Canadian Ctories

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Location: Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada

I'm a father, a seakayaker, a guitarist, a writer, a geocacher and a lover of all things arctic. I try to dream big, journey far, kayak well, and above all, cherish my family and friends. I believe in self-sponsorship, Team Zero and being as carbon neutral as I can.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ilatsiak - 4

A three masted ship, freshly painted in horizontal bands of black and yellow, slowly edged away from the dock and into the Thames river current as the steam powered tug took up the slack on the cable attached to the ships stern. The docklines fell away with a splash, then trailed through the water towards the bow. Like two water snakes, releasing their grip on the land and now headed out to sea, they made their way to the sides of the glistening hull and as if attacking the ship itself they climbed up its sides and disppeared into twin holes in the ship’s rails as the sailors handed them into the forepeak. Caps slammed down on the houser holes with a heavy boot stomp for good measure. British Navy style.
David Young stood in place beside the ship’s Captain, James Fitzjames and watched the steam tug work. This was not a new scene for him. He had practically been raised on docks like the very ones they were departing. He had more than once been caught aboard ships at this very point and been tossed into the harbour to find his own way back to shore. The first time it happened he couldn’t really swim and floundered around splashing and yelling until someone on shore pushed a heavy piece of squared timber out to him. He made up his mind to learn to swim after that incident!

* * *

Ships heading off to sea were his whole life and from the time he was ten years old he began trying to stow on board ships coming into his home port of Stromness. Finally, having been discovered aboard once too often, a kindly merchant ship’s Captain named Fergus Anderson, seeing more of the boys good points than his bad, adopted David as his cabin boy. Together, they plied the trading routes between London and various parts of Ireland and occasionally the west coast of France and Spain. David soon became well known about the docks for his easy sea-faring ways, his ability to work hard and his particular flair at learning languages. In fact by this time David had a fair ability at Gaelic, Irish, French, some Spanish as well as passable Dutch besides his second language, English. He was even beginning to learn to read in English, thanks to Fergus, when he had the time. Fergus knew well that a boy like David would never amount to anything however. He lacked wealth and position in the highly structured society of England in the 1840’s. His low birth in the far off wilds of the Orkney Islands would make that a near certainty. It would keep him from raising much beyond an ordinary seaman, a rough and tumble life at best, and a short-lived and dangerous one at worst.
Fergus grew fond of David and the first chance he had, he passed David’s name along to some friends who worked now and then supplying various items, including men, to the Royal Navy. It was well known to those along the Thames wharves that the navy often were on the lookout for promising young lads to serve of cabin boys and midshipmen on naval ships, especially in these times when exploring more than fighting seemed to be the role of many naval ships. This had often been a backdoor into the officer’s world of the Navy and many a boy was able to rise to officer status via this route, many who would have never stood a chance otherwise. With the French wars over, there was not a lot of need for men, but still the occasional boy was sought for some of the special cruises the Navy was asked to send out.
“David!” Fergus could be heard clumping about on the upper deck as he called David’s name. “Where ya ‘bout, lad? I’ve some news fer ya. Where...? Oh! David, come here, quick, now. Listen, ‘ere, will ya!”
David bounded out of the aft cabin hatchway and faced the fatherly Captain Fergus. “Sir?”
“I’ve found you a navy ship, lad. A good ship, with good people. It’s your chance, me boy, your big chance!”
“Sir...I’d prefer to stay here, if I could...”
“Nonsense, lad. With me, there’s no future. With this berth, you be acting as a Midshipman. Think of it! It’s your chance to become something, lad. You being so young, you could learn much on a Navy ship, especially this one. Fitzjames, James Fitzjames is the Captain. He’s a good man, lad and runs a good ship. Made a real name for his’self in China last year or so. They’ll be sailing with Sir John Franklin to make the Northwest Passage. If they make it, and everyone says they will, you’ll be famous, me boy! Imagine that, if you can.”
“Really, sir? They’re going to try the Northwest Passage to China, sir?”
“That’s what I ‘ear, boy, that’s what I ‘ear. Now get along down to the Gravesend docks, quick as you can and ask there for directions to HMS Erebus and see what they thinks a ya. And ‘ere, take this letter introducing yourself. Ask for Mr. Reid. He’s acting as the Master and will let you aboard. Give him the letter. Now get along wi’ ya!”


