General Articles

WE KEPT HOUSE IN THE ARCTIC

Up in the shadow of the Pole, north of the Northern Lights, the Met men have set up shop to watch cold waves being born

SAM DODDS October 15 1948
General Articles

WE KEPT HOUSE IN THE ARCTIC

Up in the shadow of the Pole, north of the Northern Lights, the Met men have set up shop to watch cold waves being born

SAM DODDS October 15 1948

WE KEPT HOUSE IN THE ARCTIC

Up in the shadow of the Pole, north of the Northern Lights, the Met men have set up shop to watch cold waves being born

SAM DODDS

WE STOOD at the window of our Arctic Bay living room, that September morning, my wife Dedie and myself, as the supply ship North Pioneer gave a parting blast and started on her long voyage home. Here we were in the northernmost settlement on Baffin Island, marooned for a year two thousand miles north of Montreal and a scant 1,200 from the Pole. We were quite happy.

For our isolation was to be far from complete. We belonged to a party of five “met men” posted by the Meteorological Office to Arctic Bay to keep an eye on the weather brewed near the pole. Ahead of us stretched a winter of darkness but not boredom; an around-the-clock routine would keep us busy even on days when the temperature sagged to 40 below. And besides, Arctic Bay was by way of being a metropolis of the Deep North; it had a weather‘station, a Hudson’s Bay Co. post and a permanent population of seven white people and three Eskimo families.

We looked around at our new station. Arctic Bay faces south; a long rocky point guards part of its entrance from Adams Sound, which in turn enters Admiralty Inlet 75 miles from the open sea. Red sandstone cliffs, with mounds of rock debris sloping away from them, overhang the settlement and partly circle the bay. East of us rose the 2,000foot mound of King George the Fifth, its summit crowned by bastions of the same red sandstone. The land is treeless; when we arrived, a carpet of barren-land vegetation ranging from mustardyellow through varied green and rust was its color scheme, relieved by patches of burnt-orange or jade-green lichen on the rocks. A white veil of snow might cover the scene in a few hours to remain, perhaps or melt away as quickly. On mountains receding to the southward the snow had outlasted summer and made a gleaming, jagged barrier

against the sky. This was the fall panorama ot Arctic Bay, which we looked on between sorting loads of freight on the beach and hustling freezable goods inside. The thermometer hovered around 34 and was apparently meditating a plunge. Except for 11 red-roofed white buildings, some native tents and a radio mast on the shore and the name Arctic Bay spelled out with whitewashed rocks high up on the slope above, the panorama was no different when Captain Bernier sailed into this sheltered bay and wintered through 1910, naming it after his ship Arctic.

Our nearest white neighbors were the Turners, at the Anglican Mission in Moffet Inlet, 70 miles away. When we arrived, Canon and Mrs. Turner and their two children were here, the Canon busy loading supplies in his 30-foot powered whaleboat. They returned to Moffet Inlet after the briefest of visits, in the expectation of more leisurely exchanges this winter. When next we heard from them, it was to learn that Canon Turner was in grave danger, with a bullet—from an accidental gun discharge — lodged in his head.

The Hudson’s Bay Co. was first here in 1926, closed down for nine years (while the area was a fur preserve) and reoj>ened in 1936. Representing the company for his second year at Arctic Bay was John (“Jock”) Cormack, a canny Scotsman from north of Inverness whose working knowledge of the Eskimo tongue, and a good deal more besides, made him the rock on which we less-experienced northerners cheerfully leaned. Jock had spent 18 years in the Eastern Arctic, the last three with a wife Kathleen, also from Northern Scotland. Kathleen and my wife Dedie shared the chill distinction of being the Commonwealth’s farthest-north white women.

The radio meteorological station is nine years old. Of its staff of five people, four were slated for transfer, hence the arrival on the North Pioneer of the new gang, which comprised Frank Kerbrat of Camper, Man., Arthur (Red) Pearce of Winnipeg, my wife and self of Toronto. Early on board to look over his new camp mates was Ed Jordan, of Toronto, remaining for a second year.. Ed sported a great red beard that had flourished since his arrival a year ago and would have been larger he explained, except for a flash fire (caused by smoking them too close) in the summer of ’47.

Ed was the radio operator, also did some of the weather and watched over the station engines and generators. Met men Frank, Red and I did the upper-air observations. For a year at a time we must live and work and entertain ourselves as a self-sufficient group. Each man is granted an isolation allowance above

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We Kept House in the Arctic

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regular salary. Hoard and lodging is deducted from salary at a fixed rate.

