An Arctic Story

by Anne Azel

Jane looked around. For as far as she could see there was a flat landscape of ice and snow. Here in Auyuitttuq National Park, three degrees above the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island, it was hard to tell where land met sky. A white sheet-world gradually blurred into the distance and became infinite space. That was the Arctic, infinite space. It made you feel very small.

A large section of Auyuittuq National Park was ice cap. It was to this region that Nowdlak had brought them. It was strange that in the years that she had know her partner in the south, she had always called her Dale, her European name. Now here in the north, she found herself calling her Nowdlak, her Inuit name.

She had thought she had know Dale Nowdlak. Moody, quick tempered and a loner, she had been shunned by the other students in the biology department until Jane Askin had reached out to her. A few months later, they had become lovers.

Jane had promised Nowdlak, that after they graduated, she would visit the Arctic and see if she could live and work there. At the time, it was an easy promise to make. The future seemed far away. Now it was here and Jane was not at all sure if she wanted to live in the arctic. They had flown from Toronto to Frobisher Bay and then Nowdlak had rented a Piper Cub for the flight into the park. They planned to met some of Nowdlak's mother's family, who had moved out of the hustle and bustle of the small community of Frobisher Bay during the summer to live on the land. A sudden, violent late summer storm had caught them unprepared, however, and Nowdlak had been forced to make a dangerous emergency landing in the wildness. Then everything had changed.

For two days, they had huddled inside the wreckage of their tiny plane clinging to life in a swirling world of white. On the third day, the storm had stopped as suddenly as it had started and they had crawled from their cramped cocoon of twisted metal to look about them. To Jane, the wilderness was desolate and terrifyingly unpredictable. She had never in her life been as scared as she had in the last two days.

Nowdlak had made a bumpy but safe landing but the arctic winds had battered and tumbled their small, light craft about, finally smashing them against a wall of ice and nearly burying them in a snow drift. Nowdlak had held her in her arms, wrapping them in sleeping bags and canvas to keep them warm. Unable to leave the plane in the appalling conditions, they had used the tail section as a washroom and eaten frozen soup from a can. Standing now in the brilliant sunlight, her eyes scrunched up and nearly closed against the glare, she felt exhausted and worried.

Shock was the only way she could describe her feeling when she looked up at her partner and saw Nowdlak grinning with delight as she looked about her. "You must put your goggles on, Jane. Otherwise you will develop snow blindness," Nowdlak stated gently, pulling the goggles from Jane's pocket and handing them to her.

Cold, hunger and fear made Jane explode in frustration where at other times she would have been grateful for the advice. "We're half frozen, our plane is wrecked, and we're lost in the damn arctic wilderness, and you are worried about snow blindness! That's the least of our problems! How long do you think before a rescue helicopter will get here to bring us out to Frobisher Bay?

Nowdlak shrugged. "Snow blindness is a major concern," she responded patiently, slipping Jane's goggles in place. "We were blown way off course. Nor will the authorities know that we are missing yet. They will assume the storm delayed our call-in to verify we had reached our destination. Today, I will try to make contact with them. Because we are so far from our original flight plan, even when they start to search for us it will be like trying to find a needle in a hay stack. They will search for three weeks and then stop."

"What?! Are you telling me we are hopelessly lost and that we will probably not be found?" gasped Jane, wrapping her arms around herself and stomping her feet against the cold that had seeped into her bones so that she felt cold from the inside out.

Nowdlak smiled. "Maybe they will find us, maybe they won't. If I can get the radio going they will find us soon. We are not lost. I know where we are. It is a good place."

Jane looked around at the frozen landscape. "I know where we are too, in the middle of a wasteland! Damn it, Nowdlak, what are we going to do?"

Nowdlak looked hurt. She had wanted Jane to see the beauty of her world just as she had strived to see beauty in Jane's world of pollution, noise, and crowds. Was Jane like all the others after all? "There is no need for concern. I will try the radio," she responded stiffly and crawled back into the twisted craft to see if anything could be done.

Jane stood for a minute in the cold and then crawled back inside, snuggling against Nowdlak's body. Even through the thick parka, Jane could feel the heat of her partner's body. "Aren't you cold?"she mumbled.

"It feels good. I feel alive again,"the Inuit woman replied, as she examined the broken pieces of the radio. "I can't fix this, the circuitry has been damaged."

"Great, now what?"muttered Jane, giving into exhaustion.

