JR’s Arctic Backpack

Jul 16, 2014 | Blog

JR's Arctic Backpack

When everybody in our household has their own stuff, I think this pack from L.L. Bean's actually belonged to my wife, Gail. But travelling long and hard for this project, I had to travel light and have what I needed at hand, in case my luggage went astray, and this little blue daypack became my carry-on and hold-all for necessities of life (digital recorder, camera, journal, toothbrush, extra layers, etc.) but it also became the place to stitch patches and memento markers that people gave me all along the way, a puffin from Grimsey, a seal from Greenland, a flag from Alaska and lots of other little spots of colour. At some point or other in the journey, every souvenir spent at least some time in this container so it becomes an apt organizer for detailing this little material portrait of my travels.

Skiing Hunter from Kyshik, Khanty-Manisiysk Automous Okrug

This guy, with his wooden rifle, woolen parka, fish skin leggings, leather boots and hand-carved skis made from Siberian black spruce was given to me as a sample of the kind of things they are making in a little provisional craft shop to sell to tourists if/when they ever come to visit. He reminds me of a play put on in the local school where an actor on stage in more or less the same outfit, including the skis, did some pantomime hunting and then pulled out a huge cell phone with a long antenna showing how technologies can blend in the modern era.

Tanned Reindeer Hide Pouch from the Gift Shop in the Sami Museum in Lovozero, on the Kola Peninsula in Northwestern Russia

Exquisitely made with two colours of leather piping, beaded blanket cloth inset and braided cinch cord, this little pouch holds memories of events where Sami leaders in Lovozero, in traditional dress, had similar items tied to their belts or on their persons somewhere.

Beaded Moosehide Gloves from FYU

When in Fort Yukon, Alaska—Gwich'in Country, on the Yukon River right at the Arctic Circle—I asked after local crafts and was told that there was nothing in town but that when I passed back through Fairbanks that there were a couple of shops, one downtown and one out near the airport, where items like these handsome beaver-trimmed, pile-lined handmade moosehide gloves were for sale.

Arctic Circle Matches from the Polarsirkel Sentret at the Arctic Circle in Norway

In Norway, "Arctic Circle" is a brand of merchandise for sale that is marked onto everything from socks and key fobs to high-end woolen goods. Two things make me laugh about these: first, I had to lie to get them onto the plane home, attesting that there was nothing flammable in my bag (I'd forgotten at the time that they were there, so technically it wasn't a wilful statement of mistruth ...); and secondly, like the T-shirt I bought to mark cross the Arctic Circle in Norway, the text on this package was in English only. The only clue that these might have come from somewhere outside North America was the small Norwegian flag on the side of the box.

Birchbark Box from Khanty-Mansiysk

I love this box, partly because it was a present from the President of Yugra State University in Khanty-Mansiysk but also because it is made from the bark of a white birch tree, which reminded me so much of home. The tooling was so formally Russian but the construction technique and the material were so traditional, and so similar to something you might find in Boreal North America.


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