Moon Month of Nurrait (June), “Caribou Calves”
Where Seasons Meet
Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada
Expressions of caution and fortune exchanged, John turned and led the rest of the members of our group back to the camp at the mouth of the creek. As arranged, Linda and I struck out on our own, heading west.
“How about over there?” I suggested, indicating the location of “over there” with a wave of my hand.
Linda looked in the direction I was gesturing, taking in the snow-covered landscape, whose physical limits were defined by a distant ridge and the sky.
“What distinguishes ‘over there’ from ‘right here’?” she wanted to know. Coming from the member of our team burdened by thirty pounds of camera gear, it was a legitimate question and maybe one that defied a satisfactory answer. The fact was, in these early stages of the summer thaw, one part of Canada’s Bylot Island looks pretty much like any other—at least any part within hiking distance.
Rising to the east were mountains whose color and pattern made them look like they’d been cast from scoops of vanilla fudge ice cream—but cheap vanilla fudge. The kind where they skimp on the fudge.
To the north, bracketed by peaks, was the Aktineaq Glacier, one of the many ice sheets for which Canada’s 22,252-square-kilometer Sirmilik National Park is named. Sirmilik, in the Inuktitut language of the native Inuit people, means “Place of Glaciers.”
To the west, somewhere beyond the visual limits of “over there,” was a marshy plain that serves as the nesting ground for the world’s largest breeding colony of greater snow geese.
To the south, across twenty-five frozen miles of Eclipse Sound, was Baffin Island, the largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and home to the majority of the mostly Native residents of Canada’s newest, and northernmost, province, Nunavut.
There are very few places on the planet where you can look south onto Baffin Island, and, among the planet’s nearly 7 billion human inhabitants, only a fraction might ever have dreamed of doing so.
One of them was me. One of them was Linda. But wasn’t the other one you?
Yes, you. The onetime bright and slightly bored kid slouched in one of those plastic desk chairs that ruined the backs of a whole generation. Didn’t you used to sit in class and stare, wistfully, at the pull-down map of the world covering the blackboard and marvel at that patchwork of islands way up there at the top of the world?
A fragmented land whose color was no color at all. Not red or green or yellow like all the other landforms on the map but white!
Snow white. Arctic white.
Didn’t you, as the disciplines that would turn us into well-adjusted and productive members of society were being instilled, study those northern lands and dream of being the adventurer every kid, deep in his heart, knows himself to be?
Sure you did. There’s a little bit of Robert Service and Admiral Peary in all of us.
And haven’t you, during all the responsible and productive adult years that followed, feasted upon the pages of travel and nature magazines in barbershops and hair salons (and chiropractic center waiting rooms), thrilling to images of those Arctic lands?
Polar bears cradling cubs so winsome a panda could die of envy.
Caribou herds so vast they filled whole treeless valleys and spilled into the next.
Lilliputian flowers carpeting landscapes whose limits were fixed by the sky.
And didn’t you, until the receptionist called your name, rekindle those classroom ambitions and vow that someday—when the kids were raised, when the house was paid off—you would finally become the explorer you were meant to be and head. . .
“Over there,” I said, in answer to Linda’s question, “will give us a much better view to the west.” It was a promise without foundation. Fact is, like you, I’d never been “over there” either, had no freaking idea what we might find. Linda greeted this explanation with silence.
“What we’re looking for is the place where everything comes together. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. A seasonal and geographic crossroads. A high point and a tipping point, symbolic of summer’s greatest advance and winter’s final stronghold.”
“Like that point over there,” I said, pointing, once again, toward a volcano-shaped mound mantling a distant ridge.
“That is not an over there,” Linda pronounced. “That is an up there. And to get up there, we have to first slog across that low, wet marshy area down there. Even from here I can hear the gurgle of water flowing under what has to be some pretty rotten spring ice.”
Impressed and amused, I studied the pack-burdened form that was my wife—five feet, two inches of blond-haired, hazel-eyed, set-jawed indomitableness. We’ve been married over twenty years, traveling much of the time. She can walk, kayak, and photograph all day and then, in the evening, edit the day’s crop of images. She’s as organized as I am not and as patient as I am exasperating. In addition to being a wonderful partner, she is an accomplished outdoor traveler whose background includes stints as a park ranger in Alaska, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and over a dozen wilderness trips in the Arctic.
In short, she’s the kind of person whose counsel (and objections) is worth listening to, whether you are traveling in the Arctic or not.
“You’re not part Inuit, are you?” I accused.
“No,” she said, letting some of her exasperation show with a slouch.
“You really think it’s too wet down there?” I said.
“No,” she corrected. “I just said it was wet and I wanted to know how important it is to go ‘up there’ before we find out how wet.”
“I do think the photo ops will be better up there,” I offered. “Down here you’re shooting in a bowl; up there we’ll be on top of the world.”
The photographer in Linda didn’t exactly rise to the bait, but she didn’t dismiss my analysis either.
“We can try it,” she said, at last. “But we’re going to have to hurry. It’s only an hour until the solstice. Distance is hard to judge in the Arctic, and I’ll bet ‘up there’ is farther than it looks.”
We did hurry. And the terrain, for once, turned out to be not as bad as it looked. And now you know why Linda and I had flown twenty-four hundred miles from our home in New Jersey, been shaken and stirred for thirty miles over open ice in a snowmobile-drawn sled, and hiked five more just to be here. We were set to mark the onset of autumn, and begin the third book in our season series at the place where seasons meet.
That place, recent reconnaissance suggested, lay “up there.”
I know what you are thinking. Anybody who studied maps and dreamed of being an explorer certainly knows that June 21, the date of the solstice, usually marks the first day of summer, not autumn—and so it does! Technically and in fact.
At 1806 G...