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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Illatsiak - 67 - Qallunaq Come from the East

The remainder of the journey to Qayaq’s people on the Fish River had gone quickly, almost as if David’s actions burying the past had also cleared up their traveling problems as well. On their arrival, it was decided to hold a party to celebrate Qayaq’s new baby and also the successful fishing season.
The children began falling asleep from exhaustion around the walls of the tent, but for the adults, the dancing and stories continued into the night. An old man’s much younger wife began to speak. She began by lamenting the loss of the shiny spoons she had been given one day about a year or so ago. She had had to give them, she said, to another strange white man who had come to Pelly Bay from even farther to the east that spring. It had seemed like a good trade at first, but, now it was the shiny spoons she remembered and she wished she still had them. They were so pretty and had interesting markings carved into them which she liked to think had magical powers. Then she began to tell a story of meeting the whiteman from Repulse Bay.
It was at a time when she and her husband had been living with the Netsilingmiut near Pelly Bay. It was late during the winter when her son had been born. Two men, one of whom could speak their language had walked into their camp and asked them to come and visit them. At first they didn’t want to go, but several of the Netsilingmiut knew people from Repulse Bay and decided to go and see if they had come. In the end everyone, all 17 or so went to see the people from Repulse Bay and the whitemen they had brought with them. The white man was dressed just like them in caribou skins, not in strange clothes like the ship men who have died several year previously in their area. This whiteman was very tall, she remembered, and had lots of whiskers, but not too much hair on top of his head. He didn’t speak their language. He wanted to know all about their land, how the sea coast went, where the rivers were and things like that. He knew about Ross’s ships. He wanted someone to stay with him and show him our land, especially here around Boothia, but no one wanted to go. The people were suspicious and afraid. She said people were afraid this stranger was going to punish them for not helping save the sailors. We were hunting seals then, she said. It wasn’t a good time to be traveling.
At that point, another man broke in and told how he had heard about this whiteman too. He began a similar story which told how this man had managed to travel into the Boothia and how he had asked many questions about the two ships where the men had died. He told of how several stories had been given to the Repulse Bay man about the ship men and some of the places where they had died. Finally he told how many things taken from the ships had been given to him. The man was very happy to collect these things and asked many times to be given more. In the end he had to return to Repulse Bay, but after that more spoons and forks and other things were taken there to be traded. Some things were lost because the man left Repulse Bay on a little boat and never returned for the things brought there for him. The man ended his story by saying this whiteman had become very upset when he was told about how the ship men had begun to eat each other. It was after hearing these things that he had left and not come back. It was never nice to think about, but sometimes people had to eat their dead in order to survive themselves.
David listened to these stories, but now more than ever before, they seemed un-real somehow. He no longer felt they were part of them. It was so hard to actually see them as being real or meaningful in any way. They were no longer stories about real people like them. It was odd to be wondering about men who had died so long ago, or had been in the area so long ago. At least, David wondered why would white people be interested now after all these years? Many of the people who had seen them were old now if not already dead themselves. Why had the whitemen not come when the ship men were still alive? Maybe they would not have died had white people come back for them earlier. Maybe they would have all died anyway. It was too big a puzzle for him to wonder about.
Finally, he got up, pulled his boots on and slipped his outer parka over his head and went outside. The wind was calming and he could see the night sky again above full of stars, the homes of all the ones who had died and left this world. Inside the snowhouse several people thought about the stories they had just heard. Inside they wanted to say something, but it wasn’t polite to openly criticize. Instead, they said nothing. One man began singing an old song “Ai, ai, ya....ya, ee, yaa, ya...” The mood changed and suddenly people smiled again and found they still had the strength to dance again. Another man passed the skin drum to the singer who immediately began beating it along the rim with the padded baton, twisting and turning as he sang.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ilatsiak - 66 - The Cache

Returning to the cache, David suddenly had an idea. These men, his old shipmates, needed to be honoured in some way for what they had been through. They needed to be buried, they needed someone to speak for them at their graves, but how? There was no possible way to find their bodies now that years had passed. He could try to bury those bodies that he knew about, but what of the others? There had been so many. Then the thought came suddenly clear. He’s bury the log books, their memories and dreams! He bury the books at sea in honour of the sailors! Returning the books and the copper cylinder to the barrel. After filling the remaining space with rocks, he did his best to refasten the hoops and the top. Carefully rolling the barrel down the slope and onto the ice, David then dragged it out as far as he dared on the rotting ice. Coming to an open lead, he tried to the best of his ability to say a few words for his departed shipmates, and then slid the barrel into the water. It floated briefly, but as the water entered through the cracks between the staves, it slowly sank out of sight.
