Late on a gray November afternoon Marvin Atqittuq, a newly elected patrol commander in the Arctic community of Gjoa Haven, stood on the frozen sea outside town and called his troops in for a meeting. A frigid wind flicked snow in from the south, and it was about 20 below zero, cold but not that cold for the Arctic. The company of some 20 Inuit men and a few women gathered around with rifles slung over their shoulders, dressed in hand-sewn jackets of caribou hide or pants made of polar bear fur or wearing the usual store-bought stuff, which was far less warm but namuktuk, good enough for now.
Atqittuq (pronounced At-kee-TUK) pulled on a pair of sealskin gloves and outlined the plan for the day. The group was part of the Canadian Rangers, a reserve component of Canada’s armed forces, and Atqittuq would now lead them on his first mission as their commander: a weeklong patrol by snowmobile down the treeless coast of King William Island. There would be GPS training, military-style target practice, search-and-rescue scenarios, and plenty of hunting and ice fishing.
I stood at the edge of the circle, rubbing ice from my eyelashes. It was too cold to take notes, so I watched faces and read the frostbite scars, little badges of honor that told of lives spent outdoors on one of the planet’s most unyielding landscapes. The group soon broke up and began smoking last cigarettes before the long ride into darkness. Atqittuq walked over to ask whether I was warm enough. He was tall, broad shouldered, laughed easily. He’d been a ranger for many years before the others had voted him their new commander. In a friendly way, he warned me not to fall asleep on the journey ahead.