"We will walk out. It will take us several days to prepare and then several more to walk to my family's summer camp. We will be fine if the weather holds."

"And if it doesn't?" Jane heard herself ask from far away. She was nearly asleep.

"We will have an adventure then, to tell around the fire. Wake up, Jane, there is much for us to do and you will feel warmer for activity," Nowdlak said, in organisational mode, as she gave her partner a reassuring hug, then squirmed past her to slide out onto the plane's wing and down to the ground. Jane sighed and followed reluctantly. This was not what she had in mind when excitedly she had planned to meet Nowdlak's family. It was supposed to be fun. A cultural experience that she could tell her friends about over drinks on Friday night. It wasn't supposed to be scary, cold and isolating.

"Jane do you see where the snow is cracked and crumbled? That is the shoreline. Take this camp shovel and walk along there and look for low, long drifts. If you clear the snow you will find driftwood sometimes. There is always a lot of drift wood along the shore at this time of year. It can travel for thousands of miles. Look for pieces as far away from the water edge as possible. They have been thrown there by storms and the wood will have dried. Keep your gloves on. Your skin would stick to the wood because of the moisture," Nowdlak finished with a warning.

Jane nodded dully and headed off where Nowdlak had pointed. She couldn't imagine ever being warm again, never mind warm enough to take her mitts off. She could not see what her partner saw. Snow was snow as far as she could see, which at the moment was all the way to the horizon. She was surprised then when, having walked only a short distance, she came upon snow that was cracked and uneven. Another few minutes of searching and she had found a long, silver-grey branch buried in the ice and snow.

With a sigh, she started hacking away at the surrounding ice. She had thought she had known her moody, quiet lover but up here Nowdlak seemed so different. More confident, more alive. She smiled. She loved Nowdlak's funny little ways. How she coped with the industrial world of which she'd had no experience. She remembered the look of horror on her dad's face when Nowdlak, finding no space left in the driveway, had simply parked her car on the front lawn. Or the time she had shocked everyone by stirring lard into her tea instead of sugar. Jane had managed to break though her lover's prickly facade by patiently helping Nowdlak to understand the ways of the south. Now their roles were reversed and Jane was not sure she liked it. She felt stupid and useless as well as cold and so very small in this vast, barren landscape.

Despite the cold, sweat was now dampening the flannel shirt she wore under her sweater and polar jacket. It took her a good hour of hard work to finally loosen the branch from its spot. To her surprise, it was not too heavy to lift. Nowdlak had been right, the water saturated branch had freeze dried once it had been thrown clear of the ocean. She turned and looked out. She could see now how the snow turned to pack ice stretching out miles into the ocean. Only close to the horizon could she see open water. She would never have known that their crash site was close to the shore if Nowdlak had not told her.

The branch was long, over twelve feet she estimated and about six inches at its widest end. With difficulty, she managed to half carry, half drag it back to the plane. To her surprise, Nowlak was just cutting the final blocks for a small igloo.

"Wow, neat!"she exclaimed, dropping the log and running over to have a look at their new shelter. She hoped the camera still worked. Wait until she told people back home that she'd spent a few nights in a snow house.

"No, a necessity. It is clear and it will be very cold tonight," the serious woman observed. "We have been lucky. The snow here is good for building an igloo. Such snow can be hard to find."

Jane looked at her friend with puzzled interest as the Inuit shaped the last snow block and fitted it into place. The igloo was built in a spiral shape, each piece carefully shaped to curve into a dome held together at the top with a keystone slab of snow. There was a short, low tunnel to crawl through to get inside. "I guess I hadn't considered that the texture of snow varied and would be used for different things,"she observed at last.

Nowdlak nodded. "In our language, we have over nine hundred words for snow. There is snow that is good for building igloos, snow good for snowshoes, snow better used with dog teams. You see that snow over there?" Jane nodded. "That is ice that was pushed by storm waves high on the beach. The sun has melted the surface and it has refrozen many times. Old ice is good. The salt has settled to the bottom and so the ice can be melted and the water is sweet to drink. You see, it is a clear blue and shines in the sun. New ice is grey and milky in colour because of the salt."

Jane looked closer. Now she could see the ridge of ice that her lover had pointed out. Looking back, she could clearly see the shoreline now where she had searched for wood. The world was not a flat waste land stretching to the horizon as she had originally thought but a landscape of varying and gentle landforms. How much more had she not seen yet?

