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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Fearsome Face of the Arctic

There were just seven of us marooned on that small, rocky island northwest of Loks Land. We had landed there in stormy seas to set up a temporary electronic positioning device to assist our charting of the region. All was well. Until our mother ship, the CGS Baffin, lying offshore a couple of miles, had a medical emergency aboard and had to steam off south at full speed towards Frobisher.

It was no panic, for us, though. We had plenty of food and shelter.

And for a few days things went smoothly.

We had plenty to do. We erected the 100-foot-high transmitting mast, put up the equipment shed and the communal living shed and laid down the copper-wire ground mat. Then the weather eased off a little. Everything seemed fine.

That was when the fearsome entity suddenly appeared — and when that awful thing happened to poor old Harry Harland. Though it is fifty one years ago the memory of poor Harry’s nerve-racking experience probably still haunts any of we seven who may still be alive today.

Especially the one among us chosen by fate to be the stricken victim. For strong and valiant as Harry Harland was before this dreadful occurrence, it left its terrible mark on him.

Harry was our electronics expert, universally popular and efficient, and the ideal companion to have in such a solitary, quasi-marooned situation. Cheerful, resourceful, and with an everlasting pack of hilarious yarns, Harry lightened up considerably the bleak prospects that filled our horizons at that time. Yet it was this most confident, resourceful, cheerful and outgoing of men who was soon to undergo an experience which would reduce him to a blubbering, twitchy, ashen-faced wreck for days.

It could have happened to any of us, we realized later. But, unfortunately for Harry, it was he who, that particular very early morning, was to wake up while we others were all deep in sleep, and walk, all alone, the few hundred feet over the rocks to the small hollow which we had designated as our toilet area.

Squatting in the traditional manner of outdoorsmen everywhere, Harry tried to shelter his exposed nether regions from the cool Arctic breezes. Secure in his sense of privacy by the knowledge that his six companions were still fast asleep in their sleeping bags in the hut some distance away, and that the remote Arctic island we were on was barren of vegetation and devoid of other humans. Harry was innocently occupied in the most placid but vulnerable of human situations.

Then Harry looked up to the edge of the hollow in which he was squatting. And then it was that Harry saw the heart-stopping, ghastly apparition.

For there, only a few feet away, looking down at him from between two large boulders was a terrible, fearsome, soul-searing, staring face.

As Harry was to describe it later, the evil nightmarish face was neither white nor brown, clean-shaven nor hairy, human nor beast. And, said Harry, it was the eyes! Strange, staring eyes of intense colour and power that bored right through him and pierced the very core of his tender, exposed and unprotected being. For some few seconds Harry squatted transfixed. Then as the fear of the unknown supernatural flooded his primeval subconscious, Harry jumped up in confusion, girded his loins as best he could and lurched, stumbling and calling out wildly, back to the safety of the hut.

Harry's cries of alarm awoke the rest of us. We were at the doorway as Harry came stumbling over the rough ground in disarray of clothing and senses. Finally, trembling, he managed to tell us of the apparition. Then with his attire arranged back into fair order Harry was finally persuaded to nervously come with us. Back to that terrible place. Our seven pairs of apprehensive eyes scanned the area. We saw nothing. We scouted around the area thoroughly. There was nothing. We questioned Harry. Was he sure he'd actually seen this fearful face? Was he really awake at the time? Had it been a nightmare? Harry was adamant.

Trembling, he vowed he had seen it.

Slowly our day resumed its normal course. Breakfast was prepared and eaten. Work got underway. Other necessary visits to the hollow in the rocks had to be made, fraught with trepidation and much looking over of shoulders. All seemed normal. There was no sign of Harry's terrible apparition.

Later, with our work for the day about completed and the northern sun still shining brightly, we decided to carry out another search. We spread out in a wide circle and closed in on the dread hollow.

And there it was. An Arctic fox.

A little Arctic fox between moultings. Between moulting of winter white and summer brown and with grey splotches and patches of dark and light set in a most peculiar fashion.

Especially over its wild, hairy-tufted, face.

After its initial shyness, the little fox became very tame. We fed it fat from the large ham we had hanging up in the shed. Its eyes were bright with inquisitiveness and wonder. It had surely never before in its whole lonely life seen a single human being. And the first one it did see was Harry. Squatting down among the rocks. Engaged in a strange solitary ritual. And at this amazing sight the little fox’s eyes had stared wildly. Probably, as never before.

And, wide open in wonder, they had fixated

— on poor, Harry Harland.

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