Last in a series of postcards from the Arctic.
On the frozen sea, ten miles from land, Paul tells me not to worry.
It is near midnight on Friday the 13th and the sky is still bright: the western horizon smolders in a pale citrus tone that matches almost exactly the fuel warning light blinking on my dashboard.
If my snow mobile runs out of gas, Paul says, sit still and wait.
Don’t wander off.
Or you’ll be fucked.
His grin grows into a chuckle, rolls into a laugh.
Then he pulls down his hood, which frames his face in a ruff of red fox fur, and he gives a wave to Ikey, the Anglican minister, who starts his snow mobile and, towing Paul behind him in a sled, races away and leaves me awash in gas fumes and snow crystals. This hits my face with a sort of a sweet-smelling dampness—the weirdly pleasant bouquet of combustion, nostalgia, and melting that seems to perfectly describe the Anthropocene.
I have been traveling with Paul and Ikey for 12 hours. Our goal was to catch caribou, but in 130 miles over sea and snow-sheeted tundra we encountered nothing but the wind-blown footprints of two eastbound caribou, which soon vanished into the infinite landscape. So really we have just been wandering around.
Once, we saw a white fox. Then, Ikey shot a white ptarmigan out of the air. In its dying the bird fell and fluttered in a circle, scribing a loop of blood on the snow. Later I lifted his cold body from the back of the sled and noticed he had eyebrows of the same vivid red.
At a certain point we stood on a low hill, scanning the horizon. The melt had begun, and the snow was thin, so the hilltop was shrugging its way into the light. Paul searched with a pair of tiny pocket binoculars. They disappeared into his enormous hands, made him look like a giant.
The real giants though had already come and gone: when I turned and looked down at the earth I saw two circles made of head-sized stones. The large one was a tent ring, the smaller a hearth. Many years ago, long before any of us was born, a family had camped there. They came on foot. They chose this place for the same reason we did, because it stood out a little against the emptiness.
Emptiness. I wrestle with this term. Sometimes it seems the perfect word to describe the tundra. Even though you know better, even though the tiny willows below your boots are fiercely alive and the lack of larger creatures is not a set fact so much as an inverted coincidence—your presence coincides with the caribou being elsewhere.
And yet, when the tundra appears to be uninhabited we do not just say “It is a coincidence. We have come when the others are away.” Instead we choose the word that spotlights our feeling of solitude. We say empty because it frames our perceived singularity on the landscape, which then becomes an unsympathetic character that refuses to embrace our heat.
Paul is 65; Ikey is a few years younger. Both have spent their lives on the land, hunting, fishing, trapping, wandering. They have become elders partly by surviving that life, and partly by surviving the one forced upon them by the government—a life of sugar and booze, bad housing, steep rent and endemic suicide.
On Sunday I will attend church in Gjoa Haven. I’ll sit a few pews back of Paul, who wears his usual hunter’s clothes. Ikey will be standing at the pulpit, nearly unrecognizable in minister’s robes and center-parted hair. He’ll preach a sermon about the straight and narrow path, and a dream he had in which the Devil’s agents, disguised as children, tried to stop him from following Christ’s map.
The service will be held in Inuktitut. I will understand none of it. Only when Paul rises to read some Scripture aloud in English, or translate Ikey’s wild dream, will I feel relieved of a tension I hadn’t known I was carrying.
At the end of the service I will be greeted by a widow whose husband I once knew, a legendary elder older. He died, of Covid, a few months before I could visit him in a city far to the south. A city surrounded by trees.
Racing homeward after hunting I notice that neither of my companions turns back to see if I have run out of gas.
In the end I don’t, though I decide I wouldn’t mind.
Traveling on the frozen sea you experience the sky as what it truly is: a bit of space brought close. It seems unlimited, enormous, grading from that warning-light orange in the west to a shark blue in the east. I finally get what people mean when they say the sky is like a dome.
But there’s more. The half-dome of sky is joined to another of sea beneath us, the two halves forming the sphere of our containment. We travel suspended between these on a thin white line. All around us is a freedom so absolute it is almost terrifying.
Here you could do anything.
When we reach the shore at town a scrum of kids runs down to meet us. They ask how we are, if we have caught anything. No one minds when we answer No. Then, because he is an elder and also the grandfather or great-grandfather of most of them, the kids carry Paul’s gear up the hill to his house.
He taps a Player’s cigarette out of a crushed box. Leans on the empty sled. I ask if he’s disappointed that our hunt was a failure.
But it wasn’t a failure, he says.
It was nature.
Don't Save Anything is a reader-supported publication. Please consider subscribing!