Boiled duck, angry bear and the remorseless twilight of arctic life

Way back in July, 1959 I spent several weeks in Cape Dorset, a tiny hamlet near the Arctic Circle on the southwestern tip of Baffin Island, a little-known but very large island just west of Greenland in the northeast Canadian Arctic.

Last week, I went back for the first time. Most of my friends thought I was crazy to leave Michigan when we were relishing the first spring warm-up, for a place with -20 degree temperatures and a harsh Arctic wind. But it was a journey in time and in memory, maybe the kind people my age, 75, tend to take when they get to a certain point in their life. And I wanted my wife, Kathy, to see the high Arctic in winter, before global warming takes it all away.

In 1959, I was working with a newly-formed nonprofit company, Eskimo Art, Inc., which I had started with my father and James Houston, a Canadian artist who lived in Baffin Island, and came across the beautiful sculptures carved in soft soapstone by the local Inuit (formerly called “Eskimos”).

Jim explained the Inuit needed a cash income to buy tea, cartridges for their rifles, cigarettes and other goods. But the only income sources were trapping arctic foxes and selling the pelts to the monopoly Hudson’s Bay Company for a pittance, or driving a bulldozer in the little villages during the day and getting drunk at night.

“Hell, that’s easy,” my father exclaimed. “We’ll start a nonprofit company and introduce Inuit art to the American art market.” A small show at the Cranbrook Museum of Science in Bloomfield Hills was followed by a larger national traveling exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. The shows were terrific successes, and demand for Inuit art skyrocketed. But the logistics of selecting the carvings and sending them out to the market needed work.

And so I found myself on a three-day voyage, flying north on a slow PBY amphibian airplane from Moosonee, a tiny town in northern Ontario at the foot of James Bay, to Cape Dorset, where we landed in the sea in front of the settlement, at that time numbering maybe 200 people. Local Inuit rushed out from their summer tents on the shore to meet us in rowboats, and I got my first look at the never-setting summer Arctic sun rotating slowly in the dark blue sky.

Things were pretty simple in the Arctic back then. We brought some vegetables and fruit (and a bottle of whiskey) with us in the plane, but for the most part we lived off the land. I hunted seal with the Inuit and fished for arctic char. When we shot a seal, we’d tow it to the shore for butchering and delivery to the community at large, as was traditional. But first we’d each eat a small slice of the raw liver and then toss a chunk into the sea – an offering to Sedna, the goddess of all sea animals.

On a journey along the coast in a small Peterhead schooner to quarry beautiful green Steatite – the most prized stone for carving – we ran into a storm and edged our way into a cove to anchor, casting a lead to make sure we weren’t going to get stranded by the 35-foot tides common in the area. The storm lasted for a couple of days, and with no extra food on board I seriously considered eating my leather belt. Finally the winds died down, and we edged out into the ocean to shoot some ducks and boil them in seawater – the best meal I ever had in my life!

This time around it was winter in the Arctic, which meant instead of the 40’s it was in the summer of 1959, it was between zero and -20. But anybody who’s lived in the Arctic will tell you it’s the wind that is the enemy. It blew at a steady 20 mph while I was there, sending a flurry of snow scudding low along the frozen rocks. Actually, there wasn’t as much snow as you’d think – the Arctic is really a sort of desert with relatively little snow, but it doesn’t melt.

And the sea ice only melts in the summer, so as far as the eye could see, Hudson’s Bay was covered with blazing white ice. With the enormous tides, huge blocks of ice were tumbled up all along the shoreline, and when you went out on a snow machine (not “snowmobile”) the ride (without shock absorbers) was pretty rough. Turning inland, we went over perfectly clear six feet thick ice covering the freshwater lakes; through the ice we could see the char swimming slowly below us.

First night we got to Dorset, we were advised by the locals not to go out for a walk at night. “There were a couple Polar Bear around last night, and they looked kinda cross.” Okaaay. The Arctic is a much tougher place than it used to be, since global warming has sharply reduced the floe ice where bear hunt for seals.

It’s a hard, remorseless land, far above the tree line, where rocks and mountains and the endless scape of snow and ice is all you see. The Inuit who have lived here for centuries have evolved a unique culture that has enabled them to survive the harshest conditions on earth, and they’ve done so with persistence, grit, amazing competence and humor.

