Timeless Engistiak

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By Jill Pangman

A golden eagle circles high above, spiraling upwards, until it is just a speck, in a deep blue sky.   To the north sweeping rolls of tundra edge towards ocean, to the south an arc of mountains springs upwards in a ring of sedimentary folds. From south to north a river has incised a deep course through ancient sediments, before braiding out across a coastal plain and emptying into the sea.

This is a rare September day, warm and calm. A respite from the relentless winds that race across the roof of this vast continent.  A respite as well from time’s endless march from summer to winter, turning water to ice, rain to snow. At seventy degrees north latitude, in this far northwest corner of Canada’s Yukon Territory, this is an Arctic summer’s last hurrah.

I close my eyes, and lie back, pressing myself into firm tundra, my back curved slightly as it molds into angled crest of hill.  I can sense the ground beneath me, sloping away in all directions, yet holding me here, suspended between earth and sky.

Engistiak, meaning hill in Inuvialuktun, the local Inuit dialect, was once considered one of Canada’s most prized archaeological sites.

I picture the first peoples of this continent, some standing on this same height of land, scanning the horizon for signs of life to sustain their own.  Engistiak, meaning hill in Inuvialuktun, the local Inuit dialect, was once considered one of Canada’s most prized archaeological sites. Fossil records indicate that for up to thirty thousand years humans have roamed the Arctic coastal plain and mountainous terrain of western North America, having crossed over a now-submerged land bridge from Asia.  These were a migratory people, following the movements of ice age mammals, and stopping to fish in rivers that teemed with life. Any who passed this way would have seen this lone hill, steep and vegetated on one side, sheer rock on the other, rising abruptly from the plain. Arching skywards, this up thrust of metamorphosed rock defies the erosional powers of time that have leveled the immediately surrounding terrain. They would have been drawn to climb it, for the obvious view. But I wonder: did they too feel held by it, held by its raw wildness, and by something less tangible as well?   

Archaeologists have unearthed a pile of stones at the base of the cliff on the south side, an ideal location for a shelter, protected from the cold prevailing north winds, yet still affording an expansive 180-degree view.   Amongst these stones archaeologists have unearthed bones of Pleistocene mega fauna, some of which are now extinct, like the woolly mammoth and mastodon, and the short-faced bear and saber-toothed cat. Mixed with the bones were tools dated to over eight thousand years old and representing up to eight different cultures of Inuit people. Some of these tools were made with Engistiak chert.  It was another reason for these early peoples to travel here—for the stone to make the tools so necessary for their survival.

Above the ancient shelter, maybe half way up the cliff, there is a narrow rock ledge.  On it is a tangle of sticks, ringed at times by lemming carcasses, and spiked with downy feathers. Below the nest, and extending right to the ground, is a wide swath of orange lichen clinging to the face of the rock.  This slow growing species thrives on the nitrogen in bird guano and, given its abundance, the ledge must have housed families of eagles and falcons for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  

This is a place where life can flourish, and for now move unimpeded by the relentless march of human activity elsewhere on the planet.

 It is this sense of antiquity that adds to the numinous quality of this place. It feels like I am walking in the footsteps of ancestors when I’m here, not my own, but those of life itself.  Their imprints have been erased by time, but they have a memory that lingers. This is a place where life can flourish, and for now move unimpeded by the relentless march of human activity elsewhere on the planet.  

Trails are etched deep into the tundra, created by the hooves of barren ground caribou on their annual pilgrimage to and from the Arctic coast.   Often, on my journeys, it is only their trails, or what they leave behind, that I see. I know I’ve just missed them when I pull my boat onto a shore littered with fresh dung, and clumps of hollow hair.   Yet other times, out of the silence, comes the clicking of hooves, as a herd scampers down a steep embankment and plunges into the river. Mothers and calves can get separated, and the air fills with the plaintive bleating of the young trying desperately to keep pace with the herd.  Water splays off hooves in a garland of sparkling droplets, as the herd scrambles to shore, and ascends the slope. I remember watching such a group, of several thousand animals, disappear and then re-emerge some time later, high on a distant col, driven by an internal clock and their relentless urge to move.  It was only through my binoculars that I could see them, filing over the pass. Once gone, the silence they leave behind seems deeper, somehow the land more empty than it was even before they came.

It’s almost as if the land has it’s own heartbeat, and life itself is drummed into being.

It’s almost as if the land has it’s own heartbeat, and life itself is drummed into being.  Into the silence are etched not only networks of trails, but other manifestations of life. Holes dug into sandy embankments where fox and wolves birth their pups; sticks piled high on rock ledges where birds of prey raise and fledge their chicks; tracks imprinted into wet sand or mud tell tale evidence of wild presence.   Moose raggedly tear the willow branches they browse, snowshoe hare cleanly snip the twigs. Grizzly bears mark their territories by rubbing their backs, and claws, against tree trunks, leaving broken branches, smooth bark, and snagged hairs. Sheep paw out shallow sleeping depressions on mountain slopes. Tiny nests of twigs and leaves, held together by downy feathers and grass, lie abandoned on the tundra.  And everywhere are droppings, of varying shapes, consistency and antiquity.

Each journey down this river reveals different faces of the land, in different moods.

