I often play this game in my head called, “Could I survive here?” It’s a way to get my mountain town mind thinking about life in the places I travel to, and understand the people who are there. Like when I’m in the Utah desert, I think about its challenges with water, heat, sun and the hard winter. Pot fragments from the Indigenous people tell me they did it, but how? Or in Toronto, could I live in a concrete box in the sky? I like trying to figure out new systems, understand how the locals thrive in their environments. In the Rockies, I’m at home. I can imagine surviving even if most of my civilized supports were stripped away –everywhere but in the zone above the trees, the alpine.
I love the alpine’s austere beauty on top of mountains where the trees stop and you can see all there is to see without trees blocking your line of sight. I’ve always felt free there, but I’m also a short-term visitor – my mental game of, “survive here?” is always short. Which is why Canada’s Arctic has always seemed gorgeous and yet alien to me – it’s all alpine. No trees or even sizable bushes for firewood. Very few people, fewer stores, and for me worse “survivor” odds than even Toronto.
Most of my trips to the Arctic have been with other “southerners,” as one local called us. We brought our own food, spoke our own language, and didn’t interact a lot with locals, but on a recent research and filming trip to Nunavut’s Baffin Island, we had some Inuit helping with transportation, polar bear protection and logistics.
Every day we would walk in what I called sea-level alpine terrain, and what they called home. As we searched for ancient rocks, the Inuit often stopped and ate random things on the ground. It looked too crunchy to eat, but I was curious. My guide, JP, showed me the delicate red shoots and bright green leaves they were enjoying. It was the most flavorful greenery I’d ever eaten in my life, like eating a spinach leaf already dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. Soon I was grazing with the locals. Blueberries grew so thick that you could scoop them with your fingers like a bear eats dandelions with its claws. Each burst with a taste that mocked the anemic imitations I had bought in southern stores. Then Captain Mr. Billy Aqnaquq caught some Arctic Char, and, while gutting it, offered me the roe they were enjoying as a special treat. The rawness honestly grossed me out, but I take my “survivor game” seriously so...
It wasn’t anything like caviar and sushi eggs – this was bloody, still attached to a membrane, straight out of a fish that had been flopping seconds earlier. I balked, but then ate it. It was a flavour explosion, all salt and crisp pops of life. And the Char? This is the fish gods must eat.
Each day I learned to see the landscape differently. During my previous trips, I had never felt “poor” for being without Inuit, but clearly I had missed a lot by not. I am far richer for their knowledge, and it wasn’t just food. As southerners, we’ve all been having a reckoning with our past with Indigenous people wherever we live. Abuse. Residential schools. And the same sort of family-breaking went on up north.
I interviewed Aqnaquq about his past, and he broke down describing what happened to his parents. He’d never talked about it before. I broke down with him knowing it was my people who killed his family’s dogs and burned their traditional hunting gear so they had to move into communities. We cried on an alpine beach together, and I will never think about the North in the same way.
As the flight took off back to near-tropical Canmore, I looked down on the tundra with a very different set of eyes. It would take a millennia to learn how to truly survive there as the Inuit did, but I could, just a little bit, see that it was possible. You had to be smart, self-reliant, a student of everything, all the time, but by listening to the locals I’d learned far more than I came for, and I long to go back. Toronto is still a mystery, but perhaps I could learn more about survival there from some locals on my next trip.