March 21, 2016
LOOKING NORTH AT THE EQUINOX
MONTPELIER – Each day this week the sun inhabits the sky for three or four minutes more than it did the day before. The sap run is dying as the maples begin to bud. The worst of mud season appears to be over, except on the roads shaded thickly by hemlocks. On my almost-daily walks in the park on the hill behind the State House, the trails are still frozen here and there on the surface, but the water beneath has drained away, and the tip of my cane produces a hollow “bonk” as it thumps down on the thin, frozen mud cover.
Our planet’s axis is once again at a right angle to a line between it and its sun, and every spot on Earth is getting the same amount of sunlight as every other. From Ecuador, where the day’s length never varies, south to Cape Horn or north to Resolute, we all get twelve hours. Toward the poles, the sky brightens earlier and darkens later because the bulge of the earth hiding the sun is smaller; and I have a fantasy that if we were to stand on stepladders at either pole, the sun today would shine around the clock. But I’ve aired that imaginary scenario before, and been shot down by my meteorological betters; so I won’t mention it.
I remember spending a day at Cape Horn a few years ago, and fancying it to be at the extreme end of the earth. Which it is – it’s the southern tip of South America, south of which are only the Drake Passage and Antarctica. Hard facts, however, show it to be only 55º south of the Equator – about as far as Denmark is north.
I remember also camping at 71º north, on the coast of Victoria Island. A July sleet storm kept our group of friends from overheating. We set up kitchen in the lee of a mudstone cliff, dined on Arctic char, and marveled that the Inuit (“the People”) once lived here on land utterly barren of any vegetation but short, scrappy grass. Peary caribou, almost like children’s stuffed toys, trotted cautiously close to look at us and trotted faster away as we reached for cameras.
When my friends and I first started to go north, back in the 1980s, planning a canoe trip entailed dozens of letters and phone calls. The mail was unbearably slow, and the phone calls then were mostly on one-way connections, requiring an “over” each time you were done speaking. I spent a lot of time and money on the phone, and included the bills as part of the trip budgets. Our 1991 trip down a never-before-canoed river on the north coast was scheduled to end, if we made it, in a bay named Port Epworth in 1821 by the star-crossed explorer John Franklin.
We didn’t have the time to paddle the coast west from there to Coppermine, about 90 miles away, where we could catch a “sked” – a scheduled flight. So I started asking everybody I called if there was any way to arrange a ride for us and our canoes. The North, vast as it is, is a lot like a family. Everybody knows somebody who knows more than he does about something; and eventually I got connected with Larry Whittaker, who owned the only commercial vessel on the north coast, a 47-foot ex-RCMP “schooner” in which he and his family occasionally traveled.
We talked on the phone, set a date for meeting in Port Epworth, and that was that. In those days before satellite phones, the move was a suicide squeeze. But it worked perfectly. On the evening of the day appointed, as we huddled in our tents out of the north wind off the ice pack and the guys were getting a little antsy, the throb of a distant diesel insinuated itself into our consciousness. We peeked from our tents, and there was the MV Fort Hearne chugging into the harbor, with Larry and his wife, three sons, a young Inuit girl, and Gypsy, the beagle.
It was instant affinity, for me, at least. Larry’s cautious competence – mechanical, nautical, and technological – were captivating; not to mention his Canadian self-deprecation and humour. We’ve stayed friends ever since. He and his wife have visited us here in New England, and we Geriatrics have sailed and stayed with him at his home in Coppermine (Kugluktuk since 1999).
Things change rapidly nowadays. The days of telephone calls have long passed, as has the brief period of fax machines as the best way to communicate with folks in the Arctic. Every village, I believe, now has Wi-Fi, and Larry and I can e-mail back and forth several times a day, if we wish. I can look up his weather on-line (-14ºF the other day, when it was +40º here). And through the wonder of GoogleEarth, I can zoom in on his red-roofed house, with its incredible north-of-the-Circle kitchen garden, right beside the mouth of the Coppermine River. The old Fort Hearne is pulled up on the bank, her voyages over. Larry flies now, either an enclosed ultralight or a little two-seat Piper Cub-like plane. He wrote today: “I'm anxiously awaiting the month of April and hope to get the airplane readied for a season on skis. Helen and I are both looking forward to a trip down to the cabin at Agnes Lake.” He’s built a cabin and storage shed there, and has bought a 14-foot aluminum outboard (“Helen is not real crazy about paddling on that cold lake in a canoe.”) that he’s going to ferry to the new cabin in a chartered Otter this summer.
Then he drops an almost irresistible job offer: “...we're having a heck of a time finding a reliable house/dog/cat sitter. I've offered free rent to anyone who wants to move in with us, in exchange for occasional house-sitting, but so far no takers - at least nobody we could trust.” What a heartbreaker! Fifty-five years ago I could have talked Mother into it, but them days are gone, too.
All I can do is wish him well in his search and dream of the perpetual daylight of the Arctic summer. Larry and Helen are lucky folks; but as I’ve said before, they work at making their luck.