While some may have a yearning for places like the Khyber Pass, Great Barrier Reef and Galway Bay, my own Erin Isle, Ultima Thule and Xanadu is the North, the immense, empty trapezoid of land that is bounded by the Arctic Ocean and the two inland seas of the central Canadian Arctic, Great Bear and Great Slave lakes. For most of my 40 years this territory has been—in my imagination, if not geographically—the heart of the North. The time for a trip there is in the frantic days of the Arctic spring when the wildfowl migrations hurtle north; mallards, widgeon, teal, scaup, buffleheads, fanning out across the rocky ferocious expanse above Yellowknife.
The frontier mining town sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, which on the first day of June is still solidly frozen. The lake is a hundred miles wide and from the air looks like a vast convoluted sheet of corroded aluminum. On the north edge the vegetation is sparse, stunted brown, not yet in bud. The land is like an ancient pitted husk. Everywhere in the hollows, cracks and gouges of the granite shell there is water. It is as if a giant mirror has shattered on the rocks and the pieces lay about in profusion. Two-thirds of the surface is under water—either open ponds or lakes or mushy, mossy muskeg, a quivering phenomenon that is not truly land or water.
Yet, with all the water, this is in many respects desert country, for it receives less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. The muskeg may shake and squish on the surface but below it, below everything, is everlasting ice, the permafrost. The little water that falls is trapped in solid basins of ice and granite.
The air is similar to that in El Paso, dry and abrasive to the lungs. As you choke on dust, you can see water and bog in every direction. Spongy mosses, sedges, cattails and water lilies flourish. But on the granite outcropping the vegetation is of a desert sort—leather leaf, thorny rose, juniper.
May 28, 1972
To add to all these contradictions, there is no night. Shortly before midnight the sun does dip below the horizon, but only just. It rises again in an hour or two and while it is gone there is a soft dusk.
About midnight on my second day in the North, I was sitting with a group of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service men in the cavernous public room of the Yellowknife Inn. One of them, David Trauger, was noticeably quiet. He was drinking dutifully but followed the barroom conversation inattentively. Trauger was conducting his first field research project and was more or less constantly, blissfully preoccupied with thoughts of the lesser scaup duck, the subject of his study. "You know," David said finally, apropos of nothing, "that warm day today [it had been a tropical 70° in Yellowknife] just might have brought in some of my yearling birds. I think I'll go out and look around for a couple of hours."
Perhaps never again would there be a chance to leave a frontier bar at midnight and go out and watch ducks on Arctic ponds. We started off, heading west on the Mackenzie Highway, a rough gravel strip that is the only primary road in the central Arctic. A few miles outside of Yellowknife, Trauger slowed and gestured toward a tiny sedge-ringed pond. There were three scaup, two flashy black-and-white males and a drab brown hen, floating on the glassy surface, casting fuzzy shadows in the soft light. None of the ducks bore the identification tag Trauger was searching so earnestly for.
The previous summer, he and another of the Yellowknife duck men had tagged 500 scaup. In August, when the scaup are flightless (adults because of their molt and ducklings because of immaturity), the two biologists had gone to the lakes where the birds congregate and trapped 250 ducklings of each sex. These were marked with yellow, plastic nasal saddles that fitted over the ducks' bills. The hope was that the saddles would stay put and the marked birds would return again to the Yellowknife area where their "culture," as biologists call it, could be studied.
Trauger assumed that at least some of the marked hens would return to where they had been hatched. However, as of this particular morning, the supposition remained unproved. With what seemed to be the majority of scaup already returned, Trauger was depressed by his failure to find any with yellow nasal saddles. Perhaps the markers had somehow handicapped the ducklings and none lived through the year; maybe yearling birds did not home dependably; possibly the birds were there but Trauger had simply failed to find them. After an unsuccessful six-hour search we headed back toward town, rechecking ponds along the way. At one about 35 miles out of Yellowknife there were two pairs of scaup that had not been there three hours earlier. The ducks were sitting sluggishly on a mud and weed bar.
"Holy smoke," David exclaimed. "There's a nasal marking." In his excitement Trauger banged his binoculars against the steering wheel, hit his head on the roof of the car and knocked off my hat. At once he began to write furiously in his notebook, while I continued to watch the ducks and occupy myself with more commonplace thoughts concerning the marvel of migration.
Probably the four birds sitting on the mud bank had just completed an immense 3,000-mile journey from the Gulf of Mexico, where many scaup winter. It is extraordinary that a two-pound bird has enough muscle, energy and blood for the job. But some of the physical aspects of the ducks' journey are even more extraordinary. At least one of the birds, the little hen who had been marked as a duckling the summer before, had never made the northward flight. How had she found her way back to the speck of water and muskeg where she was hatched? What sensory apparatus or genetic memory bank did she possess? Why was she determined to return, there being suitable scaup nesting grounds as far south as North Dakota? When did the scaup as a species make its pioneering journey here and why? What urged the first, primeval scaup to strike out across an unknown land to an unknown destination thousands of miles away? Despite easy explanations in children's encyclopedias, no one knows.
