Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Fine Summer's Day on Loks Land

A Visit to a Magical World

Two or more hours had passed since the discordant clattering of the departing helicopter’s rotor blades had faded away, By now it would have long been back aboard the hydrographic research vessel, twenty or thirty miles away to the north, by Monumental Island. Now, not even the slightest echo of its presence remained. All vibrations from the rest of the world were totally silenced by distance. Silenced by a stillness so profound the whole universe was stilled.
All I observed and contemplated was completely still and silent. Completely. As never before. I was totally alone in a warm, silent, seemingly magical world. As truly and utterly alone as one can hope to ever be.
Alone on the highest point of an elevated rocky island landscape, Loks Land. Surrounded by a calm blue sea, under calm clear blue skies. Sharply-defined horizons to the north, east and south, cut the world into two equal halves, one above the other, while to the northwest were the craggy shores of Frobisher Bay.
For a while, after completing my detailed observations of horizontal angles and carefully packing the theodolite back into its cushioned box, I lazily meandered about in the bright sunshine. Then I sat down atop one of the largest slab-sided rocks of which the whole area was composed.
Sitting there, I daydreamed of the great Elizabethan explorer and navigator, Sir Martin Frobisher, who was reported to have landed where I now was seated lost in reverie. Frobisher, one of those Englishmen who, taken with the adventure of discovery and exploration had been among the first to build the foundations for what hundreds of years later would become part of the Imperial British Empire.
Suddenly the overwhelming and awesome possibility occurred to me that Frobisher himself might well have sat on the very same rock I was presently occupying. Frobisher, a sometime shipmate of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the one who first brought tobacco to England from America, might well have sat and smoked his own clay pipe, in quiet contemplation, three hundred and eighty years before the day I was doing the exact same thing.
Because, the height of land I was on during that perfectly cloudless and windless day, back in 1958, was that of Loks Land. The Arctic island where Frobisher, in the service of Queen Elizabeth the First, had landed in 1576 to look for gold and seek an entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage to China.
There, on Loks Land, completely isolated except perhaps for Sir Martin Frobisher’s ghost, I felt wonderfully apart from the common mortal coil and as if wafted away to my own private retreat. My own private world. I looked around at the sea horizon a score of miles distant on three sides, gazed more than twice and thrice that distance to far off mountains to the northwest, and gave thanks that, for a brief time, I was as free from the modern world as were the two rough-legged hawks lazily and silently soaring above me.
And so I dreamed away for an hour or two, thinking how that expedition by old-time Elizabethan explorers led by Martin Frobisher had ventured to these very parts during a period when a thirteen-year-old William Shakespeare was just stirring into literary life in Stratford-on-Avon.
I marvelled at how with three small ships, the heaviest being of only 25 tons (only a quarter of the tonnage of the survey vessel El Ghar which I had commanded out in southern Iraq between 1947 and 1952 during the last few years of the vestiges of the British Colonial Mandate) and in wooden vessels only half the size of a large Arab dhow—that it was in such very small ships as those, that Frobisher had faced the storms of the North Atlantic and the ice fields of Baffin Bay. A voyage of discovery which only ended in taking just a lamentable find of fool’s black gold, back to England and Queen Elizabeth. The Good Queen Bess—an ambitious queen greedy for wealth and empire—had at once outfitted him with sixteen more ships. She sent him back by royal command to find more riches from the icebound Arctic waters and then to discover and chart the northwest passage and so give England first access to the fabled treasures of the orient.
Upon his next return to England, after his every questing probe being blocked by a bewildering mosaic of massive land masses and with his samples of precious minerals from his previous voyage now sadly proven to be worthless, the Queen came close to sending him to imprisonment in the Tower of London. But instead the Queen wisely knighted him and sent him off to help Sir Walter Raleigh fight the Spanish and relieve them of their plundered Aztec gold.
It was the beginning of the English era of exciting, swashbuckling buccaneering, plundering and lethal harassment that would eventually lead to the powerful Spanish forces being supplanted by the growing vigour of the embryo British Empire.
In 1590, two years after playing a major part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and while William Shakespeare was busy writing his first plays, Sir Martin died during a sea battle.

