-room plywood number with a view of the endless Arctic water. Paul unpacked a thermos full of hot water and we drank hot chocolate and ate makeshift sandwiches in the dim light, glad to be out of the wind.
Then we started back, with me now riding behind Rebecca, cutting cross-country this time, across the low brown grass and rutted terrain — deceptively flat from a distance — of the open tundra. We zigged and zagged in search of wildlife, Paul and Rebecca squinting across a landscape that, to me, was featureless. At one point Rebecca twisted to speak to me: “I smell caribou on the wind,” she said. They were somewhere nearby, but they didn’t show themselves.
In my first tentative travels, more than a decade ago now, to Mexico and Malaysia, Vietnam and India, I’d been startled again and again by the vast differences between the life I’d always known and the lives I saw around me. It was a question of money, sure, but there was more to it than that. I saw a changed set of expectations and assumptions, and somehow that surprised me every time; it was a lesson relearned every time I ventured overseas. Now, here, in one of the most remote communities on earth, I was reminded of it yet again.
A few hours after we left, we were back in town, rolling past front yards whose dirt lawns merged with the dirt streets. We passed skidoos draped with muskox skins, huskies chained and snoozing on the hard ground, and in front of the rows of government-built houses, homemade wooden racks of bright salmon-colored Arctic char hanging to dry.