Canadian Ctories

My Photo
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.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ilatsiak - 40

Once the ships’ crews were ashore, together with the materials and supplies they would require for the coming months, the job of transporting everything southward began. As the weather and snow conditions in late April were perfect for moving supplies with the least amount of trouble, it was decided to off-load as much as possible in the event that the ships were crushed while they were away at Terror Bay and the Fish River mouth. A depot would be established at Victory Point as well as a message of explanation should any search party happen this way, something which was not felt to be likely. Surely at this time any search party would be combing the coast of Alaska and not have thought to come this far to the east.
Filling the boats to the gunnels with items didn’t normally pose much of a hauling problem for fit men as the boat-laden sled loads pulled relatively easily over the hard frozen snow in the Spring. The land along the west coast of King William Island being very flat was another help as no major hills would have to be crossed on their way south. With a little luck, the officers were confident that all the needed materials would be at the proposed first encampment site at Terror Bay on the southwest shore by the time open water arrived sometime in June. From there, the party would remain and hunt for caribou which has previously been seen in that area. When open water arrived in July, they would divide into the two groups. The first, Fitzjames’ Passage party, would head westward looking for leads in the ice large enough to permit the ships to sail southward, or failing that they would continue on in order to reach an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company perhaps near the mouth of MacKenzie’s river or the whaling camp on Hershel Island.
The second, Crozier’s party, would head towards Back’s Fish River to establish their semi-permanent hunting camp. There they would stay to either await their rescue or if their health returned sufficiently, they would head south via Back’s River taking the same route Capt George Back had taken 14 years previously.
To a man, everyone was finally in good spirits. After sitting and grumbling in the ice bound ships for nearly two years eating food which was getting worse by the day, finally something was happening. While it wasn’t the trip everyone had imagined when they had set out from London, at least the expedition was one its way southward and hopefully westward once again! The renewed morale would also be good for everyone’s health. The previous winter had brought with it more deaths than expected, especially among the officers.

• • •

David had tried it a few times but had never once been successful. This spring he would begin learning all over again. It seemed to be so easy for his father Agayuq, but of course he had had years of practice going back to childhood.
“That’s what I need, I guess. Years of practice...”
David could see the dark object lying on the gleaming snow of the Spring sea ice. A seal, lying next to its breathing hole. He got off the sled and settled the five dogs so they wouldn’t want to follow him as he carefully made his way towards the sleeping seal. He checked his harpoon, making sure the head was on securely. The last time the thongs holding it in place had been too lose and it had not penetrated the seal before twisting off pre-maturely allowing the seal to plunge unharmed into the safety of its hole in the ice. He readied his white sealskin screen between the cross-pieces of precious wood. This would allow him to get much closer before he adopted his seal-mimicking act which would allow him to get to within harpooning distance. To bring home his first seal would greatly please Agayuq, especially as Davidee, as they called him now, was out hunting on his own for the first time.
He cautiously peered over his white screen and checked again. The tiny black spot hadn’t moved. It was still there. He turned the sled on its side and began walking, the shield out in front of him, hiding his body. Every now and then he stopped and knelt down, controlling his breathing was important. The seal hadn’t moved. He began to approach it again. Its shape was becoming clearer. It seemed quite large and very dark against the snow. His mind began to question what kind of seal it might be. Surely a ringed seal, but it was so dark. It should be a light grey, surely, having been in the sun for this long.
David was close enough to begin making his final approach. He lay down on his side and began to imitate a seal lying on the ice, alternately pretending to doze, head down, and then raise his head for a look around. As the seal did the same thing then David would wiggled closer and closer. The seal remained still. Still? David realised the animal hadn’t moved. Not once. Not even to look around. Was it already dead? Had a bear killed it and left it? Something seemed odd about this seal, but what?
He watched it and the more he watched, the more certain he was that something was not right. Then he noticed something like a flap in the middle of its body seemed to lift up each time the breeze picked up. “What could that be?” David wondered. Slowly David rose up behind his screen for a better look. Then he stood up and dropped the screen. The object wasn’t a seal at all, it was a man. A man dressed in a dark blue Naval coat!


