Crossing the Ice

By Raisa Patel

“John, I have a gun and I need your help.”

 The Polar Sun Spire. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

The Polar Sun Spire. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

My father, Haroon Patel, startled John, who was working in his garage one spring morning in the house across the street from ours. To strangers and friends alike, my father has the distinction of being remarkably friendly, compassionate, and calm. John was alarmed. Visions of hollowed graves, unknown bodies, and attempted robbery swam through his mind. He wondered if my father’s job in the telecommunications industry had taken a turn for the worse.

“Have I told you about the trip I’m planning?” my father said.

This worried John further. No, Haroon had not told him about his trip, and frankly, he did not care. Why did he have a gun? And why did he need his help?

To John’s relief, my father began to elaborate. Haroon was going to Baffin Island. He would be camping with a friend in a frozen desert of sea ice, and the guide from the outfitter they had hired would not take them out to the fjords unless each of them had a shotgun to defend themselves against wayward bears. My father had been loaned one, but had no idea how to use it. John had grown up in a family of Ontario farmers and knew a thing or two about firearms, a fact my father was clearly aware of when he sidled up to his garage that morning, 12 gauge Remington 870 Marine Magnum in hand.

Both men laugh when they tell the story to me separately, 16 years later. My father had caught on to John’s unease quickly and thought stringing him along would be a riot.  

*** 

My father was born in Durban, South Africa in 1950 and grew up in Johannesburg. Apartheid was a fledgling movement, growing stronger and uglier as my father learned to walk, attended school, and made friends. From a political standpoint, he experienced no privilege as an Indian South African. When Mahatma Gandhi – the man my father is occasionally stopped in the street for resembling – worked in the country, the discrimination he faced shaped the activism of his later years. My father’s family experienced the flame of police power, corrupt and unlawfully wielded. Yet, he views his childhood with only the fondest of memories. He remembers – more fully than anything else – the silky-soft feeling of his father’s earlobe that he stroked as a child, the spirited street games he played with his friends, and the overnight trips his family took on a steam locomotive from Johannesburg to Durban. He would stick his face out the window, feeling the rush of the air, hearing the pounding clang of the wheels on the rails, letting the soot fly into his face.

When my father moved to Toronto in 1974, he did not escape the racial profiling and problematic policing of his native country. He laughs about it now, and didn’t dwell on it then. He sees beauty in hideousness. He gives second and third and fourth chances until the lesson is learned. Instead of teaching that “hate” is a strong word, he teaches that there is no such thing as hatred. Forgiveness is the virtue my father offers this world. His is as long and as deep as the valleys glaciers carve into ancient bedrock.

Armed with this philosophy, nothing deterred him from exploring every facet of the Earth. At 33, he pedalled his black Fujitsu bicycle along the Nile, up and down the Himalaya mountain range, through bustling Asian cities, and down lonely European roads. In Jerusalem, it was so hot he halted at every rock to stand in their shadows; in Romania, the mountains were so cold he lingered in every patch of sunlight, melting out the thaw.

***

 In May of 1997, my father and his co-worker, Jim Lamont, flew to Iqaluit for a three-week expedition on Baffin Island. From Iqaluit, they took a tiny plane to Clyde Inlet, a river on the eastern edge of the island. The plane landed on an airstrip, their equipment (along with themselves) was tossed onto the tarmac, and the plane took off again.

 Trekking on a foggy day. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

Trekking on a foggy day. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

From here they sought the help of the outfitter they had hired, who provided them with a guide – an Inuit man who slept on a polar bear skin and possessed comprehensive knowledge of snowmobile engines. He would take them deep into the Baffin Island interior and deposit them, returning to pick them up three weeks later. “When we shook hands, his hands were so hot,” my father recalled as we sat in the basement, feeding slides of Arctic landscapes into a projector. “Ours were freezing cold. For him, it was nothing. For us, it was everything.”

The guide packed their belongings in a qamutik, a traditional Inuit sled with its wooden pieces lashed together with sinew or hide instead of nailed or screwed, designed for flexibility over the treacherous sea ice. Jim and my father sat in the qamutik as the guide pulled it behind him by Ski-Doo, taking them away from civilization. For all its flexibility, the sled sorely lacked proper suspension. For 10 hours, the sled reared over bumps in the ice at 20 miles per hour, slamming down with cracking force. The discomfort was agonizing. Just one day into the journey, Jim, a seasoned expeditioner, cried. He didn’t think he could possibly survive the ride. The Ski-Doo belched exhaust into their faces like soot streaming out of a train into the face of a child.

In a photograph Jim sent me of the two at the start of the trek, they look clean and rested. My father’s brown skin was smooth and beardless. Jim’s face was no longer pale, but ruddy with cold and adventure: a flush of colour in comparison to the sweeping expanse of white-blue ice and dark, snow-streaked mountains behind them. To them, the ice was dense and permanent. It dominated the land.  

***

“Any trip into the Canadian Arctic requires a horrendous amount of planning,” Jim told me later during a phone conversation. To him, trust was paramount in an expedition partner. Trust will save your life, and my father turned out to be just the right person for the job. Where Jim was anxious and easily frightened, my father was patient and optimistic. 

“Haroon is a much tougher man, in every respect, than he likes to admit.”

The winter before the trip found my father trudging through our snowy neighbourhood, dragging a sled full of bricks behind him. This was how he practised; in the Arctic, whatever he could not carry in his pack would be pulled behind him in a sled. I remember my candy-coloured toboggans growing scratched and worn, cracking in places, the cheap plastic unable to take the strain. A Canadian child’s toboggan is her lifeblood, and at the age of five, his training did not impress me.

