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.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Ilatsiak - 46 - A New Beginning

The need to take advantage of the spring seal hunt prevented David from spending more time searching for the whereabouts of his former ship-mates. Intead, he kept his ears open for any news that visiting hunters might bring in to the camp from time to time. There was little to be had, in fact. It was like the ships had disappeared into the ice and their crews along with them. The west coast was not an area favourite by people as the hunting was poor in the heavy ice which prevailed there. Instead, most people kept to the eastern and southern shores when ice was thinner and smoother and seals were plentiful. David thought less and less of their fate, the more the days went by and he kept busy hunting and caching food.
Things took a turn a few weeks later when David and Agayuq met up with Qayaq and her family. Hunting that winter had been good for them and well supplied with items to trade and stoies to tell, they had made the crossing over the sea ice to King William Island earlier than usual. Qayaq’s mother, Assita had heard that her mother was ailing and that was another reason for travelling to the island early. Agayuq laughed when he heard that rumour. “Your mother’s never been better, Assita! She’s sick because you never visit!” They all enjoyed the joke as they ended their hunt for the day and got ready to return to their camp of snow houses on the shore a few miles away.
Along the way, Qayaq and David got re-acquainted, telling each other all the stories of things that had happened while they had been apart. When Agayuq over-heard David mentioning the stories of the ships and the crew, he quietly came up with a plan. Later that evening while out tending to a dog with a sore leg, he brought up his idea quietly to Kavaayuq. Together they both saw the advantages in it and agreed to it. When Kavaayuq and family returned to the mainland in a couple of weeks, David would go with them as Qayaq’s husband. Kavaayuq had not promised her to anyone as yet and Assita was getting anxious that she marry. Agayuq wanted David away from the ships. If they left, he might change his mind and leave with them. Agayuq and Maneejaq didn’t want that to happen, so getting him far away and married to Qaya was the perfect solution for both families!
Almost exactly three weeks later, David found himself driving a sled alongside of Kavaayuq. Agayuq had given him four dogs and his old sled. Kavaayuq had given his daughter. A new life was beginning, an exiting one with someone he cared about. He’d spend the spring on the mainland and then return for the mid-summer fishing season and caribou hunt with Agayuq and Maneeyaq’s family. At least that was the plan...


Friday, April 27, 2007

Ilatsiak - 45

When David arrived back in Agayuq’s camp no one was about. Entering the snowhouse he discovered everyone asleep as if it was the middle of the night. Slipping out of his clothes, he climbed into his customary spot against the snow wall and closed his eyes. After a few minutes he heard Agayuq’s voice talking to him in a low whisper.
“You have returned, but things are not well...”
David opened his eyes and looked at the man lying a few feet away from him under the blankets of caribou skins. “The ship people are dying everywhere, Agayuq. Something terrible is happening.”
“I have heard this too.” Agayuq stared at David with unaccustomed frankness. “Other people have told me this, but I was shy to tell you. Last winter when we were in Boothia, people visited and told your mother the ship people were not well. They said that some had died even last summer, but I don’t know.”
“You should tell me these things. Maybe we could have helped them.”
“Yes I should have told you, but how can we help the ship people? They are not like us. They don’t live our way or eat our food like you do. They fight among themselves.”
“Still, they are people. Maybe they could change...” David whispered back.
“Yes, that is so. But they could be dangerous to us. This is not an easy land to live in. Besides, we believe that you were given to us, unlike them. We are too few to help the ship people. They are so many, and many people now fear them because they are sick and fight among themselves...” There was a pause. Agayuq was thinking. Suddenly he looked up and staring ahead he said, “They will soon be gone. People are saying the ones still not sick are using their boats to move all their supplies to the south coast. They are making trips back and forth pulling their boats on big sleds. Maybe they have already gone. No one knows for sure.”
David looked at him in shock. Left, already? Had he been left behind by the expedition? Was his fate sealed now forever? It looked that way. Maybe it was best, he didn’t really know, but he felt his heart freeze for a moment. It seemed so final.
David closed his eyes. Agayuq was right. The expedition members would not accept help from the Inuit anymore than they’d come looking for him again. He remembered clearly the comments and jeers made about the people they had encountered in Greenland during the transfer of supplies. The remarks about superiority of the English, how filthy and foolish the Greenlanders could be. They were called ‘savages’. Then too, there was the talk from the officers belittling anyone who wished to adopt ‘native’ methods of travel and survival. There seemed to be so little common ground. He could still hear Shanks boasting of what he would do if any dirty Eskimos showed up at the depot of supplies they were supposed to guard. He was very graphic in his desciption as if he were speaking about animals, not people. Even if Agayuq and others went and offered help it would be scofted at and they would be rebuffed. It was pointless. Perhaps what he had seen was not as bad as it seemed. Most of the expedition was probably safe and sound on board the ships and the men he had seen were perhaps only a scouting party which had somehow got into trouble, or maybe they had got trapped in a storm while on an exploratory mission from the ships. Still, it was a horrible fate which seemed so pointless given how well equiped the ships were and how close to their goal they were. A few more miles and they’d be free to sail away to the west and the Pacific. Surely the stories Agayuq had heard were wrong or at least confused.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ilatsiak - 44