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ilatsiak - 39

Crozer gave the order to abandon the two ships in mid-April. The situation on board had reached the point that the decision was inevitable if the remaoinong men were to survive the situation in which the expedition found itself. It was now clear that they were trapped by the ice. The only escape was to sledge the ships’ small boats overland to open water and from there to make a final decision on escaping directly southwards up Back’s River, or heading westward towards Alaska. The day chosen to begin the move off the ships turned out to be one of brilliant sunshine during the last few days of April, 1848.
The move was done after much debate and arguing among the remaining officers. Sir John had been dead now for nearly ten months and after two winters locked in the ice in more or less the same spot. It was abunduntly clear to everyone that the ships were eventually going to be crushed by the grinding of the massive piles of sea ice long before they would make it to the open water to the south. The various exploratory and subsequent hunting trips made during the two summers had confirmed open water existed only a short distance to the south of some islands at the bottom of Victoria Strait.
The plan that had been finally decided upon was to establish a semi-permanent camp in Terror Bay on the south coast of King William Island and as soon as possible a group would go on to hunt and fish at the mouth of the Great Fish River, a place extolled for its fish and game by George Back on his visit there in 1834. Here fresh food could be obtained so the men could regain some of their lost morale and strength. The less able remaining men would stay with Captain Crozier either in Terror Bay if it proved adequate and the hunting was good, or failing that they would make for the Back River in several easy stages. If the ships remained frozen in he would send a party up the Great Fish River either before Autumn or, failing that, in the following summer with the hopes of travelling to the post at Fort Reliance and sending a relief party from there.
Another plan was hatched that as soon as the ice broke in Terror Bay, twenty of the most fit would make a dash westwards in two of the specially lightened ships’ launches with Commander Fitzjames in charge. If, by some good fortune the ships were freed by the ice during the coming summer season, they would be re-manned and sailed westward in pursuit of Fitzjames’ launches and by doing so complete the Northwest Passage. It was also agreed that Fitzjames would remain with the whalers at Hershel Island as long as possible into the Fall or until the ships arrived. He would also attempt to send a relief party eastwards at his first opportunity. If the ships failed to arrive, he would leave with the last of the whalers, the assumption being that the expedition had taken the Back River route southward to safety.
Francis Pocock’s suggestion of convincing the Inuit to take them to Repulse Bay was dismissed out of hand as being impractical given the distance and the already well known difficulty of overland travel in these climes. Besides there was no assurances that white people and ships could be found in Repulse Bay even if they could get there. Furthermore, it was unlikely that the local Inuit had the skills needed to make a trip to Repulse Bay. The best plan was clearly to relie on their own self-sufficiency and trust in their proven arctic skills.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Ilatsiak - 38

Fall came in ernest during the next few weeks with cold winds and biting snow and sleet. The narrow strip of water separating King William Island from the mainland to the south began to freeze over. Each day the ice grew outward from the shore and became thicker and stronger. By late September, only areas of water with the strongest currents were still open. Qajaq and her family would be collecting their belongings and beginning the long trek southward to the mouth of the Fish River for the winter.
David found himself trapped in a way, wishing he had been able to follow Qayaq and her family, but also knowing he should really stay with the family he had become attached to and over all of these thoughts, of course, wondering if he had made an error not reporting back for duty on board the Erebus. In spite of the obvious benefits of living with Agayuq and his family, he was a member of the ship’s crew and was expected to perform various duties. He didn’t consider himself a deserter when he first joined up with Agayuq, but the longer he remained away from the ships, the more impossible it was to return to them. He would be considered a deserter for sure by now, and David knew that punishment would be certain upon his return. At the same time, this new life seemed like the better choice while the ship was temporarily prevented from progressing towards its final destination.
Looking back, David was grateful for the kindness of Sir John looking out for him the way he had, right from the onset of the voyage. He would be stuck on the ship doing the usual round of boring duties had he not say to it that David get out and help Fairholme at the Magnetic Observatory. The news that Sir John had died still stung him, and then Pocock’s tales of widespread illness, the constant grumbing he had seen over the bad food and the griping of shipmates didn’t make the life aboard the ships sound very attractive. Things had changed a lot since their first winter-over. It was obvious, he had made the right choice to stay with his adopted family on King William Island. If he had to for some reason, he could probably return to the Erebus when it became useful to do so. He could make up a story about being held up. Now that fall was here again, that opportunity would not likely arise until the following summer, at the earliest, and then only if the ships worked themselves free of the ice.
* * *

