15 Jul, 2009 A Brush With History

So there we were sitting at the table and enjoying our coffee when the pilot walked in. Carl and I were still thinking of our river crossing and glad to be back when we said “good morning” to him. This must be the flight to Fort Conger we had heard about. I had hoped that there might be a possibility of getting out to this historic site during this trip. However, I had put that out of my mind earlier once I was informed that this flight wouldn’t be coming back to Tanquary. Fort Conger is an amazing link to past arctic research and exploration, with 3 wooden buildings and loads of artifacts on the land since the 1880’s. That was when Greely set up camp for his research and arctic expedition interests, but built the cabins without consideration for the extreme High Arctic conditions. He and his men abandoned them when supplies didn’t come in, and headed south to try and escape. It didn’t go well, and most of them perished. Later, Peary came by with Inuit from Greenland and rebuilt cabins marrying together European and Inuit skills, and it is remnants of this construction that still stand. I’m no historian, but being up here makes me want to read more about this fascinating story.

Oh well, you can’t do everything on a trip like this, and I have been extremely fortunate to see what I’ve already seen. But then my ears perked up. Did I hear that correctly? The plane HAS to come back to Tanquary to fuel up? Well, well. With a spark of hope renewed, I carefully and quietly asked the pilot how his load was looking. Before you know it, Carl and I were rushing like mad to get our stuff together for the plane that was leaving in 25 minutes, with us aboard. It would only be on the ground there for 2 hours at most, but what an opportunity! We’d been up since 3:30am, but we weren’t tired anymore.

A little while later, we landed on the very short and bumpy airstrip and stepped out to a view of the the icy ocean, with Greenland in the distance. After taking it in, we put it in high gear. Part of our very short time would be eaten up with a 15 minute hike to get to the site each way. That would leave less than an hour an a half, and I was hoping to start a painting, and explore the place. I knew it would be a long shot, as it sometimes takes me many hours if not days to settle on a scene. To my eye, the light needs to be married to a composition, and I like to view options until I am certain of my choice. But hey, it would be worth a try.

I hiked fast, trying to look at the changing scene without tripping, and zig-zagging up and down the bluff from different vantage points. Then it happened. While looking across the bay half way there, it struck me. This was it. I was standing on a small point of land jutting away from shore, the light was right, the old cabins sat perched at a perfect angle, and the blue white of the floating ice chunks contrasted against the earthy tones of the land. To me, history and landscape had met. I pulled out my easel and set up a 12” x 9” linen covered panel and dove in. To my surprise, the piece began to pull together quickly. I stopped to photograph a Red Throated Loon that swam past me, and checked my watch. Not much time left. I left the easel and ran up to the site to join Carl who was filming there. I tried to soak it in; what it must have been like in the winter in such basic shelters. I did a sketch of them. I perused the old stove, tin cans, old bed frames and myriad of other items that take one back in time. And then it was time to go before the keeping the plane waiting, and the others it was there to pick up. We began the run back over lumpy, ankle twisting ground. OK, it was more of a alternative jog and fast walk. Part way back, we veered toward the shoreline so I could break down my easel and painting gear that I had left set up. As Carl had been filming some of me painting earlier, I asked him if he had got a shot from that angle. The easel looked quite nice sitting atop the little island with the mountains in the background. Then it hit us: ISLAND!!! It wasn’t an island when we left! I ran ahead and jumped over the water to find the easel partially submerged. The tide! I had totally forgot about that. It was rising visibly, and as my little island shrunk, I packed away my stuff, and tossed them one at a time to Carl who was on the “mainland”. Through the air went my wet backpack, my paint box, my camera until at last I jumped back through the water myself.

We made it back to the plane exhausted from the rush, but laughing at the same time. As Fort Conger disappeared in the distance, I counted my blessings for this crazy little whirlwind brush with history, and my most productive two hours of the trip so far.

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