Cover image for Arctic crossing : a journey through the Northwest Passage and Inuit culture
Arctic crossing : a journey through the Northwest Passage and Inuit culture
Waterman, Jonathan.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 2001.
Physical Description:
354 pages : color illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
"This is a Borzoi book."--T.p. verso.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
G 650 1997 .W38 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The Arctic--with its twenty-four-hour daylight, surprisingly curious animals and inexplicable humming noises--is a world of constant danger and limitless possibility. This unforgiving landscape is home to the Inuit (the name they prefer to "Eskimos"), whose complex and little-studied society is fascinating in its divergence from as well as its assimilation into Western culture. Jonathan Waterman's 2,200-mile journey across the roof of North America took him through Inuit communities in Alaska to Nunavut, Canada's new, 770,000-square-mile, self-governed territory. His story, at once illuminating and alarming, offers firsthand observations of their life, language and beliefs; records their reactions to global modernization; documents their centuries of unjust treatment at the hands of Kabloona (bushy-eyebrowed whites); and witnesses unemployment, teen suicide and such persistent plagues as spousal violence and substance abuse. From the perspective of his 1997--1999 voyage--as the Inuit stand on the brink of a more hopeful, independent future--he also looks into a past marked by famous (or infamous) Arctic explorers, government cover-ups and environmental destruction. This beautifully written work of intrepid reporting and even scholarship also reveals the physical risks and psychological perils of crossing the legendary Northwest Passage. Utterly alone for weeks at a time, Waterman struggles against freezing conditions, the tricks played on him by his own mind and dangers more complex than aggressive bears, stormy seas and mosquito blizzards. Following the advice of an Inuit shaman, who said that "those things hidden from others" are discovered only "far from the dwellings of men, through privation and suffering," Waterman kayaks, skis, dogsleds and sails across the Great Solitudes in a thrilling and ultimately successful quest for this "true wisdom," arriving at a profound understanding of environment and culture.

Author Notes

Jonathan Waterman has worked as a naturalist, Outward Bound instructor, park ranger, boatman, mountain guide, freelance writer, magazine editor and director of a small press. He developed, wrote and appeared in the television documentaries The Logan Challenge, for PBS, Surviving Denali (which won an Emmy), for ESPN, and Odyssey Among the Inuit, for the Outdoor Life Network. Widely known for his diverse experiences on Mount McKinley, he lives in Colorado with his wife, June, alongside out-of-the-way national forest land and the world's largest aspen grove

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Waterman says he is "an observant writer rather than a trained anthropologist," but he provides plenty of insight into the culture of that arctic people, the Inuit. As an adventurous travel writer, he journeyed alone more than 2,000 miles across the Northwest Passage, with little more than a kayak, skis, dogsled, and the advice of the Inuit. He lived among the Inuit and observed how their lives have changed as global assimilation and the encroachment of the Kabloona or whites have altered the milieu of the legendary tales of "the Eskimos." He witnessed their poverty, recorded both "anguish and joy," and wound up conceding that no outsider can really understand another culture. Of course, he also recounts his solitary journey, earlier arctic expeditions, surviving the occasional encounter with bears, and facing the challenge of staying alive and mentally balanced in a vast and barren landscape. Adventure lovers and those who share Waterman's desire to "do something unequivocal" in a time ruled by machines and technology will warm to his book. