A Walk on the Wild Side

Featured

So there you are, walking along the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The crowds are oppressive, Nature seems to have disappeared, and there’s nary a spouting whale in sight. You’d still like a boardwalk experience, so what do you do? You go to Rigolet, Labrador, of course.

“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” Al Capone reputedly said. Scarface certainly wouldn’t have known what street Labrador — the northerly part of Newfoundland — is on. So seemingly unimportant was Labrador to Newfoundland that the latter put up the former for sale in 1909 for $9,000,000, but there were no takers.

Rigolet itself is not really on any street or at least not on any highway. A small (pop. 300), mostly Inuit community accessible only by air or by ferry (recommendation: take the ferry), it’s the last place where you’d expect to find a boardwalk longer than the Atlantic City Boardwalk. In fact, its boardwalk is probably the longest in the world.
“We missed the boardwalk that once connected the old Hudson’s Bay buildings here,” Rigolet’s mayor Jack Shiwak told me, “so we decided to build a new one, and then we kept adding to it, finishing it in October 2015. Of course, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was always in the backs of our minds. If it could attract tourists, we thought ours could, too…”

“But you don’t have any gambling casinos,” I joked.

“True, but we do have a major archaeological site,” Jack said.

I decided not to walk the boardwalk’s entire six miles, ending in that archaeological site, all at once. There was too much to see, too many opportunities to stand and stare. Here, for instance, was an old cemetery whose wooden crosses were tilted in every direction of the compass. And here were several seals whose bobbing heads looked inquisitively at me. Benches and picnic ta bles also encouraged me to take my time.

The boardwalk had boreal forest on one side and the tranquil waters of Hamilton Inlet on the other. As I walked, the only sound I heard that didn’t come from the natural world was my own feet on wood. The natural sounds included the chuf-chufs of grey jays, the flutelike calls of pine grosbeaks, Arctic hares or rabbits thumping across the boardwalk, the occasional grunt of a moose, barking seals, and gulls whose raucous laughter suggested that they thought it was hilarious for me to be walking rather than flying.

On another walk, I felt the need to answer Nature’s call, so I wandered into the adjacent spruce forest. While answering that call, I noticed a black bear rummaging for berries thirty or so feet away. The bear saw me and continued rummaging, but politely turned its head away. What civilized behavior, I thought.

After a while, I found myself suffering from a bad case of the Shangri-Las, so I decided to take a break from the boardwalk and visit a local woman, Sarah Baikie. I’d seen quite a bit of lyme grass on my walks, and I heard that Sarah
was one of the locals who made baskets out of it.

“I began making grass baskets as soon as I was old enough to hold a needle,” Sarah told me. She also made grass bowls and mats, along with moosehide boots and slippers. Her crafts as well as those of other Rigolet residents are available at the village’s craft shop.

After “yarnin’” (chatting) with Sarah and her husband, I returned to the boardwalk. After a while, it began to rain, so I climbed up to a gazebo, under whose cover I had my lunch. As I was eating, I saw two minke whales rising and spouting repeatedly in Hamilton Inlet. Eat your heart out, Atlantic City!

On one of my walks, I met a middle-aged local nurse who informed me that she walked back and forth to the end of the boardwalk almost every day, a distance of twelve miles. When I told her that I hadn’t yet made it to the end, she looked at me as if I was a complete wimp.

I asked the nurse about the brick ruins I’d seen not far from the shore. They were the remains of a military fort built to protect Labrador from a Nazi invasion, she told me. I thought she was joking, since Labrador would seem a bit remote for the Nazis. But I later learned they had torpedoed a Canadian ship not far from here.

But by far the most interesting ruins were at the very end of the boardwalk, at Double Mer Point, where the remains of three 18th century Inuit sod houses lie above a Paleo-Eskimo site several thousand years old. Among the many artifacts found here was an Ottoman pipe from Turkey — how the blazes did it get to Labrador?

If you visit these ruins soon, you’ll probably see archaeologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland at work digging or sifting soil— they may even ask you to help them! If you visit later on, you’ll see a reconstruction of one of the sod houses and perhaps a local person in period costume talking about his or her heritage.

On my last day, I happened to be walking back from the archaeological site when I encountered one of the few tourists I’d seen on the boardwalk. “I heard this is longer than Atlantic City’s, eh?” he said, immediately identifying himself as
a Canadian.

“I don’t even know what street Atlantic City is on,” I grinned.

For more information, contact Rigolet Tourism Manager Kerry Pottle or write
tourism.manager@rigolet.ca

North of Siberia (Part 2)

Wrangel Island

Still on Wrangel Island (red arrow)

For those of you who read my previous bog post, I still haven’t left Siberia’s Wrangel Island. In the island’s tiny cemetery, among several rows of Russian Orthodox crosses, I noticed a Star of David. There was no name on the grave, so I asked one of the scientists on the island if he knew who was buried there.

