For the Group of Seven, Canada's North was the defining spirit of the country. The farther north you went, the closer you were to Canada's spiritual centre. We all still feel this in some vague way, but when you go there, you feel it and know it absolutely.
For about 20 years, with a group of friends, I paddled a different river in the High Arctic most summers, ranging as far west as the Noatak in Alaska to the Korok, which empties into Ungava Bay, in the east, and up to Baffin Island. I paddled the Hood, the Back, the Wind, the Burnside, the Hanbury and Thelon, the Coppermine, the Isortoq and others, like the Nahanni or the Missinaibi, in the “south.”
Our voyages through the vast geography of the Arctic have always been in July or August. For us, the Canadian Arctic wears the face of summer and it fascinated us all. The Arctic imprints its own indelible mark on your life, like a first introduction to scuba diving or your first experience in a desert or a tropical jungle.
For me, the discovery of endless daylight was like being a child again. I revelled in it from the very first “night.” My diary is peppered with notes like, “Awake at 1:30 a.m. Sky all pink and glorious,” or “Up at 6 a.m. to make breakfast. Went for an hour-long walk first” or “5 a.m. On the southern point, the sky behind cloud is a band of pale, delicate green” or “Awake at 4 a.m. Valley shrouded in mist.”
Here, it feels as if you had been given extra time to live, just like those long summer evenings of childhood. I traipsed off across the tundra at all hours, oblivious to the late-evening/early-morning chill, and took pictures as the sun finally set, briefly, behind a hill at about midnight, and then rose again half an hour later. At the same time, the moon rose, full and ethereal, over the opposite horizon, a pendant orb in the sky for several hours until the sun's angle finally outshone it into invisibility. Everyone should be able to see, simultaneously, a sunrise and a moonrise like that.
Opposed to the timelessness I felt, was nature's headlong rush to snatch what heat and light it could before winter's early return wrapped almost everything into a deep, cold sleep once again. During this flicker of a summer, the cycle of life is compressed into a few frantic weeks. Plant, bird and animal life barely pauses during the seamless shift from one day to the next. All day long, killdeer call and run, palmated sandpipers peck their way up and down the shore, eagles and terns pierce the air with shrill cries. Across a valley, I heard a pack of wolves strike up a chorus to be answered by a lone member on a rise right behind me. On one outing, I was viciously persecuted by a pair of long-tailed jaegers, which dived at me with a malice and fierceness I little expected. They finally forced me to hunker in a hollow in the ground, having reminded me that I was the intruder in their world.
Around the fire, we sometimes talked about the profound sense of time's immensity that one feels so acutely there, where life is so transitory in the summer, where eons seem visible in the etched stone and the tenacious lichens, where changes take place over centuries, and where forever seems like a real possibility. We realized then that we were the most transitory of travellers in a special time and place, children of a long-lived and implacable nature, both enthralled by, yet fearful of, our awareness of our own brief lives.