In the South, migration, or at least the impact of migration, is more osmotic than in the North. One day there is a phoebe on the bridge and a robin on the lawn, and the next day a few more; then the robins and the phoebes have returned. The volume of migrants is the same but they trickle in. In the Arctic, however, they come in floods, species by species, as if their schedules had been programmed by a cosmic computer. One day there are thousands of old-squaw—long-tailed, raucous sea ducks—cackling on the lakes and ponds. Two days later there are only stragglers, the bulk of the flock having rushed north to their breeding grounds on the Arctic Ocean. Suddenly there will be, where there was not one before, thousands of water thrushes in the underbrush or golden plovers like coveys of tame quail feeding along the Mackenzie Highway.
Manifest in many ways is the sense of haste that is overriding in Arctic life, the cycle of desperate rush. The old-squaw touch down and then flee on. One day the scrub willow, wild rose and birch are brown and dormant, the next there is a haze of green over the brush and by the end of the week the foliage is almost full. Ducks arrive exhausted, pause for a few hours, then stake out a nesting territory and the hens immediately begin to lay.
There is a need for this speed. Consider the case of the scaup. They take 39 days to build their nest and incubate their eggs, then 60 days to rear their brood and another week for the adults to complete their molt—106 days in all. Usually the ponds are only free of ice between May 25 and September 25—which is 124 days. So the scaup rushes. Though the days never properly end, there is nothing hazy or somnolent about the Arctic summer. It is short and swift. Creatures who fail to keep pace with the midnight sun perish. This I now understood, standing there on the edge of the Mackenzie Highway. Life presses its creatures of the North, harasses them, demands from them.
There are few better places in the central Arctic to watch wildfowl than along the Mackenzie Highway, but it is after all a highway connected to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Santa Monica Freeway and thus tainted for a wilderness seeker from the South. So. not to get a better look at ducks but for reasons of purist romanticism, I borrowed a canoe and hitched a ride with a pilot biologist into the true bush. He set me and a friend down in a wet brush land on Stagg Lake, a 20-mile pencil of water northwest of Yellowknife. For the next week we worked our way back, coming down the lake and down Stagg River to a point where it crosses the Mackenzie Highway a few miles above Great Slave Lake.
The shoreline of Stagg Lake has a sort of sawtooth rampart conformation like the battlements of a medieval castle. Outcroppings of granite, some rising a hundred feet, rim the water. Between them are ravines, dense little jungles of birch, spruce and muskeg. Many of the outcroppings shelve off gently into the lake, making good camping places. The wind blowing off the water over the granite drives away the mosquitoes and blackflies, which are ferocious in the ravines. The sloping granite is a convenient place for drawing up a canoe, collecting dry driftwood and scouring pans. Also, if a flat ledge can be found, it is not bad sleeping, since all the rocks in these parts are thickly cushioned with lichens and mosses. These grow in exotic, spongelike shapes and in a pleasing assortment of muted colors: pale greens, yellows, grays, charcoals and rusts. They are so delicate and artfully shaped that it seems a shame to walk or throw a sleeping bag on them, but they are so abundant and serviceable that there is nothing to do but fight down shame and use them.
On the first afternoon in the bush, as we spread out our gear on one of these granite and moss gardens, two canoes appeared around a bend in the lake. In the first was an Indian and a boy, perhaps his son. In the second was an older man. The three paddled like Cub Scouts, first on one side and then the other, in an ineffectual effort to keep a straight line toward our camp. These were not particularly clumsy or ignorant representatives of their people. Later inquiries and observation indicated that few of the central Arctic Indians, unless they have been instructed by whites, know how to manage a canoe, a tool they have had for many centuries. (A good social project for an Explorer troop from Trenton, N.J.: go North and teach the Indians to canoe.)
Eventually they succeeded in landing their leaky, clumsy canoes on the granite shelf. All three were thin and they wanted tea and sugar. Having it, we mixed a drink to their pleasure—half a cup of sugar, half a cup of water and a little tea. Conversation was difficult and the real trouble was not linguistic. From our standpoint, they were scrawny little panhandlers who could not paddle in a straight line to beg tea and consequently did violence to our romantic image of the noble savage. It is impossible to be certain, but I suspect they regarded us as outlaws or madmen.
"What do you call those birds?" we asked, pointing to a flock of scaup on the lake, hoping to start some chitchat.
The middle-aged Indian, spokesman and translator for the group, said something to his companions, who giggled, then answered, "We call 'em ducks."
Now it was our guests' turn to make a social effort. "You come to fish?"
"No, we come to study ducks."
"Study ducks," the man repeated thoughtfully. He was growing increasingly skeptical—after all, a moment before we had not known what a duck was. Now we were claiming to be in the back end of nowhere for the purpose of studying them.