Sadly David watch Qajaq and her family depart over the now frozen strait to the mainland. They had become close to each other and promised to meet up again the following summer at Amitsoq if they could. If not David was determined to make the trip south to the Fish River where her family would spend their winter.
He thought about little else that winter. Of course, there was the usual hunting to be done several times a week in the fall. In the dead of winter the family depended mostly on their cache of fish and seals caught during the summer. The caribou hunt at the crossing point had gone well and the whole family slowly got new winter clothing thanks to the sewing efforts of his adopted mother.
As the light returned and the days lengthened in the spring David and Agayuq returned to Boothia to hunt caribou once again. This year they had sighted a polar bear and Agayuq let the dogs chase it and eventually they cornered it in a small snow filled rock canyon. The bear turned and tried swatting the dogs, but they kept their distance. When David and Agayuq caught up to the dogs, the bear was obviously tiring as it fended off the dogs in the deep snow. Watching for his chance, Agayuq slowly moved closer to the bear and with a sudden movement, hurled his harpoon right at the bear's chest as it stood up. David watched, grouched down on one knee a few paces back with his own spear, but then froze as the bear knocked the oncoming harpoon aside and then lunged at Agayuq. In another fluid movement, Agayuq turned, grabbed the harpoon from David's grasp and taking a pace forward pushed the butt end into the snow. The harpoon head took the bear's weight as it threw itself over the dogs at Agayuq. As the impaled bear died, the dogs tore into its fur and Agayuq beat them off with the handle of his dog team whip. David was astonished by what he had seen. He had to be the bravest act he had ever witnessed, yet Agayuq calmly set about sharpening his knife as though it was just another chore in a long boring day.
When they got home a few weeks later, David was even more impressed that Agayuq said nothing about the bear kill. He let others slowly discover the bear skin and then shyly admitted that, yes, they had 'seen a bear' while hunting and were lucky enough to be able to bring it home.
The news at home was unsettling once again. People were once more telling stories about seeing Kabloonat on the move. It seems they were moving boats down the coast and setting up a couple of big camps. In the north, near the ships they had offloaded vast quantities of things from the ships and had them piled on the snow covered beach. Clearly, something was changing and David was again anxious about what he ought to do: stay or leave?


