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.