Fiction

BLIZZARD IN THE BANANA BELT

The Arctic circle is an imaginary line but it was very real to the trader in the frozen post, so real that it could be a thing of life and death

FARLEY MOWAT February 1 1952
Fiction

BLIZZARD IN THE BANANA BELT

The Arctic circle is an imaginary line but it was very real to the trader in the frozen post, so real that it could be a thing of life and death

FARLEY MOWAT February 1 1952

BLIZZARD IN THE BANANA BELT

The Arctic circle is an imaginary line but it was very real to the trader in the frozen post, so real that it could be a thing of life and death

FARLEY MOWAT

I LIVE BESIDE Tuktu Lake, a sterile body of green water set in the heart of the treeless immensity of northern plains called the Barren Lands. There are thousands of lakes like mine in the country around, but Tuktu has two particular distinctions that set it apart from all the rest. In the first place it boasts a two-room shack on its southern shore an outpost home of the Great West Trading Company. The second distinguishing feature is that the Arctic circle cuts across the lake about ten miles north of the cabin. The peat-ard-stone shanty, dignified by the name of a trading post, has been my home for the last four years and I have long since learned to accept its limitations. But for four long years I have been quite unable to accept the presence of that invisible boundary to the north of me. The presence of the unseen Arctic circle has annoyed me to the point where I have had difficulty in retaining my perspective about it.

If you put a pin through the map location of Tuktu Lake and draw a circle with a threehundred-mile diameter around that point you won’t enclose the habitation of another white man; nor will you enclose much of anything except a formless labyrinth of rock, muskeg and water. There may be wilder and more desolate outposts in the polar regions, but I doubt it. And yet my post isn’t really in the Arctic.

Isn’t it quite obvious why I should be annoyed? I put up with hardships that would drive some men mad, and I live a life as brutally difficult in the physical sense as any polar explorer ever lived, but all the same I can’t legally claim to live inside the Arctic. Some slick-haired tourist can go down the Mackenzie River, first class, on a comfortable steamer and, after a few weeks of luxury travel, go home again and brag that he’s an Arctic man! I can’t claim as much. Because some little white-faced nincompoop in a drafting office drew an arbitrary, and quite meaningless, black line on a sheet of paper, I can’t claim as much.

No doubt I live in the tropics. Ten miles inside them. Even the company treats me and my post as if things are pretty soft at Tuktu Lake. All the special efforts to fly in mail and little luxuries are expended on the men posted to places like Aklavik, which has motion pictures and electric light, but is still considered to be worthy of special care because it is about a hundred miles north of the circle proper. Down south, where I am, the mail comes in once a year by dog team, and no plane had flown over Tuktu Lake in my time.

Even this isn’t the worst of it. What aggravates me most often to the point where I can hardly restrain myself from ripping the damn map off the wall and tearing it to shreds is the condescending way the far-northern post men speak to me when I run into them on leave. “Oh yes,” they say with a sort of patronizing sneer, “you’ve got Tuktu, haven’t you? Lucky stiff to have a southern posting. Wish I could get clear of the Arctic for a while.”

It may be that I have a bit of an obsession about it all, but you can hardly blame me, and it’s a harmless one. It has its uses too, for it helps to pass the time—the almost immeasurable space of time that hides behind the one word, winter.

God knows there’s little enough to occupy my mind during the nine months when the world is dead beneath the snows. My only human contacts are with a bunch of inland Eskimos who come down to trade perhaps once a month in winter, and not at all in summer. They come, exchange their white fox pelts for food and

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ammunition, then they vanish into their own world again. There is nothing social about our meetings and I sometimes wonder if they are human beings after all.

Winter is by far the worst time. In spite of the fact that Tuktu isn't in the Arctic the cold is so intense that 1 seldom go outside unless I’m forced to. There isn’t anything in that featureless expanse of white to make a visit worth my while.

When I first came here I had a radio but it, didn’t last six months. The windcharger blew to the devil during a gale and the glass storage batteries froze and shattered. Not that it mattered much. Whenever the northern lights suffused the sky with their crepuscular displays my radio blacked out completely. 1 could hear nothing but a queer tormented rustle of static

something that is supposed to he purely an Arctic phenomenon. It’s not supposed to happen where I live.

