My son Christian arrived home Wednesday, October 18th, his hundred days in northern Baffin Island finally over.
This was the arithmetic of his return:
4 am wake-up + 2-hour bus-ride to the airstrip + 6-hour flight to Mirabel airport (the forlorn and once beautiful place where The Terminal was shot) + 45-minute bus ride to Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau airport (Montreal) = HOME
Christian was the luckiest of the hundred people also leaving the mining installation and port to travel with him that day, because he had reached his destination while most still had flights to catch, taking them due West (to British Columbia) and due East (to Newfoundland) —and points in between—for thousands of kilometers more. Such is the vastness of Canada. And such is the pull of home, because almost all of these men (and Geraldine, the only woman on board) will make the same trip in reverse, in two weeks, beginning a new rotation.
The tides of the lives of these men are set by the rotations of a mining installation: two weeks on site, two weeks home. Only the Moon does things with more inevitability. But the gravity of Christian’s life and his Captain’s—the port captain—was governed by the activity at the port: day one of their stay marked its opening for the brief, ice-reduced summer, and their final day was marked by the ice-congested port’s closing. For a hundred days, they stayed put, watching people come and go. The only two to do so.
No matter what he was told by those who employed him and the handful of people who had actually been there previously for short stays; no matter what Christian had imagined of Milne Inlet, whatever wild and barren landscape and hardscrabble life he had fashioned in his mind, nothing could have prepared him for the absolute immersive experience he volunteered for.
Latin-infused words best encapsulate Christian’s hundred-day stay at Milne Inlet: deprivation, seclusion, sequestration, isolation, alienation and even, at times, incarceration. All words that Christian and his Captain would agree upon. And also, austerity.
Christian’s daily routine at the mining camp at Milne Inlet consisted of moving between a small room with a bed, a TV, a closet and a shower (and a window covered over in aluminum foil to keep out the perpetual summer sun), to the galley for food, to the truck that he drove to the port, to the trailer box that was the office in which he worked days with, for the most part, no discernible beginning or end because he was always required to be available. He certainly wasn’t the most important person at the port—his Captain, the stevedores and many other people did work that was critical and shouldered heavy responsibilities, but Christian was the only person at the Inlet who had no backup—not even for a couple of hours. Ever.
Christian is eloquent, and a wonderful, often hilarious writer, and he sent me regular, detailed two-page letters attached to his emails, with meticulous discipline, and which I then shared with friends and family at his request. These opened up his world to us, and allowed us to catch a glimpse of a life so withdrawn from the world—at once so exotic, eccentric and bare-bones—that it felt fictional.
On the day he arrived home, my understanding of his experience changed. It started the moment I saw his face as he stood, eyes locked on me, in the arrivals area at the airport. It was him. Of course it was him. But across his face, which is so distinctive, there was the shadow of loneliness and bone-weariness and also, I think, a mixture of joyous relief and disorientation. And something deeper and more private. Estrangement sickness. Like the astronauts of the international space station, he was experiencing the shock of re-entry.
It was hard for him to absorb the fact that his adventure was done. To believe that it was over. And I realised that he was overwhelmed by the people, the sounds, the colours and the smells of his home.
When astronauts return to Earth after months on the space station, a lot is made of their physical rehab and the effects on the body of their prolonged stay in orbit. The battle to regain as much of their previous physical form as possible is front and centre, and we hear far less about their mental struggles.
Christian has told me that the Arctic Circle is a truly xeno environment: in summer, it appears to be as barren as Mars, with its reddish soil and absence of vegetation and only the odd arctic fox and polar bear moving about. There’s no birdsong. There are only ravens the size of turkeys who lurk in ominous silence. In winter, which lasts three seasons—it was -25 Celsius when Christian left— the Arctic becomes itself, splashing extraordinary hues of white, grey, blue and turquoise over the waters, the sky and the ground. At the Milne Inlet settlement, besides the mechanical noises of trucks and generators, tug boats and the iron ore loader, there is very little natural sound—at least to the ears of visitors. Neither can you witness the aurora borealis; the Inlet is simply too far north. When the sun eventually begins to set again and night falls, it brings a darkness as black as ink; an impenetrable curtain. Christian never saw a single starry sky, and we still don’t understand why.
This past week, I’ve observed many things in Christian. On his first night home, at the end of a long and rewarding day, Christian said to me that he was reluctant to go to bed, that he felt anxious. When I asked him why, he said that he was afraid that he would wake up in Baffinland. I think that Edmond Dantes probably felt the same way after he escaped the Château d’If. This literary reference is meant to make you smile, but the photo below, of the scrap of paper Christian held on to from Day One, and on which he marked the days till his Arctic stay was over, suggests that there’s as much of fact as of fiction in his fluttering feelings.
And then, just five days after his return, he made plans to go downtown to return the company laptop he’d brought back with him. As he prepared to walk to the train station, he told me how uncomfortable and antsy he was, how anxious the thought of going into such a developed, populated place made him feel. The hubbub. The crowds. All of it. And I realised the extent to which Christian’s experience had altered him.
All of the days and nights in a compound where straying from the makeshift road could mean death at the paws of a polar bear; all of those hours spent filling out prodigious amounts of paperwork, listening to the conversations of mariners; all of that time trapped in a place that didn’t provide enough bandwidth to Facetime or Skype with loved ones; each and every one of those days eating fish, meat and frozen vegetables; the sheer weight and repetitiveness of it all had forced Christian inward, into his deepest reserves.
A week has now passed since his return, and Christian’s skittishness has faded very gradually as all of the life he has here flows back to him, filling the lonely places that had opened up inside him. He has returned to the garden of earthly delights that is so familiar to him; he is back with the people he loves and the life he wants and hopes to live.
I’ll never know just how altered he was by his hundred days at Milne Inlet: perhaps he misses the hyperreal colours of the water and skies, the unique tang of brackish water, and the stories of the men, especially the seamen who arrived with their ships.
It has also struck me and Christian (through whose eyes I’ve come to see so much) how wide is the gap between the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic, the Inuit, and everyone else. I think it’s what fascinated Christian the most, observing the coming and going of the Inuit men hired by the mining company and talking with them in the galley at every opportunity. Their experience of the world, their daily life is the product of a matrix so radically different from everyone else’s that in some ways, it’s as though we are from different planets.
And one wonders how the gap between the two worlds can ever be bridged, and whether it should be. To have grown up in a barren, beautiful, unforgiving, extreme habitat of vast spaces and limited sounds, in almost endless cold and opaque darkness at nightfall, where “close by” means a two-day boat ride to the next settlement and time unfolds without increments…These are realities that Christian glimpsed just long enough to understand what many of his Inuit companions must feel when they enter his world, how their suffering must be the reverse of his, and include the pain of immersion, congestion, crowds and clamour; the nonsense and indecipherability of it all ; and the absence of solitude, quiet, immense expanses and kin. Their own estrangement sickness.
“Not for the first time, Peter thought about how much of our lives we spend sequestered inside small patches of electric brightness, blind to everything beyond the reach of those fragile bulbs.”
― Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things