AAK: In Arctic Crossing, you write: "Sitting in
a kayak day after day is not, in and of itself, my idea of
a great time." What, then, kept you motivated during your
JW: I was mostly motivated by curiosity. After studying maps for days on end, I felt insatiably curious about the sort of landforms, seascapes, and wildlife I'd encounter along the way. The joy of wilderness, as a refuge from our modern world, is intoxicating to me. I was seeking the sublime 24-hour light, horizons unbroken by development, animals that are not afraid of
humans, the abiding silence.
I have long believed, as Inuit do, that some degree of suffering is necessary to our lives. Whenever I was badly scared or incapable of indulging my curiosity about the wilderness--or if I felt unmotivated--I accepted this state of being as a necessary human condition, and something I would just have to paddle through until it passed.
AAK: What was the greatest danger, physical or psychological, that you faced during your travel?
JW: The greatest threat was capsizing during the many open crossings and succumbing to
hypothermia in icy water. You can only survive about five to ten minutes in 39-degree water, not long enough to swim any great distance. I got wet numerous times, twice while capsized, and the resulting chill was like having my life-force vacuumed out of me--because you lose your ability to reason, you stop being scared, and the margin between life and death becomes quite slim. I had to get tremendously psyched up any time I went off shore.
AAK: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the spiritual beliefs of the Inuit and their relationship with animals?
JW: It was difficult to know how various Inuit felt spiritually because they are often conversation minimalists. Instead, I was shown spiritual lessons, but I had to watch carefully, and try not to ruin these moments by offending them with rude questions. For example, traditional Inuit believe that animals share the same souls as humans. After butchering a beluga whale (on which the hunters of Shingle Point have subsisted for more than a millennium), an elder reached into the cow's uterus, pulled out a tiny fetus, and cradled it gently in his hands. There was a great look of sadness in his eyes as he reenacted an age-old and unbroken ritual: killing to survive, and worshipping the spirit of animals.
AAK: How do longstanding Inuit traditions affect the way Inuit children are raised?
JW: Because of the age-old belief that children embody the souls of dead relatives, they are not commonly reprimanded. Children often run wild and unsupervised in the villages, although older brothers and sisters, barely in their teens, watch over their siblings carefully. Consequently, Inuit children grow up quickly, through their greater responsibilities, through partaking in the hunt at a very young age, and, undoubtedly, through the binding ties and love of the traditional Inuit family.
AAK: You note that sometimes you found the Inuit people to be "caught in a depraved limbo, somewhere between paradise and the ugly side of modern civilization." Which aspects of Inuit life are you citing?
JW: I'm citing--in one particular depressed Inuit village--how their culture has been assimilated and bypassed. In this transition, from what they used to be into what they hope to become, they have slipped in ways similar to other impoverished North American inner-city and reservation cultures. For example, dogs are treated cruelly, children are sexually abused, domestic violence is common, and alcoholism devastates many families. The depraved parts of their lives in this particular village are mostly manifested on weekends, when the whole village binges together and it becomes dangerous for white people to walk the streets of town.
In hunting camps, however, these people live gracefully, enacting the paradise more typical of their old traditions: caring for one another, playing card games, hunting and fishing, having feasts, and taking journeys across the land and sea. When you come into a hunting camp--particularly when you are traveling alone in a kayak or across the land-- it is true that the Inuit are the most generous souls you could hope to meet anywhere in the world.
AAK: It might surprise readers who don't live in the Arctic that there is a lot of debris--old cans, rotting food, tools--left behind by the Inuit as they move over their homeland. What do you think accounts for this?
JW: In their former nomadic lives, most tools and possessions were obtained from the land. Copper arrows, stone ulus, bone harpoons, and pieces of driftwood--these things were discarded upon the land as they were broken or used up. Invariably, some of these old ways are still ingrained in many of the people. Besides, bringing trash home, in their minds, would only dirty their villages.
Perhaps the best explanation for the trash I saw scattered everywhere is that the Inuit also learn from the white people, Kabloona. And Kabloona, particularly the United States Air Force, have abandoned 55 gallon drums and huge Distant Early Warning radar stations every 150 miles, for 4000 miles, across the Arctic. The Air Force only recently started trying to clean up this mess.
In most third world countries it is not unusual to see trash blowing across beautiful beaches. The lesson here is that, to people who live in relative states of despair, survival precedes environmentalism.
AAK: In what ways has the Canadian government protected--or infringed upon--the landscape and wildlife of the Arctic?
JW: The Canadian government's land reform programs, such as the Inuvialuit Final Settlement Act of 1984 and the recent designation of the Nunavut province, serve as a model to the rest of the world for protecting cultural landscapes. Wildlife, too, is generally well monitored and protected in the Canadian Arctic, and most of the problems of pollution seem to stem from industrial pollution (PCB fallout) from the Great Lakes region.
AAK: You decide in the course of your journey that everyone should visit the Arctic. Why? What awaits us there?
JW: Despite some periodic eyesores (most notably around abandoned military radar installations), the Arctic is the greatest North American refuge for wildlife and intact ecosystems, as well as a mythic culture. Besides, this is one place where you'll find no commuter traffic.
For several months of the year, the continuous and soft light makes you feel as if you have been painted into a Monet or Renoir landscape. There are still wolves left here that will run up to you unafraid and curious. The size of the caribou herds--100,000 to 300,000, if you're lucky enough to stand alongside such a migration--defies our previous sense of the word wonder.
Visiting the Arctic shows us what the earth and its people used to be like. It allows us to slow down and indulge an untouched part of our imaginations, and come away rich for the experience.