I usi'd to listen to the aurora, and often I fancied it was laughing at me. Pure fancy, of course, and it didn’t worry me, but at times I could have sworn the static was laughing at the stupid injustice some long-dead geographer had forced on me. It was only imagination, of course, but all the same there are people who would claim that I was getting “bushed.” A foolish word that one. There is no bush at Tuktu Lake, nor is there a single standing tree within a hundred miles. I wasn’t bushed—just angry and a little lonely.

I wasn’t getting queer then, nor have I since. I am clearly aware of the obvious fact that the Arctic has its own boundaries which pay no attention to the Arctic circle. I know that people grow cabbages and potatoes at the very mouth of the Mackenzie, two hundred miles north of the circle, i know that the climate sets the boundary of the Arctic along a well-defined natural division known as the timber line which slants off southward from Alaska to the coast of Hudson Bay. 1 know this, but it seems to have escaped the notice of the world “outside.” They see that damned black line so neatly drawn across the map, and they believe the lie it perpetrates.

At Tuktu Lake the winter temperatures make those at the north pole look mild. My mercury thermometer often freezes solidly for a month at a time, and last winter my alcohol thermometer hit sixty-five degrees below—the bottom of the scale—and stayed there for thirty hours. Often enough the blizzards hold for a full week at a time and the winds howling in an unbroken sweep all the way south from the polar sea are more often hurricanes than not.

AS I HAVE said, winter in my L paradise lasts for nine months and there isn’t a damn thing to do but stay alive, read and think. The company sends in a box of books with the supply s'eds each year and you might guess what sort of books they pick. Stories by all the high-powered explorers who have spent a few months, or years, prowling about the north with mountains of equipment and good Eskimo guides to keep them out of trouble. When they’ve had enough they go home and write their books, proclaiming themselves experts on the Arctic —the experts. According to these fellows, if you haven’t spent a month on an ice pack you are about as much an Arctic resident as is a Hottentot. And if you live south of 66.5 degrees

north latitude you’re living in the heart of the banana belt.

You can’t help but understand how I feel as I sit reading these yarns and staring out my single tiny window into the vortex of the blizzards while the experts condescend to me in a manner that would make the most patient man alive grow angry.

Perhaps I am particularly bitter about these men because of Eileen. Once a year I get my mail at Tuktu, and for the first two years mail day brought a big packet of letters from Eileen—a school teacher at Estevan, Saskatchewan, whom I met on my last leave, and might one day have married. There would be forty or fifty letters from her and I would save them, opening one a week until I reached the end.

She was an educated girl and her letters meant a great deal to me. But perhaps she was too educated because she was constantly trying to impress me with lier knowledge of the north. She read all the Arctic books she could find and occasionally attended a lecture by some well-known explorer, then she would write and tell me all about it. She had looked up Tuktu Lake on a map a long time before and every now and again she would say how glad she was that I wasn’t in the real Arctic, that I had a relatively safe and comfortable southern post. She would quote from Stefansson, or Nansen to show me how lucky I was.

There was nothing I could do about it. At first I tried telling her about Tuktu as it is, but it was soon clear that she thought I was only trying to build myself up as a bit of a hero. I could see how she felt, though she hid it quite well. After a while I stopped trying to explain, and then, two years ago, I stopped writing. There wasn’t any use. I knew there could never be any real understanding between us and so the whole affair died—strangled by a spidery black line across a map.

But you must not get the impression that I let my preoccupation with the Arctic circle become a real obsession. On the contrary for the first three years it was more a matter for rueful laughter. Sometimes I would look out at the snow-devils rolling over the endless plains, driven hy the gales from the frozen sea, and I would say to myself, “Damn lucky you’re down in the banana belt, old man.”

T DID NOT even lose my sense of JL humor when, during my third winter, the Eskimos themselves proved to me that Tuktu Lake was hardly the banana belt. It was after Christmas, about January fi, when half a dozen Eskimo men arrived at my place and crowded into the room I use as a store. They sat around, jabbering frenziedly, and obviously in a state of great perturbation. 1 had seen nobody for six weeks and though these fellows stank pretty badly in the warmth of the cabin I was nevertheless glad to see them and anxious to join their talk. It was hard to make sense out of it but at last I got the gist of what they were saying.