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ilatsiak - 37

At Amitsoq lake there were sometimes stories told about white people, kabloonat they were called, how they would fight and shout and fire their guns. These began to bother David because people were obviously frightened. Then, more or less by accident David discovered that many of these stories were quite old. They described events on the mainland, far to the south of King William Land.
More out of curiosity now than anything else he found himself thinking he should return to the ships to check for himself what was happening. The last time he had asked if the Inuit might return to the ships, David was surprised to hear Agayuq say only a sort of maybe in the evasive way he had discovered these people sometimes had of giving only a very non-committed sort of answer. Were they saying, don’t ask me that again, because I cannot give you the answer you want to hear? People were definitely being evasive. It was nearly impossible to learn if there really was trouble brewing at the ships? He couldn't discover if they still at the north end of the island or if they had they somehow moved closer to where they were going. Whether Agayuq had heard something that David hadn’t picked up in the usual gossip that went around from tent to tent was hard to discover. In fact, asking questions only made it worse as he seemed to get shut off from them wherever the subject came up. It was as if the topic was a taboo, an unmentionable and people just ignored him when he brought it up.
David continued to listen quietly to the stories however and pieced together that while people seldom visited the northern area where the ships lie frozen into the ice, even to hunt in times gone by, they were even more reluctant than ever to go there now. In fact, the whole of the island’s west coast seemed to be off-limits to everyone for some reason. He was aware that any place known to harbour possible problems and difficulties was a place to avoid in the peoples view. In the end, David decided that groups of men from the ships had indeed been seen walking down the west coast, even as far as the crossing-over point to the mainland. They had been seen during the spring, pulling light sleds. Several times guns had also been heard as well. After that, the men returned to the ships. During the summer several other groups of men were seen hunting birds, but like the first time, no one had talked with them. People seemed to be afraid of them and it reminded David of the earlier stories he had heard of people being killed. For David, there was no question of his being able to travel alone in search of the ships. In the end he let that matter drop. That way, everyone seemed happier and whatever the rumours were about the ships and their crews, David would have to wait for more definite news, particularly about the ships moving further south.
In the meantime, although the decision had been made to leave for the southern coast, most people continued to linger and life continued. David and his friends became closer and closer. His attachment to Qayaq became greater and together they would steal secret glances at each other and now and then they began to spend some secret time together, although with so few places to go and the land providing such a flat expanse, there was little opportunity to be alone out of sight of others for long. It seemed as it even the largest rocks on the landscape were designed to be too small for a couple to hide behind!
David amazed everyone one warm day at the lake. Stripping to his underwear, he jumped into one of the shallow ponds which was by now fairly warm for the arctic. He then began swimming around, a feat he had learned early in life, but which was completely unknown to any of the onlookers. They simply stood on the shore watching, some in horror and others in wonder at how this swimming thing was possible. At one point, David dove under and swam some distance under-water, staying down for thirty seconds or so. The gathering on shore was sure he was dead and when he at last surfaced, bursts of laughter held forth and many people began stripping. They wanted to be able to perform this miracle as well. David could not even begin to teach so many the art of swimming all at once, but a few did manage to paddle a few strokes and were determined to improve their skills. Those who tried to replicate his under-water feat, found themselves spluttering and gasping for air. Everyone had fun splashing and playing about in the shallow water and many stayed in until the sun began to lose its warmth in the late afternoon and they retreated to look for their clothes now strung out all along the shore, thanks to the ones who only watched, but hadn’t gone in.
While the young people played, a number of elders huddled together in Agayuq’s tent asking themselves what might become of this new person in their midst, with his strange and mysterious abilities, especially now that news that men from the ships had been wandering southward. Some hunters travelling westward had heard people shooting geese around Terror Bay. Finally another story told how one of the ships had been crushed by the ice and then sank in Erebus Bay, but others denied this was true. Some people began talking about going to see if any wood remained they could use. In the end it was decided it was better to wait until Spring. By then the whitemen will probably all have gone away.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ilatsiak - 36

David removed his coat and tried to shake the wetness out of it before crawling into the tent. It seemed as wet after it’s shaking as before. Later in the morning, when he tried to put it on, it had frozen stiff. The weather had turned even colder and the rain became blinding snow once the wind began to pick up. Before mid-day a blizzard had begun to blow new snow across the sheets of ice now covering the land, making it almost impossible to even stand up on the slippery surface. The children had fun sliding in their furry parkas during the late morning, but Agayuk knew hungry times would be ahead for those people not camped close to their cached supplies. No one could hunt in conditions like these. He decided it was wise to head eastwards to be closer to the sea ice off the coast where seals might be out on the ice next to the breathing holes they keep open all winter. No matter how thick the ice became, the seals would stay near their holes. His fish caches would be closer too, just in case. Before the move, David considered finally discarding the last of his English clothing. In the end he couldn’t part with his coat and pants, but there seemed little point in keeping the rest any longer. He gave his mother, Maneejaq, the coat’s buttons and had her sew the front up to make an anorak-like jacket. She was always joking about how she wanted the shiny gold coloured buttons and now at last they were hers.
No one looked forward to the trek to the coast, but all knew it was a better place to look for food than their present camp inland. They would try not to grumble as they slipped and slid along.