“A Jewish doctor, Nikolai Vulfson,” he told me. “Killed by fascists.”

Later I researched Vulfson for a book I was writing on the Arctic and learned that he hadn’t been killed by the fascists. At least not by those of the German or Italian persuasion during the Great Patriotic War, so-called.

Let’s travel back to the 1930s. Vulfson was Wrangel’s doctor, a man who was dedicated to the health of the local Eskimos (Siberian natives never call themselves “Inuit”). In this, he was opposed by the island governor, Konstantin Semenchuk, who said: “If you give Eskimos what they want, they’ll become lazy or turn against us. Then we would have to shoot them.”

On December 26, 1934 Semenchuk seemed to have a change of heart. He told Vulfson to visit the village of Mys Florens and investigate an apparent typhus outbreak. The doctor left the main village of Ushakovshoe by dogteam, accompanied by Semenchuk’s henchman Stepan Startsev. Only Startsev reached Mys Florens. He told the Eskimos that Vulfson had somehow gotten lost in a blizzard. But there hadn’t been a blizzard at the time.

It wasn’t until January 4 of the next year that Vulfson’s bullet-riddled body was found. Someone, perhaps Vulfson’s widow, radioed for a government investigation, not believing the death was a suicide, as Semenchuk had professed. An investigator arrived and began collecting information about Semenchuk, who not only seemed to have been responsible for Vulfson’s death, but commonly raped young Eskimo girls and also promoted famine conditions on the island. He was recalled to Moscow.

At Semenchuk’s trial, his prosecutor called the governor “human waste.” Semenchuk protested. He was a visitor from Mars, he said, and thus was not subject to the same rules as a typical Soviet citizen. The court did not buy this defense. Along with Startsev, Semenchuk was declared an enemy of the State and executed by a firing squad.

If I had known Vulfson’s story in advance, I would taken a photograph of his grave. No, I wouldn’t have taken a photograph. For I would have been too saddened by the fate of this good man to reach for my camera.

North of Siberia

The more remote the destination, the happier I am, so in the summer of 2003 I joined a Russian expedition to Wrangel Island, a 5,180 square kilometer chunk of Arctic real estate several hundred miles north of Siberia. Such is the island’s remoteness that its first documented visit didn’t occur until as recently as 1881, when the American whaling captain Calvin Hooper briefly went ashore with the naturalist John Muir.

Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island (red arrow)

Wrangel is a state nature preserve, the Russian equivalent of a natural park. But unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, it has no facilities for the public (no public, either). We first went ashore at Rodzhersa Bay, where there was a small Russian research station. For want of funding, this station was remarkably rundown. I got the impression that the half dozen scientists who worked here did so for love. They certainly weren’t here for the money.

Inside a makeshift barn were four baby musk oxen, descendants of 20 animals brought here from Canada in 1975. Something about Wrangel’s air must be aphrodisiacal, since now more than 800 musk oxen roam the island.

I asked one of the Russians — a lavishly-bearded man who resembled the young Dostoevsky — whether a large invasive species like the musk ox might have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.

“Is problem, da,” he replied, “which is why we will be sending these babies to the mainland. We have another problem — no womens.”

Before he could mention any more problems, a border guard approached me and said: “CIA?” The look on his face was very serious.

“Nyet,” I replied. “Ph.D.”

The border guard burst into laughter, and I was off the hook. But if I had been found guilty of stealing local secrets, such as (for instance) whether insects or the wind were responsible for early spring pollination, what could he have done? Send me to Siberia?

Later I decided to hike the several miles from Cape Litke to Cape Uering, where members of the 1914 Karluk research expedition had overwintered. I should say some of them had overwintered. Of the 25 expedition members, 11 died of food poisoning, malnutrition, and hypothermia. If it hadn’t been for Captain Bob Bartlett’s heroic heroic sledge journey back to civilization, all of them would have died.

Half a mile into my hike, I came upon a group of tumbledown wooden huts and an outhouse, perhaps the northernmost structure of its kind in the world. A broken anemometer suggested another Russian scientific station fallen on financial hardship.

Soon I was walking over seemingly endless rolling tundra. Birds were everywhere. Screaming tour-a-wee, tour-a-wee, a female black-bellied plover feigned a broken wing, a maneuver designed to lure me from her nest. Wildflowers were everywhere, too. Blue harebells. Red rose root. Yellow poppies. Bright pink bistorts. Lilac fleabanes. Buttercups. Such an explosion of color gave the lie to the notion that the Arctic is a dull, achromatic place.

