Frozen in Time
Massimo Maggiari, Italian studies professor
Massimo Maggiari took off from Charleston in early March. The College’s spring break was starting. The azaleas were in bloom. It was, he knew, the last time he would be warm for a while.
After landing in Chicago, the Italian professor then boarded three more airplanes. On each successive flight north, the weather outside got colder, the plane got smaller and the ground got whiter. First he landed in Edmonton, Canada. Then on to Yellowknife, the snowy capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Finally, he landed in the village of Gjoa Haven, population 1,064, located above the Arctic Circle. The temperature was -42 degrees Celsius, though the wind chill made it feel closer to -60 degrees.
Can you say Brrrrrrrrrrrrr?
Maggiari will concede that the Arctic Circle is an unusual spring break destination. His motivations for the trip were adventure and the chance to experience part of the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean first traversed in its entirety by Roald Amundsen, one of Maggiari’s heroes. The Norwegian explorer is also credited with making the first verifiable trips to both the South Pole (in 1911) and the North Pole (in 1926), before disappearing in 1928 during a rescue mission in the Barents Sea, north of Norway. As Maggiari writes in his 2004 book of prose and poems, Aurora Borealis:
Among the explorers Amundsen understands best the Arctic culture, the Inuit, the aurora borealis, the miracle of life at the extremities of the Poles. When he discovers the North-West passage he learns of a way of life (and survival) in profound communion with nature. On the island of King William, in the middle of the North-West passage, he spends two winters with Oglouli Inuit and Netchjilli. He learns to hunt at that latitude and respect its seals and walruses; he learns to appreciate the fraternal and mysterious presence of the sled dogs; he learns to resign himself to spend days and days inside the igloos when the long night and the storm linger outside; he learns to navigate by the flux of natural rhythms and abide by them as his Viking ancestors once did. Finally, he learns to scan the stars and wait for the propitious moment.
Maggiari has always been fond of adventurers, including mountaineers. He grew up climbing mountains himself in Italy, and before leaving on his recent trip to the Northwest Passage, he packed like he was heading up the Alps. It was a valiant effort by Maggiari, who had visited the Arctic numerous times in warmer seasons, but this time his preparations proved slightly insufficient for the Arctic cold. Almost immediately after arriving in Gjoa Haven, his Inuit hosts insisted he exchange his clothing for warmer garb preferred by the locals.
“‘You look pretty, but it doesn’t work here,’” Maggiari recalls them saying when he stepped inside a home. “‘Get undressed.’”
Amundsen landed in Gjoa Haven more than a century earlier, in 1903, naming the little harbor settlement after his boat. He spent nearly two years there, learning Arctic travel and survival techniques from the Inuits.
Maggiari sought to do the same on his trip, though he had two weeks instead of two years. He accompanied Inuits on seal-hunting trips, riding on the back of a snowmobile. True to his Italian heritage, he described the journey as feeling like he “was on a Vespa in the Arctic.”
When Maggiari wasn’t looking for seals to potentially harpoon, he learned how to build an igloo (it takes just 45 minutes), ride a dog sled and participate in an Inuit drum circle. The Inuit villagers were not exceedingly warm to him at first, though their hospitality increased the more interest Maggiari exhibited in their culture. He was glad, in fact, that they did not roll out the red carpet upon his arrival to their remote outpost.
“I was getting into their world, instead of bringing my world with me,” he says. “It’s really about meeting people who are very different from us. It really tests how open you can be.”
Indeed, Maggiari describes the Inuits’ hospitality as the most remarkable element of his trip, marveling at their wit, humor and resourcefulness.
“It requires not only equipment to survive in that environment, but the right mental attitude,” says Maggiari, who credits Inuits with incredible resilience, strength and endurance. “In spite of isolation and in spite of the odds, a sense of humor and gratefulness make the Inuits go through it and survive.”
The brutal Arctic weather affects life in a way that those of us who have spent too much time in temperate Charleston can find difficult to imagine. What’s more, the weather made this kind of impression on Maggiari despite his enjoyment of many modern conveniences. When Amundsen lived in Gjoa Haven, he did not benefit from electricity, motorized vehicles and the regular replenishing of supplies courtesy of airplanes. Still, despite such niceties, Maggiari was “cold, cold, cold,” even when taking off a glove for a split second to snap a photo as a keepsake.
“Pictures, movies … everything I took was suffering for me,” he remembers.
When not shivering, Maggiari took time to appreciate the forbidding Arctic environment for its power and isolation. These days, there are few unexplored places on Earth, and few places removed from the reach of civilization. The Arctic, he argues, is an exception, a place “where you can leave everything behind you and open yourself to the world.”
Since returning home to Charleston, Maggiari has resolved to rewrite Aurora Borealis. This time, he will write mostly in prose – and with the benefit of having experienced the amazing landscape that his hero had seen and felt a century earlier. Many accounts of the Arctic, he notes, including Amundsen’s diaries, are rather dry, either filled with scientific observations or written in the style of a logbook. While those texts may be important to some audiences, Maggiari believes that there is an opportunity to enliven Amundsen’s legacy. The Norwegian explorer, he says, is a hero unique for exhibiting courage and endurance in a setting apart from war. Maggiari says his prose will inject imagination and emotion into the Amundsen canon and make heavy use of metaphorical language.
“It is a form of mythmaking,” he says, “and it is needed.”
In his eyes, there are few subjects more deserving of such literary worship than Amundsen and the Inuits: hardy dwellers of the Arctic able to carve out existences that transcend simple survival.
“In a place that’s so hard to survive,” Maggiari says, “if you manage to live, you’ve really got it.”