Arctic Crossing

Arctic Crossing

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(On the map below, click on "1" after reading to begin...)


In the beginning, it would have seemed foolish to attempt crossing the Arctic without maps. (Like the one you can find below this text -- a map which will give you access to photos I took on my journey) -- I had 56 of them altogether. I made notes on each of them about wildlife and strange landforms and hidden coves and sandstone arches and meetings with remarkable Inuit. Once I even laid them together and stood back for the big picture, looking down as a high flying bird might see it: the bald pate of North America stretching far from the forests, several villages glimmering with pinpricks of artificial light, and most incredibly, I could see the land curving back from the seažshowing the shape of our planet. Collectively, I thought, the maps might really teach me something.

The chink in my dream of soloing the Northwest Passage came when I began to learn that singularly, the detailed maps were not always correct. As the tide rose and fell, uncharted sandbars appeared. Currents washed the sand away and created new sandbars in different locations. The icepack sawed the coast apart and lifted away prominent landmarks, then retreated north, unmapable (even by the inaccurate weekly satellite sea ice maps) because of its hourly fluid and grinding mutations. Pingo ice hills, looking like miniature volcanoes, disappeared as underlying permafrost melted. Floods carved new river channels out into the sea. Rivers shown as starting miles north of treeline mysteriously carried driftwood to the coast I was paddling. Bays drained. And storms washed away whole beaches.

An Inuk man from Tuktoyaktuk showed me some pointers on my map, penciling a precise line across the peninsula, zigzagging the pencil across the map's landscape and describing the shape of hills, erasing then re-penciling two sections, then decrying the inaccuracies of this particular map, "Government never quite gets it right," he said. The Inuk, who had never graduated from high school, had shown me all the expertise of a famous cartographer, who had once given me similar advice.

During the last summer of my 2,200 mile journey, while I studied my one-to-fifty thousand scale maps, another Inuk, from Cambridge Bay, gave me his one-to-a half million-scale jetliner pilot map. I asked him if his smoky-smelling map had enough detail to show what I needed to know. He laughed. Then his prophetic words, along with the map, would accompany me for another two months.

The map was so crispy and old with age that it flaked apart each time I unfolded it, but again, it was as if I was looking down and seeing the top of the continent from above the troposphere. The Inuk had told me that his map was the way elders learned to see the land. Just like the sandhill crane.

Here is a version of the map made for the book, and I invite you to click on the numbers, following my trip, west to east, and take a look at some of the sights I grew familiar with along the way...

---Jonathan Waterman, November 2000


Click on "1" on the map to begin the journey.