Renewing Friendships in the Low Arctic

In mid-July we returned to the coastal mainland of the low arctic at Bathurst Inlet. We had visited eight years earlier. In 2004 I rationalized the trip to celebrate successful recovery from cardiac surgery. This time, I composed a complicated birthday celebration. It was a week past my 80th and six months past Aileen’s 80th but it also was not so many months past her sister Jocelyn’s 82nd.

It also seemed a good idea to let some youngsters realize that there is more to this land than just backyards and southern towns. Ryan, our son Mike and Kim’s adopted 13 year old, and Jeff and Jacqueline’s adopted Michaela, about the same age, would get a memory to go back to in oncoming turbulent teen-years.

Not only the youngsters would have their first experience “up north”. Jacques Baudry and Francoise Burel, landscape ecologists  who I knew from their days as graduate students in Brittainy, France, and who had since seen most parts of the world, even the high plains of Mongolia, had never seen the arctic.

Mona Whitaker also had seen a lot of the earth since leaving her native Sweden, but had not had enough time in the solitude of the Canadian low arctic.

John Wegner, long time friend and research colleague had been immersed in the ecology of the northeast, the Midwest and, now for some years, the southeast, but had never spent time on the low arctic tundra.

Aileen’s sister, Jodi, had come north with us eight years ago and longed to return. But her elder daughter, Chris and husband Jack had never seen these special spaces. Now they would.

So, from many directions, this group descended on Yellowknife, an experience in itself. But the next morning we all headed north, some on floats and the rest on tundra tires.

Low altitude over the tundra for a couple of hours gives one many visual stimuli and provokes many questions and thoughts. We leave the treed tundra behind with Yellowknife. It is still lakeland but now the landscape matrix is lichen-crusted bedrock. The varying texture of the land unfolds as we skim northward to the coast.

The tension between love of the land in the old way of life and the need for economic ability in the lifestyle that is advancing from the south suddenly is evident as we fly over one and then another giant hole spiraling down kimberlite “pipes” to recover diamonds from the Canadian Shield. For me, those giant holes punctured what had been the largest roadless area in North America when I first flew in to Point Lake, the head of the Coppermine River, in 1975.      








Etaki diamond mines bringing development to roadless areas


Further north, other rivers rise from the tundra forming “new land”. Young rivers, the Burnside and the Hood, create stable forms of this land newly out from under the glacial ice as they reshape sinuous, moving gravel sculptures into more stable landforms. Wilberforce Falls on the Hood offers lessons in humility and is willing to overpower any humans foolish enough to try canoeing those unclimbable gorges below the falls.

Small snowy crescents under the overhanging ledges that grabbed the snow from the northerly winds have persisted half way through July to remind us of where we are. The land where some snow drifts never melt — at least not in the past, before global warming.

As we followed the Burnside to its mouth, suddenly there was the covey of buildings that was the new form of the Burnside settlement and the support around the Bathurst Inlet Lodge – our home, for a few days.

Lunch welcomed us in the refurbished dining and common rooms. Refurbished because a barren ground grizzly had found interesting smells emanating from it and tore off a large section of siding and framing to get inside and open various packages such as refrigerators, stoves and all sorts of cupboards.

The “Blue Loo” was docked as usual waiting to take us anywhere in the Inlet. The “Loo” is a giant pontoon boat with an appended outhouse, in bright blue, flaunting a Nunavut flag on the afterdeck.

The dining hall and the various guest cottages are scattered among the newer houses of the residents of the settlement, many of whom are the core staff of the Lodge. As they mastered their many aspects of the lodge’s functions, the original owners, ex-RCMP officer Glenn Warner, his wife Trish and family, have transferred significant shares of ownership of the business to Inuit staff.

Sam Kapolak has helped shape the experiences of all visitors to Bathurst Inlet. Sam not only captains the “Loo” but also captains the shuttle of baggage from the gravel airstrip to guests’ doors. Sam also helps bring char and other staples from the land to the table. Under tutelage of Page Burt, Sam has developed advanced photographic capabilities, letting him express graphically some of his vast knowledge of the tundra plants.

Susie Kapolak captains the cookhouse, providing guests with outstanding fare for their stay in this isolated location far from supply depots.

Several other people of the Burnside settlement also support the lodge operation. Colin Fraser, a grandson of the Warners also with heritage from first nations in the Mackenzie valley, and Sam’s brother, Allan Kapolak, are superior guides supporting visitors on the water and on the land. Many local women unite into the smoothly working kitchen crew.

A wayfarer from Cincinnati, Page Burt, has been in the north for a few decades supporting the Lodge and several other creations, such as Outcrop, Ltd., a book Press and public relations and research contractor, and a hotel business in Rankin Inlet on Hudson Bay. Page built on her knowledge of botany, natural history, photography and writing skills. Bathurst Inlet Lodge would have developed differently without her influence and hard work.  Guest do not complete their stroll from the gravel airstrip to the lodge without Page showing them a glorious sample of the season’s flowers – on the ground and in her book “Barrenland Beauties”.

