The Arctic may howl, but deep down it sings

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, October 1998

Breathing Under Ice
The Arctic may howl, but deep down it sings
By Andrea Barrett

Two years into the writing of a novel about mid-19th-century naturalists exploring in the Canadian Arctic, I finally had the chance to visit the ice for myself. From the heaps of memoirs and journals and letters I'd read, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. Nothing taught me what it would feel like to perch on the floe edge off the northern coast of Baffin Island in June, when the sea ice stretching all the way to Greenland breaks up, with the open water gnawing at the ice from the center of the bay toward the coasts.

There is one morning I dream of: white ice, white fog, the boundary blurred between the two. A sharp demarcation at the edge of the ice and then black water. Everything else — the water before me, the ice behind me, the tents and sleds and my companions, the cliffs on which the seabirds nest — is curtained off by the fog, which refuses to part. Guillemots, dovekies, murres, and other black-and-white birds pop out through the sky curtain as if coming onstage. Silent, preoccupied with their business, they glide to the edge of the ice where I am sitting and plunge into the sea, leaving small ripples behind; their darting shapes glimmer beneath the water and then disappear. Six feet below me, they are flying through the water, fishing along the bottom surface of the ice.

At this edge where ice turns back into water, all the life of the Arctic converges. Swarming fish, diving seals, diving seabirds, migrating narwhals, Inuit hunters and fishermen in small encampments as the unsetting sun circles overhead — who can sleep? The morning of the dense white fog would not have been morning anywhere else; 3 a.m., 4 a.m. The ice is nothing like I'd imagined: not clear, not smooth, nothing like ice on a lake. White, hummocked, granular; shot through with deep cracks yet still perfectly solid; covered with turquoise puddles a few inches deep. At first I misinterpreted every puddle as a dangerous hole. By now I've learned to wade through the water almost casually.

Squatting on the ice that morning, transfixed by the birds appearing and disappearing, black and white and black and white, all I can hear is my own breath and the wing-beats of passing gulls and jaegers. Then I hear other breathing. A rasping exhalation; a long, gentle inspiration. It's as if the landscape itself is breathing.

Time stops, something in my body stops. I have felt like this kayaking, skiing, climbing — physical activities so absorbing that they stilled the constant chatter inside my head. Now I sometimes find these oases of stillness simply by being alone. A few crows calling from a tree, a tuft of down lifting from a cattail and swirling past my eyes, or this fog, this ice, this breathing. Always this sense of being connected to a world that spins on its axis regardless of my presence or attention.

Some minutes pass, or some hours. One of the Inuit hunters runs over, right arm held out before him, forefinger rigidly pointed. The sounds, he tells me, are narwhals breathing, exhaling beyond the curtain of fog, drawing new breath before diving. He points down at the ice and says they are swimming under our feet right now. We might see them when they surface, if we're lucky. We wait in silence. The black-and-white birds are still sinking, still rising. Are the narwhals arrowing among them, birds and mammals converging beneath my feet? On another, sunnier day I will see, from the top of a small rounded iceberg, a pod of narwhals swimming past. In my excitement over the sight of their sleek, curved backs, their tusks so improbably piercing the water, I will walk off the edge of the iceberg and fall, harmlessly, onto a snow-covered shelf below. But on this day the fog continues to hang, and the narwhals surface out of sight. All that exists is the secret breathing of the North.

Andrea Barrett's books include Ship Fever, the winner of the 1996 National Book Award for Fiction.

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