The high Arctic Northwest of Baffin Island is a land without color. It consists mostly of gray whaleback hills rising out of a gray moraine, and the only highlights to draw the eye are the patches of snow and the occasional ice boulders, still present even in this midsummer landscape. " Canada's gulag," I told myself. "First they deep-froze it, then they photographed it in black and white." I tied a suitably somber black-bladed spoon on the line and flipped it out into the flat, gray waters of Stanwell-Fletcher Lake. The spoon had traveled to within five yards of the rocks at my feet when this pallid scene suddenly burst into color. Just as Dorothy's monochromatic Kansas whirled into the Technicolor of the Land of Oz, so now the leaden, lifeless waters of the lake blossomed into an extravaganza of silver and rose-pink.
"At last we meet, my beautiful Pink Lady!" crooned Nathaniel, our guide. The Pink Lady is a member of that sleek, mysterious, powerful race Salvelinus alpinus, commonly known as the Arctic char and found only in northern waters. Specifically, this lady was of the anadromous, or sea-run, manifestation of the species. And while she was a shimmering beauty, the char was shy enough—and strong enough—to have sped 100 yards away in an instant on the six-pound-test, heading helter-skelter for the ice still out on the lake.
I found myself shaking with surprise. Not seconds ago, before the fish crashed my lure, those eight translucent feet of water that covered the dark boulders close to shore had seemed utterly empty. I estimated the char weighed around 12 pounds. That rosy flush on her sides, fading to orange on the belly, was the spawning color the fish had taken on when she entered the lake from the ocean. Yet she was no fragile beauty. As A.J. McClane, the doyen of American angling writers, says in Game Fish of North America
, "This may be quite literally the strongest fish that swims."
It had looked for a while, though, as if I would have no chance to verify McClane's bold assessment. For nearly three days I had been socked in at Resolute Bay by freezing rain and fog. This bay is not capriciously named; it is an outpost of 130 indeed resolute individuals, 625 miles inside the Arctic Circle and about 262 miles short of the magnetic North Pole.
There at the Narwhal Hotel—a facility that had unmistakably started life as a couple of Quonset huts—others were also on hold. Among them: the crew of a Royal Canadian Air Force ice patrol; a group of tin miners waiting to fly into some unimaginable workings farther north; and one scholarly-looking, silent man assumed by all to be attached to a Canadian-U.S. Star Wars project rumored to exist nearby.
Once there had been a bar at the Narwhal; an upstairs room still bore the legend THE RESOLUTE BAY YACHT CLUB. But "the privilege was abused," said a member of the hotel staff primly, "and it was closed down." Thus the wildest moment of excitement during my stay at the Narwhal came when a tomato blossom was discovered on a plant that grew in a hydroponic tank. "Unreal! Unreal!" gasped a corporal in the Mounties, the law in these parts.
Meanwhile I pondered the prospect, should I ever get out of Resolute, of meeting both an extraordinary family of Inuit—or Eskimos—and an extraordinary species of fish. The two groups happened to coexist at Creswell Bay Outpost Camp, on Somerset Island, a spot so remote that it made Resolute seem like a Club Med. At Creswell Bay would be found, I was told, one of the last families of the Inuit to still live year-round in the wilderness. It was also classic Arctic char country. Five miles of wild river linked the bay with Stanwell-Fletcher Lake, a 30-mile-wide body of water. According to the map, extending from the far side of the lake was an unnamed stream where the char would mass for spawning.
It was noon, and outside the window of the Narwhal, the thermometer registered 29 degrees. Ten feet beyond, the world was lost in cotton candy. Unless the fog cleared soon, this expedition would be over before it had started. Just as all conversation threatened to die, a tin miner suddenly yelled, "They're talking about a clearance around 4 p.m.!" Three hours later I was loading rod cases, tackle boxes and boil-in-the-bag Chicken Kiev into the chartered Twin Otter. In another hour the Otter was squealing to a high-tailed halt 150 empty miles away at Creswell Bay.
Historians tell us that the first serious misunderstanding between a European and the Inuit happened in 1576 when an irascible English explorer named Martin Frobisher sailed into what is now Frobisher Bay, under the impression that he had discovered the fabled Northwest Passage. He encountered problems with the locals that culminated when one of them "hurte the Generall in the Buttocke with an arrow."
As we jumped down from the Otter, I determined to be somewhat more diplomatic than Frobisher. I had been thoroughly lectured on the subject of the local people while in Resolute. "The Inuit are great guides, born guides," I was told by an Arctic veteran. "They'll stay out all day and night with you until you get your char or your caribou because it is regarded as shameful to come home without the quarry. But sport fishing they just do not comprehend at all. If you need to own some fish, they reason, they would be happy to net some for you. And don't let them see you release fish. It actually makes them angry, though that's hard to tell because they never shout. They always speak in a flat monotone, which evolved out of the necessity of living harmoniously as part of a big family cooped up in the dark for half of every year in a kitchen-sized igloo made out of tundra sod."