On David went. Now the dogs had been fed, they were content to pull again, but he knew they would want to sleep soon. Hungry dogs are better for pulling than ones with full bellies. As they travelled along the coast the numbness moved into his mind once again and his memories of what he had seen were becoming move and more vague, almost dreamlike. The rocking motion of the sled gradually seduced him asleep. The dogs, unaware of their master’s condition, pulled steadily into the growing darkness of the early evening.
Perhaps it was the silence or the lack of motion on the sled that eventually woke David. The dogs, scattered in a fan ahead of the twin runners, were only little white mounds, their bodies slowly being buried by the snow that was quietly falling around them. As he looked around trying to locate himself in the vasteness of this land, David thought of his far-away home and how this place was so different from those rocky heath-covered hills which surrounded Stromness where he had roamed as a child. How had he come to this place? It was so flat, so endless, so opposite in appearance from his homeland on the Orkney islands where it was so easy to place oneself between sea and hilltop. Here both the land and the sea stretched without change in every direction, so few places more predominant than the other. Here there were so few signs of man’s presence. He missed the signs of man’s habitation which led into the distant past, the stone monuments and dwellings. In this land all seemed empty. Only the occasional ring of stones hinted of an campsite. There were no permanent dwellings or monuments except for the few ‘inukshuit’ or signposts he had seen.
He felt his heart grab hold and tighten in his chest, a lonely, gripping pain. He let his eyes fill up with tears. They began to run down his face and freeze on his cheeks before they could drip off. His face in his hands, he sobbed alone into the endless snow and the wretched ice and the unrelenting whiteness. Even the dogs in their white snowy mounds, slept on uncaring, unknowing. Overhead the drab, snow-filled clouds drifted steadily eastward, intent only on their passing. It seemed they too wished to depart from this lonely place.
David’s mind wouldn’t let go. Again and again he plunged into the horrific scenes he had been running from. Screaming for the searing images to end, he jumped from the sled and not caring where, he began to run along the wind sculpted snow drifts ahead of the sled towards a slight ridge behind the shoreline ahead. Such stupid ridges, so unridge-like it was a mockery to call them that. Not like the bold ridges of home. These were nothing; only cruel, ungrateful killer ridges which offered no protection or shelter to any man. Then he tripped against a dark lump on the nearly bare gravel and fell flat against it, his sealskin boots offering no traction on the slippery surface. Scrambling to his feet the lump took shape. It was a man’s body. It was Thomas Evans, his counterpart on the Terror, frozen stiff, dead where he had dropped, exhausted. David stared at the body, wondering why he was out here so far from a camp. He reached down and picked up a watch and then saw that it was on a chain around Thomas’s neck. A watch? Why did he have a watch? He dropped it into the snow. David ceased to care.
The stirring of the dogs, still in their traces, and their yelping confusion as they tried to follow him brought David’s thoughts to a halt. As he turned to them he realised for the first time he had been yelling and screaming. He stood and blankly stared at the approaching dogs, Agayuq’s dogs. There was nothing left for him now but to go back to his camp where perhaps he might stay until a rescue party arrived. Or perhaps, in the Spring, Agayuq could take him to Repulse Bay, but somehow now that seemed to be so far away, so useless a trip, even for a good hunter like Agayuq. It was over, for some reason the expedition members were dying. David began to realise that the rumours he had half heard were probably true, perhaps more true than he had believed they were. If he wasn’t already alone, it was certain that he would probably soon be all alone, the only member of the two crews still alive. It seemed very possible that everyone else was dead or would be very soon if what he had seen was typical of the state the expedition members were in. He sat down on the sled. The movement stirred the dogs who suddenly jerked the sled forward. He halted them at the body and rolled Evans onto the sled and then buried him in the snow when he reached the shore where it was deep enough for cover the body. Realizing it would have no need of such a thing, he left the watch with the boy.
How many more would he come across before he made it home? David just sat as if frozen himself and stared at the ground as it passed under the runners, mile after mile after mile, letting the dogs take him home. If there were other bodies to be found, he didn’t see them. He had seen too many already.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ilatsiak - 43