And then I reached Cape Uering. Whatever might have survived of the Karluk expedition was gone, either picked up by the Russians or reclaimed by the Arctic itself. The site was now buried beneath a veritable carpet of moss campion, harebells, and purple saxifrage. This pleased me more than any Karluk artifact would have done. But then who would not be more pleased by a small, perfect wildflower vibrating in the wind than by a scrap from an old tent or a rusty tin can?

A living trilobite

Here, at last, is a bog posting set in a bog — specifically, Chickering Bog in Calais, Vermont. Like many so-called bogs, it’s really an intermediate fen, which means that it’s not isolated from ground water like actual bogs are.

Recently, I visited Chickering with my friend Charles Johnson, author of Bogs of the Northeast, and his naturalist wife Nona. As we strolled past buckthorn, golden saxifrage, and bog rosemary, I asked Charles how he became interested in bogs. Nona answered for him, saying, “But how can a person not be interested in bogs?”

Bazzania trilobata

Millipede weed: Bazzania trilobata, by Bob Klips

Soon we were surrounded by pitcher plants, and I bent down and sniffed one. Ah, what a sweet perfumey smell! People who’ve never sniffed a pitcher plant have no idea what they’re missing.

“While humans are a threat to bogs, maybe a bigger threat is dogs,” observed Charles. “They jump in, splash around, and drive out the small amount of oxygen that exists in a bog’s upper layer.”

“That’s why I prefer dogs in satay sauce rather than in a bog,” I said, citing one of my previous bog postings.

Charles and Nona, who loved dogs, understood. A bog (or even an intermediate fen) is a sacred place and should not be defiled.

I needed to answer nature’s call, and rather than defile Chickering with my uric acid, I ventured back into the woods. All at once, in a grove of hemlock, I saw a trilobite! Ancient though it was, the trilobite seemed no less alive than I was. Likewise, it had the distinct odor of sandalwood.

I delighted in the trilobite’s small teeth at the tip of each leaf. I delighted in the way the leaves overlapped each other like shingles on a roof. I even delighted in its resemblance to a millipede, so much so that in some place it’s been called “the millipede weed.”

Okay, I’m being a bit disingenuous here. What I saw was not a marine arthropod, but the liverwort Bazzania trilobata, and I somehow didn’t think “A Living Trilobata” has very much caché as the title for a bog posting. Still, Bazzania trilobata and trilobites are not altogether unlike each other. For liverworts are among the most primitive of all plants, perhaps even the most primitive, and their ancestors were almost contemporaneous with trilobites.

What’s the moral of this little tale? Heed nature’s call, and nature herself might come calling…


thanks to Bob Klips, a fellow admirer of wee green things, for kind permission to use his photo.

Wild dogs I have eaten

With a bog, you can write things that would be banned or at least censored elsewhere. Consider this particular posting. The editors to whom I proposed it some years ago rejected it so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to say that I never ate (perish the thought!) a wild dog (Lycaon pictus), but that my title simply paid homage to Ernest Seton Thompson, the estimable author of Wild Animals I Have Known.

If a sled dog in Greenland has outlived its usefulness, it can be useful again, as cuisine. In fact, the first dog I ever ate was a former Greenland sled dog. The hunter who offered it to me suggested that it was not nearly as good as seal. I had to agree. The meat was tough, stringy, and extremely greasy. It tasted not unlike the way a wet dog smells. Note: As the custom of using sled dogs declines in Greenland, so does the custom of eating them.

On to the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia. If you see a teenage kid walking around with a baseball bat on Pohnpei, he’s not going to Little League practise. Rather, he’s looking for the island’s favorite feast food. Cooked in an umu (underground oven) and served without seasoning, Pohnpeian dog hardly tasted any better to me than Greenlandic dog. But De gustibus non disputandum est! The man seated next to me at the feast ate our entree with such gusto that no doubt he would have devoured Lassie or Rin Tin Tin had the occasion arisen.

In a restaurant on the Chinese island of Macau, I once ate a sweet-and-sour dog curry seasoned with noodles. The curry overwhelmed the meat so much that it tasted like sweet-and-sour ersatz. However, my host told me that the taste was not important. What was important, he said, was that the dish boosted one’s sluggish metabolism. Alas, my metabolism did not receive a spike or even a delicate nudge as a result of my having eaten the dish in question.

By far the best dog I’ve ever eaten was in a restaurant on the Indonesian island of Ambon. The animal had been raised on a “dog farm” as well as fed an exclusive diet of fruit. No kibble! Cooked in satay sauce, it tasted like high quality pork. I liked the dish (dare I call it a gourmet dish?) so much that I returned to the restaurant the following day and ordered it again. Here I might mention that only the island’s non-Muslims ate at this restaurant; for Muslims, dog is a prohibited meat.

How splendid that one person’s meat can be another’s poison! For if there were no differences in taste among different peoples in the world, the Golden Arches would be rising from every street corner instead of every fourth or fifth street corner.