Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge: Issue 34 (2018)

Arctic Circlings: A Nomadology

Dianne Chisholm

I first crossed the Arctic Circle on foot in mid-summer 2010. My partner and I flew from Ottawa to Pangnirtung, then boated to the head of Pangnirtung Fjord and trekked an hour up Akshayak Pass in Auyuittuk National Park before stumbling past a stone cairn marking 66̊33' N. We entered this precisely drawn, abstract Arctic with no particular effort or attention. Much more remarkable was our boat trip up the fjord, where pack ice engulfed our boat, forcing Josee Alivakuk to gaff our way through the floes, and where a pack of red-throated loons swarmed us as we disembarked. Even our flights from Ottawa to Iqaluit, and from Iqaluit to Pang, involved perceptible thresholds, visible from the air, as we crossed over Ontario’s urban-agricultural grid onto roadless, treeless, lake-pocked Barren Grounds and ice-choked sounds and bays. We stepped off the plane and instantly, a vast, bracing, mountain-ringed, glacier-gouged Pangnirtung Fjord transported us into immeasurable space-time. Inuktitut filled the air with greetings, opening our Anglophone hearing to new ways of listening. Akshayak Pass propelled us further across such rousing territories as midnight sunlight, ice fog valleys, running glaciers, labyrinthine meltwaters, slumping moraines and bogging tundras - global warming’s intensifying arctic fronts.

I have since crossed the Arctic Circle many times and often to the same places with a desire to experience their differences. My travels thus constitute circlings as much as crossings. A nomad of sorts, I find myself moving about and around lands that most move me. Arctic lands especially capture and mobilize, even rob me of, my senses. They draw me outside certainty and self and they call for repeat exploration, reorientation. Part of their draw derives from my living in Edmonton, Canada’s northernmost city, which is north enough to feel the pull of the Aurora Borealis even as it remains geopolitically south. From Edmonton, I’ve launched various round trips to Iceland (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018), including a road trip around the Ring Road, to northern Norway and Svalbard (2014, 2015, 2016), to the Yukon and Northwest Territories (2016, 2017) and to Antarctica, that arctic of the far south (2016). Many of these trips have been self-guided, two-person, wilderness treks that began and ended in small Inuit settlements and engaged local outfitters along the way. Academic engagements with Tromsø University facilitated my visits to Norway, while a network of fellow-travelers helped me secure a gig as guest photographer aboard an Antarctic cruise. Repeat travels to these places and communities occasion my involvement in a growing and evolving ecology of transcultural connections.

If I circle arctic territories, the Arctic Circle per se does not map my travels as it does, say, for travel writer James Raffan. Raffan uses the 66°N parallel to delineate his recent three-year tracking of circumpolar culture and change. Starting and ending in Iceland, he proceeds eastward and visits communities as proximal to the latitude as possible. I take a very different course, turning and returning to the land and to the people of the land who teach me to relinquish predetermined aims and routes and to go with the flow of weather and geography, while rethinking my sense of place and grounding in the world. Arctic for me has come to mean that which undoes the definite and definable, and the planned and predictable. It is less an empirically fixable location than an ongoing, immersing and transforming event of place. It is closely, if not inherently, related to Sila, an Inuit idea that thinks together such things as land, weather, climate, breath and spirit, as well as their interrelated processes, behaviors and moods. Sila conceives of “the land” as having a mind of its own, just as Silatuniq conceives of “wisdom” as that which comes from learning through exposure and moving with the weather, while allying human understanding with Nature thought. In going to the Arctic, I go arctic and I become other than who I am in the inescapably urban south. Metropolitan boundaries, borders and proprieties leave me longing for silamorphic, shape-shifting climes and evolving, adaptive practices. Arctic circlings are initiations in nomadic becoming and belonging.

This article features galleries of images and texts that I think of as arctic exposures. The galleries track relays through various terrains, and they use photographs and poetic prose to frame sensations of emerging perception. Gallery titles end in “ing” to cue movements of place-borne thinking-feeling and to accent an intensive immersion in climactic surroundings (e.g. “Wildering,” “Floeing,” “Blueing,” “Confluencing”). Readers might regard these photo-prose-poems less as representations of actual terrains than as existential territories in their own right, territories whose inherent power of vision transforms raw subjective experiences into illuminating, outward-looking landscapes. Readers can enter these landscapes and accompany “we,” the beholding, lyrical subject, in circling, sensing and becoming. “We” is a variable, perceptual persona who desires and projects a “life” of involving-evolving entanglements or a “creative involution” of affections and relations. Apart from we who did the actual traveling, “we” invokes virtual fellow traveler-seers.

. . .

Enter these landscapes freely. Their minimal mapping and missing chronology will do little to fix your location. Lose yourselves. Go arctic. Nomadic. Feel your way across shifting milieus, acclimate to changing rhythms and moods, discern interweaving threads of connection, and pursue chance lines of flight. See how a cosmos, in multiple variations and vicissitudes, is composing.


  1. My travel partners include friends Katherine Binhammer (from Edmonton), Daphne Read (Edmonton), Karen MacArthur (Lamont, Alberta), Cathrine Bjerknes (Tromsø, Norway), Max Audibert and Chiho Audibert (Diilerilaaq, East Greenland); guides Kylik Kisoun Taylor and Gerry Kisoun (Inuvik, Northwest Territories); and hunters Tobias Ignatiusson (Tasiilaq, East Greenland) and Gerti Ignatiusson (Diilerilaaq/Tasiilaq).
  2. Anka Ryall, Sigfrid Kjeldaas (University of Tromsø) and Lisa Bloom (UC Berkeley) enabled my academic excursions to Norway; professional adventurers, Maria Cashin, Sunniva Sorby and Brandon Harvey promoted my gig with Polar Latitudes®.
  3. James Raffan, Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.
  4. My thinking about Sila owes much to Jaypeetee Arnakak, an interpreter, editor and translator of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit [Inuit traditional knowledge], and a policy advisor for the Nunavut Government. I draw especially from his interpretations as cited in Timothy B. Leduc, Climate, Culture, Change: Inuit and Western Dialogues with a Warming North (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010): 19-20, 27-32.

Cite this Essay