“Siku: Life on the Ice”
By Paul Souders; Inhabit Media, 2022; 72 pages; $29.95.
I’ve never set foot on sea ice, but thanks to Dominic Pingushat of Arviat, in Nunavut, Canada, I have a sense of what it feels like. “You can walk on sea ice without falling, although it will be moving like flexible plastic,” Pingushat tells us, explaining that the surface below one’s feet “moves like a wave when you walk on it, like a large plastic fabric.”
Pingushat’s words are found in one of the numerous thumbnail essays accompanying a short but beautiful collection of photographs of Arctic sea ice by Paul Souders in the book “Siku: Life on the Ice.” The images reveal a world of remarkable color, of ice illuminated by the sun, the moon, the sky and the sea. The brief stories accompanying these pictures come from people who have walked on that ice, driven snow machines, hauled sleds, hunted upon it, and sometimes encountered mishaps. For the Inuit who are Indigenous to the region, the seemingly alien frozen seascape that Souders captures so vividly is home.
It can be a treacherous place to set foot, as the experiences of several of the writers make clear. It’s a risk documented by Souders with a photo taken on a floe that appears to rise just a few feet above the ocean’s surface. In the foreground, a polynya, an open water hole, is a reminder of how quickly one can vanish on this surface. The tenuous nature of sea ice is visible in this image.
Seen through Souders’ lens, these Arctic waters become an enticing realm. He captures the interplay of light and ice, and of sky and often frozen sea in intriguing and gorgeous ways. It’s not a world of endless white expanses and dull skies. Color abounds.
In one image, chunks of ice, softly carved by the ocean, float serenely on calm waters while the low-lying sun, which sits outside of the frame, casts light on the underside of clouds in a partly overcast sky, creating deep shades of maroon. In another, choppy waves lick the edge of a massive sheet rising from the sea, all of it casting a glimmering golden reflection of the faraway star that illuminates our planet. In yet another, an oddly shaped remnant of ice, reminiscent of some prehistoric sea monster, is caught floating in the stillness of dawn, or perhaps twilight, with countless shades of blue and pink stretching across the sky and reflecting off the surface of the water so seamlessly that the horizon is impossible to pinpoint.
“Even when sea ice is as thin as about half an inch, it is safe to walk on,” Pingushat assures us at one point. Perhaps we’ll just take his word for it, knowing what lies beneath this frozen skin on the ocean’s surface. He has, after all, gone through it himself, as he recalls elsewhere, advising readers to “fall forward and roll over” should they find themselves in a similarly dire situation.
Falling through is hardly the only danger. The ice, after all, is not steadfast. “When hunting at the floe edge,” Brian Koonoo tells us, “always be on the lookout: watch a piece of ice near the land to see if you are moving.” People can be taken away by suddenly moving floes. It’s discussed elsewhere in the book as well.
For this and other reasons, the Inuit activist and author Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes the ice as a “university” in her introduction, one that teaches skills applicable both to subsistence food gathering and to getting by in the larger world. “The ice is our life force,” she writes, “and we as Inuit are reliant on it for our mobility and transportation. We travel the icy highways to get to our hunting and fishing grounds to bring back our ‘organic’ healthy food.” That ice is melting due to global climate change, she writes, “creating issues of safety and security for our way of life as Inuit.”
Watt-Cloutier points out that the ice is also critical to the planet’s health. Preserving it isn’t simply a human rights issue for the Indigenous peoples in the North, although she makes clear her belief that this is paramount. It’s a survival issue for all of us. The ice cools the planet. And as it continues to melt, weather across the globe grows increasingly and more violently erratic as a result. “I have often said,” she concludes, “the future of the Inuit is tied to the future of the rest of the world.”
For now, the ice that once seemed so timeless remains, even if there’s far less of it than existed even a decade ago. Souders brings a stunning sense of its diversity and its sometimes surreal nature to his photographs. Arches massive and small repeatedly draw his attention, and when the circumstances make it possible, they are used to frame either the sun or the moon as they wander across the Arctic skies. Naturally sculpted ice is carved into seemingly impossible forms that undoubtedly collapsed not long after he passed through with his camera. The constant flux of these icy monuments is visible in many of these images.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition in how this book is arranged. Humans are fully absent from the photographs, yet their stories are found alongside nearly every image. It subtly illustrates a point made by Watt-Cloutier that the world is more aware of the Arctic’s wilds and wildlife than of its residents. Yet their accounts of what has happened to them on the ice, accounts that often include moments of danger, illustrate how more is being lost than the ice itself. A way of life is threatened.
For now, some of that ice remains, however, and Souders’ photographs capture its beauty, its texture, its continual evolution, and its sometimes towering majesty. That such a world exists is wondrous in itself. “Siku: Life on the Ice” brings that world and its inhabitants into our homes, and asks us to care about saving it.