Pearce Point, -122.7667 W, 69.8333 N.
During the 1920s and 30s there was a RCMP detachment at Pearce Point during the summer months when the Inuit maintained a seasonal hunting camp. For these hardy men from the south, it must have seemed a beautiful but desolate spot. More for a show of sovereignty that actual purpose, small ships carried up enough wood to build identical two room quarters throughout the Arctic. At Pearce Point, a protected bay open to the north and the waters of the Amundsen Gulf, the police shack still stands, and is still occupied seasonally.
We anchored in the bay for a few hours, enough time for some of us to walk and explore ashore. From the ship, the land called me, rugged and inviting. The fragile tundra of Barrow is here raised above the seas by basalt cliffs broken only in a few places such as the RCMP beach where we could land from a small boat.
The rocky ground was covered with brown mosses, except for a tower outcropping in the bay entirely cut off from land and rising dominantly from the water. Its surface was green and alive, suggesting that grazing may have played a part in halting the growth of green foliage on the mainland.
This is caribou country, and walking on the beach we made our way to the RCMP hut.
Originally covered in red wooded shingles, gaps had been replaced with blue tarps and the ground outside was littered with oil drums, remnants of old clothing, and jerry cans in a picture of neglect. The cabin itself was chained shut and currently in use as a hunting base. Peering through the windows feeling vaguely guilty of trespass, the evidence of domestic comfort contrasted the disrepair outside. In front of the window was a table covered with a red checked tablecloth, the familiar shapes of bottles of HP sauce, jars of pickles, and an opened bag of nacho chips.
In that bag of nacho chips lies one of the current threats to the people of Nunavut. Just seventy years ago, the hunting parties at Pearce Point would have camped in their traditional manner, travelled by dogsled, and lived a life of balance at a subsistence level. The advent of 1950s government policy created vast changes in the North; groups were moved from fertile hunting areas to large accessible communities where welfare, alcohol, and the snowmobile drastically marked the culture.
Now junk food is the latest threat to northern communities, seventy years ago working a dog team across the arctic demanded a high caloric intake. This cultural and genetic requirement for a high food intake is no longer needed in the era of snowmobile transport. Yet the Inuit people are often unaware of the nutritionally deficient nature of junk food consumed as a replacement to some traditional food sources and this adds one more health issue to an already fragile way of life. (Credit for my awareness of this problem goes to Jim’s experience in Cape Dorset).
This is caribou country, but it is also bear country too. Last year a shore party ran into a grizzly in these hills and we were instructed to travel in groups and maintain radio contact. I explored with Ryan, a veteran deckhand, and Kharla, a steward, who was also seeing the Arctic for the first time. The two of us walked with broad grins plastered onto our faces at the sights of even the smallest lichen on a rock.
I took an entire roll of film in two hours, attempting to capture just one view of the bay to bring home. The rocky cliffs form a natural circle, the water deep in the centre and rising sharply at the cliffs and beaches. The Laurier rested at anchor gracefully and her bulk was matched perfectly by the bulk of the tower outcropping rising from the water nearby.
Exploring inland, we followed a gravel road up and over the first hill. In the past, Pearce Point was one of the DEW line stations, early warning radar against the threat of attack in the cold war. The captain earlier told me stories of the type of men working at these stations, half-crazed lonely men who’d get south for only six weeks twice a year. A lifestyle devoid of all free choice; completely dictated by the force of routine and the company of their fellow station workers. Separated from society effectively in the pre-satellite world and staring at radar paranoid of attacks, there’s little wonder that the minds of some of these men might become a little unhinged.
The remains of the DEW line station comb the landscape at Pearce Point, a network of gravel roads leading in circles. We climbed one and reached a trailer that may have once been accommodations but now lay in shambles with broken windows and missing doors. The inside walls were covered with graffiti, names from previous coast guard visitors dating as early as 1985, a list to which Kharla and Ryan added their names. More interesting was a native who’d described a trip he was undertaking in 1999, travelling by snowmachine and sled dogs from Barrow, Alaska, to an eventual destination in Greenland. I hope he found his way safely.
Further above this trailer was a large metal hut or barn labelled the Pearce Point Science Station. I’ve no idea what research was originally conducted here, and going inside the hut provided no further clues. The hut was empty except for more discarded clothes and ominously, the skeletal remains of the spine and ribs of a large mammal. While relieved that it wasn’t a human form, looking at the remains of a bear’s dinner, the equivalent to finding yourself in a bear’s den, was mildly uncomfortable. I’ve run into Grizzlies in the Canadian Rockies, but a hungry Arctic grizzly eager to store fat for the winter may be a different concept. I was quite happy to go outside again.
Behind the hut was one last hill. We climbed up to gain a view of the other side. Rising over the crest, we saw what I can only believe was a very large plug of volcanic rock, rising vertically a great distance from a still lake, the outside rock of the volcano long weathered away. I believe this to be volcanic based on the occurrence on basaltic rock in imperfect hexagonal columns formed during cooling that were visible in the nearby cliffs and on the face of the plug itself. Here again, scientific description fails to convey the grandeur of what I saw.
If Canada were ever to build a castle, defensible from all forms of medieval warfare, this would be the place to construct one more impregnable than any in history. The sides of the plug rise vertically in cliffs to a relatively flat surface hundreds of meters above the lake. In my fantasy castle, its only connection to the mainland would have to be a swinging rope bridge, delicately spanning the drop below. In my head I’m combining the book on 14th century history I’ve been reading with Northern Ireland’s Carrick-a -Rede Bridge and Scotland’s Dunnotar Castle, perhaps inspired by the similar, though much grander, geology I see here. But I blink, and my fantasy vanishes.
Before me lies the steep, inaccessible cliffs rising up out of the waters. There will be no castle at Pearce Point, this is not a human place and the very few that have adapted to live here are not castle builders. There are no cities to defend, for the Arctic defends itself, its natural citadel rising to face me in sheer majesty. The lesson of the Arctic has been that we have only a small place on this planet, while our civilizations have risen and fallen in the south, the arctic has remained inviolate, subject to forces greater than those of man.
Read the rest of this entry »