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1997, Waterman (In the Shadow of Denali) embarked on a series of solo journeys across the arctic, taking the southernmost water route through Canada's northern islands. During the first summer, he went west, from the Mackenzie River delta to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. In ensuing springs and summers, he completed his 2,200 mile odyssey, proceeding east in stages from the Mackenzie delta to Lord Mayor Bay. Waterman made most of the trips by kayak, but walked across the Eskimo lakes and took one snowmobile side trip with Inuit guides. He vividly portrays the arctic landscape, people, weather and wildlife, but as he reiterates ad infinitum, his goal was to experience solitude in the wilderness, and much of the book consists of self-absorbed ruminations on braving arctic waters alone in a kayak and pulling a sled across frozen lakes and tundra with only a dog for company. Waterman admits that he didn't get all that close to wilderness since he was supported by a wealth of modern technologies, from a Gore-Tex dry suit to a specially constructed kayak, and could fly home any time. His encounters with the Inuit and his candid observations of their culture and poverty-stricken, often brutal lifestyle provide the most interesting passages. Interwoven discussions of arctic explorers, the history of the Northwest Passage and the Hudson Bay Company, relations between the Inuit and the Canadian government, and anthropologists who have studied the Inuit flesh out his narrative. Though there is no map to help the reader follow his complex itinerary, Waterman includes appendixes of the birds and animals he saw, a Canadian arctic cultures timeline, a section on Inuit language and an extensive bibliography. 85 b&w photos and illus. (Apr. 6) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Waterman (Most Hostile Mountain, Kayaking the Vermillion Sea), a mountaineer, birder, photographer, and avid kayaker, spent three summers crossing the Northwest Passage from west to east by kayak, skis, and dogsled. More than just a self-propelled journey across the frozen north, this is an in-depth look into Inuit culture. Journeying across remote areas alone in a kayak, the author portrays the Inuit people as hospitable and willing to share their food and shelter with a complete stranger. He also explains that they were content to live as nomads, following the game and living off the land until the "Kabloona" (an Inuit term for bushy-eyebrowed whites) tried to help by paying them to live in stationary villages. Waterman's compassionate account reveals a people who are far happier to be out on the land hunting for game than gathered together in squalid, government-built towns. He freely uses many Inuit terms throughout the book and includes a glossary, a complete list of his wildlife observations, an Arctic cultures time line, and a very detailed bibliography. In addition, this gifted writer beautifully describes the natural wonder of the countryside and the animals. Highly recommended for public libraries. John Kenny, San Francisco P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 part one Testing the Waters Fiery-Looking Birds I am paddling the western channel of a dozen rivercourses, running at maybe 2 miles an hour. Honey brown and quiet as slow wind, it is more tilted swamp than river. My eyes flit between the maps and the mudbanks, trying to figure out where I am on the Mackenzie River. Maps are deceiving here in these shifting channels. The delta is 45 miles wide and a sweltering 75 degrees-too hot for 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is mid-July 1997. I am not exactly lost because I know that I'm three days below the village of Aklavik ("place of the grizzly"). I'm alone and trying not to be scared. Fortunately there are other distractions to keep me occupied. If I step out of my kayak without probing the bank with a paddle, like testing the texture of a baking cake with a knife, I will plunge deep into dry-looking ground. Still, I can't help myself when I spy another potential bird's nest: wispy strands of grass lying in a depression on sage-colored tundra several yards above the river. I paddle along the shore and feign indifference to being absorbed by the brown cloud of mosquitoes waiting in the riverbank lee. I plant my paddle behind to span the cockpit and then pry myself up and out. As soon as I step out in my rubber boots, I sink up to my thighs in mud while a blinding mass of thirsty insects brandish their proboscises. I lever up and out of the black silt by pushing down, handstand style, on a driftwood trunk. While perched like a frog on a log, contemplating the leap to dry ground, I unwittingly open my mouth and inhale a crunchy mouthful of mosquitoes that will keep me blowing my nose all night. While trying to clear my throat, waving away the cloud to see, I discover that the nest is merely a caribou print, squashed grass. During my first outings twenty-five years ago, I started using insect repellents containing the virulent and unpronounceable chemical combination called DEET. Now I've given it up, thinking it might be responsible for my receding hairline; wearing a head net makes me claustrophobic. Local Inuit also scorn head nets. Aside from hindering one's vision, Inuit think that trapping anything but fish inside a net is