"Should I break this branch up and stack it inside?"she asked, wanting to show her partner that she could be of use.

"We will have to build our fire out here. An oil lamp is good in an igloo but a fire would cause it to melt. We will take the coals inside later to give us more warmth. You need to take the fire axe and strip off the outer layer of the wood. It will be damp and will not burn but the core will be good. This is good wood, it will burn well and long once we can get a fire going. You did well."

Jane smiled, pleased that Nowdlak had appreciated her efforts. "Undo your jacket if you get hot. Do not let the moisture build up against your skin. It will make you colder later," the Inuit warned.

Jane nodded. She realized now that there was much to learn and that doing so was going to be a unique and rare opportunity that would bring Nowdlak and her even closer. "Nowdlak, don't you find it oppressive? I feel so small in all this vast space. I don't think I knew what silence really was until today. In my world, even late at night, there is always the sound of the furnace, the clock ticking, the fridge coming on, a siren in the distance, here silence is like a blanket over everything."

Nowdlak looked around in amazement. "But there are all sorts of sounds,"she protested. "Listen, the ice squeaks and complains because the ocean is breaking it up and drifting it away from the land. The wind still whispers and ice flakes giggle as they are bounced along. Do you not hear the seagulls calling that they have found fish?

Jane looked at her lover. Never had she seen her look so happy and animated. She step forward and wrapped her arms around the Inuit woman and felt Nowdlak respond pulling her closer into her arms and dropping a kiss on her head. "I think I will have to listen more closely,"she admitted.

They went back to work, Jane stripping the branch down to dry wood and chopping it into kindling and Nowdlak building a sled out of pieces of the wrecked plane. Jane found herself enjoying the fresh air and manual labour. She felt warm enough to undo her coat and sometimes she would stop and listen to the sounds around her. Now and again, Nowdlak would imitate a sound, incorporating it into a rhythmic beat that resonated from deep in her throat. Throat singing Nowdlak had called it. She had told Jane that it was better when a group sang together telling a story of activity with the sounds they created. She had promised Jane that when they visited her family that they would show her how it was properly done.

"Wood's cut,"Jane called. "Where are the matches and I'll get a fire going and see what I can do to cook us a hot meal. We have enough canned food for a few days then we'll have to do without."

Nowdlak took off her glove with her teeth and dug deep into her pocket to pull out a tin cylinder of matches. She tossed it over to her partner with a smile. "I might be able to catch a few arctic hare. It is easy to catch a rabbit. They run then stop. Then they will bolt either right or left. So when the rabbit stops you run to the right. Fifty per cent of the time you will be there to catch the rabbit. Rabbits and caribou are grazers. They eat the moss and lichen that we can not digest. Traditionally, we would eat the contents of their stomachs first. The lichens and mosses would already be broken down for us enough that our systems could digest them then. That is how the Inuit got enough vitamin C to avoid getting scurvy."

Nowdlak saw Jane's eyes widen in horror and smiled. "I think though we are not in danger of getting scurvy so we will just eat the meat if I catch one. Jane, do not blow on the fire to get it going. The moisture in your breath will freeze on the wood as a thin veneer and then the wood will not burn. Fan the fire instead with your glove."

Jane smiled at her partner. "There is a lot I need to learn to live here,"she stated.

Nowdlak's face broke into a wide smile. "You will learn to love it,"she promised. "As I do."

Jane smiled back and then let her eyes scan across the undulating beauty of the arctic. The snow wasn't really white but an amazing variety of subtle blues, greys and greens. The land was not flat either but a complex pattern ground down by glaciation and molded by snow, water and wind. It was a pristine world filled with the sounds of nature. She could feel herself becoming more aware, more alive each minute. She nodded softly. Nowdlak would never belong in her world she realized that now. But that was okay because she knew that she could come to love this land and to know it as well as her lover.

Now the days of the storm did not seem cold and terrifying. They were an adventure, experienced and endured. Nor did the cold vastness of the arctic intimidate her anymore. It was liberating, beautiful and pristine. Jane smiled and looked back at Nowdlak who watched her with serious, concerned eyes. "Is it true that the Inuit sleep naked under fur to share their body heat?"she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

"Lovers do," Nowdlak responded with a flash of a smile.

"I'm going to love it here,"she grinned, and the two women turned back to their work, their future together now a certainty.

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