Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World

St. Martin's Press



It took five years of planning and fifty-six days of sailing for British privateer Martin Frobisher to “discover” Baffin Island in the Arctic in 1576. Propelled by jet fuel in a Boeing 737, it took me twelve hours to skip over 23 degrees in latitude and arrive in the very same place 440 years later. My view from the plane window over the town of Iqaluit was of impenetrable white clouds that hung so low the wheels of the plane were nearly touching the tarmac before I caught sight of the airport. A fortress of yellow Lego blocks, it is the busiest airport in the Inuit territory of Nunavut in the eastern Canadian Arctic, which adds up to approximately a hundred thousand passengers each year, about half the number JFK receives in a single day. We disembarked down a metal flight of stairs to a freezing wind blowing wet snow into our faces. Inside, near the single baggage carousel, I watched as families waited for giant coolers of frozen food and provisions that they’d purchased in Ottawa to come off the plane. I had been warned in advance of Iqaluit’s food prices: $20 orange juice and tomato sauce worth its weight in gold. I struggled to lift my own duffel bag crammed with dried fruit, jerky, and boxes of soup; swung it over my shoulder; and shook hands in the lobby with Rick Armstrong, a thirty-five-year resident of the Arctic and director of the Nunavut Research Institute. Armstrong had kindly offered to put me up in his spare bedroom. I threw my bags in the back of his pickup truck and we set off across town.

Sitting in the crux of a massive bay near the mouth of a river, Iqaluit was once a traditional starting point for inland caribou hunting, a place where people would have begun a fifty- or sixty-mile summer trek over rocky tundra, their dogs loaded with meat and supplies, to reach migratory herds. Today the caribou herds are fewer and Iqaluit is full of trucks and cars even though the longest route from one end of town to the other, Armstrong told me, only takes twenty minutes to drive. Most of the roads are dirt, and few have names. People describe where they live by the numbers on their houses, given in the order of construction, since the town was first permanently settled in 1942.

Frobisher had sailed to the Arctic in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, but he didn’t have much aptitude for ship navigation and called himself a “poor disciple” of its arts. His training before departing consisted of a six-week crash course from the English alchemist and mathematician John Dee, who also served as the queen’s astrologer. Dee envisioned an apocalyptic new world order of English Protestantism in which the queen was King Arthur incarnate and he was Merlin, her wizard advisor endowed with magical powers, overseeing a British Empire.

With Dee’s help, Frobisher bought every newfangled piece of navigational technology available in the sixteenth-century marketplace: twenty compasses and mysterious objects with names like the “Hemispherium,” “Holometrum Geometric,” and “Annulus Astronomicus.” Dee taught him to use a parabola compass that measured the magnetic variation from true north, and a wooden instrument called a Balistella that could measure the altitude of the sun or North Star to establish a ship’s latitude, how far north or south it was. When it came to longitude, the east-west range of the ship, Frobisher had to rely on dead reckoning, calculating one’s position by estimating the direction and distance traveled, as it would be another two centuries before an English clockmaker solved the puzzle of establishing longitude at sea. To assist in this calculation, Frobisher’s manifest included eighteen “hower” glasses that could measure time: sailors threw a log attached to a line from the ship and used the glasses to measure the time it took for the ship to pass the log, giving them an estimate of speed that would then be used to estimate the distance the ship had traveled and its east-west position. Last, on Dee’s advice, Frobisher bought Gerardus Mercator’s map of the globe produced in 1569, the first to dissect space into rhumb lines, constant-bearing sailing routes projected onto the plane of the map.

I had come to the Arctic because the landscape has hardly changed in the past four hundred years, or in the thousand years before that. It is one of the last roadless places on earth. Just a few hundred yards outside of town there are no houses, lights, cars, railroads, signage, or cell towers, just ice, snow, rocks, and combinations of these elements in jutting and cascading variations. Most of the common navigation skills that will get you by anywhere else are nearly useless in this environment. GPS only lasts as long as a battery, and it can guilelessly lead you along treacherous routes, across faulty sea ice, or into bad weather. The magnetic field tries to pull compass needles downward. Even natural cues are fickle. The stars disappear in summer. In winter, the sun rises in the south and sets in the north. Polaris is a trustless companion for a traveler; above the Arctic Circle, you are north. Landmarks change appearance from season to season as snow gathers or ice melts.

And yet, for thousands of years the Inuit have thrived in the Arctic as intrepid travelers and hunters. What mysteries of navigation allowed them to accomplish this? “When adventure does not come to him, the Eskimo goes in search of it,” wrote the twentieth-century anthropologist and writer Jean Malaurie in The Last Kings of Thule. Malaurie described the first encounters between Europeans like Frobisher and the Inuit as meetings between a “so-called advanced civilization” and an “anarcho-communist society.” But it was also an encounter between two very different ways of experiencing space—between those interested in claiming ownership over it for the state and those seeking to know it. The Inuit survived the extreme environment by becoming intimately familiar with its geography. They traveled on foot, dogsled, and kayak, visiting hunting and camping places according to the season in the same fashion as their ancestors who migrated to the Arctic from the Bering Strait. Movement and the knowledge it created was necessary for survival, a dramatic endeavor in a place of complex, extreme, and fluctuating conditions.