the mark of a fey Kabloona. Still, no race is immune to aggressive swarms of mosquitoes that shoot up your face at each step on the tundra, like bits of ax-splintered wood. One story of an unattended baby "eaten by the mozzies"-the autopsy determined the baby had been "exsanguinated"-cannot be dismissed as fable. A scientist here recently removed all of his clothes to show that "the mozzies" are as bad as Canadians say. An assistant stood by counting with the aid of a video camera. The scientist took nine thousand bites each minute, showing that a grown man's blood could be removed in less than two hours. This northern species is prolific because of their ability to reproduce without drawing blood and unlimited egg-laying groundwater. I am no stranger to bugs. Alaska, whose state bird is the mosquito, used to be my home. Now I live in Colorado, where it's too dry for such aggressive clouds of insects. Accepting such things as bug bites seems a fair trade for my favorite pastime, exploring stretches of remote wilderness. Although I've planned this trip for too long to remember, I'm not sure how to handle being alone, totally alone without another human soul for many miles. During the weeklong drive north I wanted to turn around every day. Now that the trip has really started I can hardly paddle back against the current. To add to my misgivings, yesterday I sawed the cast splinting a torn thumb ligament off my right hand because it interfered with my paddle strokes. Now I am tremble-fingered about how quiet and huge my undertaking is. It seems that the path of least resistance is to try to become a conduit for all that I will experience in this trackless wilderness. Downriver, a bevy of least sandpipers appears. The light is brilliant yet soft enough that I don't need to pull on my sunglasses. As the kayak skims soundlessly, the sandpipers alight like flies, barely rippling the water's surface tension. Their buff primaries are lit cleaner than in Audubon's perfect lilting brushstrokes. Their eyes are black orbs. I blink and hold my eyes shut to dispel the illusion that the sandpipers are on fire. When I open up, they are still burning, twittering and bobbing in the warming light. They cavort just in front of my bow. They move their heads together, collectively, like soldiers marching in parade review. But Calidris minutilla will not fly off as the current pulls me past close enough to touch them. It's still too early for them to migrate. As the birds twitter in primeval and measured joy under the spongy light, I honor the moment by holding still, keeping my hands belowdeck and whispering, "Hello, everyone." I'm crazy, I know. On this, my third day into solitude, approaching the ocean, I am learning to shut down all the emotional noise in my head and exist quietly and without complaint. After all, I can't lose my center. So, lacking birds to watch, I turn to anxiety-reducing tasks. Pitching the tent. Cleaning the stove. Immersing myself in a novel. Then, when all else fails, I lie down and breathe deeply until sleep carries me away from the stress of absolute silence. Hours later, my dream of a Great White Bear is interrupted by a barren ground grizzly tripping over a tent line and snorting with surprise. Before I can zip down the tent door, I hear his bowels erupt wet berries. His claws throw gravel as he sprints away. Looking out, I can still smell his sour, fishy breath. The tundra sweeps south in an infinity of green swells, not dissimilar to the blackened ocean to the north. In an early-morning mirage, distant pack ice is undulating like an accordion (Inuit call such visual phenomena puikartuq ["rising up for air"]). I catch myself holding my breath as the sun's thick saffron glow brings to life otherwise inanimate objects: oblong stones, bleached driftwood and the distant British Mountains. The landscape is as untouched by civilization as several millennia ago, when the first Paleo-Eskimos wandered past with their stomachs clutched by hunger. I am now north of the trees, just south of an immense ice pack that slides across the sea like grease in a hot pan. If one were to spend enough time alone here, one's thoughts could similarly slide off into the mysterious waters of Inuit myth. Linear thinking holds little coin to those who linked their souls with animals and never had their own written language. Many Inuit still do not understand banks, credit cards, or forty-hour workweeks; I often feel the same way. This is all too much to grasp while half asleep at three in the morning. So I stand up and bow to the bear's hindquarters disappearing into the vastness. I don't normally bow. I am emulating the author Barry Lopez, who used this technique to show his respect, and to cope with all that is