The full sense of isolation did not close in on us with the departure of the North Pioneer. Instead, we had a momentary illusion of Arctic Hay as tht? crossroads of the north when on the following day a R-29 roared by on a familiarization flight. After that, things quietened rapidly. The Eskimos who had come visiting at ship time chugged away until only three families remained. We opened 250 cases of supplies, sorted and stored their contents. Occasionally a seal appeared offshore and was shot at. Hy Lhe time we were set for winter it was full upon us; the daily routine was established, the place familiar.

Those who think of the far north with a shudder would be surprised to learn how much of our outside kind of living we take in with us. Our house and the office (which also housed two members of t he part y i were well-insulated and heated by oil-burning stoves. Electric lighting was supplied from storage batteries. Each building had its own bathroom with sinks and bat htubs that drained at the pull of a plug. Our water did not flow at the turn of a tap, hut was dipped from tanks which were filled by melting snow. A chemical closet in each bathroom dispensed with those cold outdoor walks that, are a part of rural legend.

Our main dwelling. 40 by 20 feet, had a kitchen opening into a large living room which was dining quarters, library and sitting room for all. At one end was a set of shelves filled with j books provided hy the Meteorological Office, the Eastern Arctic Patrol, the donated surplus from public libraries and hy forgetful past tenants. Floating alK*ut from room to room and from house? to house was a well-thumbed assortment of magazines we read quickly and then picked over like the Ismes of yesterday’s turkey. Reception on the living room radio was often good, generally unpredictable. We filled in the gaps in our news and our weekly Northern Messenger broadcast from CRC by communicating with the Mounties at Dundas Harbor, or with some other neighbor whose reception may have been better at the time. 'This two-way communication was handled by Ed with the station trans1 mit ter. Each of us was allowed the privilege of sending and receiving radiograms free of charge via Ottawa,

¡ up to 100 words monthly. More |K*rsonal news from other Ruffin Islanders may be relayed along t he coast by j natives.

Well-stocked I.arder

We had to do our shopping months j ahead. In March we sent out by radio the requisitions for food and supplies to he shipped in September to last until September of the following year, i Canned foods, including vegetables,

! fruit juices, jams, meats and soups, made up the bulk of the food order.

! The butter and bacon also come canned. Milk comes in both canned and powdered form, eggs both powdered and whole. The life expectancy of these whole eggs, though process**! and carefully crated, is always an individual and very personal matter tht‘ news concerning each of them to lx* i broken discreetly. Some of the vegeta lilt's are in dehylrated, vacuumparked form quite delicious, except ! potatoes, which gain nothing in the I process. Crater! new potatoes are

supplied however and with care and luck last nearly the whole year. Fresh orange*, lemons and apples, turnips, carrots and onions come in lesser amounts— a crate or two of each. Flour, tea biscuits and all other dry foods present no problem in shipping and storage; the domestic mouse is not established at Arctic Hay. If the supply ship has enough refrigerated capacity (as did the Nascopie) a considerable amount of frozen meats and fowl is delivered with no danger of thawing appreciably before winter.

The North Pioneer had no frozen meat for us, hut soon after her departure Ateetak, an Eskimo neighbor, came to the post with a young female polar bear, fresh-killed, and we dickered for some of the haunch. Done up in Dedie’s pressure cooker, it was excellent. We had seal liver, tried seal meat as well. The liver, if freshly removed, is the very lx?st and has none of the strong seal flavor. The lean of the seal is faintly tinctured with this flavor—more so with prejudice. Ptarmigan appeared once on the menu and caribou twice. On the last occasion it was Liu? main dish on the New Year’s dinner table at the Gormacks. Caribou is Langy fare, the cut we had was particularly good and Mrs. Cormack had done it full justice, so did we.

Why We Were There

The fresh meat brought up from Moffet Inlet included two chickens which we served on Christmas Day. all gathering at the Met. house. (Our Christmas tree was made with sticks nailed on an upright and festooned with green paper excelsior.)

Fishing is unheard of locally hut the Eskimos brought in an occasional arctic char, the pink flesh of which deserves all our remaining superlatives. From this and the foregoing, it may he seen that the northern housewife need not always sigh and open another can of Spoof at mealtime. Dedie baked her own bread, of course, putting extra loaves in the shed to freeze until needed.

Washday was lightened by an electric washing machine, but complicated by having to hang the wash indoors. Some of the housekeeping was shared by Napatchee, wife of Angnillianuk, who did the dishes twice daily.