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ilatsiak - 3

“Ah, old man! Another nice day to sit in the sun and be lazy...”
“I’m too old to hunt... I was never any good at it anyway. I should have starved to death long ago!”
“Yes maybe that’s true...”
“It couldn’t be helped! People kept passing me food whenever I got thin. To be polite, I had to eat it.”
The conversation began in the customary way. Each one teasing the other. Patsy, telling the old man he was far too old to be around. Ilatsiak pleading that it wasn’t his fault. He had tried to die many times, but people always got in the way and saved him.
“So, old man,” began Patsy again. This time he had a more serious tone to his voice. The long Spring days were beginning to get boring even with the new arrivals here at the trading post. “Where have you lived all your life? Did you always starve in the eastern lands?”
“Yes, always in the east, towards the sun.” Ilatsiak paused, deep in thought. He too was feeling the hot sun, the long days and his many years, now well over ninety of them, kept him glued to the ground, no longer able to move around like the younger men. Another lazy mouth to feed. “I have always lived in the east, farther than I do now, many days of travelling.”
“Tell me a story about that land, old man. What is it like?” Patsy too had time to spend. There was little to do and being sixteen years old and at an age when he was anxious to begin having adventures of his own, he loved to hear the stories of the old ones.
“I will tell you about meeting my wife. She is gone now, but she lived in a place with a high water falls which never freezes in the winter. It is a big river which comes from the south. Where it comes from no ones knows. It’s from the land of many lakes where it is easy to kayak for a lifetime and never paddle the same lake twice. Her people lived by those falls and my people used to visit them each fall when it was time to fish and hunt caribou for skins.”
And this began a time of stories for Patsy and Ilatsiak. Slowly, Patsy learned the story of the old man’s life, and what he had seen and done. He had been a remarkable man, of that there was little doubt.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Ilatsiak - 2

Ilatsiak did nothing. In fact, things returned to the way they had been before the visitors, before Aupaluk and his family had departed. Just as people began to think about not going at all, old Ilatsiak announced he would call up his favourite spirit. He needed to talk with him. Several of the younger men prepared a special snowhouse out farther on the ice and sealed the old man inside. He sat there on his flooring of caribou skins and waited for his spirit to come to him.
The arctic sun had been down several hours when suddenly, as if transformed into a younger more vigerous man, Ilatsiak burst through the snowhouse walls and ran screaming towards the village. “We leave, we leave, quickly, we must leave at once! Aupaluk needs us, he is in trouble!”
The camp was suddenly transformed. Everyone hurriedly loaded the sleds. People laughed and joked and bumped into each other in their haste to depart. As the loads were tightened on the sleds, lashing made firm, children sought likely spots to ride only to be brushed off by their parents who along with the dogs would have to pull the burdens through the softening snow. It was a joke everyone played each time they travelled, but they never tired of playing it.
After only an hour on the trail down the bay and northward up the west side of Bathurst Inlet, they stopped. It was time to eat and drink and sleep. The rush was over. Everyone knew where they were going and it was exciting again.
It was over two weeks before they received news of Aupaluk. Coming upon fresh sled tracks, the band of Inuit followed them westward until they came upon a small village of perhaps a dozen snow houses. Aupaluk and his family were among them. They had been here a week. Yes they had had some bad luck hunting, but the people of the makeshift village, some of whom were related to his wife had managed to help them. Now many of them were planning to go to see the white trader as well.
As the conditions were now ideal for hunting seals on the ice, the young men of Ilatsiak’s camp decided to hunt rather than travel. This they did with success for several days, but finally, well supplied with meat, a large group began gathering their things once again and moving west.
It would take the rest of the month to reach Bernard Harbour and the white trader’s small house. The pattern of moving, stopping a new snow-house village and hunting for seals on the ice repeated itself along the way. Two small ships lay frozen in the bay. One belonged to Captain Klengenberg, the other to some scientists spending the winter in the area. Ilatsiak saw the ships and small as they were, he immediately recognized them. He knew ships, his ancient memory told him. He knew ships, bigger ships than these ones. As the days passed and he looked at the two ships frozen in the ice, he knew that he had seen ships like these before. Memories began to come to him in his sleep and when he would drift off during the day sitting, daydreaming outside the newly made snowhouse, basking in the Spring sunshine looking out over the Harbour. Yes, images were coming back to him at last in bigger and bigger bits and pieces. He knew ships, big ships and white people... He was a boy in those days, a boy like his own sons had been. Young and adventurous. But then, how could that be. Perhaps the images were coming from his connections with the spirit world he had so often conjoured up over the years to help his people.
On occasion, the trader would come and visit him. He could speak a different dialect of Inuktitut, but it was possible to catch enough common words to understand each other. The scientist could hardly speak at all, but at least the words he knew were pronounced the same. The trader’s son Patsy was the best. He was the easiest to understand and so it was to him than Ilatsiak talked the most. Ilatsiak used to listen to his father, the old trader and Captain and the scientists talking together in English and that too caused fleeting moments of something which would tingle faint emories in his head. It was as if he could understand. It was like the memory of the ships which he could almost see in the ice and yet not see. How could he see? What ships could he have seen? He was just an old man whose time was nearly done.
There were many thing to be sampled at the traders. There was tea and most amazing of all, there was sugar which tasted of magic it so delighted the tongue. The Inuit visitors, could not believe something could taste so good, but the trader was willing to give out only so much. They had not come prepared to trade. Many people gave away in trade things which they would soon need. Well, they would just make new, as best they could.
The scientists became very interested in Ilatsiak. He thought at first it was because of his age, he being quite a bit older than the others visiting at that time. In fact, it was well known that no one was older than Ilatsiak was. He also was remarkable because of his blading head and white beard, something most of his companions did not have. Their were those who called him Omingmuk because of this beard, but this was seldom done to his face. He was too much respected as an shaman to make an object of familiar talk. The scientists were curious about his shaman role and pleaded with him on several occasions to talk about this role. They seemed hungry to learn from him.
For his part, Ilatsiak preferred to sit and talk with Patsy, the trader’s son. He was full of information. Patsy was also a good listener and slowly over the weeks spent in Bernard Harbour, he began to learn the secret of who Ilatsiak was. It was an amazing tale. So incredible in fact, that he never told anyone until as an old man living far to the east, he was able to make enough connections between Ilatsiak’s story and other stories now almost lost with the elders, that what he had told here in Bernard’s Harbour slowly emerged into the picture of a man who held many secrets and had survived where many had not.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ilatsiak - 1

