Explorer-poet of the last frontier

Ernest Hillen March 10 1980

Explorer-poet of the last frontier

Ernest Hillen March 10 1980

Explorer-poet of the last frontier


Ernest Hillen

Right the ice now by Fred the Magdalen Bruemmer Islands is out on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence photographing harp seals. It’s his 14th trip, but he’ll stay two or three weeks because, he says, “I enjoy their beauty.” Yet he already has if),000 pictures of the beasts, has written a dozen articles on them and, in 1977, published a book, The

Life of the Harp Seal. “But that’s all incidental,” he explains, “just an outgrowth, a byproduct of what I simply like doing.” And that, he says, is “trundling off to distant, isolated places and looking at plants and animals and people.” Bruemmer isn’t always so concise—in his quiet way he loves to talk— but that’s how he can sum up the why and the what of his life. And it’s true. His life is geared precisely to his specification—to do what he likes; but the “byproduct” is not as “incidental” as he makes out. It has made him, slowly and without fanfare, one of the least-known world-famous men in Canada.

Three weeks on the Magdalens is a run around the block for Bruemmer. Usually the 50-year-old writer-photographer is gone from his Montreal home six months of the year, thousands of miles away up in the Arctic. For 18 years he has roamed from the islands off Siberia, across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, as far east as Lapland— though you would never guess it in meeting him. “I disappoint people at first,” he admits. “They think, ‘He must make up those stories.’ ” Tall, gangly, pale-faced and bald, he just doesn’t look like an Arctic explorer. Still, in miles travelled he easily equals Arctic greats Rasmussen, Stefansson, Nansen, Peary and Freuchen; in intensity of experience he may have surpassed them; and in talent for sharing that experience—the “incidental” stuff—Bruemmer is in a class by himself. Since launching his free-lance career in ’63, the Latvianborn high-school dropout has written seven books on the North—finishing the last one two weeks ago—and about 500 magazine articles. The books are sold in more than a dozen countries; some are translated into French and German and will soon be available in the Scandinavian languages and

Dutch.* The articles run in mass-circulation publications—the old Weekend Magazine and Quebec’s Perspectives gave him his start—and in such respected journals as Natural History, Audubon Magazine and International Wildlife. This awesome output, all done, of course, between trips, has earned Bruemmer a reputation as the foremost interpreter of the Arctic in the world.

William Taylor, director of Ottawa’s National Museum of Man and an expert on the North, calls Bruemmer’s The Arctic (1975) “the most comprehensive single book on its subject matter ever presented.” Even more telling, the Inuit themselves see Bruemmer as their Boswell: his books are used in schools throughout the North telling children of the culture that was theirs. From his journeys Bruemmer has brought back 140,000 pictures and some 20,000 pages of meticulous notes. It’s a unique and irreplaceable record because what he witnessed was a culture dying. Nine years ago he wrote Seasons of the Eskmo, subtitled A Vanishing Way of Life. That life has now vanished. What he saw will not be seen again. And he still has much to tell.

This winter Bruemmer told a lot; his sixth book, Children of the North, appeared in November; his seventh, a book for children, tentatively called Bear River, will be at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, this month and is due in September; a one-man showing of his photographs ran in Toronto and in London, Ontario, where it closed last month; and he wrote 16 articles totalling 50,000 words.

*Books by Fred Bruemmer; The Long Hunt (1969), Seasons of the Eskimo (1971), Encounters with Arctic Animals (1972), The Arctic (197k), The Life of the Harp Seal (1977), Children of the North (1979), Bear River (tentative title) (1980)

Much like the traditional Inuit, Bruemmer thinks of time in seasons. Winter is when he’s home working. Home is with Maud, his wife, and Aurel, 17, and René, 12, in a modest house on a quiet street. Work is writing—in longhand, 10 hours a day, seven days a week, until a project is done. And also in winter are breaks for dining out, movies, the opera. But not many.

Spring, summer and fall are for travelling. Little planning goes into the journeys. “I land and play it by ear,” says Bruemmer. Much of the time, he moves around very little, spending weeks alone on an island “shooting” flowers, or living for three, five, eight months in the same Inuit camp. Coming up now are trips to Alaska, to watch sea lions, and to the Central Arctic for a stay with an Inuit family. He has done it all before but, he says, “It’s never the same. I’m always learning. There are 55 academic disciplines in the Arctic jigsaw puzzle ... And there’s a pleasure in taking good pictures. Last fall I was up in a 12-foot tower near Churchill shooting polar bears. They wait for freeze-up to go hunting on Hudson Bay. In two weeks we had one sunny day and I caught a bear against the sunset, all

black, his fur like a golden halo____And

there are primitive joys. For five days and nights six of us sat on a little island with no food. Finally we caught a Impound white fish. We cut it in six and ate it, guts, scales and all, tout de suite. Terrific! And the adrenalin rushing in time of danger—and afterwards the exhilaration. You won! You against. . . .” Bruemmer thought a moment: “In ’71, off the coast of Greenland, coming back from a walrus hunt, the others in kayaks ahead and out of sight. I’m in a

rowboat because of the cameras, and it’s now full of dead walrus. I’ve been rowing for 20 hours. Hands blistered, arms sore. An iceberg juts out from an island it’s drifted against. It must be 20 storeys high. As I pass beneath, the thing moans and starts to keel over slowly. The sun has melted a lake on top. Wind is moving the water and that’s causing the iceberg to topple—on me. God knows where the power comes from, but I shoot through the sea. I row, row, and row. I have to get at least a mile away not to get sucked under if the iceberg falls over. It moans louder and keeps tipping further and further. I row. And then water, first a bit, then tons of it comes plunging down over the lake edge on top. And slowly, slowly, moaning and cracking, the iceberg rights itself. I am a mile away, all alone, laughing like a demon.”