* * *

The winter passed quickly for David. Unlike the previous winters on the Erebus, there was always something that had to be done living with Agayuq. He was a good provider for his family, spending much of his time out hunting and David soon found himself able to help as he was now the oldest, Aliktu and Kanguajuq the other children being only 4 and 1 years old. Maneejaq, his adopted mother, a happy jovial woman, probably in her late twenties, was ever helpful as well. David awoke one morning in early winter to find his old clothes missing. They’d been replaced silently by a full set of caribou skin clothes, inner and outer, as well as boots. He was astonished at this gift. He had seen her sewing, as she always did, but had no idea she was working on things for him.
Now he was equiped with these new clothes, it was assumed that he would accompany Agayuq out on the sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes. Even in skin clothing, as warm as they were, it was cold, silent work, but David learned the system quickly. Just before the sun disappeared for good, he made his first kill. He was treated to the usual rituals associated with this passage, although he had no mid-wife ‘mother’ to act for him. The whole ceremony was treated with lots of humour as everyone present knew how unusual the situation was. For David, it was yet another indication of how far he had distanced himself from the expedition and how close he now felt to these warm, welcoming people with whom he now made his life.
As the months passed by, he gained a certain amount of fame for being a good hunter. He made a trip over to Boothia in early spring, once the light returned. He traveled with Agajuq and two other men to hunt caribou. When they returned, they were grateful to have dogs to help transport the carcasses and skins. Their arrival home was a happy time for everyone as the diet of seal and fish was wearing more than a bit thin. They’d eaten nothing else since late fall, almost five months previously.

* * *

It was half way through the brief arctic summer, probably July or early August, when David and Agayuq’s family made it back again to the big lake called Amitsoq near the center of King William Island. He’d been with these people for over a year, he realised while walking past their old camp site where Fairholme had found him. On the way there, they had met up with several other family groups, who were already forming hunting parties to snare the caribou on the island, squeezing them into a funnel shaped trap where they might be taken more easily. In this way, the 30 or so people arrived at the lake laden with fresh meat and many skins suitable for use during the coming winter. Most were still thick with long winter fur and would be suitable for bedding and so on, but a few had shed enough of their old coat that the new summer fur was showing underneath and these the women began to work on. Making the under-parka was the first chore and was best made from the shortest fur. The heavier outer layer could wait for the August hides which had slightly longer, thicker fur. These would be the ones where all the talents of the seamstess's arts could be displayed, with the contrasting strips of fur patterns, the fancy edging frills and cold stopping fringes along the parka’s lower edges.
While walking about visiting and being shown off by his younger brother and sister, David entered the tent of Tulukaq’s family in order to have another peek at their pretty daughter sitting quietly behind her mother, softly chewing on a tiny piece of skin intended for a baby’s boot. He had never before thought of the prospects of finding an Inuk girl to befriend, but suddenly the idea was in his head and he found it stuck there, unable to be shaken away. Even the knowledge that the Erebus could soon be sailing away with him on board did nothing to rid this alluring girl from his thoughts.
In the meantime, his friends were off for another round of visiting, of fishing at one of the many weirs, racing each other over the tundra, or splashing in the warm waters of the shallow ponds which dotted the landscape near the lake. This time of fishing and socializing with the many Inuit groups from both Boothia and the mainland to the south was always a happy time for all, especially for those with love in mind.
As it happened, the cute girl - he had discovered her name was Qajaq - and her family were vaguely related to Agayuq. About two weeks after their arriving at the lake, it was decided that the two families would move further south and west on the island to look for caribou together. By now the caribou having dropped their young, where beginning to filter towards the narrows where once the sea was frozen, they would return to the mainland for the winter. It was a good time and place to hunt for furs for winter clothing and to cache some extra meat for the long winter ahead.