Monday, January 30, 2012

That Old Bird

I recently came across an Inuit soapstone carving of a ptarmigan that I had given a special friend many years ago, and it brought back fond memories…

Back in 1975, three college friends and I spent two weeks canoeing the lower stretch of the Coppermine River, terminating our trip in the Inuit outpost that bears the river's name, on the southern shores of Coronation Gulf in the Arctic Ocean. The entire trip was north of the Arctic Circle.

At that latitude, summer as a meteorological phenomenon only lasts about six weeks and we planned our trip smack in the middle of that window. (You know the joke about Minnesota—the place where many are cold, but few are frozen—they only have two seasons: winter and July. Well, north of the Arctic Circle it's really like that, so we went in July.) That close to the pole, the sun doesn't go up and down; it goes round and round. It dipped below the horizon for only 90 minutes a day (between 1:30-3 am) and it never got so dark you couldn't read. It was weird going into the wilderness and never needing a flashlight, or caring when you made camp because there was no need to preserve sunlight for cooking dinner.

People speak in awe about the legendary mosquitoes of northern Minnesota, but they're a joke if you've ever been to the Arctic in summer. Having done our homework beforehand, we wore a double layer of clothing at all times and hats with veils when not on the water (where the wind dispersed them). On that trip our record confirmed kill with one hand slapped against your thigh was 29 carcasses. Just think about that density of insect eagerly drilling test holes in your clothing hoping for a gusher. Now that's mosquitoes.

Nearly My Last Trip
As much fun as I get out of horrifying listeners with stories of big league mosquitoes, the most memorable feature of the Coppermine trip was that I almost died.

Several days into the trip, Ann and I were in the lead canoe when we came upon a relatively moderate set of rapids. After quickly scouting them from shaor we decided to run them in our loaded canoe (which saves gobs of time—as long as you don't flip). While we negotiated the white water just fine, our trailing canoe (with Kip & Tony) did not. When they swamped, we had a problem.

Our #1 priority was getting the dunked canoeists out of the water. They had life vests on and were in no danger of drowning, but the water is cold that far north. In addition, there were duffle packs, paddles, and a canoe bobbing in the water, merrily continuing their downstream journey without us. Thus, after quickly unloading our canoe on shore, Ann & I ventured into the water downstream of the riffle and guided our wet friends to safety. Once they were secure, I left Ann to help them get out of their wet clothes and dry off while I immediately took my pants off (wet jeans act as a sea anchor), donned my life vest, and went into the water in an attempt to collect the unmanned canoe, after which I hoped to round up the baggage.

As aluminum canoes are packed with styrofoam ballast in the bow and stern compartments, they float about 18 inches below the water when swamped. As you can still see the tips of both ends sticking out, it was no problem locating the boat. But it was traveling at the speed of the current (about three miles per hour) and I needed to overhaul it. Passing up the canvas Duluth packs (which were traveling more on top of the water and thus were not as much in the grip of the current), I breast stroked and frog kicked my way directly to the canoe. By not putting my head in the water, I conserved precious body heat.

While I made steady progress, it nonetheless took me about a mile to finally reach the wayward 17-foot Grumman. The good news was that by the time I got the canoe, the near shoreline was close enough that I could touch bottom. The bad news was that we'd already reached the head off another set of rapids and the pull of the current was increasing. After several moments of struggle, I realized that I had enough strength to be able to hold the canoe in place, but not enough to be able to wrestle the waterlogged canoe out of the current. Sigh. Accepting this tactical defeat, I climbed into the canoe and decided to take my chances on having better luck further downstream. (It's much safer to ride a rapids inside a swamped canoe that aside it, where you might get pinned against a rock.)

While rolling through the rapids was rather fun (in a Six Flags kind of way), this next set didn't ended quickly and it dawned on me that I needed to be concerned more with getting out of the water because I was losing too much body heat. I knew enough about hypothermia to know that I was at risk for it, and that the symptoms include sluggish muscle response and clouded thinking—which meant that my ability to access critical judgment was degrading even as my danger was increasing. Uh oh.

As the canoe was responding to the laws of hydrodynamics (centering itself midstream, where the pull is strongest), I decided to abandon ship before we (the canoe and I) entered the next set of fast water, figuring, not unreasonably, that my survival trumped all other concerns. After a couple minutes of purposeful stroking—the shore was only about 25 feet away—I wasn't making much headway and I was dismayed to turn around and see the canoe only five feet behind me. With considerable reluctance, I again reentered the canoe as the current quickened for the next set of white water. This was starting to get serious.

Fortunately, there was enough slack following the next rapids that I was able to swim to shore. Though I was numbed by the cold and not thinking straight, the sun was shining and I had enough residual energy and sense to start walking upstream along the shore. By the time I got back to my waiting friends (who were getting increasingly anxious about me), my mind had cleared, I was no longer cold, and we all enjoyed a heartfelt reunion. Whew!