And creativity. Inuit artists, living so close to the bear, the seal, the walrus and the whales, know them – their anatomy, their movement, their habits – intimately. That knowledge animates their art, whether stone sculpture, prints, drawings or jewelry. After starting with small stone carvings, Inuit artists have in recent years blossomed into a kind of Arctic Athens, producing imaginative work everywhere you look.

They have mastered the ability to take the vocabulary of living things and impose it on the stark, sere and hostile landscape, reducing the struggle of daily life to the clarity of creative expression. All they needed was a small start from a few outsiders to build what has grown into a thriving Inuit-controlled industry.

When we got back to Michigan, Kathy and I took a walk around the pond in front of our house. We were overcome at the richness, the softness, the gentle ripeness of life wherever we looked. The crocuses were blooming, and a few bright yellow daffodils had sprung up. The branches on the willow trees were raging up with green-fellow of spring, and the grass was greening up in places.

We are still overcome with admiration at the skill, the capability, the survival of the Inuit when facing a landscape unimaginably harsh to our softened eyes. But all the same, it’s nice to be home.

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Tue, 04/22/2014 - 8:36am
Baffin Island is thought to be the most likely spot where the Vikings first saw North America around 990 AD.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 1:26pm
Phil - Thanks for the wonderful article. It is due to your father, Eugene, and the establishment of Eskimo Art Inc. that a gift of Inuit art was made to Bernie Rink (Library Director) at Northwestern Michigan College in 1960. A gift that would grow into one of the largest museum collections of Inuit art in the USA - now at the College's Dennos Museum Center. We are honored to have your parent's (Eugene and Sayde) collection as part of the Dennos collection, which now exceeds 1500 works. Eugene A . Jenneman, Executive Director
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 1:57pm
Your stories of trips to Baffin Island are fascinating. In 1975, after Labor day, my dad and I made a trip to Moosonee. We drove from Sault Ste.Marie to Cochran, then took the Polar Bear Express train to Moosonee for a day trip.
Mel Visser
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 2:46pm
Great to hear your Cape Dorset story. I've read John Houston's books and met Ree Brennin, his son's wife, through an Arctic trip with Adventure Canada. Your work with John Houston in bringing the beautiful Inuit art into focus is much appreciated. The world and the Inuit are better for it. In 2000 I spent 2 days in Cape Dorset on the first leg of research for my book Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy. I got to tour the print shop and learn of the process of selecting and printing this excellent art. I also got to meet Noah Jaw, a young carver. I had purchased a beautiful carving of his from the museum in Traverse City and bought another at the print shop in Cape Dorset. Thanks for sharing insights into this fascinating land filled with real and wonder filled people.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 4:45pm
Wow. Seeing the artic has always beeen a dream of mine, I envy you. Have you ever considered doing a documentary? Could be kind of cool tying in their art with their lives and the world around them.
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 5:24pm
15 years of zero climate temperature changes despite geometric increases in CO2, both natural and man-made (mainly from the large number of private jets flown in by advocates of climate change), one of the coldest winters ever, more on ice on the Great Lakes than in 45 years, and you, as a thinking intelligent person are still carping the party line about global warming! When does you intellect and logic finally succumb to your ideology? An ideology that has never worked, never will work and brings misery to millions. Global warming is a massive hoax to tax all industry to death. Another Marxist/ Socialist plank that is completely untrue and will punish the US, and especially Michigan if implemented. It is a scheme to create a "pollution credit" stock exchange in Chicago to allow the owners (every nameplate Democrat you know plus Goldman Sachs) to make billions ,at the expense of decent paying jobs for the middle class that will move offshore to escape the wrath of the excessive cost of compliance for phony "science". Smarten up!!!
Tue, 04/22/2014 - 5:58pm
That was certainly an entertaining diatribe, surprised you couldn't get Benghazi in their somewhere. LOL
Thu, 04/24/2014 - 9:28am
Right on.
Mark Nixon
Thu, 04/24/2014 - 8:30am
For years, Hudson Bay has been on my bucket list. I am always poring over maps, wondering about the best way to get there. Your column has rekindled my dream. Thank you! (Now, I just need to get my wife on board with this idea!).