At 9:00am, we rose groggily to an inky black sky. Carrying headlamps and flashlights, we set out across the blizzard-smoothed snow towards the Hydroelectric company’s camp. Thankfully, the winds had died down and the windchill was somewhat manageable.
We reached the camp in good time, the walk was no more than 10 minutes. We stepped under the yellow caution tape that surrounded the settlement. It had been broken and replaced many times, as evidenced by the layers of frayed tape tied around the nearby rocks. Standing among the company’s metal buildings, we could hear the gurgle of the river echoing around their aluminum walls. The lights were out inside every building except one. As we approached it, we heard the muffled sound of men’s voices. One of the male journalists volunteered to knock on the door. As he did (quite politely) the voices inside halted. He knocked again, and a call came from inside. “Who the fuck is that?” The journalist shrugged at me, and I stepped up to the door to shout back. “We’re a University research team from British Colombia. We were told you would be expecting our visit.”
“Thank fuck.” Said another voice beyond the door. “Right, hang on.” The flimsy building shook as heavy footfalls approached the door. A flap in the middle of the door opened, and a pair of squinting eyes appeared. “How many of you are there?”
“Five.” The eyes darted between us, counting and confirming our number. “Okay, good”. The door swung open. A heavily-bearded white man of about forty ushered us across the threshold. Five other men sat around a fold-out table in various forms of nighttime apparel. A water-cooler gurgled in the corner, and two tired-looking couches lined the far wall. They had been playing a game of cards, and several other board games were strewn about the room. Two radios were stacked on top of each other in the middle of the table, supporting a leaning tower of empty tin coffee mugs. After we had gotten acquainted with the men, we asked if we could begin our interview by speaking with them one-on-one. They agreed, and we set up our cameras and audio equipment to face the furthest couch. We moved the metal table against the opposite wall to maximize the distance between our interview and their card game. The man who volunteered to go first had introduced himself as ‘Rob’. Though we filmed the entire interview, the journalists announced that the video had come out extremely distorted and unusable. I have made transcripts of the audio recording to share instead:
(INT= interviewer, ROB= Rob)
*INT= How long have you been out here?
*ROB= Fuck if I know- shit, can I swear on camera?
*INT= Feel free.
*ROB= I came up in July, but it feels like it’s been years. Days don’t mean anything here, time gets fucky.
*INT= When will you be going home?
*ROB= I don’t have a home. I have an ex girlfriend and a dog, that’s it. Dunno when I’ll be going back to them. I’ll have a fat chunk of money waiting for me though.
*INT= You get paid well to stay here?
*ROB= The pay is unreal. Absolutely unreal. Not that it’s unearned though. No question, it’s earned.
*ROB= Really, It’s not like we work hard. We don’t really work at all, we’re here as placeholders making sure [hydro company] keeps its hold on the area. We’re like occupying forces in an enemy country, that’s how the locals treat us. Bloody eskimos. If we didn’t have to deal with them so often, I wouldn’t say the pay is earned at all. But we do, and it is. The shit we put up with from those people, honestly we should be getting paid even more.
*INT= What kinds of things do they do?
*ROB= Hell, what don’t they do? Kids come around, banging on the side of the building. They used to throw our gear in the river, now we keep it inside. It’s fucking hilarious to them. Middle of the night, they’re out there laughing their faces off, running around, smashing our walls, some of them get up onto the roof and stomp around for hours.
*INT= How do they get onto the roof?
*ROB= Better question is how they get off it. Couple times I’ve whipped open the door, ready to go ape-shit and scare the crap out of them. They’re off the roof and out of sight before I even get out a good shout.
*INT= How do you know it’s children on the roof?
*ROB= We can hear them fucking giggling. Sounds like a goddamn playground out there sometimes. And the footprints. Sometimes there’s hundreds made by their little boots.
*INT= What is your experience with the adults?
*ROB= I’m sure there around sometimes too. When we first started this project, our company had a lot of peace talks with their ‘elders’ or whatever. Showed them the benefit of building this facility. Showed them they would get better internet and a reliable source of electricity that doesn’t cut out every bloody week. And jobs, they can work with us and we’d pay them. As far as I can tell none of them have jobs. All their money comes from the government, you should see the lineup outside the co-op on welfare-day. Spend it all on fucking overpriced cigarettes. I had to quit smoking- that co-op sells them at thirty bucks a pack.
*INT= Were you involved in the peace talks at all?
*ROB= No. All those guys went home except Steph. When [hydro company] realized they’d be in for the long-haul, they hired a bunch of new guys to take over the camp. No point in keeping pricy surveyors in this shithole if there’s nothing to survey.
*INT= Why do you think [hydro company] wants this river so badly?
