In half a month, I’ll be leaving my home here in the Kawartha Lakes (Population: 73,000 Area: 3,083km2) and boarding a C-130 Hercules bound for the sprawling and bureaucratically-named census district of Baffin, Unorganized (Population: 5 Area: 988,309km2) at the northern tip of Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada. Ellesmere Island, specifically. Frozen nine months of the year, dark from October through February, and light from March to September, when the sun does a slow, off-kilter circle around the horizon. Home to a lot of “world’s northernmosts”: inhabited place, constructed wetland, airport, bowling alley. North of the north magnetic pole. North enough that Thule, Greenland is just a stopover on the way up. That kind of north.
This is the kind of travel I imagined doing as a kid. My mind’s eye was drawn to the extremes: Antarctica, the Himalayas, space; Ellesmere would have been a worthy destination. Getting on a plane to live in the realm of the polar bear and the Arctic fox was the stuff of my wildest dreams. A sudden thrill of curiosity would have had me giddily reaching for my hefty National Geographic atlas – because I was the kind of kid who had his own atlas. (Printed after the Six Day War, when Sri Lanka was still Ceylon and Vietnam had yet to unify itself.) I would pore over it for hours, visualizing each country by its brief, paragraph-long description beside the local flag, tracing mountain ranges and fault lines, examining the featureless white expanse of Greenland and savouring the names of empire found on the polar projections: Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, the Queen Elizabeth Islands.
The Arctic. A place with more named glaciers than towns, that lacked any of the things that furnished my environment and made it familiar. My imagination would fill it with bare rock and lichens and the few creatures who could eke out a living in that bleak terrain. So harsh that it formed an honorary title at the start of each name, like a kind of animal nobility: polar bears, snowy owls, Arctic wolves, hare and terns. It seemed to say, these are the few tough enough to outlast the pounding of winter, the ones who survive where mere survival is an art. I remember stroking the fur of an Arctic fox in elementary school, how its purity seemed surreal and impossible, adapted to a place where such meticulous lack of colour was not impractical, but rather an advantage.
This was not a place where humans were welcome. But regardless, in the late 1940s it was decided to put some tangible mark on the map to stake Canada’s claim, and a spot was found where the Robeson Channel meets the Lincoln Sea, around the bend of Cape Sheridan. A settlement to justify the country’s identification with that group of hardy, noble animals and give credence to its membership in the small club of northern nations. A weather research station was built first, in 1950, and named Alert for the ship of the same name that first reached the area in 1875. As the Cold War intensified through the decade, the station was expanded to discretely listen in on the Russians across the pole, who could be getting up to any sort of devious, evil business. Bulldozers were airlifted and the ground was levelled, a landing strip constructed. In a few short years, a small cluster of buildings had sprung up. Soldiers were sent on tours of duty. Known as the ‘frozen chosen’, a handful have been stationed there on rotation ever since, listening to Moscow and performing their role as human monuments to Canadian sovereignty.
And so, much to my childish delight, I find myself joining them for a little while this summer.