The arctic archaeologist Max Friesen has said that the early inhabitants of the Arctic, who likely arrived around 3200 BCE, probably had a life unlike any other ethnographic group till then with “extremely high mobility levels and active exploration of previously unknown areas.” By 2800 BCE, these Paleoeskimos had reached the central Arctic, and within a few hundred more years, northern Greenland. They traveled by foot and kayak but covered vast areas to hunt sea mammals, musk ox, and caribou with harpoons and bow and arrows. Around 1000 BCE, they were joined by the Neoeskimos, also called the Thule, who searched for bowhead whales and metal, built large skin boats, and used teams of dogs to pull sleds. They not only shared the Paleoeskimos’ capacity for moving across huge distances, they superseded them: while the Paleoeskimos migrated across the Arctic over several centuries, Friesen believes that some Thule people, direct ancestors of the Inuit, may have crossed it in a single generation.

I have been told that one can still find Thule tent circles (rocks used to anchor tents made of animal skins on the tundra), old weirs in rivers used to catch fish, and stone cairns for pointing to or caching meat and fish. Some campsites were used for so many centuries that they had their own smell that hunters could detect and follow like a trail to find their way. The thread connecting previous generations to the living is in the landscape. “Even burial grounds and the things they left behind bring back memories,” described Leo Ussak of the Kudlulik Peninsula. “A qallunaat [white person] would feel the same way if he or she were to see an old cabin of an ancestor—that is why qallunaat have got their museums down south. This is how the Inuit feel when they go out hunting and see the things that our ancestors left behind.”

Incredibly, instances of epic migrations by the direct ancestors of the Thule continued into the modern era. The last known migration, from Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island to Etah in Greenland, took place in 1863 and was documented by the Inuit-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen. The journey covered islands, fjords, and open ocean and was led by a shaman named Qitdlarssuaq, who most likely had heard about other Inuit living across the sea from visiting whalers. Qitdlarssuaq became entranced by this knowledge, sent his soul traveling to look for these Inuit, and confirmed their existence. He then convinced thirty-eight men and women to go on a journey with him. They took ten sleds loaded with hunting tools, kayaks, tents, and skin clothes and set off. Each time they encountered an obstacle, Qitdlarssuaq sent his soul in the air to get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and find the best route forward. It took six years of constant traveling before they reached Etah and met the Inuit of northern Greenland, where they shared tools and intermarried. It was the remaining members of this expedition and their children that Rasmussen met in Greenland on his own epic travels fifty years later.

On my first evening in Iqaluit I bundled up and wandered the southern end of town, threading my way through packs of kids throwing snowballs and riding bikes. Most houses had a snowmobile or three parked out front, as well as a qamutiik, an open sled traditionally pulled by dog teams, nowadays built with plywood and hard plastic runners. I made my way to a road at the edge of the bay and followed it round a bend to the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre, where a festival celebrating Canadian films was underway. People helped themselves to juice boxes and plastic cups brimming with popcorn, and I sat on the floor in front of a taxidermied walrus to watch the movies, including one written and directed by a young woman, Nyla Innuksuk, from the Chesterfield Inlet, a community of around three hundred people on the western coast of Hudson Bay. Innuksuk’s film is based on an old Inuit ghost story, retold in modern horror film fashion. A young man goes hunting on the land and makes a camp near an abandoned iglu, breaking a taboo. In retaliation, a murderous spirit kills his dog and then comes for him. The suspenseful, bloody climax sent shrieks of fear and delight through the audience.

When I left the visitor center it was nine thirty at night, and a vivid blue light, still luminous enough to see by, had been cast over Iqaluit. I walked back by way of an old graveyard at the edge of town and stopped to look at dozens of wooden crosses sticking out of the frozen ground. On the hillside to the west of me I could see the headlights of snowmobiles driven by teenagers racing up and down the steep face of hard snow. Beyond was the expanse of sea ice leading out to the bay where Frobisher had first made landfall, and across from me was the massive Meta Incognita Peninsula, Latin for “unknown limits,” named by Queen Elizabeth and still emblazoned on both atlases and Google Maps. My thoughts turned to the finale of Innuksuk’s film. “The land does not change,” the narrator said. “You have beautiful things now but you should not depend on them. If you lost them tomorrow, could you live on the land? Could you hunt?”

Copyright © 2019 by M. R. O’Connor.