Only the really resolute ever reach Resolute Bay.
This tiny settlement of 200 Inuit on Cornwallis Island is part of an archipelago of islands that lies north of the famed Northwest Passage and is known as the High Arctic. It is set in a treeless, barren landscape that is a thousand miles from the nearest highway, is serviced by only four commercial flights a week and has no luxury hotels, restaurants, bars or boutiques. Entertainment provided by rented movies and one television channel.
But, like most visitors who travel to the Arctic, I didn't go expecting the usual touristic fare. I went in search of the unusual and unique in its natural habitat. I hoped to see walruses sunning themselves on the ice pack, caribou grazing on lichen, polar bears lumbering by (at a safe distance, of course) on a rocky slope. And I wasn't disappointed.
I admit that, being something of an armchair biologist, I wanted to experience the Arctic summer clothed in civilized comfort. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I packed my thermal underwear instead of my bathing suit to accompany my husband on a business trip for a week-long sojourn.
We left a sweltering hot Montreal and arrived 6 1/2 hours later at Resolute Bay, stepping out of the plane and into fog and a driving, cold drizzle that sent us scrambling through our luggage for coats, hats and gloves and didn't let up until the next morning. It was only then that I got my first real glimpse of the Arctic landscape. From our bedroom window (we were housed in a government-owned trailer), I could see the harbor in the distance, the deep-blue of its waters dotted with ice that glittered in the sun. Later, when I walked by the shore, I caught sight of a seal diving on and off the ice floes.
The tundra itself is one of the most desolate terrains I have ever seen: miles of gray-brown rubble stretching in every direction. But it is a surprising education in the tenacity of biological life. The flora, unless highly colored and very dense, is too small to be seen from faraway -- but at close observation, it proliferates in every graveled, seemingly inhospitable niche. Arctic poppies cling to the ground, defiantly waving their yellow heads. Willow trees, tiny versions of their southern cousins, spread octopus-like along the ground. And, near areas of moisture, moss and lichen grow as thick and as springy as mattresses.
On one of our day trips, we flew over Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands, which lie north of Resolute Bay. Here, the flat tundra has changed to rugged mountain ranges. Icecaps blanket the gray peaks and tonques of glaciers uncurl down steep ravines to spit great white icebergs into the turquoise waters of straits and fiords. The sides of mountains, bare to the sweeping winds and snows, have been eroded into art deco masterpieces, layers of brown-hued rock cut here by an orange swirl of iron, there by a black intrusion of basalt.
Even in this raw landscape, life flourishes. Saxifrage, a tiny plant that blooms in purple, orange and red, can turn an entire vertical flank of stone into a wall of flame. And the mountain plateaus, whose surfaces are irrigated during the summer by the meltwater of glaciers, are home to white arctic hare and herds of grazing musk ox.
The ecological and geological secrets of this terrain are being intensively studied by international scientists and during the summer -- when daylight is 24 hours long -- the far reaches of the otherwise uninhabited High Arctic are populated by scientific expeditions ranging in size from two to 15 men and women.
A Twin Otter plane delivered us one afternoon to a campsite on Bathurst Island where biologists from the Ottawa Museum of Natural Sciences were counting caribou. Cold winds whipped the sides of four tents that were huddled around a radio antenna. Two radio transmissions per day provide the only human contact besides the occasional supply flight, and we were welcomed with open arms and cups of steaming hot coffee made in their kitchen tent.
The caribou were sparse on Bathurst that summer, but other wildlife had made their presence known. Close neighbors were dozens of lemmings, the small arctic rodents that live in networks of underground tunnels. Like gophers, they poked their heads out of burrows to check up on our arrival, but when I stepped close to take a photograph, they dove back down again.
The camp, which sat at the edge of a small lake, also shared its waterfront property with a shy family of geese and a not-so-shy Arctic wolf whose taste for things plastic, the radio antenna fittings and a washbasin in particular, had lured him close by.
