Love Letters from Land and Sea
North and wilderness. When I consider my country as a place distinct and particular from all the other places I have seen and lived in, that’s it: north and wilderness.
Never mind that I live in a modern city: my travels and any map tell me wilderness and north are no more than a few minutes away from anywhere in Canada by air. And air travel is the Canadian way: this century’s plane or helicopter is our continuation of the canoe, carried on endless streams of air with endless stories of long flights and crashes in our turbulent air’s weather rapids. Canada reaches so far north that air will carry you in that direction until suddenly you will be going south.
And somewhere there is tiny Hedwen Island; at the outermost tip of the giant Dehcho (Mackenzie River) Delta, anchored between Richards and Summer Islands in Kugmallit Bay. One hundred and twenty kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk as the helicopter flies its island-sea route, where the July-green land undulates gently above the grey ice-ridden water of the Beaufort Sea.
I slide one hundred and twenty metres down sand cliffs to the rippled beach, and walk west singing. Centuries of Dehcho driftwood caught in the hollows of bays; a loon’s pre-emptory nest of waterplants smeared on a spit between sweet water and salt, its long, deep-brown egg dappled black; three pieces of hollow petrified bone sticking out of a headland eroding steadily into the sea: what animal were they? Dinosaur seventy million years ago when the globe tilted differently and tropical trees flourished here two metres thick? The loon, most ancient of birds, calls where it rides between ice-pans; perhaps longing for its solitary dappled egg.
A flash of red beyond the nest in the hard sand: a detergent container, crushed, but containing a bleached mass of aluminum foil. I complete the break, shake out the black sand; and disclose a message from the sea.
“beaufort sea’s arctic / 1986,” I read on paper mottled by seepage. “August 1986 / Arnak Drilling Rig / Kenting 32 / Esso Resources Canada Ltd.” Twenty-two signatures under “Names” and as many dates and places under “Date of Departure” – everything from August 1 for Aklavik to August 18 for Australia. And under that, curled tight, a second sheet with twenty-one more names and departures. Only three names have comments: “Flo Keir (No. 1 Cook yah)” and “Les R...” bracketing to his indecipherable signature “(Homo)”, and the last name: “Thora Reid – Fifteen years of missed boats.”
Somewhere in the Beaufort Sea on a manufactured steel and gravel island, forty-three people, five years ago.
I walk on, trying to imagine at least one of those lives, the sea nudging an occasional beluga whale rib near my boots. And discover beside me the ice that undergirds the world here: a crumbling cliff and beneath a few centimetres of moss the massive black ice wedge that holds the land up and reaches down, hundreds of metres down, down to the limits of the permafrost. Geologists tell me later this may be the black ooze of prehistoric glaciers which here still give shape to the land. Or, some theorize, much of northernmost Canada may be supported on ice wedged somewhere kilometres down into the yet undiscovered texture of the earthen earth: they cannot tell for sure.
What is obvious: without the ice, the island would not exist.
I climb and slither and sink up the oozing cliff, between floating tussocks of moss brilliant with tundra flowers, bottomless sand, vanishing water. I touch, fondle, lick this black ice, this primordial cold which solidified here before the existence of humanity.
“Forget me not,” the last words on the last sheet from the sea, serrated by sand and water, ask of me. If I am ignorant, forgetting is impossible. Only this bit of knowledge allows me to promise: “I will remember.”