Kes Woodward - Commentary on the Richmond Gulf paintings

In the summer of 1993 I made a weeklong kayak trip to a place called Richmond Gulf, in eastern Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic. Richmond Gulf is a 25 mile long by 23 mile wide body of water connected to the main body of Hudson Bay by a narrow, 4 mile long channel which is only about 300 yards wide at its narrowest point. Tides pour in and out through that narrow channel, raising and lowering the water of the Gulf twice each day.

I travelled with a friend with whom I have made several trips to the Canadian Arctic and Subarctic. We drove about 1500 miles north from his home in New Hampshire to the end of the road in Northern Quebec, and then flew several hundred miles further north to Umiujaq, an Inuit (Eskimo) village of about 200 people on the coast of Hudson Bay. There we assembled a two-person Klepper kayak, loaded a week's supply of gear in the kayak all around us, and paddled off down the coast for two days to the "Goulet" -- the entrance to the Gulf. It was an unsettling trip through this narrow passage between walls of rock rising as much as 1400 feet directly from the water, as we were forced back and forth from one side to the other by tide rips and spent some time holed up in a nook in the rocks while we waited for the flow of water to subside on the change in tides. After exploring some of the southern end of the Gulf, we passed back through the Goulet (this time an uneventful, and spectacularly beautiful trip borne along by the ebbing tide), and paddled back up the coast to Umiujaq.

It's hard to describe my reactions to Richmond Gulf and this part of Hudson Bay. Spectacularly beautiful, it was the emptiest and spookiest place I have ever been. We were north of the treeline, so the land consisted mostly of rocks and tundra, and we encountered no people once we left the village, but these are not unfamiliar phenomena to me after living in Alaska for 18 years. What was strange to me was the emptiness of the place. We would paddle all day and see a handful of gulls and a loon. It was as if all living things had gone away. The water was clear and pristine, but as we paddled across tidal areas that in Alaska would be teeming with marine life, we saw unbroken expanses of sand on the bottom. Hudson Bay is cold, relatively shallow, and relatively unproductive of fish and other marine life, and the alone-ness that we experienced throughout this trip made it clear just what a hard land this is. We saw a few seals, two pods of white beluga whales, and a few dozen birds in the course of a week.

Evidence of the former presence of other things, by contrast, was all around us. Wolf and bear tracks on the beaches, caribou antlers shed the previous winter, and various sun-bleached animal skulls and bones made it clear that larger land animals were around at times, but we did not see them, nor did we see any of the small land mammals I have come to expect to find in evidence everywhere on the Arctic tundra. And though we encountered no Inuit once we left the village, everywhere we camped we found the stone circles which had held down the tents of their forebears when they, too, had travelled by kayak. One of the great joys of voyaging by kayak is that you choose the same places to make landfall and camp that other, more ancient kayakers chose, and in the spot into which we struggled at dark in the Goulet, we camped near the remains of a virtual city of old semi-subterranean houses of Inuit who had obviously found the same area a good stopping place when they, too, had entered the Gulf by kayak many years ago.

It was a spooky, but beautiful, magical, and wonderful place. As is my custom, I did not sit and paint or make drawings, but wandered around looking and thinking, and making circles and other geometric arrangements of rocks colored by lichens or various minerals, which I left in place from the shores of small coves to the tops of high cliffs. Since the trip, I've reflected on the experience and my feelings about being in that place, and finally this winter I was able to begin to put on canvas some images that I hope capture some of its remote, stark beauty and the powerful memory of having had the privilege of being there.]