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.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ilatsiak - 51 - Worrisome News

Kunana slowly rose from his sled as it came up the slight rise to the tent and halted. Then with a rolling, graceful gait he walked ahead and settled his five dogs. They were tired and took no coaxing. They curled up and fell asleep. Agayuq stood at the entrance to his skin tent and waited before saying anything. Finally he took a step and smiled.
“So, you have arrived.”
“Yes, yes, finally I arrive. There is so little snow as yet, hardly enough to sled on. I have been many days coming with such poor dogs as these.” Kunana lied. He had five of the best dogs Agayuq had seen in years. “I have been to the place of the ships. There is trouble happening there. Think carefully before you visit them.”
Agayuq had been hearing other ship stories almost from the moment David had left to go south with Qayaq several months ago. Now more and more stories were being told by people who had actually visited the ships or seen the sailors moving along the west coast during the past summer. When David had first come to them, the ships were far away to the north and no one went to see them, but recently there had been new stories of how the ice had opened and allowed them to come further south during the past summer. Some Inuit had gone hunting geese and caribou at the crossing place on the southwest coast the previous August and seen the white people, some had even even hunted with them, but he had not gone. “It’s not good there. I heard four men died of sickness. I have heard others say there was fighting as well back at the ships. I won’t be going to see them then.”
Kunana was a young man of about 20. Still unmarried, he was well known as an excellent hunter and voracious wanderer, always on the lookout for adventure. He looked again at Agayuq as they sat on the skins at the back of the tent and poked around in the cooking pot’s greasy soup for the remaining seal ribs. Retrieving one, he would give it a good looking over and then begin pulling the meat off with his teeth. “One of the ships will sink this winter,” he began again. “It is already breaking up in the ice.It is nearly on its side and only dead men are in it.”
“Dead men?” questioned Agayuq.
“They put the dead ones there. Maybe they are afraid of being dead on our land. I don’t know why they do that.”
“Are their many dead ones?”
“Yes, more and more. They get sick and die. They did not catch many caribou at the crossing this year. It was even worse than last year when so few came to the island. The cold, wet weather kept all the caribou on the mainland this year. Now they are hungry people and getting sicker.”
“Yes, I have caught no caribou since the spring. I will go to Boothia when there is enough snow to make houses. I will hunt for winter skins over there.” replied Agayuq.
“Yes, many people are saying that. Kikitarjuk is not a good place this year.”
“What will the white people do for food?” asked Agayuq.
“Some have already gone. They were seen at Tikinuq. People say they will go to the Fish River to live this winter, but I don’t think so. There is little food there in the winter, as you know. I think more will die.”
“Aliktuq and his family say they will go to the ship before it sinks and recover some of the wood from it. If all the whitemen are gone and if it’s still there in the spring, I will go too. The wood would make a better sled that I could use to visit the whalers the Netsilikmiut speak about at Repulse Bay.
“Ah, yes, that would be an interesting trip. To hunt whales, that would be very good!”


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ilatsiak - 50 - A Sense of Belonging

Fishing was an important part of the summer season’s work especially with Qayak’s people. David remembered one time in particular when they had first arrived and he wasn’t well known to many people, everyone had been working on the fish weir a little ways below one of the final sets of huge canyon falls in the river. It was a happy time and the fishing was good. He was unaware that his affection for Qayak was well known among the various families at the weir. As the men and women worked together to rebuild the stone pens in which the fish would be trapped, there was the usual splashing and pushing and jostling that went with the work. The water was cold and the rocks very slippery underfoot. It happened, that he and Qayak arrived together, at the same place in the wall to dump their rocks. David had his mind on Qayak, watching her every move, day-dreaming that she was so cute and now his family. Suddenly, he felt himself being pushed from behind, sliding towards the water. Then he was being lifted up and literally thrown like a helpless char into the pool! What was happening! Another body splashed down beside him! He heard the scream, Qayak was soaking wet beside him. Before either was able to get up and get to shore, people crowded into the pool with their fishing harpoons and began proding them just like they would try to catch the fish! Meanwhile everyone was laughing at them and splashing them.
“Throw them both on the beach together!” someone yelled.
Then another added, “Yes, let’s skin them and leave them to dry in the sun like dried fish!” So without any hesitation, the hapless couple was stripped bare and laid on the grass beside the stream. At first David was angry to be treated so roughly, but Qayak’s laughter quickly let him know it was a rite of passage, their acceptance into the community of familes. There was no privacy in this little world!
Qayak grabbed her bag and ran off as soon as she saw a chance to get away and hide. For his part and to pay them back for their silliness, David paraded around naked while he carefully lay out their clothes to dry on the willow bushes. Then he went looking for Qayak and offered her a caribou skin to wrap around herself while from a perch on the smooth rocks high above the river they watched the fishermen below work the weir. Fish after fish was plucked out of the pools and tossed to the women and children waiting on the shore. They were quickly gutted and turned inside out before being laid out to dry in the sunshine.
The incident that day changed much for the new couple as they began to make their life together in the small community. After all that had happened to him during the past few years, he felt very close to these people and decided to work hard to do whatever he could to help not just his own family, but also these people around him. In the background he sensed a feeling of being apart from these people because of where he’d come from, while simultaneously feeling a closeness one would naturally expect to have among among people you’d grown up with.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ilatsiak - 49 - The Fishing Weir