Surprisingly, Resolute Bay cannot be billed as Canada's northernmost Inuit community. That honor falls to Grise Fiord, a town of only 106 Inuit on southern Ellesmere Island nestled against a dramatic backdrop of soaring mountains.
Landing in Grise Fiord for the first time can frighten even the most veteran flier. The plane appears to be heading straight toward the mountainside, only to make a sharp turn at the last minute to angle down onto a short gravel runway. On our trip, the passengers -- my husband and I and a housing inspector from the government of the Northwest Territories -- alighted breathlessly to find that our arrival was one of the day's major events. A flock of curious Inuit children and several adults were on hand to look us over.
Like Resolute Bay, Grise Fiord is a community created by the Canadian government through the relocation of several Inuit families in 1953, to establish a national presence and, therefore, sovereignty in the High Arctic.
Once a hunting and nomadic people, the Inuit who live there have now become permanent town dwellers, inhabiting small bungalows and buying their groceries at the local co-op. For the southern visitor, a study of foodstore shelves becomes an economic lesson on the effect of distance: The selection is poor and the prices are high. I found Oreo cookies selling at $4 (Canadian) a bag, eggs at $3 a dozen. The High Arctic equivalent of window shopping, I found, is to thumb through catalogues in anticipation of the sealift -- a ship that comes once a year from Montreal packed with orders of such consumer goods as trucks, building materials, clothes and canned goods.
The ways of the qallunaat, the white man, have radically altered native life. Once, the Inuit ate the meat of seal, caribou and polar bear, used the skins for tents and clothing, and carved the bones for weapons and utensils. Today, the Inuit hunt only to sell skins, an enterprise that is strictly regulated by the government to protect wildlife. Huskies, the dogs that once provided these people with their primary form of transportation, are now raised only to make up teams for sled rides for tourists. The Inuit prefer to use snowmobiles in winter and three-wheel scooters with huge balloon tires in summer.
The loss of hunting as a livelihood has caused the Inuit to become dependent on government support in order to survive. Their homes are now built with subsidies, their medical and dental services are free, and they have schools staffed by teachers flown in from cities to the south. But the white man's ways sometimes exist uneasily beside the traditions of Eskimo life. As a nomadic people, the Inuit were accustomed to throwing their biodegradable refuse outside their igloos and tents. As town dwellers, this habit has meant that their streets and yards unexpectedly resemble the sort of urban slum that can be found 2,000 miles to the south. Although towns like Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord have "clean-up days," a typical Inuit front yard may have a sealskin drying on a rack alongside a pile of used soda bottles, a broken-down washing machine and scraps of old lumber.
Although many of the Inuit traditions have been destroyed by contact with the white man, their arts and crafts have gained worldwide recognition. Inuit women still design and elaborately embroider clothing. Inuit prints and soapstone carvings are collector's items. And to protect the artists from exploitation, their interests are now represented by a guild that sells and promotes their work.
Visitors will find art objects for sale even in such small stores as the Grise Fiord Inuit Co-op, but the greatest selection is to be found in the Frobisher Bay airport, which is a stopover for many flights going and coming from the High Arctic.
BAT10 When I went to Resolute Bay, I was curious about a part of the world that was off the beaten track, hoped to see some animals that weren't controlled and displayed by zookeepers and was admittedly worried that I would be miserable because I hate roughing it. I didn't get to see a polar bear and I certainly was glad I'd brought my woolies -- but I never expected that I wouldn't want to leave Resolute Bay, or that, having returned to civilization, I would be eager to take the next plane back.
I've discovered that I'm not alone in having fallen hard for the Arctic. Its capricious weather and the lack of the usual tourist attractions seem irrelevant when visitors are faced with an environment that is so raw, elemental and untamed. It reminds us that, for all of our technology, there are parts of the world where nature still reigns and human presence is barely tolerated.
A journey to the High Arctic is like stepping outside of modern life, being shorn of the clutter and trappings of civilization, and being reduced to one's essence. The feeling is surprisingly seductive; many travelers return again and again, drawn by the immensity, the natural beauty, the awe-inspiring wildness.