Our field trips on the Blue Loo were punctuated by sharp-eyed sightings by Sam or his colleagues. A golden eagle nest high on a waterside cliff was found because the guides had seen the birds flying in that area. We were led inland to the cliffside nest of a pair of peregrine falcons  and watched as the hunter of the pair passed prey over in mid-air to the other mate for delivery to the chicks.

Some features were well known to Page and the other guides. A grave site had been known and respected for some years. It was on a high point and still displayed the occupant’s skull and some long bones along with articles placed there for use in the next life: a Primus gas stove, enameled cups, a tea caddy, a tin to boil the tea water, and a trap. The deceased had been laid out on the rocks with his tools for the next world and left for nature to take her course








Tent rings from the Thule culture


Also well known to the guides, stone tent rings from the first native culture, the Thule, have given many visitors a less abstract feeling for a culture that dates back to the melting of our continental glaciers. This line of tent rings is now at the top of a shingle beach a few metres above the water’s edge. When lived in, these tents were close to the water’s edge but since the weight of the glacial ice has been removed, the tent rings have been raised up by the rising bedrock.

The guides spotted a shape on the vastness of sedge meadows below some outcropping rocky cliffs. It was a female barren ground grizzly. After checking our distance she allowed three cubs to emerge from a copse of willow. It was noteworthy that she had raised three to such healthy sizes. They spotted us before we spotted them and took turns standing upright to get better looks at this strange floating object with things crawling all over it and a funny blue box on the rear.

Sam anticipated the direction that the bears would take and move the Loo around a point where we could continue to watch as the female encouraged her three cubs to climb through a jumble of rocks up to very high, and safe, ground.






Barren ground grizzly with one cub out and two more in the willows


As the bears headed for high ground, an arctic wolf flushed away from the bears’ path and headed for its version of safe ground — away from a mother grizzly with cubs.

These sightings gave our youngsters messages that none of the endangered species ads or social media messages could – and not just the youngsters!

While exploring a small island in the Inlet with Page Burt, she remarked that she had seen something in the distance that she thought was a wolverine near the island’s shore. Page took off to get Allan to come around with the little outboard and try to turn the animal toward our position. I continued on in the direction Page had indicated. Soon I saw what I did not expect, a wolverine swimming strongly across the channel from the next island. I tried to get nearer to the shore where the wolverine would land but I was spotted. The wolverine stopped paddling, stared up toward me from about 300 metres, then turned and swam away toward the next island. I was carrying a 400 millimetre lens on a gunstock and was squeezing off shots during my discovery and as the wolverine swam away and climbed the shore of the next island, gave a shake and headed up the sandy slope. Despite the shake, the wolverine left a broad and distinct wet path as it climbed the slope. It had carried a large load of water that was still shedding water from its fur after more than 100 metres. That must have been a load while swimming. Anyway, this made my third, lifetime, wolverine. All around Bathurst Inlet, two in one day eight years one in 2012. Wonderful.

Back at the lodge, the local culture was displayed. Native costumes, hand-made by folks we had come to know and their friends and relatives of the Burnside community and modeled by these same folks. The youngsters of our group were invited to participate and became models and game-players along with their new Inuit friends. A native bow and arrows also were displayed. The bow was made by lashing and gluing muskox horn to antler material with binding from sinews. The shape is shortened by extreme recurves reminiscent of the horn bows made by Mongols. Yet the arrows are long indicating that the bow flexed until its limbs were nearly straight. I would have liked to try it but old, dry bows are often brittle. Where did they get the material for those arrows? How many were lost in caribou shooting?

















Jeff Amos photo


Sam Kappolak gave a verbal tour of the extensive collection of Inuit artifacts that have been saved by the Warner family. Sam still knows how each tool and technique fitted together to fashion the old way of life that is now passing. Ability to make a truly fine horn bow no longer is valued. The people of the Burnside Community and others like them are being pushed into the consumer economy of the south and the old way of life will not supply the monetary resource required by consumerism.

Recently, the economic depression of that consumer economy has come to threaten the intermediate position that the Warners and Page Burt and the Bathurst Inlet lodge offered to people like the Kapolaks. The Lodge was a possible way to transform the natural riches of the land into supplementary monetary resources for these folks allowing some combination of the old and the new lifestyles. But visitors are less frequent when their southern economic flow is slowed and a year at the lodge shrinks from three or four weeks to one or two weeks. Support staff must look elsewhere for income such as jobs at diamond mines with a sixteen-year projected lifespan. Sadly, the Inuit culture is threatened.

1 comment to Renewing Friendships in the Low Arctic

  • Gray:
    Thanks for this look at your 80th! Both educational and delightful. And I thought to myself, it must have been a real temptation for him to draw that ancient bow–remember the Hart House shoots of olden times?

    All the best to you and yours–maybe you’ll get back up there for your 90th!


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