David now knew most of the Utkuhikhalingmiut who lived near the big Fish River. Qayaq’s family family was related to this group, although they tended to wander further to the north, east and west than the usually more sedentary Utku’miut. This particular time, returning from the long inland hunt for caribou after leaving the camp where he’d seen Crozier and Asham, he was nervous. It had been with some of these people that Crozier and Asham had spent the previous winter and that worried David. During the hunt, David wondered what stories they would have to tell about the expedition and he was anxious to learn their news.
The hunt had not gone well. For some unknown reason, it had been hard to find caribou in any of the usual areas. People who’d been hunting further north along the coast told them the caribou had not come right to the coast, not had they crossed over the sea to summer on King William Island as they usually did. Very few were found at the usual river crossing points. It was an anxious time for everyone worried about obtaining good skins in order to make winter clothing. Without these skins, collected in August and September, the winter would be hard and cold for everyone, particularly the older people and children.
Finally, after much travel and long days of hunting, hungrily wandering the vaste stretches of hilly tundra, sufficent skins were collected and the group returned to the river mouth to join their Utku’miut friends and relatives. Everyone told stories that they too had not found it easy to obtain good skins this year. The lengthening days were spent discussing this difficulty and the reasons for it, but no good reasons could be found, but at least now David and his family could relax and prepare for the coming of winter.
• • •

David had become increasingly fond of Qayaq. Her round face, quick darting eyes and the flash of her brilliant white teeth, marked her as a a beauty. He would often catch her staring quietly peeking at him. When he’d catch her staring, they would both break into laughter and talk about how much they’d changed from the children they had once been only a short while ago when they’d first met.
They sometimes recalled that evening on King William Island when as the camp busied itself with food preparation and other chores, they had slipped out and met quietly. They had walked out into the darkness and found a sheltered place where they could be alone for the very first time.
Returning the next day, separately, nothing was said to them about what they had done. In fact, David was secretly pleased that no one knew his intentions. He hoped that would give him some time to get to know Qayak before making any commitments. Once the news was out, he was sure that his life would change considerably. It meant, usually, that Qayak would follow him and his family on their trek back to their wintering grounds. However, Qayak’s brother, Tulugak had died in an accident during the summer, leaving her mother and younger brother with only Kavaayuq to hunt for them, thus putting a strain on extended family members to provide for them, something they were willing to do, but knowing there was little chance of any reciprocation. David’s arrival into Qayaq’s family had brought considerable relief, especially to her father who now had someone to share the hunting burden with.
Thus David began his new life following the Utku’miut people on their annual rounds rather than his own. Becoming a married man also brought him status and a voice in the camp. People started to listen to his advice and at times sought him out when his opinion was needed.
Qayak turned out to be a particularly skillful and resourceful young lady. No one had more elaborate and fancier clothing than her family and particularly the parka she suddenly produced for David. Her ability to match furs for colour and to sew thin strips of white fur to make borders along the brown fur edges was remarkable and seldom seen today. The stiches on her waterproof boots were so tiny they were nearly invisible. Long before the boots would leak, the soles had been worn through and had to be replaced with new one made from bearded seal skin.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ilatsiak - 48 - Crozier's Escape

