Like convicts, the houses in Pangnirtung have numbers. Addresses are not necessary since the streets are unmarked. House 524 is in uptown Pangnirtung, which is separated from downtown Pangnirtung by the landing strip. The house is very near the main road that runs along the fiord and not far from the edge of town, which makes it a good base for hikes into the countryside. Like all of the others, House 524 is built on pilings and sits several feet up in the air. It is strapped to the ground with steel cables to prevent the Arctic wind, which is compressed and excited by the steep walls of Pangnirtung Fiord, from carrying it off to Kansas. I awoke one night from the roar and bang of the gale outside. Things were flying in the night and hitting the house. For hours the bed shook, and I imagined the house flipping and myself landing under the bed, with an impression of the popcorn ceiling on my face.
The house is very comfortable, recently renovated and minimally furnished. The water is delivered by truck every two days, and the sewage is pumped and the garbage is removed on a similar schedule. Electricity is made by an oil-fired generator in town. The garbage is hauled a mile away, and burned, poorly, every other day, sending up brown smoke which rises a few hundred feet before it is stopped by a thermal barrier and spread laterally over the town. The noise, odors and dust created by these activities keep the fundamental responsibilities of the municipality in plain sight.
The views from House 524 are striking. From the bedroom I can see Pangnirtung Fiord and the entrance to Auyuittuc National Park. It’s a treat to watch the weather and the light move over the mountains. At the moment, the sun makes a continuous ellipse overhead, dipping to, but not under, the horizon. If the top of the world were a bald head, the course of the sun would describe the brim of a hat set at an angle. By 3 AM the morning sun rises high enough to flood the bedroom window with morning light, confounding my internal clock. From the living room I can see the “golf course”. Dozens of kids play late into the night batting balls over the rocky lot. No landscape is more inhospitable to golf than this, but the kids are persistent. From the kitchen I can see the street and my neighbor’s yard. Last week the oil truck delivered a load, but my neighbor was in the process of installing a new oil tank and had unhooked the old one. As a result, six hundred liters of fuel oil spilled into the space between our houses. This is the third oil spill this year in Pangnirtung. Thousands of liters of aviation fuel went directly into the bay because of a valve that was left open. Another large spill was contained by a retaining wall before making it to sea. Pangnirtung is entirely dependent on oil. Heat and power are from oil. Everything, including food, clothing, building materials, and medical supplies, comes by plane or sea lift. Local forms of transportation, trucks, four wheelers and boats all use oil. The remoteness and harshness of the Arctic exposes dependency. An oil shortage would end this settlement very quickly.
With the help of cardboard, plastic and tape, the master suite of House 524 has become a studio, a little dim, but functional. The challenge of establishing living and working spaces has inspired practical ingenuity, an enjoyable frame of mind.