*ROB= Doesn’t freeze. River never freezes. Couple environmental chemists up here a while back tested the water, they think some kinda mineral is keeping it liquid. Current is strong too, lots of energy to be harvested. A strong, wide river that doesn’t freeze- that’s prime territory.
*INT= Why do you think the inuit care so much about protecting it?
*ROB= Me personally? I think they’re just stubborn. Don’t understand how much it’ll benefit them if we develop it.
I wrapped up the interview shortly after that, and called on the next worker- the man who had opened the door for us. After realizing that none of our video would be useful, we decided to record audio only. The man shook my hands and told me his name was Stephan. He told me he was in charge of the current ‘occupation’, and that he’d been on site much longer than the others. I snapped a picture of him for our records. The interview went as follows;
(INT= Interviewer, ST= Stephan)
*INT= You say you’ve been here the longest. How long has it been?
*ST= Almost a year now.
*INT= When do you get to go home?
*ST= I don’t know. I submitted a return-request about a month ago. I haven’t heard back.
*INT= How often do you communicate with [Hydro company]?
*ST= Used to speak with them all the time. We had satellite phones. Slowly all those went missing. The inuit kids throw them in the river I think. Now we just have the one. We communicate with one fellow in the village via walkie-talkie though, you probably met him, he’s a Red-Cross worker.
*INT= He’s taking care of our accommodations. He was the one who told you we’d be coming?
*ST= He was. He relays messages to HQ for us too sometimes. He bought me a phone card from the co-op so I could get in touch to send my return-request.
*INT= When was your last correspondence?
*ST= That was the last time we talked with him. I’m still waiting to hear back from HQ. When are you guys flying out?
*INT= In ten days.
*ST= Think I could hitch a ride?
*INT= If there’s room, of course you can.
*ST= Good. Cool. Thanks.
*INT= I have a few more questions. Why do you think the river is so important to the local inuit?
*ST= I have a few theories, but I’d prefer to discuss them another time.
*INT= I understand. Why do you think the river is so important to [hydro company]?
*ST= I have a few theories on that as well. I’ll discuss those now. The river never freezes- at least, the middle part doesn’t. The explanation we’ve been given is that there are certain rare minerals in the water that prevent icing. I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s what’s at the bottom of the river that’s causing all the fuss. I think there’s something down there that’s keeping the water warm enough to stay liquid. A fissure or chasm that runs a lot deeper than any of us suspects.
*INT= What gives you that idea?
*ST= I used my brain; tied a thermometer to a rock and lowered it into the water. Water’s too warm to freeze. Simple as that. All this crap about minerals, it’s just that. Crap. They must know it too, because this river’s been undergoing tests for half a decade.
*INT= Rob told us that there were some environmental chemists around a while ago who were testing for minerals.
*ST= They weren’t testing for minerals.
*INT= What were they testing for?
*ST= I think we should discuss it later.
Stephen ended the interview with a nod to the others around the card table. I got the impression that he would be more willing to answer my questions if they were out of earshot. I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. He tapped a third man on the shoulder and offered to play on his behalf while he was being interviewed. The man passed him his cards and meandered over to our couch. I asked him to introduce himself to the tape recorder. The following is the transcript of this third interview. (INT= Interviewer, RN= Randy)
*RN= My name is Randy [Last Name], I work for [Hydro company] as a property security guard.
*INT= As a security guard, do you perform different duties than the other representatives?
*RN= No. No, we’re all property security guards. Steph is technically an ambassador for the company, but we all do the same things.
*INT= What are your daily duties?
*RN= When I first arrived, there was always something that needed to be done. Lots of picture taking. Keeping watch outside. Guarding. Not really anymore. We don’t go outside very much anymore. Day to day we try to keep ourselves busy. We’re all pretty lonely. Pretty bored.
*INT= Stephen informed us that you haven’t been in contact with [Hydro company] for some time. Are you running low on supplies?
*RN= I don’t like to think about it. We probably are. Supplies are delivered once every few months on a cargo ship that anchors in the bay on the other side of the village. The locals intercepted our last shipment. It arrived without the chlorine pellets that our water-purification system uses to make the river water drinkable. We got boxed food, but the canned goods had been taken. We’re probably running out of fruit and meat.
*INT= Does that worry you?
*RN= Honestly, no. We have a satellite phone and a radio, we can send a distress signal at any time. If our next shipment doesn’t come, which I’m sure it will, we can just call for help. Plus, the Red-Cross fellow can always help us if we get really screwed. Or we can surrender to the locals. They want us gone more than anything, they’d help us leave in a heart beat.
*INT= Tell me about your experience with the Inuit.
