Fifty years later I can still hear it. A church bell, and the purest sound I have ever heard. It didn’t bring about spiritual or religious conversion, although its source was the steeple of a tiny and very distant Arctic church and angels themselves could not produce anything sweeter or more pure.
In the midwinter of 1970, I was covering a series of visits by government officials across the central and high Arctic, one of those unending “consultation tours” which were not consultation at all, but rather, here’s-what-we-have-decided-will-be good-for you-because-it’s-good-for-us-style community briefings.
Were it not for the bell, there would be no recollection of the story.
The temperature was minus 40 or colder.
I would later learn from Inuk wise man Abe Okpik that long before Mr. Celsius or Mr. Fahrenheit, Inuit measured the cold by the sounds under their feet.
We can all do that. There is the crunchy cold when it’s a bit below freezing and the snow crunches sometimes quite loudly as you walk or run. Below that, there are varying levels of “squeaky cold,” when your footsteps produce a high-pitched squeak as your toes bend in the final motion through the step.
At minus 40 and colder the squeak is at its highest and shortest.
In spite of the squeaky cold, that evening begged for a walk, under waves of magnificent northern lights and stars.
On this evening in Holman, now Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island on the western high Arctic coastline of the Northwest Territories, the sound under my feet was so high pitched it was like little mice.
The difference between photojournalists and radio reporters is simple. When photojournalists go for a walk they usually carry a camera. In the 1960s and early 70s, when this radio reporter went for a walk, he left the 30-pound tape recorder behind.
I had walked about a kilometre from the community when I wished I had taken that old bulky machine. In the clear night, I could see the lights of the tiny houses, a schoolhouse and other buildings and most clearly the lights from the old runway that passed by the village, so close that it often doubled as the main street.
Then, in the middle of this stillness, an old church bell rang and I stopped breathing for a few seconds.
It rang again and again. It was an ancient sound that seeped right into my body and soul.
Who was ringing the bell and why? Perhaps it was the parish priest, or a man or woman, dressed for the extreme cold, standing beneath the glorious brass bell, with fur mitts wrapped around a frozen rope pulling down slowly and perhaps purposefully.
There was no pattern. Sometimes a single ring and a long silence as though to allow time for it find its way to the far heavens and reverberate among the northern lights. Other times a series of two and three chimes to add rhythm to the spectacular dancing columns of blue, green, yellow and red Arctic aurora that seemed to be trying to touch and taste the driven snow.
If it was a special occasion, I didn’t know. Certainly, had there been a death in the village, we would have known and postponed or cancelled our meetings.
I like to think that whoever it was simply heard the snow beneath his or her sealskin kamiks and thought, “It’s a good night for the church bell.”
Across this world, there are cities with great symphonies and the most gifted performers and musicians. In Canada of course, we have the bells on the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill; the Carillon can take a nation’s breath away with its splendor.
Maybe someday, somehow on a clear winter’s night, when the aurora are at their brightest and there’s nary a breath of breeze, a few of those people from some of those distant places will have the chance to stand at the edge of Ulukhaktok in the very high Arctic when it is minus 40 and hear the purest and sweetest sound.
Or if that promise of a hereafter so common in all the world’s religions comes to pass, may the others soar to the cold edge of heaven and listen and marvel at a single bell from a distant and tiny place far beneath the northern lights.
Maybe that’s how I will get to hear it again.