Today, in 2009, as I now write on my computer, another half century has passed since I sat in such splendid solitude upon my rock atop the 200-square-mile island named by Martin Frobisher after Michael Lok, one of his London business partners. Back then, in 1958, 380 years after Frobisher’s visit, while sitting there, I studied the piled up sedimentary rocks around me. Nearly all were roughly slab-shaped, some as big as filing cabinets some the size of suitcases. Others smaller and most all a dull grey in colour. They certainly were all bereft of the glister of gold.
No doubt these elevated, massive, loose-rock deposits were geological evidence of ancient seas, glaciers and land uplifting. But otherwise they were unremarkable to my untrained eyes.
Then suddenly and excitedly I realized that the cracks between those scattered slabs of rock might possibly yield up some tangible sign to tell of Martin Frobisher’s long-ago visits to this forbidding but fascinating land. Surely Frobisher and his men would have made their way to this topmost height of the land—right to the very spot where I was now sitting. The very nature of exploration calls for gaining as much elevation as possible to survey the way ahead or the territory around. So I mused, did one of them without noticing, drop or lose some object of clothing, a small item of navigation equipment. or some other long lost thing. Just something. Anything. Even the most modest Elizabethan artefact whatsoever would have been of intense interest these several centuries later. Certainly there was a good chance of finding pieces of the ubiquitous clay pipes the explorers of later Tudor times would have smoked. For, beginning in the later part of the sixteenth century, clay pipes were so cheap and plentiful to produce that after half a dozen fills of pure Virginian tobacco they were invariably broken or just thrown away. As is proven by the diggings at many former three-and-four-hundred-year-old tavern sites in Britain. Many of them are layered copiously with such rubble.
So half a century ago, with the high-riding sun of midsummer shining down from a clear blue sky, I hopefully peered down into the dark cracks and deep spaces between the rocks and boulders. For an hour or more I searched. But, alas, I saw nothing.
Nothing. Not even the smallest shard from a clay pipe, thrown away by a resting explorer. Nothing at all. I was disappointed. Maybe neither Frobisher or any of his men had smoked clay pipes. Maybe the island was covered by dense fog for the days they were here. Probably they had never climbed up to the hilltop I was upon. Perhaps Martin Frobisher had climbed some other nearby peak, another one almost as high as the 1,300-foot viewpoint I myself had chosen to land upon.
So I found nothing. Nothing that is except that I did discover a teeming population of Loklanders. Down below in the nether regions below my feet. And all busily engaged in industry and movement. For there in the spaces between the rocks were myriads of spiders. Myriads upon myriads. How sorry I am now that I failed to gather some specimens to take back to the entomologists in Ottawa.

And then, to keep me company on that high point of Loks Land, along came a little round-eared Arctic fox. Comically, he was still adorned with some patches of winter white and transitional yellow on his mostly brown coat. Cautiously, but increasingly trustful and with innocent curiosity and quizzical bright eyes he peered at me from over the top of nearby rocks. Slowly he came closer, amazingly unafraid, intent on his first ever encounter of the first kind with the strange animal he must obviously have considered me to be.
With great care in order not to frighten him away I made a few deliberate, slow and small movements of my head and hands. After two or three small retreats he stood his ground. Then I arose quietly from my rock and made the act of moving to another as deliberate and gentle as possible. After some minutes, again in very slow motion and keeping my eyes averted from him, I opened one of my ever-present cans of sardines. I then put a sardine on one of the ‘Lifeboat Biscuits’, the other staple food item I always carried for my lunch when away from the ship. I placed the biscuit and its sardine on a rock about twenty feet away, then returned to my own rock, sat down again, and waited.
Within minutes that little fox had his nose next to the biscuit and at once he was firmly hooked. With his first-ever taste of an olive-oil-soaked sardine on top of a biscuit he was ensnared. So, for the next twenty minutes we shared lunch together. Sardine-on-biscuit and sardine-on-biscuit about. One for him, one for me. By number nine he was within five feet of my rock and I was five feet from him. And Martin Frobisher’s ghost, if it had ever been there, melted away in the brilliant sunshine as the little fox danced with lively intricate steps between and over the rocks of fabled Loks Land. A bewitchingly silent scene amid a deep stillness. A silence so intense, that time, for a brief period, stood absolutely still.
And so absolutely quiet and still, for me, as it had never been before.
Or has been since.

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