Tragedy and Glory in the Arctic

arcticI had the good fortune to be able to live in Barrow, Alaska, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Every spring “leads” (open water) would open up on the pack ice near shore, and whaling crews would take to their small boats and go out to hunt bowhead whales. Word would always go out on CB radio the moment a crew caught a whale, and many people would show up to help pull the whale in. One year somebody caught one in a lead close to town, and lots of folks who ordinarily wouldn’t have come out had the chance to help. The whaling crew rigged two block and tackles, and people lined up on either rope, pulling heartily.

I took my place in one of the lines. It was hard work and we made scarcely any progress. After a while I decided to go home to get my camera, so I hitched a lift on the back of a friend’s fourwheeler. While at home I heard a helicopter overhead. I rode back out to the whale and discovered a tragedy: one of the ropes had broken, and the heavy wooden block had crashed into the line of people, killing two women. The helicopter I had heard was the search-and-rescue chopper come to take one of the bodies away. I saw it, wrapped in a blue tarp, lying on the ice.

Most of the townspeople left. For some reason I stayed and helped pull some more (the whale, having been killed, couldn’t be abandoned). Around one o’clock in the morning I decided to call it quits and headed back to town with two close friends, walking on the ice. I will never forget that night. It was the Arctic springtime, when the sun never sets. Instead it sinks low toward the northern horizon, spilling its golden light across the ice and sea. The surface of the ice was beginning to melt in the warmer spring air, leaving pools of water that reflected the sunlight. Gulls circled overhead. It was silent.

Side by side that night were placed great glory and bitter tragedy. This is life in the world we live in. We are, I believe, called to make a choice—we can either give in to death, or we can choose to seek life, the glorious and the true. Choose life, and while you’re at it, paint with broad strokes. Go to Alaska, join the Church, love your neighbor. For, if we are victorious, we are promised glory itself as our inheritance: the uncreated Glory that awaited us in silence from before the world was new.