It seemed that a month earlier a party of fourteen men, women and children had set out for the post with two sleds, ten dogs, and a big cargo of furs. Three weeks went by and the. party never returned to the Elskimo camps which are about a hundred miles north of Tuktu Lake. Finally, in early January, the men I was talking to set out to make a search. The blizzards were terrible that month and it must have been an agonizingly unpleasant trip. Nevertheless the searchers kept on and, when they were about two hundred yards from my cabin, they suddenly came across the

missing people — one of the men stumbled on the runner of an overturned sled lying on a ridge that had been kept snow-free by the wind. Nearby the searchers found three bodies, frozen rock-hard; then the rescue party lost its nerve and came dashing down into my cabin.

The reason for their excitement was explained at last. It developed the Eskimos were so afraid of ghosts they didn’t dare go alone to look for the remaining bodies. They wanted me to go with them as a sort of insurance against evil spirits while they prodded the drifts with their long snow-probes and looked for the rest of the missing people.

As I have said I don’t often go outside in winter, but this time I did. The wind was down, for a wonder, and it was only about thirty below. We walked two hundred and thirty paces —I counted them—and on a ridge within full view of my shack we found and uncovered the whole fourteen bodies.

There was no way to bury them so I motioned to the living Eskimos to load the sleds and bring the bodies to my place. Then we covered them with blocks of ice and poured water over the mausoleum to cement it fast and to protect the dead from wolves and foxes until spring when the surviving people could bury their relatives in the prescribed way, under rock piles.

As near as I can make out, the victims must have been caught in one of our tropical blizzards and got lost. They must have known the cabin was pretty close and so instead of playing safe and building a proper snowhouse in some sheltered valley they kept on traveling. When the ground drift got so thick they could no longer see, they had to halt, and by that time they were on the ridges where there is no snow deep enough for igloo building. I suppose they must have set the sleds on edge and huddled in that thin shelter to wait out the gale. Well, it lasted too long and outwaited them.

They lay fewer than two hundred yards from me and did not know it, nor did I guess that they were there. They froze to death, and if you have read anything about the Arctic you will know that it is seldom cold enough to freeze an Eskimo.

That night I took a razor blade and scratched out the Arctic circle on the map, redrawing it well to the south of Tuktu Lake. It was a trivial gesture but I felt I owed it to the Eskimos. But I had not yet lost my sense of humor. The next morning I made a little sign and nailed it to my door. Welcome to the Banana Belt, it read.

THE Great West Trading Company doesn’t usually leave its men in outposts for more than three years at a stretch because they claim white men can’t take the isolation. So, in the late winter of my third year, when the dog teams arrived from Fort Gerrard with the supplies, they also brought a replacement for me. His name was Billy Craine and he was green as grass, a young chap just out from the eastern cities.

Coming up on the four-hundred-mile trip from Gerrard, Craine displayed his inexperience by attempting to chop down a frozen black spruce tree with a frozen axe. The blade simply shattered as it usually will at temperatures below fifty minus, and a bit of steel flew up and gashed his face, almost putting out an eye. He lost a lot of blood and the Indian dog - drivers couldn’t help him much. They were just at timberline then, closer to my place than to Gerrard, so they brought him on to Tuktu.

When 1 saw Craine I knew at once

that he could not be left alone to run the post. He was too sick either to travel or to be left on his own. I kept the Indians at the post as long as they would stay, but Craine recovered too slowly and at last I had to send the Indians south and resign myself to another year at Tuktu Lake with the new man.

That spring and summer weren’t too bad. Craine got well in a few months and for a while he and I got along all right. But though he was willing to learn the tricks of the job he couldn’t seem to understand that the most important thing in the north is to learn how to live with another man for a long period of time and avoid serious friction. He made no real effort to avoid doing the little irritating things that have been known to drive men mad in the Barrens country. When fall came and we were cooped up together in the cabin I began to grow a trifle worried. We were living almost literally in each other’s laps but Craine remained consistently thoughtless of me and my feelings.

