While some may have a yearning for places like the Khyber Pass, Great Barrier Reef and Galway Bay, my own Erin Isle, Ultima Thule and Xanadu is the North, the immense, empty trapezoid of land that is bounded by the Arctic Ocean and the two inland seas of the central Canadian Arctic, Great Bear and Great Slave lakes. For most of my 40 years this territory has been—in my imagination, if not geographically—the heart of the North. The time for a trip there is in the frantic days of the Arctic spring when the wildfowl migrations hurtle north; mallards, widgeon, teal, scaup, buffleheads, fanning out across the rocky ferocious expanse above Yellowknife.
The frontier mining town sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, which on the first day of June is still solidly frozen. The lake is a hundred miles wide and from the air looks like a vast convoluted sheet of corroded aluminum. On the north edge the vegetation is sparse, stunted brown, not yet in bud. The land is like an ancient pitted husk. Everywhere in the hollows, cracks and gouges of the granite shell there is water. It is as if a giant mirror has shattered on the rocks and the pieces lay about in profusion. Two-thirds of the surface is under water—either open ponds or lakes or mushy, mossy muskeg, a quivering phenomenon that is not truly land or water.
Yet, with all the water, this is in many respects desert country, for it receives less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. The muskeg may shake and squish on the surface but below it, below everything, is everlasting ice, the permafrost. The little water that falls is trapped in solid basins of ice and granite.
The air is similar to that in El Paso, dry and abrasive to the lungs. As you choke on dust, you can see water and bog in every direction. Spongy mosses, sedges, cattails and water lilies flourish. But on the granite outcropping the vegetation is of a desert sort—leather leaf, thorny rose, juniper.
To add to all these contradictions, there is no night. Shortly before midnight the sun does dip below the horizon, but only just. It rises again in an hour or two and while it is gone there is a soft dusk.
About midnight on my second day in the North, I was sitting with a group of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service men in the cavernous public room of the Yellowknife Inn. One of them, David Trauger, was noticeably quiet. He was drinking dutifully but followed the barroom conversation inattentively. Trauger was conducting his first field research project and was more or less constantly, blissfully preoccupied with thoughts of the lesser scaup duck, the subject of his study. "You know," David said finally, apropos of nothing, "that warm day today [it had been a tropical 70� in Yellowknife] just might have brought in some of my yearling birds. I think I'll go out and look around for a couple of hours."
Perhaps never again would there be a chance to leave a frontier bar at midnight and go out and watch ducks on Arctic ponds. We started off, heading west on the Mackenzie Highway, a rough gravel strip that is the only primary road in the central Arctic. A few miles outside of Yellowknife, Trauger slowed and gestured toward a tiny sedge-ringed pond. There were three scaup, two flashy black-and-white males and a drab brown hen, floating on the glassy surface, casting fuzzy shadows in the soft light. None of the ducks bore the identification tag Trauger was searching so earnestly for.
The previous summer, he and another of the Yellowknife duck men had tagged 500 scaup. In August, when the scaup are flightless (adults because of their molt and ducklings because of immaturity), the two biologists had gone to the lakes where the birds congregate and trapped 250 ducklings of each sex. These were marked with yellow, plastic nasal saddles that fitted over the ducks' bills. The hope was that the saddles would stay put and the marked birds would return again to the Yellowknife area where their "culture," as biologists call it, could be studied.
Trauger assumed that at least some of the marked hens would return to where they had been hatched. However, as of this particular morning, the supposition remained unproved. With what seemed to be the majority of scaup already returned, Trauger was depressed by his failure to find any with yellow nasal saddles. Perhaps the markers had somehow handicapped the ducklings and none lived through the year; maybe yearling birds did not home dependably; possibly the birds were there but Trauger had simply failed to find them. After an unsuccessful six-hour search we headed back toward town, rechecking ponds along the way. At one about 35 miles out of Yellowknife there were two pairs of scaup that had not been there three hours earlier. The ducks were sitting sluggishly on a mud and weed bar.
"Holy smoke," David exclaimed. "There's a nasal marking." In his excitement Trauger banged his binoculars against the steering wheel, hit his head on the roof of the car and knocked off my hat. At once he began to write furiously in his notebook, while I continued to watch the ducks and occupy myself with more commonplace thoughts concerning the marvel of migration.