Bruemmer says he now has the best of two worlds. “There’s the hardship and excitement up north, and a very contented, sedentary life at home. It’s a happy combination. I do what I like best and I make a living at it.”

It wasn’t always so. Somewhere in Seasons it says: “To endure and succeed in such a life, a hunter must be resourceful and hardy, he must have faith in himself, a lot of optimism, a certain fatalism, and the ability to live each day and enjoy the good it brings and not spoil it with worry about the morrow.” That goes for a free-lancer’s risky life as well. Bruemmer was 33, married two years and a father when he went on his own. He had four years’ experience as a reporter on two small-town papers in Ontario and the Montreal Gazette. He had wandered about Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for six years earning his way with short features for Canadian papers and a French animal magazine. Perhaps the most important thing he learned then was how to live and travel cheaply. This was just as well, because in his first year of freelancing he made $900 and it took seven years to clear $10,000. They were lean years, made all the rougher by Bruemmer’s unheard-of credo never to accept assignments. His way is to mail textand-picture packages to editors on a take-it or leave-it basis. “The reason is I’d feel responsible to someone else,” he explains. “I’d be taking money in advance for something I couldn’t be sure would come out right.” He stresses that he certainly would have had to skulk back into harness were it not for his wife. Born and raised in Indonesia, the dark, attractive Maud accepted, supported, and somehow ran the house. Her reasoning isn’t complicated: “Fred has to do what he has to do.”

And do it Fred’s way. “What I treasure most is independence,” he says. And single-mindedly he and Maud

have shaped xtheir life to where they have more of it than most. They now could live off his “capital,” the pictures and notes of which less than five per cent have been used in what he has published so far. No more arduous journeys; stay home and write. But Maud says, “Fred’ll go back up there as long as he can crawl.”

Bruemmer’s passion blossomed soon after he came to Canada in 1950 to work in the mines at Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Behind him were the Second World War, the death of his parents and 18 months in a Russian prison camp.

(Maud spent 3Vi* years in a Japanese prison camp.) “I remember everybody in town went south for their holidays,” he says. “I bought a motorcycle and explored the bush roads. I made a trip to James Bay—and that was it. The timelessness, the space, the freedom. I walk and walk up North. I’m fascinated by nature and by people closely bound to it.

“I get along fine with the Inuit because I accept them as they are. In the humblest way I ask, ‘May I join you?’ I’ve learned to be a very minor nuisance. I’m patient. The first question is always, ‘Will you eat our food?’ Where I

go it’s traditional—seal, ducks, eggs, caribou and fish, often raw. I like it. Soon the awkwardness wears off. I’m a kabloona [white man] with no complaints, advice or questions.”

Bruemmer is angry in a sad and fatalistic way.“Children isn’t a happy book,” he says. “It shows the end result of a culture in decay. Famine, infanticide, the death of the old people, that’s all gone. But the drink problem is catastrophic, and the suicide rate is horrible. The old life was hard, but emotionally it was more secure. We tried to make whites of them in one generation.

“An archeologist at Lake Harbor once showed me a campsite where four or five families, 25 people at most, had lived continually for 4,000 years— longer than Rome or Babylon. It was one of the most specialized and static cultures there’s ever been. Its only materials were bone, stone, ivory, baleen, ice, snow, hides ... I have no sense of mission at all, but somebody had to do what I’ve done. So much would have been lost otherwise.”

Bruemmer may be accepted as a harmless kabloona, but he’s still thought odd. For instance, back after a hunt of, say, two days and nights when everybody is full of meat and tea and fast asleep, Bruemmer might still be sitting upright, scribbling. When the weather is foul that’s all he does. Often he’s talking to himself:

... we cut up the seal, ate part of the guts, together with chips of raw blubber and liver. We were a sight sitting over that pile of intestines, hands and faces covered with blood, gorging ourselves. It's rather primeval. Still, why not?

I got lost. It rained, it was foggy, and I took a wrong turn by the coast. . . Got here by 11 p.m. How little it takes to be happy. Food, a dry tent and not being lost at night in the Arctic.

... the weather is beastly, cold, windy and raw, snow drifting, and bleak, bleak, bleak. Arctic spring!

In different words this message occurs again and again:

You're the outsider here, don't complain. If you don't like it, stay away. Cheer up, you bastard!

And then the kabloona’s endless walks. Cameras around his neck, he wanders off for hours, even days. But that’s his way, is how his Inuit hosts react. Sometimes they refer to him, though, as a wolf, a lone wolf. And they are right. He lives with them but, finally, he’s not one of them; they remain separate entities. And back in the South—who has seen what he has seen? But he wants to share. So he sits in his workroom, writing—which really is being alone. The room is bare of decorations, except for a poster-size color print of a wolf on a hill of snow at night.