infinite and enigmatic. The bear, and the landscape, demand no less from me. Inuit back in the village of Aklavik had scolded me for not carrying a gun or a radio. When I showed them my bear deterrents-air horn, flares and pepper spray-they laughed long and hard. Like many adventurers, I am indebted to Inuit for the kayak, the feathered and double-bladed paddle, the dry top and the iglu, to name only a few of their innovations. So I listened, even though I believed they had lost their shamans and their nomadic lifestyle. They told me that bears might not respect an unarmed Kabloona, that grizzlies were more dangerous than polar bears and that dreams about polar bears were really dreams about sex. One Inuk described three knocks out on the door of his hunting shack along the ocean. He found a polar bear, eight feet tall, "asking" for food. He handed her a frozen fish. I lie back in the tiny tent and try to sleep, my mind spinning. I would like to look into a wild polar bear's eyes, without holding a rifle. But what would I have done if this morning's visitor had been a polar bear, whose huge footprints litter the beaches? On the basis of no personal experience and few statistics, I am trying to believe that polar bears won't harm me. In Canada during the last two decades only a half dozen people had been killed by polar bears, while people "in defense of life and property" had destroyed 251. In Alaska, from 1900 to 1985, bears (mostly grizzlies) killed only twenty humans. Although a polar bear caused one injury in that time period, they caused no fatalities. The Russian biologist Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov lived alone in the high Arctic and used only a driftwood stick to rap several bears on the nose during hundreds of polar bear encounters. This is the sort of polar bear story that Inuit tell. Inuit carvings feature Nanuq-the Great White Bear-as an animal above all beings. Two-thousand-year-old ivory carvings (as well as modern soapstone pieces) feature the polar bear flying through the air as if it had supernatural powers. Often small, but incredibly detailed, the carvings are engraved with lifelines and anatomically precise skeletons. You can hold one of these tiny bear amulets in your hand and sense the supernatural power behind it, the carvings as robust as fifteen-thousand-year-old European works. In Aklavik, an Inuk described to me how a lone bear boxed a twelve-foot-long beluga over the head, hooked its paws into the blubber and dragged the half-ton whale up out of the water onto an ice floe. Another day he had seen it on the sea ice kicking a child's rubber ball back and forth. From the Kabloona perspective, the polar bear sits on top of the animal kingdom. Ursus maritimus fears nothing and is adept on both land and water. Pilots have reported bears swimming more than 100 miles from the nearest land or ice. They dog-paddle on top of the water at several miles an hour and cavort underwater like seals. They can sprint at 30 miles per hour, and mature boars stand over 10 feet tall. Mothers will fight to the death to save their cubs, and "sportsmen" shooting the bears with high-powered rifles have reported eerie screams that these hunters, when pressed, will concede sound like those of terrified women. In 1988, in the Alaskan village of Kaktovik, I had seen a skinned polar bear. It had been prepared for a Kabloona, decapitated and emasculated, nailed by its forearms to a high meat rack. Soot-colored clouds rushed above the two-by-fours bracing this crucifixion against the sky. Years later I still feel embarrassed for having looked at it, like a voyeur interrupted, and not just because the body seemed obscenely naked and vulnerable. The white fat belly, distinctive rear end, red-muscled biceps and bulging quadriceps looked remarkably human. The only intact wild polar bear I have seen was in the living room of an acquaintance in Alaska. The eleven-foot mounting typifies the disrespect (and perhaps fear) with which we commonly regard the animal. Its mouth leers unnaturally, displaying two-and-a-half-inch canines. The hunter has the sort of close-set eyes and aquiline nose you might expect in a cartoon caricature of such predators, and if you spend enough time in the North, it is surprising how many Kabloona you will meet who are like him. Along with polar bears, this particular hunter finds sport in shooting wolves from his airplane. He told me that he had no choice but to shoot his bear (while braced on his Super Cub wing strut) before being ripped from limb to limb. No matter how many times I heard or studied these bear stories, they always seemed false. Kabloona myths surrounding the bear just didn't make sense. It was no better than trying to understand the