by Jim Flosdorf (© 1996)
This is the beginning of the record. It is in three parts, followed by the poems.
The most obvious, and most striking aspect of the
centuries, possibly millennia, of traffic. There is nothing for birds to perch on. They must make do with cliffs, the ground, or the boulders strewn on the ground. It is harder to hide. For us it is easier to get lost in the barren landscape. When we flew over it we saw hills upon hills in endless procession, divided by an occasional river or stream cutting a gorge and falling in rapids or myriad waterfalls. The only easily-followed landmarks are the streams and rivers, and out on the tundra, with these out of sight, there is not much else to use as a marker, nothing to blaze, unless one left cairns or inukshuks (more on that later).
Small also are the tiny, inch-long pieces of "driftwood" that one can pick up off the tundra, broken rootstocks of bearberry, perhaps, which bleach and dry in the air and give every appearance of miniature pieces of driftwood. There is no firewood, hence no searching, chopping, hauling, cutting, and splitting that usually is a part of each stop at a new campsite. There is no evening campfire to gather around for warmth or sociability. No smoke to drive the mosquitoes away. No logs or stumps to sit on. One cooks on a Coleman stove. There is not much to tie a canoe to, or a tarp, or poles for the tarp. But perhaps the biggest effect of there being no trees is that on a hot day there is no shelter from the sun, no shade, no respite from its relentless heat, and in the summer the sun will rise at about and set about at night. Likewise, there is nothing to break the relentless roaring of the wind, which at evening as the temperature drops, or on cloudy days, multiplies the cold with wind-chill as it blows down the river valleys and across the bare hill tops.
The same loss of scale is true on the large end of the spectrum. Unless you can see the person standing on top of the hill or across the tundra you cannot judge size or distance accurately. Of course there are no trees to help out with perspective and scale. The hills are massive lumps of glacier-smoothed rock, Precambrian bedrock, and in the Soper River valley, a geologic transition zone where two plates met, there is a great variety of color and texture in the rocky hills, running from black, brown, rust-colored, tan, to various shades of gray, some of which, crystallized limestone, approach white. In those hills there is marble, lapis lazuli, garnet, graphite, fool's gold, and a place where one can find chunks of mica inches thick and the size of floor tiles. The place looks like one huge solar cell with its plates scattered around by visitors, native and non-native alike, all shining in the sun. Smaller pieces have blown out across the tundra, making it sparkle like the night sky in the sunlight. The sand beaches several miles downwind sparkle with minute flecks of the mica.
Walking on the tundra when the flowers are blooming, as they were when we were there, makes one want to step carefully so as not to crush any. In places the tundra is coarse-grained sand, tan or almost black, with boulders strewn around on it and not many plants. There is some of the tiny "driftwood," and occasionally magnificent Caribou antlers, bones, or even a whole skeleton which has been worked over by wolves and other predators. Ponds of various sizes are scattered around. In other places the ground is covered with grass, arctic cotton, the small white lichen, caribou moss, frost-heaves, and what in the south we would take to be muck that we might sink into up to our ankles or knees. Here there is a crunching under my feet and I realize it is the crunch of ice crystals. I do not sink in at all. There are a few patches of snow still left, more on the hillsides. Where the snow has just recently melted, the ground is frozen, and it has a lifeless, dull brownish-gray color. We could walk from winter, to early spring, to summer in a space of less than forty feet. The plants and flowers would tell us what the season was in each micro-clime.
After we had left the river the Inuit asked us about two things: the mosquitoes
and did we see any caribou. The Inuit do not travel in the barrens in
mid-summer. The next time they go out will be in the fall (August) for berries.
As for the mosquitoes, they were a problem only twice. The rest of the time the
wind blew them away. They are the large, dumb ones (Andy, not like the
second-generation, small, agressive, dive-bombers in
As for the caribou, we saw several shortly after we landed at our campsite on day one--handsome creatures with big racks--but then they melted away. The herd on the island is estimated to be between two and three thousand in number. The females and the calves move farther north in the summer, while the males hang around in the valley. At the end of the summer the whole herd will return to the valley for the winter. There was plenty of evidence of their presence; everywhere were fresh droppings. White clumps of their winter coat blew around on the tundra. Tracks and trails were everywhere. Once they had scoped-out these new intruders to their feeding grounds, they moved off, probably higher into the hills. We were told that the large number of carcasses around was the result of a freezing-rain storm that got the weaker ones after a hard winter. The Inuit still hunt them for their meat, their fur, their sinews (for thread), and their antlers (which they collect and carve). At one of our campsites when a tent-stake turned up missing it was replaced by a broken-off piece of antler. I found and picked up a vertebra. It is supposed to be a good luck charm, and when used as a die, a predictor of the sex of unborn children. I carried it for a while in my pocket, until I decided that for me, a person not of this land, it was bad luck, and I returned it to its mother, the earth. More about this later.
Temperatures ranged from about 11 (52 F.) in the daytime to about 7 (45) at night, but this doesn't count in the wind chill, which sometimes made it feel like -6 (20) or less, especially if our boots hadn't dried from the in-and-out of canoeing over rapids and the splash of water into the canoe. The temperature of the water in the river ranged from 4 to 7 (40-45). Rather cold for a dip. The water in the ponds was warmer. On day two, when there were no clouds at all, the air temperature must have gotten up to around 21 (70) or more, but it felt unrelenting because there was no escape from its burning rays. This was an aspect of the land that I had not anticipated. In this respect it is much like a desert. Carry water, and salt tablets. Although the sun set around when we were there, it disappeared behind a hill anywhere from to , depending on where we were camped, how high the hill was, and how near we were to it. The presence of the sun above the horizon could be confirmed, though, by looking at the hills to the east, where it still lighted the ridges and hill tops with a rosy glow.
When we arrived the moon was in its first quarter, and when we left it was full. The odd thing was that the moon seemed to run parallel to the horizon, staying at about 15 degrees above the horizon throughout the evening as it crossed the river valley to the south of us. The sun, however, attained a height of about 45 degrees around d.s.t. At night it never got really dark, barely even twilight.