While the conversation continued, the young boy circumspectly examined our gear and by and by discovered three dozen mousetraps I had brought along in hopes of collecting some small Arctic rodents. He let out an involuntary hiss of astonishment. The older man frowned as if the boy had done something impolite. "Many mouse?" the man asked delicately. We laughed to show we understood how silly it must seem to be carrying 36 mousetraps in a canoe but explained, "We study mouse, too. I mean mice."
The man again translated for his friends. He and the boy almost choked but kept straight faces. The old man was less restrained and guffawed.
To everyone's relief the uncomfortable meeting was broken off shortly thereafter. The three Indians got back into their canoes. They banged into each other several times as they attempted to disembark but finally set off on a wobbly up-lake course. As a final touch, when they approached the scaup on the water, the old man stopped, picked up a rusty .22 rifle he carried in the bilge of the canoe and took a shot at the ducks. He missed by a good 30 feet.
The Indians, known as the Slaveys—thus the name of the big lake—are among the most primitive peoples in North America. They, as few ever could and almost nobody can now, survive in the central Arctic, perhaps the most inhospitable environment in the world. In a sense it is a spiritual rather than cultural feat. They have few tools. They have not learned how to control or escape the harsh environment, the 60° below zero winters, the gales, droughts, clouds of insects and failing game. They have only learned, as no one else has, how to endure it, almost naked.
Large sheets of ice, crossed by narrow shifting channels, choked the upper end of Stagg Lake. A patch of open water between the edge of the ice and a small island was the resting place for a considerable flock of ducks. For no better or worse reason than that I had never been to such a place before, I paddled out to inspect the ice floe. The waves had piled up the ice in jagged windrows. In this cold rubble one small dark bird was hopping, apparently feeding on stranded invertebrates. To my astonishment, I found it was a redwing blackbird.
The country behind Stagg Lake made for splendid roaming. There was one small pond after another, and except for an occasional trail made by moose or bear there were no paths. Even so, the portages were easy. Each pond was separated from the next by a partition of granite. After breaking through the fringe of prickly rose and birch that surrounded each pond, the walking was good, even carrying a canoe.
The roaming was almost too good. It had a hypnotic effect. The next pond over and the next and the next pulled me like the sun did Icarus. It was necessary to make a willful effort to remember the way back. Every once in a while I would lecture myself sternly that the thing that counted was not how many ponds you saw but how well you saw one.
At one pond there was a small canal dug by beavers into which I pushed the canoe and sat alone, hidden in the brush. The canoe rested on a bed of sphagnum moss. In it grew large liverworts, the leaves of which were cup-shaped and the edges fluted. There were two birch sticks, the ends tapered, the bark skinned off by beavers. A patch of mud had been patted down as a ramp by beavers. In the mud were the tracks of moose and bear and snowshoe hare. By the side of the canoe in the water were hundreds of wiggling blackfly larvae. A birch stood against the sky, the foliage looking like pale-green mouse ears. There was a rustle in the rose tangle. I did not dare move. Eventually a snowshoe hare hopped out and came to the side of the canoe, curiously touching the aluminum with its nose.
Beyond that there was a pigeon hawk sweeping across the far side of the pond and beyond that another outcropping, another pond, and beyond that the same all the way to the Arctic Ocean and beyond that the North Pole and Suez and the South Pole.
Stagg River, which drains Stagg Lake, is a small gentle stream without much pitch. When the slow current passes over a rib of granite there are a few mild riffles but no real rapids, nothing that would give even a novice canoeist any concern or thrill. However, the riffles were apparently too much for the Indians with their Cub Scout strokes. Around each mini-rapid, portage paths were cut.
The weather for a week was beautiful—clear, temperatures in the 60s during the day and 10 degrees lower during the dusk-dawn. But one night while camping along the river, black clouds came out of the north and began to pile up overhead. The wind rose and rain began to fall. In the morning there was ice on the water, the temperature had dropped into the teens and snow, driven by a 30-mph wind, was in the air, stinging like sand. The two of us shivered uncontrollably and were incontestably miserable.
Ten miles below Stagg Lake the river widened into a great deltalike expanse of marsh and channels. We had planned to spend a day there because it was an exceptionally good place for ducks. The ducks were there all right, huddled in the reeds to escape the wind and snow. We saw them only in passing and were not really interested. Unable to hide, we could not endure the open marsh. At the far end of the swamp was a large granite outcropping. Rubbish and a few remaining tent frames indicated it was a winter hunting camp for the Indians. Beaching the canoe, we dragged our gear behind a ledge that partially blocked the wind. There we huddled, thinking if this was June what must it be like on that rock in January. We knew we could not endure it for a month, or a year, to say nothing of a lifetime, as the Slaveys have.
But on the last day the wind subsided, the sky cleared and all that was left of the storm was a bite in the air and a powder of snow on the ground. In the cold sun we drifted down the Stagg River, drifted reluctantly and inevitably away from the Slaveys' bush, and then we wished that the Mackenzie Highway was not just ahead, and the Santa Monica Freeway and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.