 As we were conversing, my father handed me a butter-yellow folder of documents from the journey. In it were detailed itineraries of locations and their distances in nautical miles. There are menus and packing lists that the men would pore over, full of items such as “wound-closure Band-Aids,” “second spreading knife,” and “bear fence stuff.” His to-do list was tacked on at the end. Get big, plastic bowl. Practice bear fence. Check hernia.

There was one last document inside the folder. A recipe for currant scones he had requested from one of the outfitters before he left the island. My father has spent decades honing the art of making scones, breads, and curries, but never considers his efforts as highly as his taste-testers do. He does not believe in attaining perfection in creative pursuits, despite understanding the temperament of ingredients like a fisherman senses the pulse of the ocean.

If forgiveness is what he offers this world, a good scone will often follow. 

***

According to my father, the landscape of Baffin Island’s eastern fjords is a question of perspective. Standing from a certain point on the ice melds three peaks into one; from another, they emerge as distinct structures. One looks like a looming Gothic cathedral, dark grey and imposing. Another looks like a wide section of a spiral staircase with snowy steps, twisting lazily into the sky. There is a jagged, tilting triangle. Like searching for meaning in shapely clouds, you can find a story in each one. Among the most stunning peaks is the Polar Sun Spire in the Sam Ford Fjord. It boasts a towering north face, intimidating in its verticality. It was first summited during a 39-day ascent a year before my father’s trip.

The sea ice of the fjords is equally deceptive. A fjord is a channel of water that has been hollowed out of the rock, with steep rocks rising on either side like three piano keys with the middle one depressed. When my father viewed icebergs and rock formations head-on, in a straight segment of a fjord, he thought they looked mere miles away. But traveling for the rest of the day, packs shouldered and sleds sliding, would get him no closer. 

This far north, at the top of the world, the Arctic commands a humbling authority. You walk on its land. It could claim you in an instant.

 Early on, my father stepped on a snow-covered lead – a wide fracture in the ice – that had only barely frozen over. His foot broke through, soaking him knee-deep. Days later, the men wedged themselves in their tent for 48 hours at the mercy of a howling storm of crystalized wind. Once, while setting up camp for the night, searching for ice to boil into water, my father lost sight of Jim for several moments. His poor sense of direction stood no chance against the stretches of snowblown rocks that looked so completely similar to the undiscerning eye. My father thought that the Inuit, with their intimate familiarity with the land, would have laughed at his confusion had they been there to witness it.

At the midpoint of the trek, my father was traipsing along the ice, wearing his red snow pants and heavy blue coat. He pulled his yellow sled behind him, a map sealed in a plastic cover swinging from his neck. He was like a colour wheel rolling across the frozen sea.

Then, from behind him, Jim uttered one word.

“Shit.”

My father wheeled around.

A kilometer away, a polar bear stared right at them.

 It stood on its hind legs. My father thought about the gun. He thought about what John and the outfitters had told him. There are two dummy bullets to scare it away. Shoot it in the shoulder so it can’t run. But neither man touched their guns. They were transfixed. The bear satisfied its curiosity, came down on all fours, and lumbered away.

My father is a man who avoids swatting flies or disposing of the unfortunate mice we sometimes trap in our house, so strongly does he empathize with them. Perhaps the Arctic knew this, and gave him a reprieve.

***

One of my father’s clearest memories of the whole experience is the moment I careened into his arms upon his return. Only five, I took in his beard and chapped face with great interest. He gifted me with the neck and flipper bones of a long-departed seal he had found on the ice. Other parents might find this macabre, but my father respects children too much to cushion them from the candor of life.

He has never returned to the Arctic, but Jim did in 2013. He remembers a glacier near the long and thin Stewart Lakes on the island from his trip in 1997. He stood with my father near the river, bathed in the awesome glacier’s shadow. It curved along the ground, rising a hundred feet tall. When he returned 16 years later, he set out to photograph it under more favourable conditions.

Jim arrived at the spot where he swore it stood. No glacier. He checked his map and looked up. No glacier. He got out his GPS device and verified he was correct. No glacier. He felt terrified by the sheer amount of ice that had vanished, nothing but a muddy plain   left in its wake.

 My father crossing the Sam Ford Fjord. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

My father crossing the Sam Ford Fjord. Photo credit: Jim Lamont

In 1997, the Baffin Island skies were a startling blue on a good day, thick and grey on a foggy one. That far north, during the weeks of their trip, the sun never set. The sky grew orange and grey and blue as the sun rotated in the sky, dipping low behind the mountains. Some days, the clouds would sink to the base of the mountains, hugging the ice as the men walked across it. The expanse of white before them was occasionally punctuated by patches of scrubby vegetation and bursts of tiny, magenta flowers. But the ice covered everything, so much so that my father felt, most of the time, as though he had departed the Earth.

The neck and flipper bone have since been wrapped with wire and hang on our Christmas tree every year. Nestled among the glittery decor, they serve as a ghostly reminder. This otherworldly place is trickling away.

***

At the end of our interview, I pressed my father for further details. Exactly where were you when you rested on the shoulder of that mountain, eavesdropping on the climbers who looked like two dots from afar? Do you know precisely how the skidoo slipped into the water on the trip back, flooding the engine? How many miles did you travel each day?

My father opened his mouth and paused, and in that moment he was trying to convey to me, impossibly, thousands of textures and sensations. He was trying to distill the essence of an experience into days, boiling down its magnificence into quantities expressed in time and distance.

And then he did what he always does. He chose not to answer the questions, the questions that are an affront to nature, the questions that cannot be answered so simply.

“It was immaterial,” he said. “It was the Arctic.”