For David, the action produced an overwhelming sense of peace and relief. Saying goodbye to his past and the people he had known seem to change so much. The guilt and confusion which he had been keeping buried deep inside himself was gone for the first time in ages. Now he was truly free to be an Inuk, a father and husband, and if he wanted to believe it, a shaman if that’s what the people wanted.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ilatsiak - 65 - Reading the Past

The trip south a few months later to visit Qayaq’s Utkuh people in the Fish River area seemed to be plagued with problems from the beginning. The further west they traveled, the less snow they found and they had to make numerous detours to keep some snow under the sled’s runners. Finally arriving at the narrows, it was clear that the usually firm ice was too far into its melting phase to risk the crossing. They would have to wait until fall or perhaps, if they were lucky someone might come along with a large skin covered umiaq big enough to get them across. A few people had these boats, but none were on this side of the narrows at the moment.
Instead, it was decided that David would go hunting for caribou and seals along the coast, while Qayaq and Tulukaq remained at the narrows to wait in case an umiaq showed up.
David had seldom been along the part of the coast he now walked. It was one of those places that his people tended to avoid, even more since the white sailors had all died there. Even David gave the bay where he had discovered the tents full of dead men some years ago, a wide birth, convincing himself that he’d more likely see caibou further inland than along the coast at that spot. Heading further west than he had ever gone before, David was fascinated by a pillar he could see on a point of land ahead of him. By the end of the second day, he reached it. It was obviously built by white people as its shape and size were unlike the inuksuit frequently made by Inuit. This one was about three feet in diameter and came up to his shoulder in height. Built of the usual flat, brown stones that lay scattered everywhere, he could see that it was not that old compared to most markers seen around the country.
Knowing that canisters of information were frequently placed in these cairns, David began pulling rocks out here and there to see if anything had been placed in this one. Sure enough, he soon found a small wooden barrel, about 18 inches across and double that in length. It was the kind that many food stuffs on board the ship had come in. David removed more rocks until he freed the barrel from its rocky nest. Pulling it out, he found it heavier than he expected and he allowed it to fall to the ground. As it hit the ground, the barrel hoops gave way and the contents spilled out. There was a copper cylinder, now turned a greenish colour and two large books, which David recognized as the two ship’s logs! Opening the one from the Erebus first, he began with the last entry at the end. Now he’s learn the truth.
As he read, he once again started to feel his old illness returning. He had thought he was free of it, but here it was, coming back to him. He had to stop frequently and take a walk out to the end of the point. He would sit there and stare at the glistening sea ice covered with old melt pools and even small streams which rapidly carried more melt water off the top and into the cracks which appeared here and there. In a way it was calming just to sit there. Each time he returned to read some more, the nausea would return. Finally, David gave up. There was nothing he could have done to alter what had happened, the crushing they had taken in the ice, the abandonment several years ago, nor the desperate attempt to break out, one group heading to the Fish River under Crozier and the other led by Fitzjames heading westward to link up with Franklin’s Point Turnaround and then on to Alaska and the whalers who’d be there. Both groups had taken modified ships boats which had been dragged overland from points further north. The last entry written by Fitzjames after Crozier’s party had departed, revealed that a small group had rebelled and had returned to the Erebus. They feared leaving the ships and Fitjames gave them responsibility for guarding the ships while he was away. It was clear he knew they wouldn’t survive, but he had little choice. It was that or admit a mutiny had occurred.