The others followed and Qayaq began to prepare a place to eat for David and the strangers inside their tent. Seated around the food, David noted that Crozier settled quickly into eating the food, although Asher picked here and there at the fish, ignoring the caribou closer to him.
“There is a river further upstream which leads almost to Hudson’s Bay,” David began. “but it is a long way to go. I have been there once following the caribou. It will lead you to another river which empties into a huge lake which flows into the Bay. There are Inuit there, but I don’t know them. There are no white people over there that I know of. I don’t think you should go there.”
“How are we to get home, then?” Crozier asked.
“I have heard of white people coming from Repulse Bay, only a few years ago. That may be the way to go, back the way you came and then eastwards along the coast. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard about people going that way.”
“We have also heard about white people in that area, or at Igloolik where I wintered with Parry, but people were afraid to take us there. You are our only hope, David. We don’t have the strength to last out another winter like this past one. We need to get home.” Crozier was clearly a spent man. David could tell. He would never make it home no matter which way he ventured. It was simply too far and the season too late. They would get trapped along the way by a winter storm.
“Where are the other expedition members, sir?” David kept using language remembered from being on the Erebus, but which seemed to be out of place now. “Are any still alive?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it. We have seen no one. The Terror went to the bottom last summer. We tried once to sail one of the Erebus’s boats back to Terror Bay, but the winds and ice prevented our getting very far, then we lost the boat when we stopped to hunt. They may have been able to get her out this past summer. The old Erebus was nearly free of the ice the last we saw of her. Fitzjames was to sail her west if he could. He was to wait for our hunting party to return, but, of course, we never did. We couldn’t without our boat. He probably thought us dead like the others and left. I hope so. If he makes it to England, he’ll probably become a hero while we’re left rotting in this God awful wasteland.”
“I hope so, sir. It would be what he wanted to accomplish. He often spoke that this trip would set him up and he could retire from the sea. But you should wait until next year to get to Repulse Bay...”
Crozier was edgy and becoming more and more upset with the lack of a clear offer of help. David recognized this from the early days of the expedition. He recalled the arguments with Franklin and the constant pushing for action that Crozier had shown on numerous occasions. These traits had not left him. “Well, Asher, we will stay the night here with Mr Young and push on south in the morning, with or without him. Damn foolish to remain here. Back went up this river in late August and we can too. Probably meet the rescue party around the next bend!”
Sure enough Crozier made his departure the next morning. Qayaq loaded his pack with as much dried caribou and fish as she was able to find among the families at the camp. It wasn’t much, but David knew it would prolong their lives a few days longer. Perhaps Crozier was right. Maybe there was a rescue party looking for them and this river that Back had travelled down might be a possible route for rescuers to use. It led into the country where the Hudson’s Bay Company maintained supply posts and was mentioned more than once as one of the possible escape routes to be used if anything happened to the ships that first winter they had been beset.
Watching the two men work their way along the edge of the lake, David turned to Qayaq, “We must leave this place. I don’t want to be rescued!” he laughed when she looked at him quizically, wondering what he was going to be rescued from. It soon became clear that others in the camp were glad to be rid of the two sailors. Their edginess and quickness to anger was upsetting the harmony that was so important to life in the camp. Still, the next day, David noticed that several families had found reasons to move. Within a few days, the camp was deserted with little indication of where the people living there had gone.
Two weeks later Crozier and Asham stumbled back into the camp finding no one there. Searching for food, they found a sealskin pouch of dried fish which David had hidden in case they returned, but there was little else.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ilatsiak - 47 - Strangers!