Refore giving further domestic details, I should explain why people are allowed to set up house in the barrens and even encouraged to do so. In estab-

lishing this station and others of its ” kind, the Dominion Government has two main objectives: (1) to extend its weather eye into the Arctic, whose conditions are significant in the forecasting of weather over sea lanes and populated areas in the temperate zone, and (2) to maintain radio communicacation, not only for reporting the Arctic weather, but for police, aircraft and shipping services, for missionaries, traders and all other Arctic residents.

A few years ago weather reports consisted of surface air conditions (wind, temperature, humidity, pressure) and such of the prevailing weather and cloud conditions as could he learned by looking at the sky. In the north these observations and much of northern radio traffic as well, were handled hy Royal Canadian Mounted Police or Hudson’s Hay Co. men and still art', at many places. Within the last decade, however, these surface observations have become supplemented at chosen points hy observations of the upper atmosphere. These latter observations can only be made with the aid of free balloons and lakt? considerably more time. 'That is why Frank, Red and I were at Arctic Hay.

We make the hydrogen for our balloons on the premises in thick-walled iron cyclinders in which caustic soda, water and aluminum are mixed. Pilot balloons don’t use much, being only two feet in diameter, but radiosonde balloons ( I ’ll explain them in a minute ), needing a fret? lift of four pounds, are inflated to a diameter of five feet and require 50 cubic feet of hydrogen. These balloons rise to a height of 10 to 12 miles in a normal ascent, expanding in the lessening pressure of the stratosphere to a diameter of 20 feet before bursting. This last you must take on hearsay, as I do.

The instrument which this type of balloon carries to awesome heights— and ultimately lets fall in some lonely waste— is the radiosonde, named (in French) for its purpose of “sounding (the upper air) by radio.” It measures temperature, humidity and barometric pressure as it rises and broadcasts its findings in code through a tiny radio transmitter. In the office, on the ground, a radiosonde recorder marks these signals on a continuous roll of paper. The operator scales off and interprets the markings in terms of temperature and moisture content of the air and plots them progressively on a chart. The pressure signals from

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the aneroid are his clues to altitude at each interval. Last of all, he abstracts the essential information from his chart and codes it in groups of numbers for radio transmission. The coded report, known as a RAOB, is radioed to Nottingham Island in Hudson Strait, thence relayed to Churchill where it goes on the teletype network to all forecast offices.

To observe the speed and direction of air movements aloft, a pilot balloon is released, watched through a theodolite and its elevation and direction noted at minute intervals. Since the balloon is given an exact weight of free lift and knows by heart the tables of ascent rates in the office it can be counted on to be at a certain height at a certain time. Knowing this height and the elevation at each minute interval it is possible by trigonometry to calculate—or if the trigger is rusty, to find in the tables—its distance from the station at that interval. With this information it is possible tQ plot the horizontal course of the pilot balloon and scale off the direction and speed of the winds that carried it. The coded report, giving winformation at each thousand feet up to where the balloon faded, burst, entered a cloud, or was lost, is known as a PIBAL and goes outside by the usual route.

A Day at Arctic Bay

Armed with this technical knowledge let us look in on a typical day in early January while we were at the Arctic Bay Met station. At 6.15 a.m. an alarm clock shatters the sleep of Ed Jordan, who pulls on his clothes and comes out into the office. He taps the barometer, reads the wind speed on a recording graph which works from an anemometer (a kind of miniature windmill) on the thousand-foot hill behind the station. Outside he notes a clear sky and a temperatun» of 20 below zero. Making these and other observations about life in general— he walks down the slope on the ringing snow to the hydrogen shed and starts one of the gas - generating cylinders for the man on morning radiosonde. Back in the office he throws a switch on the wall panel. A gasoline motor in the engine shed hums and spurts vapor in the frosty atmosphere, generating power for the station transmitter. Ed is on the air. His hand moves sideways on the bug (luxury version of the old key) while dits and dahs sing out rythmically. A short pause is followed by an answer from John Stanners, ready with the weather from Fort Ross, 200 miles to the southwest. Ed takes it and calls Nottingham, 700 miles south. More dits and dahs sing back and forth, like mating calls between Novachords, pip pip the sign off—and Arctic and Ross weather are on the way. These are the synoptics, regular surface observations taken four times each day. Ed retires.

