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ARTS , CULTURE & EDUCATION


idea was to keep moving to reduce insect attacks on exposed organs, manoeuvring deftly to avoid pissing on my pants. The tactic was effective on both counts. Well, mostly. After zipping up, I stood for a moment


within the buzzing cloud of insects, morbidly fascinated by their staggering numbers. Even if it meant paddling into a headwind, I would welcome a stiff breeze to blow away this scourge. It struck me then, that everything is ravenous out here. The bugs with their thirst for blood, the wolves I’ve seen snapping at moulting geese, the lake trout that smack my lures with the force of a heavy weight’s right hook, and me. There is nothing like a calorie deficit to


make eating consume your thoughts and turn food into taste bud Crack. And there is nothing like weeks of paddling, portaging and hiking with strict rations to create those conditions by deepening ones appetite and gobbling through body fat reserves. To take my mind off food for a while I


try to muse about other things like why this place — the northern Arctic tundra — is so irresistible for me. I think it has some- thing to do with combining the excitement of paddling wild rapids, or encountering herds of migrating caribou with the sweetness of bug-free moments, sitting quietly by the gurgling river: the very stuff that makes life palpable.


Out on the river much later, I’m


contemplating all this again when I reach for the cornbread. The taste washes over me, a flavour sucker-punch that merges all thoughts into one: it is worth it — the bugs, portages, blisters — if only for this. The wolverine jolts me from my corn-


bread-induced reverie. Appearing just 150 metres downstream, it is the first wolverine I have seen in more than 5,000 km of northern canoe trips. Of all things wild and


toothy, people know this in particular about wolverines: they live fiercely. Powerful, tireless and cagey, known to successfully challenge grizzly bears multiple times their size, wolverines are the very embodiment of wildness. Gripping my binoculars, I can see its


trademark see-sawing gait as it lopes up the shoreline, coarse brown fur rippling on its back, needles of light flashing off the streaks of blonde. Head down, sniffing as it moves, it stabs its jaws at something on the ground I cannot see, gulps it down and keeps moving. With my attention riveted on the


wolverine, I didn't notice the faint thumping sound coming from somewhere behind me. But when it crests the river valley, the sound of the low-flying helicopter fills my ears with an explosive roar, the whirling blades chopping the air, shred- ding the silence and my moment with the only wolverine I may ever see.


For a month, I’ve seen nobody, heard only but the wind, water and birdsong around me. Then, somehow, in a space of 1.3 million square kilometres of wilderness, a canoeist, a wolverine and a helicopter intersect simultaneously in a baffling and infuriating coincidence. Whirling on its hind legs, the wolverine


bolts, its sharp claws tearing into the tundra as it bounds in the only sensible direction a threatened wolverine can go: North. For where else but the North can a


wolverine find the space to contain its snarling appetites and wild nature? And where else but the North can a person tap into that vestigial wildness we also harbour inside; that primal hunger and physicality that calms the mind, enlivens our spirit and heightens our senses to the point that one can achieve nirvana by simply eating cornbread? Nowhere but North.


July/August 2011


above & beyond


43


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