I wouldn’t intentionally head to the Arctic with nothing but a pair of cotton leggings, a denim shirt and ankle socks tucked under low boots. Even for August—when you live on the edge of the tail-end of summer and a nose-dive into the fall—it’s a risky move. Which is why I didn’t do it.
I packed a wool sweater, a hoodie, a windbreaker and down vest. Several pairs of wool socks, a hat and mitts were also stuffed into my tightly packed luggage, among dry food, fresh fruit, coffee and clean underwear. But as I boarded the plane to Ulukhaktok, NWT, an isolated community on the west coast of Victoria Island, they stayed put in Yellowknife—lost somewhere between the conveyer belt at the ticket counter and the empty stretch of tarmac from which my plane had just departed.
I arrived alone in a community where a bright blue, tie-dyed hoodie adorned with a muskox runs you about $85. (I bought one. I was freezing.) After spending a few hours on the pebbled shore of Queen's Bay chatting with people and fumbling with my recorder and notebook as I gradually lost feeling in my fingers, I also bought a thin pair of gloves. It doesn’t take long in 5 C weather, with a cool breeze blowing in off the Arctic Ocean for your digits to turn a disconcerting white.
But this wasn’t my first rodeo without clothes.
A couple of years ago I flew up to Inuvik, NWT to work at the local newspaper. I packed conscientiously to spend December and January above the Arctic Circle. I had everything you could possibly need and a lot of it—long underwear, mittens, mittens to wear under my mittens and even a wool blanket strapped to the side of my bag. Unfortunately, when I boarded the plane, bound first for Norman Wells, NWT and then on to Inuvik, my tall green backpack went across the territorial border to Iqaluit, where it spent some time before taking another flight back over to Yellowknife. It took about a week to get to me.
I was left with a pair of cotton leggings (I get it: wear real pants), low boots, one zip-up hoodie and a T-shirt I’d picked up at a friend’s house concert the night before I flew out. I like to think he gained a few more fans in Inuvik considering I wore his name proudly for a week straight—to work, to interviews, out hiking and to the bar. Luckily, I had laundry. The parka I’d taken with me on the plane was a lifesaver. Not that it absolved the embarrassment of never changing my clothes, but it’s really cold in Inuvik in December. Like, really cold.
Who’d have thought, same goes for Ulukhaktok in the fall. But there’s no use spoiling a trip with complaints about lost luggage. There’s a lesson to be learned: pack your carry-on as if it’s all you have because, in my experience, it just might be. Bring a hat and mitts, bring warm socks and a spare pair of underwear. Better yet, board that flight as if you’re going to step out onto the tarmac into the next Ice Age. You can always take off a few layers.
I’m sure many people who fly in the North are happily united with their luggage every time they land. And maybe one day that will be me.
But it can always be worse.
As I sat down for a warm cup of coffee at the Arctic Char Inn, Ulukhaktok’s hotel and restaurant, and noticed the bare legs of a fellow patron—socks pulled up optimistically high—I couldn’t help but ask.
“It’s in Kugluktuk.”