To have the opportunity to witness the ebb and flow of life that moves through this land is a gift of inestimable value. I have journeyed here countless times over the last two decades, on foot and by boat. But it is remote, at least an hour-long flight by bush plane from an already isolated Arctic community, and very few people are graced by this privilege each year.  Through my wilderness guiding business I lead groups of adventurous souls down the Firth River, the riverine artery that connects the interior mountains of Ivvavik National Park with the sea, a hundred mile stretch of fast flowing water and challenging rapids. Each journey down this river reveals different faces of the land, in different moods. At times fierce storms have threatened to shred our tents, or blow our boats upstream; other days are tranquil, hot, a seeming impossibility for Arctic latitudes. Rain can transform the Firth’s turquoise hues into muddy raging torrents. Snow can fall during any week of the summer, revealing tracks of animals that have passed unseen. Close encounters with wildlife can happen around any bend, usually when least expected.  I have been face to face with grizzly and polar bear, wolves and wolverine, muskoxen, moose, caribou and sheep. I’ve been dive bombed by Arctic terns defending their young, peregrine falcon and rough-legged hawks screeching loudly as they swoop down over my head. I have seen the tundra churning with hooves as caribou in the thousands have swept through valleys and forded rivers with an unbelievable grace. I have been mesmerized by the ecstatic bursts of colour, as wildflowers in their millions burst through the spring ground; and have been moved by the delicate architecture of twin flower and poppy, forget-me-not and vetch.

Some experiences touch on the sublime.  A couple of years ago I spent a night on Engistiak, a night like all summer “nights” in Ivvavik, where the sun simply skims along the northern horizon, casting a most exquisite golden hue across the land. On this particular day lit night, I pitched my tent on the only level spot right on top, and was lulled to sleep, cocooned in my down sleeping bag and cradled by the ancient rocks beneath me.  I woke several hours later to a strong north wind buffeting the tent, and when I peeked out the open door I realized what the wind had blown in—a blanket of thick coastal fog. As I watched, the fog rolled back, bit by bit, leaving me marooned above a sea of clouds, that were lit from within by a three AM sun trying to burn its way through. Miraculously, the mist momentarily parted, a mile to the north, just enough to reveal a tiny patch of tundra and a lone bull caribou lit by a blazing shaft of sunlight. It was looking in my direction, or so it seemed, and as I watched it turned sideways, displaying a massive rack of antlers, and then it simply stepped into the fog, and disappeared. The cloud immediately closed in again, obscuring any sign of life or ground.  I wondered if the bull had been revealed to me for a reason, with a message that was decipherable, but only if I knew how to interpret it.

There is a sacred quality to times like this, when I feel touched by something infinitesimally vaster than myself.  Such experiences can inform and ignite me, riveting my attention to the present moment. It feels like I enter a state of grace when I allow myself to surrender to the purity, and fullness, of the moment; when I release my ego and cease to question, and just accept what is.

I realize that there is a pulse in the universe, and it is in fact, no different than my own.

I realize that there is a pulse in the universe, and it is in fact, no different than my own.  I just need to listen. As I witness the play of sun on water, clouds on sky, and wings on air, I understand that this pulse is nothing more, nothing less, than life simply revealing itself, one heartbeat at a time.

On another visit to Engistiak my listening propelled me to dance.  Provoked by an inaudible melody, and an invisible rhythm, I felt my arms lift, suspended on currents of air. It was as if they were moving to the beat of an ancient memory, of wings soaring high above an ancient land.  My legs moved to join suit, and in a slow waltz, I spiraled back and forth along the crest of the hill, feeling an intense love that simultaneously swept me skywards and rooted me down, deep into the earth.

It felt as if I had been here for eons, witnessing the eternal shifting of light that sweeps across this land, with its continually changing seasons, and fluctuating coastlines, as sea levels rose and fell with the ebb and flow of glacier ice.   I felt held in a timeless embrace. An embrace that not only accommodates the slow pace of erosion, where grain by grain, resistant strata of rock, like those of Engistiak are worn down, eventually to nothing. But an embrace that can also contain the longings of my own spirit, to transcend the constraints of being human; to be able to soar on sky currents on long wings, and thunder over tundra on strong legs and splayed hooves; to be able to propel myself effortlessly through shimmering waters by the flick of a fin, and dance in the wind rooted only by the slenderest of stalks.

I long, as well, to be able to sink, deep into stillness, into silence, and to be held.

I long, as well, to be able to sink, deep into stillness, into silence, and to be held. Held by the force of my own love.  My love for wild nature, and for the fact that it still exists. My love for all life and its longing to exist. To think that this light, this beacon of beauty and grace and is-ness, could be extinguished by human ignorance and greed is inconceivable to me.  And for this possibility I grieve.

I open my eyes, from my prone perch on this ancient rock knoll, on this warm and windless September day.  High above me, broad wings are still circling, spiraling ever higher, until they disappear from sight, into the boundless blue tundra sky.    

 


Jill Pangman has 40 years of experience as a wilderness guide, outdoor educator, biologist, naturalist, and conservationist. Her passion is in exploring wild places and sharing these experiences with others. She expresses her commitment to the healing of our world through her guiding, retreat organizing, conservation work, writing, and photography.  She has immense gratitude for the beauty of nature as well as the human spirit. She participated in a 30-day intensive with Joanna Macy in 2007, and brought Joanna to Whitehorse for a workshop in 2010. Web site: www.silasojourns.com.

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