COLUMN ONE : Providing Northern Exposure : At ‘the high temple of Arctic adventure,’ your guide to the North Pole is . . . an Indian Tamil. Meet this self-sufficient Milton Friedman in mukluks.
Bezal Jesudason keeps his table set for 15, here on remote Cornwallis Island high in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. He never knows who may be dropping in for dinner.
There were the New Agers from Winnipeg, on their way by sledge to the magnetic North Pole, where they hoped to beget a super-baby.
There was the Japanese film crew making a movie called “Antarctica”; because they were at the wrong end of the globe, they had to use stuffed penguins as props.
There was the moon-walking astronaut Neil Armstrong, who spent the afternoon building an igloo outside Jesudason’s door, intent on spending the night in it.
And there was the physics professor from Hong Kong who wanted to do tai chi exercises at the magnetic North Pole, to see whether his arms generated an electrical current as they passed through the Earth’s magnetic field.
All of these, and several hundred Arctic aficionados more or less like them, have traveled to this forbidding outpost near the top of the world because they grasp one of the reigning incongruities of northern life: If you want help traveling in the high Arctic, you can’t do better than to buy it from a 51-year-old Indian from Madras, a sweltering 13 degrees of latitude off the Equator.
Jesudason, a Tamil, and his 44-year-old Canadian wife, Terry, are the proprietors of High Arctic International Explorer Services, a 10-room guest house and outfitting concern in Resolute. Their mom-and-pop business has cornered the market on North Pole expeditions.
And not only that: In a part of Canada where virtually everything is subsidized by the federal government, from airlifted apples to loan-guaranteed zinc mines, the Jesudasons have carved out their improbable niche with no help from the public finances.
On the contrary, Jesudason, who believes government interference in the north is crushing the region’s indigenous spirit, comes across as a kind of Milton Friedman in mukluks, bubbling over with parables about the bumblings of Big Brother.
“I’ve been fighting with the government since Day One,” he says. “One of my guests, from Scotland, told me, ‘Bezal, you’re the only guy I know who makes Margaret Thatcher look like a Communist.’ I took it as a compliment, actually. I think people should be free to do what they want.”
Bezal Jesudason (pronounced Bay-zuhl Jay-zoo-dah-sun) has himself been to the geographic North Pole half a dozen times, touching down on the ice cap in a skiplane. He has helped 16 surface expeditions conquer the Pole on their own, renting them gear and native guides and tracking their progress by radio.
He keeps a striped barber pole stashed in his garage for use as a flown-in photographic prop; he finds people want something in their North Pole photos besides the wall-to-wall sameness of snow and ice.
Each year, Jesudason helps still other Arctic travelers get to the magnetic North Pole, which is a great deal more accessible and can be reached in a few days by snowmobile. He says he doesn’t miss India’s hot weather at all: “Actually, I cannot stand the heat anymore.”
In any given year, Jesudason and his wife accommodate about 300 travelers--about double the population of Resolute.
To better serve his clientele, he has learned to speak fluent Japanese, German, Inuktitut and a little Danish and Dutch--as well as English and the five languages of the Indian subcontinent that he already knew when he arrived in Canada.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has called his wooden house, appointed as it is with caribou antlers and whale jawbones, “the high temple of Arctic adventure.”
How is it that an immigrant from the subtropical state of Tamil Nadu has come to thrive--physically, emotionally and economically--in this icy, impoverished realm of 24-hour-a-day winter darkness?
“We have an old saying in Tamil, ‘Learn to live like a raven,’ ” Jesudason says. “I never used to know what it meant, but now I’ve seen ravens in Madras, and I’ve seen ravens on Ward Hunt Island (the most northerly island in the Canadian Arctic and the jumping-off point for most North Pole expeditions). I have seen that the raven is the only bird that lives anywhere in the world. Now I know what it means to be adaptable.”
When Jesudason left India at 23, armed with degrees in chemistry and physics, he went first to Germany for graduate work in mechanical engineering. He then took some Indian emigre friends up on their suggestion that he come to Canada for the scenery.
To pay his way, he found a job tooling up tractors and diesel engines in Toronto, where he made friends with his fellow repairmen. He liked the city and planned to stay. Then some of his shop mates suddenly announced they were moving to the Arctic in pursuit of better pay.
“When they left, I felt very lonely,” Jesudason recalls. “So I wrote, very halfheartedly, to the (government) department I knew they had written to. Three days later, I had an answer, despite the terrible Canadian postal service.”
Jesudason comes from a conservative Christian family; his first name translates as “in God’s shadow” and his surname as “beloved Jesus.”
From his perspective, the quick postal turnaround and the immediate job offer it brought could only be a divine message that it was his mission to travel north.
Jesudason’s presence in Resolute might, indeed, be looked upon as a bit of divine providence: He has attracted wealth to an otherwise barren island, created jobs for 10 local guides and set an inspiring example for other northerners who might otherwise slip into the welfare system’s crushing embrace.
Back in 1969, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs first offered the reluctant Jesudason a job maintaining heavy equipment in the Baffin Island town of Frobisher Bay, now called Iqaluit. Off he flew to the north, so ignorant of Arctic conditions that he didn’t even know the terrain was treeless.
Soon after his arrival, the department embarked on a decentralization program, sending technicians like Jesudason to tiny hamlets scattered across the Arctic islands.
In these isolated villages, Jesudason met Inuit (as the Eskimos prefer to be called) who spoke no English but were happy to teach him their language and their customs in exchange for instruction in the art of snowmobile maintenance.