His thoughts returned to Goodsir. Where had he been going? To the Back’s Fish River? Why, was food running low? But how could it be? There had been so much... Had there been food at the camp? He couldn’t recall seeing any of the famous red tins. Where had any of them been going? Where were the ships? Perhaps the story of the Terror sinking was true. That would help to explain some things. But the Terror had survived even the Antarctic ice fields which he heard were much heavier and more distructive than anything found in the Arctic. How could the Terror have sunk? These must be the remains of the men who, someone said, had been seen dragging a boat near Washington Bay. People had waited for these men a few days later, but they had not come and so the people had left thinking the white people had returned to their ships. David realised he had not believed that story, but maybe that story was true after all. These sailors must have been in trouble too. They certainly seemed very scary to those who had seen them. Maybe they had just taken too long to arrive and the people had left too soon. But how were they to know? And where were all the others people from the ships?
David knew that during their first winter beset in the ice Crozier and the other officers on the Terror had argued for hunting parties to visit the Fish River during the coming spring. Shanks had even volunteered to go with them. He considered himself a good hunter and had bragged to Fairholme that had he a gun, he could feed the whole party easily on their trip along the coast. Suddenly, that seemed so long ago.
David’s dogs pulled silently on. The runners hissed over the cold snow now that the sun had moved down close to the western horizon, only scraping the underlying stones now and then as he took short-cuts overland on his journey eastwards. The horror inside him began to subside somewhat when he saw a seal bob it head through a tide rip ahead to the left of the sled. Leaving the dogs anchored by the overturned sled, David crawled slowly to the edge of the ice and waited. He began to scratch on the ice with his knife, a old trick that Agayuk had taught him to attract a naturally curious seal. When the seal cautiously lifted his head out of the water, David was ready. He lay still, almost a seal himself. The animal swam closer to inspect the noise. David’s arm made a sudden movement. The harpoon found its mark and David swung around to the jerk on the line. The seal was his. He pulled it from the water and dragged it towards the sled. The dogs were straining on their traces now. They had the seal’s scent and their hunger returned in stength. Cutting the animal into chunks, he spread the pieces out in the snow, taking only a portion of the liver and the two shoulder blades for himself. He then let the dogs at the food. In moments, there was little remaining on the ice. Just the circle of blood stained snow and countless paw tracks.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Ilatsiak - 42

