Deep Roots/Shallow Roots


By: Leg 11 Journey Participant John Crump

The Polar Prince was tucked neatly into the deep harbour at Liston Island, like a car in a parking slot. Her ice-breaking nose nudged the lowest of the gravel benches that rise in tiers from the sea. These undulating levels are evidence that the land continues to lift long after it was pressed down by three-kilometre thick ice sheet during the glacial period that ended about 8,000 years ago.

The ground is covered in shards of crenelated, pockmarked rock on a dozen or more benches that we followed up to a high point marked by a cairn. Just behind this marker, which contained a note from a tug boat captain weathered in by a storm in 1986, lay a silent city of lichen crusted tent rings.

Dorset people used this place, perhaps as many as 2,000 years ago. Coming from the west, they occupied the Arctic from around 500 BCE to 1200 CE and then they vanished. They were displaced by the ancestors of the modern Inuit and left little behind to tell about themselves. In one ring, we found a core for making the thin stone blades for which the Dorset are known. In other places lay scatterings of ancient weathered bones, some broken lengthwise to release their marrow.

Two or three large stone rectangles characteristic of longhouses suggest this was an important gathering and perhaps ritual place. These ancient sites, now on a high ridge, were at one time along the shoreline. It was if they had been lying there, silent and windswept, for centuries, waiting for us.

Our Inuit companions – Roger Hitkolok, whose family was once marooned on the island, Hovak Johnston from Kugluktuk and Jimmy Evalik from Cambridge Bay – are connected to these ancient people by the land which continues to rise, a millimeter or so a year, beneath our feet. This is their world. We are just visitors.

Their ancient connections make me reconsider my own roots. My father’s side of the family has records going back to the 1500s in Shropshire, England. My mother’s side was uprooted from Ireland during the Great Famine and came ashore in New Brunswick in 1847. I know this history, but I don’t know the songs of my ancestors and the lands from which they sprang. I have a connection. It is part of me but very distant.

My connection to this land is even more tenuous, I think, as we sail through the flat waters of Amundsen Gulf. The names rise from the pages where I first encountered them – Bernard Harbour with its weathered RCMP post defying the scouring winds to topple it, the sod outline of the headquarters of the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1915, Stefansson, Amundsen – all the transposed names of book learning. It’s just surface knowledge when we encounter the deep, ancient reality of this part of the Arctic.

Our home is Canada, those of us who descend from immigrants who came here for a variety of reasons. But we are still trying to root ourselves. Our efforts to reconcile our colonial past with a non-colonial future, just in its first stages, may give us the rootedness we need as a people.