*RN= They…I don’t know. I have two experiences with them. In person, they seem like really nice people. When I first got here, relations were a bit warmer between us. The lady at the co-op was really nice to me, and the children were really friendly. At night though, I don’t know. It’s like they’re different people.
*INT= How so?
*RN= Honestly, they might actually be different people. I never see the ones that come at night, but we can tell from the footprints that they’re mostly kids. They come banging on the walls, throwing stones at the buildings, sometimes they get up on the roof.
*INT= Rob was mentioning that.
*RN= Yeah it drives him crazy. Literally crazy, sometimes he will stand at the doorway and shout threats into the darkness. The rest of us try to ignore it. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore. A few months ago it sounded like the whole village was out there. Get this- I think they were playing in the river.
*INT= Was that about two months ago?
*RN= Yeah, around there. We heard children laughing all night, splashing sounds too. Like they were swimming in the river. In the morning, hundreds of footsteps lined the river bank. Some barefoot. One of them forgot a parka. The windchill is -40c, how do you forget a parka?
*INT= Did you see any of them?
*RN= Nope. Night was too dark. Couldn’t see a thing.
*INT= What did the parka look like?
*RN= Smelled like vomit, honestly. Black, Men’s, well-used.
I wanted to ask some more questions, but our audio guy warned me that the recording had stopped. Randy returned to the card game while we sorted out what was going on with our equipment. I read over my notes, and scrawled some questions that I would ask the next villagers we interviewed. I checked the time; it was almost noon and the sky was still black as night. Apparently ‘noon’ didn’t really mean much. While the two equipment operators on my team fiddled with the gear, my fellow anthropologist and the third journalist sat around the table with me and the five workers. Rob, Stephan, Randy, and the other two men who we learned were named Brent and Travis. They told us the sun would be up for a few hours around 3:00pm. We wanted to check out the river when it was light enough out, but no one was willing to accompany us. We played cards with them for almost an hour, and the last game finished just as our operators got the equipment working again. I still aimed to interview Brent and Travis, but I had a feeling that they would answer my questions more honestly if their co-workers couldn’t hear them. I wanted to re-interview Stephan as well. Instead, I sat on the couch beside our other anthropologist and discussed our findings with her in front of the camera. The journalists planned on assembling footage from the trip into an amateur documentary, and wanted to include clips that showed our investigative process. “Recording. Oh good, the picture’s clear.” After the prompt, I counted out three seconds before I started to speak. “From what I’ve gathered, there’s something about the river that we aren’t being told. We’ve learned from Elder Nanuk that the river ‘takes’ their dead. We’ve learned from [Hydro company] representative Stephan [last name] that the river is too warm to freeze. For whatever reason, the company is keeping this information private. Thoughts?” I turned to the other anthropologist, who paused to think before answering. “What I find most interesting is that the children come down here so often at night. We’ve met several dozen children from the village, though none of them had anything to say about playing here at the worker’s camp. Young children don’t keep secrets very well, I recommend that we interview as many of them as we can, and see if we can piece together an understanding. We should focus less on the actual qualities of the river, and more on its perceived qualities.” She was certainly thinking like an anthropologist, and embarrassingly, I was not. I was thinking like a detective. I had grown less interested in the political geography of the river and surrounding territory, and more interested in the river itself. I paused for a while before speaking again. “I agree. Our next step should be to interview the children of the village. Elder Nanuk mentioned that her son had moved to another township. We should investigate that as well, it’s possible the children who have been antagonizing these workers are coming from the next town over.” From off-camera, one of the journalists chimed in. “First lets get some footage of the river. Pictures too, if we can. We wanted to do that today while it’s light out, right? We can interview the children later tonight.”
The other anthropologist bit her lip. “Honestly, I don’t know if we should go to the river. At least not yet. I don’t want to jeopardize our relationship with the inuit.”
“I think it will be fine, as long as we don’t drink from it or touch it. No one has said anything against going down to take a look.” The journalist called, again from off-camera. I was curious about the river too; I voiced my support. Reluctantly, the anthropologist agreed and we concluded the recording. I snapped some pictures my team, and Stephan volunteered to take a group shot. I returned the favour and the workers huddled together, holding their empty tin coffee mugs in salute as I snapped a photograph. We played another round of cards and slowly the sky began to blue. Four games later, the sky was as light as it would get. We bundled ourselves up, clipped on our gear, and thanked the workers for their time, promising to return the next morning to conduct follow up interviews. We stepped out into the cold with the metal door shut behind us and a white expanse stretched ahead of us.
I have detailed records of our time at the river, as well as our interviews with the Inuit children. I want to keep those together though, so I will post them in Part three to avoid making this part excessively long.