At 8.15 a.m. Frank appears, removes a synthetic rubber radiosonde balloon which has been softening in a double boiler and goes to the hydrogen shed. On his way down, he puts a radiosonde in a sheltered stand called a Stevenson screen to acclimatize. By the time Frank has filled his balloon and left it swaying above the screen at the end of its 50-foot cord, Dedie has breakfast ready and Red has joined the party. At 9.15 Frank is back in the office, to turn on his recorder and radiosonde and make a preliminary check before sending the radiosonde aloft. If its reports from the latticed Stevenson screen are clear and agree with those of the station’s instruments, he ties it to the cord, lets the balloon have it and then steps inside to retune it on the

recorder, for its frequency will change slightly on leaving the ground. If there is a strong wind blowing, the release would not be made in such a simple manner, would require the assistance of Red and might end in mutterings and the preparation of another balloon and radiosonde. But it is seldom windy here.

By the time Red appears at 10 a.m., Frank is well into his computation at the recorder. There being scarcely a hint of dawn in the sky, Red lights a wee stub of candle and attaches it inside a paper lantern for his pilot balloon. His flight may last from 15 to 40 minutes, less in low overcast. At 10 a.m. I stir in my sleep, made uneasy by the sound of my wife’s household activities. In the office Frank is still scaling and plotting his RAOB, turning aside at times to copy down numbers called over the intercom from Red outside, who takes readings at each squawk of the minute clock.

11.30. Ed emerges and starts up the transmitter again to send out the PIBAL and RAOB lying ready on his desk. Frank is filling oil tanks on the space heaters and chipping ice to be melted for drinking water. (In late fall, the drinking water meant a weekly excursion by rowboat with tubs and boilers to a slowly expiring stream half a mile along the bay. By the time this stream had trickled its last, ice was forming on fresh water lakes and we had a subcontract with Jock’s natives for sledding it in.) Now Red is charging the two hydrogen cylinders, having inverted the -morning cylinder and spilled its steaming chocolate-colored waste into a channel in the cement floor.

About 12.20 Frank and Red combine forces and shove a wooden trough through the kitchen window. While one shovels snow the other pokes it into the water barrel. In June our wash water will come down the slope ready melted. Ed is in the engine shed, filling the tanks of the gasoline motors which are his responsibility. There are five plants of assorted voltage and output generating power for battery charging, receivers and transmitters, washing machine, and electric iron.

At 12.30 Arctic Bay is in the middle of its two-hour sunless twilight. Ed is on the air again, sending his noon weather to Nottingham. I, in a fit of bad conscience, am setting the table for lunch at 1 o’clock. This is a much livelier meal. Everyone is wide-awake, for one thing, and there’s bound to be an argument. The absence of a reference library for settling the more technical issues is deplorable but stimulating. Through the long winter we are drawn together like members of a family; each of us almost knows what the other is going to say next. There have been moments of tension, as when Frank destroyed with a sweep of his hand a handsome smoke ring launched across the table by Ed. Red specializes in being what is known as a bad boy. Frank’s specialty is mental cruelty, as: “What is the difference between a duck?”* while Ed with his fringed features resembling in form those of Bernard Shaw seems to have taken on some of the character of that irascible old man.

After lunch, unless kerosene drums are to be rolled uphill, there is a choice of occupations: walking, napping, preparing radiosondes, abstracting records, reading or playing ping-pong on the table made from plywood by Red and Frank.

An hour after the dishes have been cleared, Napatchee appears in the front porch, reaches into the swollen back of her parka and draws forth

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‘One of its legs is both the same.

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Oo-ly-oo, aged four and full of the devil. Setting Oo-ly-oo on her feet Napatchee slowly makes her way to the kitchen and while the child creates loud interference, as slowly washes the dishes. Oo-ly-oo is often accompanied under everyone’s feet by her brother Paulisi, a quiet and passive gnome, in whom she tries to incite equal riot and confusion while her mother tells her not to in a soft melodious whisper. This floor show is our substitute for the movies; perhaps, on returning outside, we will consider the movies a substitute for this.

Supper is usually at 5.30, not followed by bridge; some are weary, the rest wrary of cards. Photography is the favorite hobby of Ed, Jock, Dedie and myself. Red builds an occasional flying model.

I begin preparations for the evening radiosonde flight at 8.45. Red does the evening PIBAI (we rotate duties on a three-day schedule). About midnight we have a cup of anything hot and retire. About 2 a.m. some dogs sleeping under the house break into a fight or maybe a long-drawn howl, in which they are joined by all the other dogs as if at a signal. The unholy anthem may begin at any hour of the day or night and halt as abruptly as it began.