David watched as the snow beneath the sled runners passed underneath, the only features were the footprints of the dogs pulling up ahead. The snow itself now seemed to be covered with death. Grey, cold, damp death.
David sat rocking gently with the motion of the sled as it made its way over the wind blown snow hummocks, his mind a blank, almost in a stupor, then the dogs made a sudden change in pace. Realising they must have detected something, David shook himself alert. Raising in a single fluid movement as he halted the dog sled, he slowly came to his feet and stood, and looked at the scene just slightly above him on the little island ahead of the dogs. It might have been a sleeping camp, but he knew it wasn’t. People had already been here and now he understood what it was that they had tried to keep from him. It was about what they had found. It was about the death of the men from the ships. However, this place didn’t match the stories he had heard. Even with the snow cover, David saw there were no ridges behind the tents, no little ponds where ducks had been killed. In the stories he had heard, there was a low stone wall built by the shipmen, where they had hid as they shot ducks or geese landing on the ponds. This place was clearly an island like Toonoonee, but this was not Toonoonee. This place was too far to the east. David had never heard stories of the ship people coming here to this place so far to the east. He began to get excited. Perhaps the people here could explain why Goodsir and the others had been walking southward.
On the sandy knoll a little back from shore he could see their two large tents, one beside the other. The three uprights on one were still standing, but it appeared that the ridge pole on the other had been taken down, leaving only the two uprights remaining, frozen into the ground with the tent draped over them. The center part of the tent was flapping in the light wind that continued to blow, left over from the previous day’s storm. On the wide open top of the island, only about 30 feet perhaps above the sea surface, the tents’ inhabitants had found nothing to offer protection from the wind when they had been set up.
This year, for some reason, spring had been a time of contradictions. Nothing seemed to have gone the way one might have expected it should. His Inuit friends and family had complained bitterly that it was fate, that perhaps taboos had been broken, but whatever it was it couldn’t be helped and one must just make do. Perhaps a shaman would come soon and tell them what to do, but in the meantime, food was scarce, the weather was either too wet, too cold, too foggy and always miserable.
As the sled got closer to the shore, David began to dread what he would find. He had seen no one outside the tents nor any activity of any kind. He slowly moved up the little slope into the campsite. The low mounds in the snow hid nothing. In places the snow cover was not complete and the dark cloth of navy overcoats could be seen. A couple of men were lying dead, unburied in the stark white snow. Opening the flap on the only standing tent revealed about five others, in their sleeping sacks, also dead. David looked down on them. In a gruesome way, they were seemingly asleep. They seemed mostly crew members from from the Terror, but all were people he had known these past four years, but ghastly replicas of the men they had once been. Their faces were grizzled, thin, their lips black from once bleeding gums and hemorrhaging. Two slept contorted, twisted together in awful shapes, as if they had died in a wrestling match. The others just lay there as if they hadn’t noticed anything going on. Had they died first? Their clothes were perhaps the biggest shock, all tattered and makeshift and ill-fitting. They seemed to have been making do with borrowed items which did not fit. Why? How could this be? David had never ceased to be amazed at the vaste quantity of clothing the expedition carried on the ships. What had happened to it all? Why were these men wearing old blanket cloth, all dirty and ragged, wrapped around their legs and over their boots? Everything he saw just brought up more questions and no answers.
David let the tent flap drop. Outside, he was swept by a cold feeling of horror. It was too much to believe that all this had happened, especially without him knowing about it. How had the dream of the Northwest Passage had come to this? He felt himself stagger backwards, his foot catch on a hard-packed snowdrift, and then fall down, landing roughly on his side. His eyes opened to another sight, a face mostly eaten away, probably by a wandering fox. Scrambling to his feet, David slipped, crawled, then ran to his sled. Giving the runner a good nudge with his soft sealskin booted foot, he murmmered a low command to the dogs and with the crack of the whip turned them and returned eastwards again along his tracks, but he may as well have been sledding to nowhere. What he had seen was worse, far worse than the stories people had been telling each other when they thought he wasn’t listening. How had they all died? Why? When last he had heard about the crews, he remembered Pocock saying that things had been deteriorating, true, even fighting and arguing with the officers, but he had not mentioned anything to compare with all this death. Of course that had been almost a year ago and much had obviously changed since then. The situation at the campsite was beyond him. Had both crews all died? If not, where had the others gone? David tried to remember how many bodies he had seen, but it was impossible to even quess with many covered with snow. Maybe there were thirty or fifty, perhaps more.