The truth is, I was woolly headed enough that I really don't know how close I was to succumbing to hypothermia and there were no eyewitnesses to offer a more objective opinion on the matter. That said, I satisfied myself that that was as up close and personal as I ever cared get with dying young.

In one of those fate-takes-a-holiday turn of events, there is a humorous postscript to my near-tragic failed canoe rescue. When the four us continued our trip the next day (with one walking along the shore and three crammed into our remaining canoe) we happily encountered our beached canoe less than a quarter mile downstream from where I had abandoned ship to save my life. That's right, after nearly dying in an unsuccessful attempt to get the damn thing out of the current, it accomplished that seemingly impossible feat all on its own shortly after I withdrew from the scene. While I was totally baffled by how that happened, we were more than grateful to have a second chance with the second canoe.
• • •
While there are additional stories from this canoe trip, I'm going to fast forward to the last days, which we spent in the northern outpost of Coppermine (it was renamed Kugluktuk in 1996, but back then it as still Copperimine). It's my one and only time on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and we enjoyed our brief immersion in Inuit culture. Coppermine is one of a small number of settlements scattered within a vast tract of land (and you thought Wyoming was sparsely populated).

We ended our trip there both because we ran out of river and because we could get scheduled air service (on a recycled DC-3, that workhorse two-engine aircraft that was developed in the mid-30s and is still in use in the hinterlands today) from there back to Yellowknife, where we'd parked our car. Scheduled service was a big advantage in that it cost only a quarter of what we spent chartering a float plane to drop us off at the west end of Dismal Lakes, where our journey began.

While the native people still engage in traditional hunting and fishing, their income has been significantly augmented in recent decades through the sale of art, especially prints and carvings that feature simple lines and abstract representation. While in town, we particularly enjoyed visiting an artist collective where all four of us bought soapstone carvings to take home.

As I recall, Ann and I bought at least three pieces. One was a small loon that she still has (though it's neck broke in a fall, it's been epoxied back together) and I enjoy seeing it every time I visit her in Floyd VA. Another was a bear that I had for a number of years and then gave to Kip as a wedding present several years later. By then, Kip had gotten seriously interested in Inuit art. While he concentrated on collecting prints by certain artists, I knew the carving would have special meaning for him.

The third piece was a massive ptarmigan, weighing perhaps 10 pounds and standing 10 inches high. With the bulk of the carving was 400-grit smooth and minimally defined, birdness was evoked by the merest details: a sharpened beak on the head, the outlines of rough circles for eyes, and feet scratched into the base to suggest feet. I lovingly gave that carving to an older friend who was very dear to me. For years, she kept that bird in her bedroom, on the carpet near her bed, where she'd see it every day. When I'd visit her over the years, I'd get to see it also. While the floor may seem a lowly place to display art, I always enjoyed that the location was subtle and echoed the habitat of the ground dwelling ptarmigan, who survives by blending in.
• • •
My friend died in 2003 and for a while I lost track of the bird. Then, unexpectedly I ran across it recently, now in the possession of relatives. While happy to see the bird again (I've circled back to where this blog began), I was chagrined to see that the carving was now being used as a doorstop to channel a breeze from the back porch into the house. Looking closely, I saw that there were now scrapes and nicks in multiple places over the bird's body, marring the smooth finish of the malleable stone that the artist had worked so painstakingly to effect.

I was awash in sadness. It was like seeing a Chippendale chair pressed into service as a substitute sawhorse on a construction site, or finding a Monet having been rigged as a window screen. You could see how it would do the job, yet how could the regard for the artistic achievement have sunk so low?

As I sat with it though, my feelings began to change. The relatives undoubtedly had kept the bird as a memory of their mother. For years, their mother had kept the bird on her bedroom floor, where it had probably been used on occasion to prop the door open. They were just continuing mom's tradition. What I took to be defilement, they probably saw as reverence. Where I had a connection to a living artist eking out an existence on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, my friends were honoring their mother's quirky and conversational choice in a doorstop. Nobody was wrong.

The bird was still being loved, just in a different way. Who was I to claim that my old ptarmigan friend was being abused. Maybe the old bird was happy to be useful, and preferred that to sitting on a piano, collecting dust.

Now that I'm approaching old bird status myself, it occurred to me that being reliably useful in one's latter years is not necessarily a bad way to go. Certainly it's preferable to being placed on a shelf and admired from time to time for what one used to be able to accomplish. So I patted the old bird on the head and sat back down without saying a word. After all, I've got plenty of nicks and scars myself.

1 comment:

William Croft said...

Laird, your storytelling skills, par excellance. A real page turner.