Kayaking was one of David’s favourite activities ever since that first attempt in Greenland about five years ago. Now, almost mid-summer, living with Qayaq’s family, he had actually built his first boat and learned to paddle it properly. It was a boat which differed in many ways from the ones he had seen in Greenland and they people here did not roll them over as he had once seen, still the craft were sleek and fast and used to hunt which David found exciting.
The big lake, not far from the mouth of the Fish River was one of the best places to catch caribou during the summer. It was the practice of the Inuit in the area to collect at favourite crossing spots, and wait for the caribou to appear as they did throughout the summer. Once into the water, it was an easy task to propell their kayaks into the herd and spear the animals. The animals would float and the younger boys would tow the carcasses to shore where they were skinned and the meat butchered. The skins were particularly valuable as the summer advanced, because the hair was just the right length for making clothing suitable for the winter. A double layer would keep a person warm and comfortable and last several years if taken care of properly.
David and Qayak enjoyed this time with her family. To them it was an adventure, a break from the often hard times people had to go through at other times of the year. Now there was food in abundance and more importantly, many kinds of food: fish, caribou, berries, birds and sometimes even musk-ox, which they called omingmait, the bearded ones, could be had easily.
• • •

As he approached the shore, David saw strangers in the little camp. Two men, dressed in skin clothing, but easily recognizable as not Inuit. Their body language was all wrong. He hesitated. Who were these people? Why were they here? Were they ship people looking for him? Had Agayuq not said at some point that he’d heard that all the ship people had died? Had he only imagined that? What was happening?
From the shore people began to wave out to him. “Come to shore,” they began calling. “People have come. “Strange people. You can talk with them.” David moved his kayak into the shallows and carefully stepped out. As he stood up, the two strangers began to smile.
“David! You are still alive...” It was Crozier. David looked at him, bearly able to recognize him or believe he was looking at a man he was certain had died with the others. He looked at the other man standing beside him, but could not place him. His face was sunken in, the eyes blank and expressionless, his beard grey and unwashed. “You remember John Asham, of the Erebus?”
David stared at the man again, but found nothing familiar. “Yes... You could do magic tricks, wasn’t that you?” David knew the name, but not the man in front of him. “But... I thought, I mean. How did you get here? Where have you been? It’s been... so long... years...”
“We could say the same, David. You have been thought dead by many. Many who, God rest them, are now probably dead themselves. Have you see any others?”
“No. You mean the expedition crews? No. No one.” David found the conversation frightening. He didn’t want it to continue, didn’t want to hear about what had happened to the others. He turned to lift the kayak from the water and began moving up the beach towards the tents, then thought better of it. He lowered the boat to the ground again and turned to Crozier. “Why are you here?” he asked directly, something he found uncomfortable and odd to do anymore. It was no longer his custom.
“We heard there were survivors in this area. We are collecting a group to head south, up the river and home.” Crozier motioned to the water and the river which flowed into its southern end.
“But there is no one.” David repeated.
“Come with us and help us out of here. You can talk with these people better than we can. We need your help, David...”
“I can’t go, Sir. How did you get here? You can just keep on going up the river.”
“We want to take the route to Hudson’s Bay. That’s why we need a quide who can speak English. That’s why you need to come.” Crozier was getting insistent. David could see there was desperation building in his tone of voice.
“I don’t know that way.” David looked at him directly, no longer avoiding his eyes. “I could ask people here, but I cannot go with you. It is late, maybe too late to try travelling in that direction. Hudson Bay may be too far.”
Crozier stared back at David. “You must come. You are one of us. What do you mean you cannot come home?”
It was like meeting Fairholm that day several years ago now. Back then it had seemed possible, at least for a while, to think about returning home to England, but David knew when he had said good-by to Pocock and left the sleeping camp that he was home. There would not be a need to return to England. “I am home, sir. This is my home now. These are my people. You can go, but I will stay here.”
“As you wish, but we must leave soon. Unfortunately our boat as been distroyed by these people and we are forced to walk.”
“Distroyed, sir?”
“Yes, we left it to hunt inland for caribou and on our return these idiot people had found it and pulled away much of the planking making it useless. We’vee spent the first part of the summer with some people at the mouth of the river, but are now walking out of here. We need your help getting east...” Crozier repeated.
By this time, the three men, speaking in a strange language had attracted the attention of the remaining people in the camp. Some of the bolder ones began making comments to David about the strangers, the way they looked and acted. Who were they, they wanted to know. What were they doing here? Where were they going? David picked up the kayak again and with it on his shoulder, he approached the tents and set the boat on its supports up off the ground where the wind would dry the delicate caribou skin sheathing out of the reach of the always hungry dogs.