Worst of all was when I talked about the Arctic circle. I had explained about my sign on the front door and for a while Craine thought it was amusing. But as the winter dragged on he didn’t seem to think that it was funny any more. For hours on end I tried my level best to explain my point of view about the circle and to make it clear to him how unfair it was that we should be living a bare ten miles south of that arbitrary line, and therefore not really living in the Arctic at all. His reply was that it didn’t matter anyway, and he quite failed to see that, it did matter very much to me. I suspect he said it didn’t matter to annoy me, which was a foolish thing to do.

After the first month of winter he abruptly changed his attitude and resolutely refused to discuss the matter, or to listen when I talked about it. It was the kind of thoughtlessness that worried me. He should have understood that in a situation like ours you have to humor each other’s little eccentricities. But Craine refused to play along and, not unnaturally, I began to grow a bit annoyed. Finally there came a six weeks period just before Christmas when neither of us spoke a word to the other man.

At last I decided to make a major

effort. One day after a silent breakfast I started to talk to Craine. I talked for a long time about our individual rights and duties to each other and then I had a brain wave. It struck me that if I could just make Craine share an emotion with me we would have common ground on which to stand. I started in at once to talk about the fellows posted to Aklavik and other ! places and I pointed out how soft a time they had, while everyone regarded them as little tin gods simply because they lived within spitting distance of the pole. I was sure that if I could get Craine to feel resentful against these people then he and I would have a point in common and he would come to agree with me about the rank injustice of the Arctic circle being where it is.

It didn’t work. He kept silent for a long time and utterly refused to see that what I was doing was for his own good as much as mine. And then at last he jumped up from the table and threw the pot of oatmeal porridge straight at my head. When it missed he began to yell and swear like a maniac, shouting that he was fed up to the teeth with living with a crackpot, and if I didn’t shut my filthy mouth about the filthy Arptic circle he’d shut it for me. He raved on and on about how it didn’t make any di erence to a sane man anyway. He said we weren't inside the circle, and the sooner I got that through my head the better.

Of course he didn’t speak as connectedly as this. Half the time he hardly spoke sense at all —just screamed at me, using more obscene words than I’ve heard in a lifetime. It was a good ten minutes before he stopped and then he turned and ran out of the room, through the storeroom, and outside the cabin, without even pausing to put on his heavy parka. I knew why. He was ashamed of his outburst and wanted to cool off a bit. Well, it was cool enough outside, for the mercury was frozen again and there was a wind making up out of the grey northwest.

He left the door open and as I moved to shut it an idea came to me that offered the perfect solution to Craine's behavior. Quickly I pushed the heavy door shut and dropped the bar across it.

MIND YOU, I had no intention of causing him any real harm. Temporarily at least, Craine was off’ his rocker and I merely saw an opport unity to snap him out of it by the application of what doctors call shock treatment. The idea that had come to me was simply that if Craine could be made to experience the real mercilessness and ferocity of the wind and cold he would be forced to the realization that I was in the right. That it did matter. That this was the Arctic. When I barred the door l was thinking of those fourteen Eskimos and how they had certainly known how right I was, though of course the idea had probably never occurred to them. Still the country had proved its point to them and now I was going to let it prove its point to Craine.

I had barely locked the door when he tried to get in again. But he hadn’t been outside more than a few seconds and I knew that wasn’t long enough.

So 1 called to him through the door and explained that, for his own good,

I was going to let him test the validity of my arguments about the Arctic circle. He replied by cursing me wildly and so I knew the cure hadn’t done any good as yet. He swore he would break my neck for certain—when he got inside. I ignored his threats and went back into the inner room where 1 sat down and lit my pipe.

It wasn’t so very cold, by Tuktu

standards, though the temperature was probably about forty degrees below. Anyway it isn’t the temperature that makes the cold, but the wind. And this day the wind hadn’t seemed particularly strong to me. Í certainly wasn’t exposing Craine to any serious danger for he was wearing fleece-lined underwear and heavy pants. 1 must admit I did forget about his feet; but then how could I guess that he was mad enough to rush outside wearing nothing but a pai>"f duffel socks?

1 should say it was about five minutes later, aller he had pounded on the door like a madman, that he came around to the window. The glass was heavily frosted over so I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him well enough. He was still cuising me, bul he seemed to be crying a bit too. Curses and pleading, all mixed up together. It was a bit disgusting. A man of any character does not break down like that unless he is in very real and present danger. Craine was in no danger at all if he had only used his head.

