Skip to main content

Opinion Margaret Wente travels the Northwest Passage: The Arctic will grip and change you

The North

The Arctic will grip you and change you

Prince Leopold Island is pictured in the distance. In the Arctic, you can see the world the way it was before people came along

The region's purity and stillness are experienced nowhere else, and it feels as if the Earth's elements are distilled to their essence

Margaret Wente is spending 12 days with the Canada C3 Expedition, which is circumnavigating the Canadian Arctic to mark Canada's 150th birthday. She will be with the C3 ship from Pond Inlet through the Northwest Passage.

Uluriak Amarualik, a young teacher from Resolute, Nunavut, joined our Arctic voyage this week. She is a serious person. But sometimes she gets seriously excited.

" Maktaaq! I must have maktaaq!" she shrieked when she came on board. She'd heard there was maktaaq on the ship.

Story continues below advertisement

Maktaaq is a savoury treat of narwhal epidermis and meat, cut up into little bite-sized chunks and eaten cold and raw. It was a gift to us from Jena Merkosak, a fellow voyager on the trip. Her brother caught the narwhal a couple of weeks ago near Pond Inlet.

Ms. Merkosak showed us how to use an ulu to cut up the narwhal meat. "I love sharing our food with other people," she said. Maktaaq is her favourite too.

Maktaaq tastes fresh and mild, the skin a little chewy, with a faint tang of the sea. You can dip it in soy sauce or beef boullion powder, or eat it plain. I ate a bit, and then another, and then I had a lot. After that I had some air-dried char, whose flesh is cross-hatched on the diagonal so that you can pull the chunks away from the skin. Like maktaaq, it's meant to be eaten with your hands, communally.

"Which one was your favourite?" Ms. Merkosak demanded . I said both.

Traditionally, Inuit people shared everything they had – food, stories, music, caribou hides to sleep under, children. They owned nothing. What's the point of hoarding stuff when you're on the move? Sharing is essential when life is nomadic, resources are scarce and everyone is mutually dependent.

Canada C3 participant Uluriaq Amarualik cuts narwhal.

It was a harsh life – often dark and cruel and violent. If local conditions changed and the seals couldn't break through the ice, people starved. Young men went out onto the ice to hunt and drowned or froze. Girl babies were abandoned on the ice because too many girls meant too many unproductive mouths to feed.

Life was also rich and nourishing. Family ties were strong in a way that most of us today can scarcely comprehend. In winter, people travelled hundreds of miles to socialize with their relatives. Humility and good humour were important virtues. There was very little room for envy, anger and frustration. Despite the tremendous blows inflicted by outsiders and modernity, these values have survived.

Story continues below advertisement

Tom Smith spent three years in the High Arctic in the 1970s. He was a young RCMP constable, the only white person in the area, working with two special constables who were Inuit. "People had a wonderful respect for each other," he told me. "There were no booze, no drugs at the time. The men loved to hunt and travel and the women were the best seamstresses in the world."

Mr. Smith (who later became a travelling judge in the Northwest Territories) learned the language, Inuktitut, and drove dog patrols over thousands of kilometres. He came across the remnants of Thule culture, thousands of years old and frozen in time. "There was a magic there," he says.

The Polar Prince at Gjoa Haven.

What is it about the Arctic that so grips Southerners?

"It's the air," says Paul Hamilton, a biologist who studies the Arctic Ocean's DNA. "It's the purest air you'll ever breathe."

"It's the solitude," says another scientist, Paul Smith (no relation to Tom), who spends summers here studying birds. "There's a sense of risk you don't get in the South. There are animals that want to eat you."

Yet, despite the vast distances that separate people, local life is highly social and communal. People you've barely met will sweep you up in their embrace.

Story continues below advertisement

That is the Arctic's stark duality: dark and light, isolation and community, cold and warmth, the fragility and tenacity of life. Humans are just another link in the delicate ecosystem – a none-too-dominant one. Yet, despite the harsh conditions, life flourishes. A bit of polar bear dung is enough to start an Arctic poppy growing in the middle of nowhere.

Margaret Wente looks out to sea after passing through the Bellot Strait, at the heart of the Northwest Passage.

In the Arctic, you can see the world the way it was before people came along, and the way it probably will be after we are gone. One day our ship took an unplanned detour way off the tourist route, to a large inlet where the waters were still uncharted. It's likely that no other human beings had been there for years. Tall cliffs lined the water. The beach was scattered with old seal bones and fresh muskox tracks. We hiked up to the bottom of a waterfall that tumbled a couple of hundred feet down a dramatic staircase of rock toward the sea. If Adam and Eve had come from a cold place, this would have been the place.

The purity and stillness of the Arctic are qualities I've experienced nowhere else. When the sun is hidden behind a haze and the sea and ice stretch on to the far horizon, the world becomes a monochrome of greys and whites. It feels as if the Earth's elements have been distilled down to their essence.

Then there's the joy.

Ms. Amarualik, the teacher, told me that she learned katajjaq – throat singing – from her father's grandmother. Enough people are interested in katajjaq these days to keep it going, and it's a part of every Inuit ceremony. It's quite demanding – Ms. Amarualik says she took seven years to learn it – and is full of haunting, otherworldly vocalizations. She badgered her younger sister to take it up too so that they could sing together.

Traditional throat singing is done with a partner, and it's a friendly competition. The two singers grasp each other's arms and stare intently into each other's faces. One sets the sound and rhythm and the other follows. The idea is to make your partner crack up laughing before you do. One evening Ms. Amarualik and her sister sang the Mosquito Song. It was mesmerizing and hilarious all at once. She told me that this type of throat singing is completely different from the amped-up style popularized by Tanya Tagaq.

Ms. Amarualik was excited about our visit to Gjoa Haven because she has friends and relatives there whom she hadn't seen in years. She is connected to them not just by blood but by a naming system that's hard to figure out. Inuit people have a lot of middle names, which belong to different relatives, usually deceased. Other people who are connected to a relative for whom you are named will address you as if you are that person. For example, Ms. Amarualik is named after the mother of a cousin who lives in Gjoa Haven. So that cousin calls her "mom," even though Ms. Amarualik is only half her age, and Ms. Amarualik refers to this cousin as her daughter. People's nephews are also their husbands. It's all very confusing. In Inuit culture, no one exists in isolation. Everyone exists in relationship with everybody else.

The traditional spirit world of the Inuit is a terrifying place – full of ghosts, giants, shamans, evil spirits and walrus heads. But the modern world of radical individualism is a terrifying place too. It is full of conflict, insecurity, emotional struggle, loneliness and a constant quest for status. You won't starve to death or be left out on the ice to die. But you may well spend large parts of your life unsure of your identity, feeling restless, unhappy and alone.

A view of the ocean through the Northwest Passage.

What is it about the Arctic that grabs people and won't let go? Everybody has a different answer. My favourite answer is something that could have come from Buddhist meditation. It is a poem, collected in the early 1920s from an Inuit community by the Greenlandic-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen. It describes what a great and essential thing it is to live in the moment, and it goes like this:

And I think over again

My small adventures

When from a shore wind I drifted out

In my kayak

And I thought I was in danger.

My fears,

Those small ones

That I thought so big,

For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only

One great thing,

The only thing:

To live and see in huts and on journeys

The great day that dawns,

And the light that fills the world.


Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...