As the Victorian British who colonized his homeland would have put it, Jesudason “went native.” Before long, appreciative Inuit were taking him along with them on hunting forays for seals, whales, narwhals and walrus.
Jesudason believes his background gave him an edge in learning Inuit ways.
“I think it gives me a different outlook on life, coming from India,” he says.
“We have long, extended families in India. The Inuit are somewhat like that. I can understand their thinking.”
They have accepted Jesudason. The Inuit of Resolute have elected him to their hamlet council 11 years running.
“I eat all the Inuit food. That’s why they like me,” he figures. “Not that I like everything, but I’ve tried it all. Frozen raw seal tastes OK to me, because it melts in your mouth. But (fresh) raw seal meat tastes like fish.”
In one Arctic hamlet, the beautiful, mountain-rimmed Grise Fiord, Jesudason met his wife-to-be, Teresa Di Pasquale.
A onetime teacher from British Columbia, she had come north at age 22 because she didn’t approve of the once-common practice of punishing Inuit children who spoke their ancestral language, Inuktitut, in the white-run schools. She had organized and financed an Inuktitut-English kindergarten in Grise Fiord. (It was a pioneering gesture. Today, Inuit children are educated solely in Inuktitut through third grade.)
The two were married in the Grise Fiord hamlet hall. Soon after, Jesudason was posted to Resolute, a village of about 150 named after a British naval vessel that wintered nearby in 1850. But Jesudason didn’t forget his friends back in Grise Fiord. He would travel with the Resolute Inuit to visit them, about 250 miles by dog sled, hunting and fishing along the way.
He shot home movies as he went, and when he would show them to the occasional visiting southern friend, Jesudason invariably drew gasps of envy.
The scenery in the eastern Canadian Arctic is magnificent and surprisingly varied, with saw-toothed mountains, undulating alluvial plains and brilliant turquoise meltwater lakes. And the Inuit’s ancient, overland, nomadic ways are normally all but invisible to the typical tourist, who arrives and leaves by bush plane.
“People would say: ‘Oh, I’d like to do that. Can you set something up?”’ says Terry Jesudason. The repeat queries got the Jesudasons thinking about going into business for themselves.
But Arctic tourism is an extremely tough business nut to crack. Trips to the far north are a logistic nightmare. Arctic weather is unpredictable; whiteouts can make flying impossible even at the height of summer. And travel by bush plane is a necessity because there are no roads. Yet charters are costly, as is southern-style food, which must be flown in.
Riskier yet is the business of outfitting North Pole expeditions: With man-eating polar bears on the prowl, shifting sea ice underfoot and temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, the slightest error can be fatal.
So the Jesudasons didn’t take their plunge into the private sector until the government pushed them. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs announced that it was regrouping and that Jesudason would have to move back to Iqaluit, where the population by now had grown to 3,500. But after 10 years in Arctic hamlets, it seemed like a metropolis to Jesudason. He didn’t want to go.
So he crunched some numbers and calculated what it would cost to heat and light a private guest house in Resolute: the Canadian equivalent of about $1,700 per month. He concluded that if he took just 12 people each year by dog sled to Grise Fiord, he could cover those costs.
But how to get the guest house? In the Canadian Arctic, practically all shelter is provided by the federal government at tremendous subsidies. And after 10 years as a cog in the bureaucracy, Jesudason had turned so staunchly anti-government that he didn’t want any handout.
Then, in answer to his prayers, he and Terry found a couple of junked, government-provided houses--vintage 1962--out at a dump.
Resolute officials had been planning to use them to train firefighters. The Jesudasons staked claim to them for about $4,000, hauled them back into the village, grudgingly leased land, grudgingly took out the government-mandated expedition insurance policy and hammered their new guest house together.
The Jesudasons refurbished the houses with flush toilets, wood paneling, a washing machine, potted plants, a satellite dish for television and expedition navigation and pile carpeting.
The abandoned shells became the first tourist guest house in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Total start-up costs: about $26,000.
“We have no nest egg; everything that we’ve got is here,” Jesudason says with a wave at his rooms hung with maps and photos of polar bears, musk oxen and sled dogs.
Jesudason’s busy season starts in February; North Pole expeditioneers need to make their treks before May, when the Arctic sea ice starts to crack open.
Once the North Polers leave, the less-serious adventurers come: people who want merely to fish for the salmonlike Arctic char in frigid lakes, ride on dog sleds and pitch tents on the tundra.
From September to January, when the 24-hour darkness is setting in and nobody comes, the Jesudasons head off cabin fever by tending their equipment and catching up on their voluminous correspondence.
“We meet very interesting people,” says Jesudason, who says that about half the people who have engaged his services have stayed in touch.
Take the Japanese filmmakers: “Antarctica” was a smash in Japan, Jesudason says.
The Japanese producers have since begun work on another film set in the Arctic--on the up and up this time.
The Hong Kong physicist also hit pay dirt. He spent 24 hours at the magnetic North Pole, and sensitive instruments on his arms picked up tiny surges of electricity when he did his tai chi.
And Neil Armstrong lasted the whole night in his igloo, even though Jesudason left a door open for him, just in case the first man on the moon got cold.
But the ditsy Winnipeggers, alas, never got their super-baby. The couple left on a round-the-world trip instead.
“We can call them crazy, but (such Arctic adventurers) can turn around and say that we’re crazy,” Jesudason says.
“They could say that punching in at 9, and punching out at 5, that’s not living.”
On Top of the World
Bezal Jesudason, an immigrant from the subtropical city of Madras, India, helps expeditions conquer the North Pole. Based in Resolute, Canada, he has come to thrive in the icy, impoverished realm of 24-hour-a-day winter darkness.