HE HAD been outside about ten minutes all told and I was about ready to let him in when he went berserk. He smashed the window with his bare hands and then tried to crawl in through the tiny hole.

It was far too small, of course. But his attempt to climb in wasn’t what bothered me. What annoyed me was that this piece of glass was more precious than gold, yet Craine had wantonly and thoughtlessly destroyed it in a foolish panic. I felt the rise of real anger against him and I walked to the window, grabbed his head and heaved him back out into the snow. He lay quietly in the drifts for a moment and then he began to writhe like a man lying on hot coals. His face was pretty white and I suppose it was already frostbitten—not a serious matter in itself, and one that could quickly have been remedied if he had just had enough sense to give in then. But he was stupid. He suddenly jumped to his feet, grabbed a chunk of ice and hurled it through the window at me with all his strength.

It missed me by a foot or so and did no harm, but it did make me realize something I had quite overlooked. With a momentary feeling of fear I realized that I didn’t dare let him in while he was like this or he would most probably murder me. It was a very sobering thought and my anger against the man evaporated quickly in the face of this new problem.

Craine was back at the window by then, thrusting his face through it, and now he was beginning to blubber. It was not a pleasant sound—rather like an animal. It made me feel honestly sorry for him but I could tell by his eyes that he was too dangerous to be trusted. He tried to get hold of the window frame and I saw that he couldn’t seem to grip it. He had to bend his wrists and hook his hands about the wood. I also noticed that, though the breaking glass had deeply gashed his arms through the thick underwear, there was little or no blood. No doubt if 1 hadn't been so upset myself by that time I would have understood the significance of what I

saw, hut as it was I hardly gave these things a thought.

Abruptly his face vanished from the window and I roused myself to take some immediate action. The cold blast through the broken pane was chilling the whole cabin and had to be closed up at once. It took me only a few minutes to get the top of an ammunition crate and to find the hammer and some bent nails. I had to straighten the nails out before I could use them, and I’m a clumsy carpenter at best so it took a bit more time before I had the window boarded over. Then I took some canvas and tacked it to the wood so the whole thing was weather-tight.

While I was occupied with this essential job I heard no more from Craine and I guessed it was time to bring his treatment to a halt. So arming myself with the hammer, in case he was still dangerous, I cautiously opened the main door and called to him. The door faced north and not until I opened it and stood full in the violent thrust of the north wind did I realize how hard it had been blowing.

Craine did not answer me, but I knew he might be deliberately keeping silent to lure me outside. I went back in and got my heavy cpribou parka, then, with the hammer in my gloved hand,

1 stepped carefully outside and began to walk around the cabin, keeping well away from the walls and corners. The gale flicked ice hard snow against my face and I had to pull the hood of the parka up at once so that it was hard to see. The ground drift had been whipped up until visibility was practically zero anyway, so it was not surprising that it took me twenty minutes to find Craine.

NOBODY could have felt. worse about the incident than I did then. I dragged his body back to the cabin and pulled it into the storeroom with immense dilficulty. It was frozen so stiffly that his outflung arms wouldn’t bend, and I had to edge him through the doorway. He was back inside at last, but there was nothing I could do for him by then. Eventually I took him out again and with great efforts managed to hoist him up on the storehouse roof where he would be safe from the wolves and wolverines. I did the best I could.

He was still there when the supply teams arrived this spring. I wrapped him up well and packed him aboard one of the sleds, not without serious opposition from the Indians who absolutely refused to carry the body south until I threatened them with the police, the priest, and with my personal wrath.

I am staying on at the post for another year. It can’t be left vacant or the Eskimos will rifle it, so it’s my duty to stay till a replacement comes. God knows it’s not from choice.

Five years is a bit too long and I will have to watch myself this coming winter. I know my sense of humor has become a little strained and that is hardly strange when you consider the details of poor Craine’s suicide. Poor devil! He did it the hard way, but in the end he proved beyond a doubt that I am right. In spite of my little sign upon the door, this place is hardly the banana belt. It is the Arctic, after all. +