Dogs of the North

So ends a typical day’s activities. The reporting of those activities, or any amount of description, cannot give a complete impression of this place, so surprisingly usual in some ways, so new in others. The lighter blue of the winter midnight sky would raise comment in another latitude; at Arctic Bay it is a wonder of short duration and, after that, merely beautiful. The aurora—believe it or not—was mainly south of us. A cracking good electrical storm (rare in the far north at any time) would cause more comment than the phenomena we soon took for granted: the sundogs, like cut sections of rainbow, and the three months when there is no sun at all.

One feature of the north which cannot become stale with long acquaintance is its motive power, the Eskimo dog. When cartographers get around to mapping people’s impressions rather than their activities, James Bay and Labrador will no longer be on the “Northern Limit of Potatoes” but on the “Northern Limit of Barking.” The Eskimo dogs may break a man’s sleep with their nocturnal fits of howling, but they can be forgiven for not making those staccato noises that awake murder in his heart. The savagery of these dogs is much overdone in fiction. They snarl and whine and scrap a good deal among themselves, but attacks on humans are rare. They accompanied us on our walks; some of them eager to play or be petted and others keeping their distance and never, in any case, rewarding our advances with treachery.

Husky dogs are of any color except blue or green, arranged in any pattern. A feature in common is the upright ear, but even this may be a flattened remnant after many battles. Size and condition vary with the fortunes of the individual dog. Out on the bay ice where the garbage is dumped, the canine castes were well-defined. The top dog among those present would surmount the newest pile and defy any other dog to make the preliminary analysis. Each of the others dashed in with the blend of confidence and diffidence that became his rank—w'ary of his superiors, villainously rude toward those he could thrash. A lone dog will not eat potato peelings; in the presence of others he holts them. One

of the pups, a smoky-haired favorite of Dedie’s whom we named Pribilof, knew he could get an occasional sneak preview at the kitchen window. His mother, well-acquainted with this custom, squatted behind, ready to bite poor Pribilof the instant he received a morsel and so make him drop it. In Pribilof’s hopeful nostrils and cringing rear we saw the gamut of a dog’s life.

We had native visitors every week from camps near and far, but only Jock was able to enjoy full converse with them. After trading with Jock they dropped in on us, bringing sealskin mitts and slippers or a battered radiosonde picked up along the trail. We would use our few Eskimo root words, learn some more without attempting their lengthy combinations, and so the conversation would limp, uninflected, but chummy. Next day we would see their komatiks far out on the bay ice.

The Baffin Islanders appeared generally more prosperous, primitive and independent than the natives of the east coast of Hudson Bay where I had previously been stationed. Foxes are more plentiful. The people do not save money or credits but put their surplus by in extra food and ammunition. Old Ateetak at Berlinguette Bay is rated as an Eskimo capitalist, having several boats and large stocks of goods with which he does a bit of trading on his own. A shifty exception to this usual thriftiness was Eetook (Old Dog) who hung around the post frequently, trading on whites and Eskimos with more charm and alibis than furs. At the Christmas and ship-time scrambles— when store tickets or food are tossed to hilarious crowds-—Eetook did very well.

Our uneventful routine at Arctic Bay had two interruptions, one of them tragic. In late October we got word of Canon Turner’s accident, and from then until his rescue by the RCAF, Ed spent long vigils at the radio, calling for help and medical advice and relaying messages. Canon Turner’s later death came as sad news.

Soon it was our turn to receive an RCAF rescue mission. The plane came for Dedie, who was not critically ill but had to be taken outside to receive proper medical attention. The flight went off without a hitch and so did Dedie’s recovery.

If a general comparison of station life with life outside were attempted, then making do with what we have (without the aid of shops, plumbers or carpenters) would balance off against rising prices and overcharges experienced outside; having no place to go may be better than going places in a rush-hour trolley; deprived of theatres, and contact with relatives and friends, we learned the more concentrated enjoyment of the company and recreation we have.

1, for one, would not be willing to spend the rest of my days in the north. Yet I consider it a valuable experience, not as an experiment in solitude— there is no such thing—but for the value of having been thrown on my own resources; for the experience of learning to appreciate the resources of those with whom I have been thrown in close contact. Northern legend not infrequently refers to the breakdown of humans in isolation. In fiction, it is frequent and always plot-provoking. In fact, there have been rare instances. Is it not possible, in the case of a man who becomes bushed, that being on his own resources has merely speeded a process that was already under way? The majority of us become bushed to a minor extent in the sense that we have revealed to us what resources we lack and what we have. For the majority of us the experience is more healthy than devastating? if