The day was suddenly alive. Millions of tiny air-borne sparkles flashed as each flake of wind-swept snow caught its moment in the sun before drifting out on the sea ice before the camp. Ilatsiak turned and entered the snow-house’s tunnelled entrance. The brightness hurt his eyes. He could no longer look at the glare off the snow and ice of the bay. He was an old, old man, far older than anyone he knew. Each of his wives was gone long ago. His shoulders felt sore as he rolled onto the furs at the back of the snow-house. He shut his eyes. Everything about him needed to rest.
Yes, a dog sled was coming!
Way out in the bay, anyone with eyes to see could make out a tiny speck slowly making its way through the ice fields. Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch. Soon it would be possible to tell who was coming. Even at this distance, a person’s stance on the sled was recognizable to the small group assembled at the semi-circular array of snow houses along the bay.
Today, however, no one was able to guess who drove the sled, for strangers were coming to the camp. Strangers from the west. As they drove up to within hailing distance, they stopped their dogs and stood up facing the assembled group in front of the houses. For a few moments they both stared at each other, no one anxious to make the first move.
“We are poor hunters, but we will share what we have...” one of the camp men suddenly announced. It was an ice breaker. The two groups, as if suddenly released from some frozen state of mind began to recognize the Inuit-ness of each other as they moved together, shoke hands and began talking freely. Most of the talk revolved around possible mutual family members they might possess or failing that, friends of friends or acquaintences. These ties would establish some social ties along which traditional hospitality could progress smoothly. But, there was other news too, it seemed.
A ship was frozen into the ice to the west. A white man, his Alaskan wife and their family had many interesting and useful things to trade... They wanted fox furs. Why not go and see them? They were in Bernard Harbour to the west, many days of travelling from the small bay in Bathurst Inlet where this camp lay.
Ilatsiak listened quietly, as always from the back of the sleeping platform in the snow house. White men. Ships frozen into the ice. Why did that news trouble him? What was it in his past that always gave him this strange tightness in his chest whenever news of white people and frozen ships came to his people? He was old now, who knows how old, maybe over 90 years old. Certainly too old to worry about white people coming to his country, yet, there was that tightness in him again. Why?. He knew many things, people sought his help and advice, yet to this he could never seem to find an answer even though he had searched his memory many times.
Several days of feasting passed between the two peoples. The visitors had been good hunters indeed. They had much to share, but in typical fashion they had described themselves as the worst hunters in the arctic. It was assumed by everyone that the white trader would be visited, perhaps in a few weeks when the coming Spring would allow for fast sledding. Excitment was building in the camp. When the visitors packed their sleds and left, the emptiness in the camp soon turned into a tense anticipation. Everyone waited for their leader Ilatsiak to give the word that he was leaving. Yet, he delayed and the days passed. Was he too old to travel? What was holding him back? Now that his wife Qajaq had died, he was not the man of action and decisiveness that he had been in the past. The people waited.
About three weeks after the departure of the visitors, Aupaluk, a younger man, his wife and their two young child began getting ready to leave the camp. They slowly loaded their sled, removing everything from their winter dwelling. People watched them and without asking directly what was happening, chatted about this and that. It was clear however, they were leaving to visit the trader. It was March and sledding would not get better than this. As well, the many storms experienced during the past winter, seemed to have abated. Now was the time to go. Once all was loaded, the dogs harnassed, they were off. For the next hour, they could be seen from the camp, but people pretended not to look out to sea in their direction. They had gone that’s all, yet everyone wondered what Ilatsiak would do. Was he going to go or not? Time would tell. People returned to their chores.
Several men took their dogs and walked out on the ice to hunt. They would talk about what to do while they walked. It was time to go. Everyone knew that. Maybe it was time to leave Ilatsiak behind. Yes, that’s what they must do. Still, he was a powerful man with many magic powers, maybe they should wait a few more days and see what he did about Aupaluk and hs family. Will he call them back, or let them go...?


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

So what is this?

I plan to begin posting stories I've written about Canadian sea adventures on this site. They will be posted in serial fashion which means to follow the tale you'll have to re-visit the site several times.

The blog will begin with the story of one of Sir John Franklin's cabin boys, who became the sole survivor of the ill-fated expedition through the Northwest Passage. The title of the story is Ilatsiak.