On land constantly shifting, a trekker may build a shelter for one night
only where the path leaves itself roofless, a bleak sentinel stripped
bare, landscapes pulverize traditional representation—shearing forms, upending
spatial expectations and strewing compositions with obstacles that block easy
entry. The eye must climb up or down, or squeeze past tilted planes, jutting
shapes and unexpected solidities; it must reconcile monumental geo-
logical facts with one stone wall graffitied JR—
John Rae was a unique man, especially for Victorian times. A physician at age 19, he loved the Arctic and "copied the native way of life, adopted native dress, native shelter, native food, and native travelling methods. He wore deerskin clothing, built snow houses, drove dogteams, slept under caribou blankets, and used Arctic peat and reindeer moss for fuel north of the timber line. And no party in which Rae acted as leader ever suffered from scurvy." At the height of its imperialist power, England “was a nation obsessed by science, whose explorers were charged with collecting everything from skins of the Arctic tern to the shells that lay on the beaches. Here were men of intelligence with a mania for figures, charts, and statistics, recording everything from the water temperatures to the magnetic forces that surround the Pole. Yet few thought it necessary to inquire into the reasons why another set of fellow humans could survive, year after year, winter after winter, in an environment that taxed and often broke the white man’s spirit.” Except for Rae, who mapped over of 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline living in igloos, hunting for the expedition's food. In 1854, the strait named after him was the final jog of the fabled Northwest Passage. That year, too, while crossing Victoria Strait to King William Island...
What culture circles to our left, to our right,
beneath our feet? Life in its various stages
of decay. Is this what happens when we,
what happens when we see our selves?
Rae learned from a band of Inuit the plight of the lost Franklin Expedition, for whom there were several search parties plying the Arctic. The Inuit gave him a description of corpses they had found in tents, apparently dead from starvation, a few others scattered around the camp. They also gave him "artifacts, including cutlery, watches and a medal belonging to Franklin himself," darkening into remnants of human flesh found in the expedition's kettles.
He returned to England without having seen the site personally, and "British society refused point blank to believe that 'right next to it there's an empty space, because that was something he didn't know yet. He only made what he knew, nothing else.' 'What a good conscience he must have had,' I said. 'Oh yes: he was happy, somewhere deep inside men of the Royal Navy would or could in any extremity of hunger alleviate that pain of starvation by this horrible means, namely cannibalism." Lady Franklin launched a media campaign denouncing Rae, to save her husband's reputation from a history of morbidity; yet, this morning's clouds are red as a sea of skinned salmon.