animal by watching the overweight and diseased polar bears in most zoos. In a balmy dawn I pull down the tent and try to find inspiration to continue. I reassure myself with the knowledge, from previous expeditions, that I still have not tapped my limits. I can go for a week without food and perform lucid, route-finding decisions. I have learned how to avoid frostbite and hypothermia. I have also figured out one essential, if forgotten, truth: As a species we are still able to draw on remnant instincts to avoid natural dangers. I finish packing the kayak and jump in, batting at the growing crowd of mosquitoes. On the cusp of a new century ruled by machines and technology, I want to do something unequivocal, by myself, something that will leave me satisfied into old age. I want to perform a journey utilizing instinct and soul, combining my love of sub-zero mountaineering, backcountry skiing, sea kayaking, dogsledding and ocean sailing. A week ago, just in case I was making a mistake, I handwrote a will that included instructions for wildlife officers not to destroy the bear that killed me-if this is how I meet my fate. In a half-serious way I think of the polar bear as the animal that I seek in my modern-day vision quest. It seems that if I keep this inquisitorial dream going-like my fantasy of seeing an Eskimo curlew (an endangered shorebird, with a long downcurved bill and cinnamon wing linings, last seen on this delta in the 1980s)-then my hoped-for crossing of the Northwest Passage will mean far more than covering two thousand miles. Out in the shallow delta I turn west toward the distant Prudhoe Bay. If I can handle the solitude and obstacles of this summer's shakedown cruise, next year I'll come back to the Mackenzie and spend the next two springs and summers traveling east. The river's flood is so extensive here in the ocean that I can pot a breaking wave and still drink fresh water from Canada's interior. With no warning at all, a mile from shore, I ground out in two inches of water. I check my map location: Shoalwater Bay. Then I lever myself out and begin dragging the kayak through the mud. Anyone watching from the distant shore will think, initially anyway, that I'm walking on water. Being alone, harried by mosquitoes and then flushed into the Beaufort Sea by this country's mightiest northern river give me pause, particularly after telling friends that I am attempting this long solo voyage to see a polar bear and watch birds. On a grant application, I suggested that identifying with (rather than simply identifying) birds might lend a new viewpoint on adventuring. My application was rejected. It's never easy finding sponsors. Excerpted from Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture by Jonathan Waterman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction to The Peoplep. 3
Prologue: Along the Smoking Hillsp. 7
Part 1 Testing the Waters
Fiery-Looking Birdsp. 15
History of the Passagep. 22
Inuvialuit of Shingle Pointp. 26
Kilalurak, the White Whalep. 34
The Summer's First Sunsetp. 41
Into the Yukon Territoryp. 46
Herschel Islandp. 53
Pygmies Across the North Atlanticp. 61
Orientation at the U.S. Borderp. 66
Inupiat of Alaskap. 70
Kaktovik, Barter Islandp. 78
Re-creating the Past on Flaxman Islandp. 82
Omingmak, the Bearded Onep. 88
Point Thompson Oil Campp. 92
Barren Ground Grizzly Surprisep. 96
Prudhoe Bay Finalep. 100
Part 2 Into the Great Solitudes
Back to the Mackenziep. 107
The Tuktoyaktuk Oil Boomp. 110
Sledding East Through Eskimo Lakesp. 114
Natiq, the Ringed Sealp. 119
The Hunters of Anderson Riverp. 123
Searching for an Eskimo Curlewp. 136
Battling to Cape Bathurstp. 140
Eyes of a Wolfp. 145
Owning Up to the Near Missp. 148
Bear Aggressionp. 152
Portaging the Parry Peninsulap. 156
Trapped Again by the Windp. 158
The Inuvialuit of Paulatukp. 166
Fighting out of Darnley Bayp. 172
Into Amundsen Gulf and Nunavutp. 176
Inuit Relocationsp. 182
The Warning of Diamond Jennessp. 186
Protected Waters of Coronation Gulfp. 194
Kugluktuk, Place of Falling Watersp. 198
Passage of the Swansp. 205
Part 3 The Polar Bear
Gjoa Haven Winterp. 219
Cambridge Bay, Nunavutp. 224
Qimmiq, the Eskimo Huskyp. 233
Dogsleds Versus Getting Nowhere Without Enginep. 238
Summer Gone Winterp. 265
Hudson's Bay Company on Perry Islandp. 276
Humming Through Queen Maud Gulfp. 284
Remains of the Franklin Expeditionp. 290
Sailing Along King William Islandp. 296
Summer's End in Gjoa Havenp. 301
Peace of the Arcticp. 308
The Good People of Taloyoakp. 314
Ursa Major at Lastp. 320
A. Wildlife Observationsp. 333
B. Canadian Arctic Cultures Timelinep. 337
C. Inuktitut Syllabicsp. 338
D. Differing Inuktitut Dialectsp. 339
Bibliographyp. 341
Author's Note and Acknowledgmentsp. 352
Illustration Creditsp. 355