The Terror, it appeared had been crushed and pushed into the shallows and destroyed during the third spring in the ice forcing the small group of ‘mutineers’ onto the Erebus.
Fitzjames had set out from the cairn with the remaining small crew of mostly ill-fit men for his voyage west. David knew immediately that they were too few in number to have been able to make it very far. There were only sufficient to man the oars with no one to spare. He wondered how far they had managed to get. The boat he had found the previous summer not far from the Fish River was obviously one of the ones used by Crozier. Those men had not got very far either it seemed, but it appeared they were crewed mostly by the most severely weakened, the men who would never have managed the trip west in open boats. It was hoped that once they had benefited from a month or two of fresh food reputedly found in the Fish River mouth, they would follow Fitzjames west. David wondered if any had. Remembering his meeting with Crozier, he didn’t look like it.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ilatsiak - 64 - Agayuq’s Visit

During the late winter, both David and Agayuq’s family were once again camping in the Matty Island region to hunt seals. They’d spent the winter moving back and forth between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula, moving with the seals, being carefuly not to hunt too often in the same area for fear of angering the goddess of the sea who sent them seals when it pleased her to do so.
One day when David arrived back in Agayuq’s camp from an multi-day hunting trip alone, he found no one was about. Entering his snowhouse he discovered Qayaq and Tulugak 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 from the snow house entrance.
“You have returned, but things are not well.”
David opened his eyes and looked down at the man squatting a few feet away from him. “The ship people have died... everywhere,” Agayuq said. They are all gone...”
“I have heard this too.” David stared at Agayuq with unaccustomed frankness. “People have told me this during the winter you disappeared,” Agayuq continued, “but I was shy to tell you. When I was in Boothia, people from King William Island visited and told me the ship people were not well, they were dying everywhere. They said that some had died even two summer’s ago.”
“I heard stories too. people talked about the ships on my way here last Fall. I wish you had told me these things long ago. Maybe we could have helped them.”
“Yes I should have told you, but how could we have helped the ship people? They are not like us. They don’t live our way or eat our food.”
“But I do... or I did.” David whispered back.
“Yes, you did, that is so. But you are us now. You were given to us. We are too few to have helped the ship people. There was little we could have done. They were so many. Their sickness and strange behaviour scared many people, so we stayed away from them. They weren’t like the white people who came here years ago.”
David closed his eyes. Agayuq started again. He obviously was finding it difficult to talk about this subject. He kept his voice to a whisper and stayed crouching in the entrance tunnel of the snow house. “I sent you away to live with Qayaq so you wouldn’t know. I didn’t want you to find out. I didn’t want you to get sick and die, like them. Maybe I should have told you...”
“No. I went to meet Qayaq’s family. It wasn’t your choice...” But, for the first time, David saw the cunning in Agayuq and realised how easily he had fallen into Agayuq’s plan. “I had to go. I wanted to be with Qayaq. It wasn’t your doing. There’s nothing to feel badly about.” he lied, yet knowing it was also the truth. “Whatever happened to the sailors, happened slowly, over several years, during the time they were frozen in the ice. Now it’s all over. There’s nothing that can be done anymore.”
Agayuq was right about a lot of things. About David’s wanting to be with Qayaq, the rightness of their union, and now about the sailors’ fate. The expedition members would not have accepted help. He still remembered 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 were. There seemed to be so little common ground. Even if Agayuq and others went and offered help it would have been scoft at and they would have been rebuffed. It would have been pointless. Now it was too late. From what he had learned the previous summer and fall, most, if not all of the crew had died. Still David couldn’t help but think that so few bodies had been found. What had become of all the others? Had they been able to escape? Were they still alive somewhere? Agayuq just shook his head, as if knowing what David was thinking. He then turned around and left the family sleeping under their skins. David wondered at the sudden remarks his father has just made, but eventually, weary from the long hunt, he fell asleep.