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The Atoll

Published in 'The Lutheran' - January 2009

Autumn colours on Atoll island on Whitefish Lake, Upper Thelon River, NWT / photo by Tundra Tom

"Lead thou me to the rock that is higher than I; for thou art my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy."

Ps 61:2b-3 RSV

We awoke in the July-morning duskiness to the hollow-bone rattling of the lashings against the heavy canvas of the tent. The wind, unencumbered by the specious tundra, howled ferociously as if to warn us fishermen of potentially calamitous seas on our island-dotted 100-mile long lake, locked in permafrost. The weather front had passed during the night, converting a tranquil evening into a clamorous awakening that promised a day of lee-shore fishing and reluctant lake trout. Those of us familiar with the fickle tundra weather resolutely dressed warmly and headed for breakfast before boating into the tempest. Disguised for the moment were the spiritual insights that surprisingly emerged later as a sequel to the bluster of this morning.

I consider the tundra a holy place, unlike any other area in the world, where the leafing of miniature plant growth each summer on two inches of melted permafrost is seemingly miraculous. Although called “the Barrens”, the tundra is vibrant with fauna flowing as a rich midsummer green carpet to the horizon, supporting thousands of grazing caribou, Arctic oxen, marauding wolves, and grizzly bears, many of which are not readily seen until the fall migration. The lakes teem with northern pike, lake trout, and grayling, the back bays providing havens for nesting waterfowl. Located above the tree line in the Northwest Territories of Canada and extending to the Arctic Ocean, this fabled land of the Inuit people, wild animals, trappers, and explorers begrudges the mid-July lake-ice melt, providing eight weeks of fabulous fishing before the mid-September freeze. With usually only one vacation week to explore these immense lakes, each day is to be prized in spite of the weather. Such is the attraction for the sportsman fortunate enough to be enveloped by this pristine wilderness.

Our morning fishing was predictably difficult and non-productive in the biting wind. While racing scud clouds momentarily dimmed the sun, our guide recommended a respite behind the “atoll”, an island unlike the cupcake mounds of green that populate the lake. Appropriately named by the locals, the Atoll, consisting of a solid rock column, softened by patches of hardy tundra growth, stands defiantly several hundred feet above the lake surface as if still celebrating its victory over the glacier that carved and molded the lake and landscape of the tundra thousands of years ago. The four-foot waves that futilely lashed the island’s black shore rocks that day were mollified on the lee side of the island, where a sweeping, wheaten sand beach bathed in the protected calmness and warmth of bright sunshine provided welcome refuge. Overhead loomed the fortress-like precipice, intermittently green and stone, inviting a challenging climb on a rugged path frequented by few humans each summer. And so we scrambled, stumbled, and struggled up the ragged spine of the atoll, summiting into the northwesterly gale to a view of astounding proportions. There, to the left was the undulating green tundra stretching for fifty miles, to the right, the white-capped lake with its island patchwork extending to the northern horizon. This transfiguration-like mount seemed to me a holy place indeed, requiring reflection and correlation.

I felt a spiritual stirring, a muse, unsuspected but provoking, as I momentarily stepped away from my companions into temporary isolation. Was the effort to navigate that ascending tortuous path a reminder of illness, divorce, defeats, joblessness, alienation, loss of loved ones, and a host of other struggles complicating our lives? Was the panoramic wind-swept greenness of the unending rolling tundra the promise of God’s mercy and salvation offered as grace to all of us? Did the tumultuous lake represent the waters of baptism, poured freely to bathe our souls in forgiveness? And the wind, strong enough to lean against, did it not represent the strength of the Holy Spirit, supporting us on our journey up that path toward reconciliation, always present, and recognized particularly at the summit? Yes, and more! For that rocky island, magnanimous in presence and unchanged over eons, represents the love of Christ on which we firmly stand, secure that in the Cross and Resurrection we survive death into the life of eternity.

Many of us have climbed or will ascend life’s atolls amid stormy seas, but in spite of the struggle, we have the assurance of not only the sun-soaked sand of a protected beach, but also divine guidance to reach the summit, viewing the future with verdant hope, secure in our baptismal vows, with Christ’s promise that He is always with us. In triumph, then, we can stand secure at the pinnacles of our personal atolls and experience the Spirit’s blast!

- Ron Burmeister



Another Christian article by Ron Burmeister: 'Contemplating Light and Darkness'


Visit Ron Burmeister's photo essay about some of the trips that inspired his spiritual writings:


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