Friday, April 8, 2011

Nunavut... our land

Out on the land at last, thanks to Sam Pudlat school. I just have to take a moment to thank Sean (once again) for his foresight on the whole "survival suit" thing. It sure got a workout today! I think I was one of the very few "Qallunait" (non-Inuit) who didn't get cold at all. We did end up having a gorgeous, sunny day for our trip out on the land, but it was freezing when the wind was blowing and even colder hanging on for dear life at breakneck speeds across ice fields, frozen lakes, mountains and hills.

Now I know I look excited in the picture and I can honestly say that this was one of the most amazing things I've ever done in my life, but I also have to say that the 50 km ride out to "Fish Lake" was one of the scariest and most nerve wracking things I've ever done.

At around eight thirty we gathered at the school and everyone who had a snowmobile or a Kamotik (home-made sled) started packing everything and everyone up. As you can tell from the picture, the sled I was in was really just a plywood box on homemade runners. Emma and I grabbed some gym mats to put in the sled, but they didn't fit very well and we were kind of awkwardly packed in.
No sooner had we gotten across the frozen harbour and up onto the land but we capsized completely. The snowmobile dragged the kamotik for a litttle bit, but luckily we weren't going fast and Emma and I just kind of tumbled out on our sides. Everyone stopped to make sure we were all right and we heaved the wooden crate back over, packed ourselves back in and continued on.

At this point the cavalcade began to pick up speed and I started to get really nervous. I had drawn the "short straw", and was facing backwards, sitting at the very front of the kamotik, where the lack of shock absorbers meant that I was dropped unceremoniously over every bump and turn. I couldn't see where we were going, and had to rely on Emma for cues about how to lean to keep this contraption from spilling over again. It felt as if I was sitting in a wooden box that was being dropped about two feet every two and a half minutes and manhandled around corners, over mountains and through narrow passageways. Not to mention the fact that the wind from the speed was bitingly cold.

Once we got over the first part of land and started out over another frozen harbour, our driver kicked it up a notch and I thought we were going to die.

Just when I thought we couldn't possibly go any faster, we heard a noise and the kamotik slowed down and then stopped completely. Emma started laughing and jumped out, pointing ahead of us at the receding snowmobile, which was happily continuing on the track without us, oblivious to the fact that the hitch had broken.

Pretty soon it was just me and Emma and the kamotik, with not a snowmobile in sight! We laughed and shrugged our shoulders, hoping they would figure it out eventually, and sure enough, they did. They came back, jury-rigged the thing back together and we headed out again at breakneck speeds. Needless to say, by the time we got to Fish Lake about an hour later, I was ready for a rest!

Once I recovered from the journey, which really didn't take long for me (It took a little longer for Emma who had gotten quite cold and needed help getting out and activating some hand and body warmers she had brought), I started to look around. I just couldn't believe how incredible it was. Once again, I'm glad that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I think this experience is worth an entire library's worth of words.
Some people started setting up a tent and others got to work digging holes for fishing. Most of the Inuit had holes they fish at quite often, so they only required a little bit of ice-breaking and slush removal, but we had brought a big gas-powered auger with us to help dig a few new ones. The ice was unbelievably thick... on more than one occasion the auger wasn't long enough to reach the water!
It was really cool to see them work the auger- it would dig deep into the ice and then they would have to haul it up to clear the crushed ice. At one point they hit water, hauled up the auger and threw a huge mound of slush and water up out of the hole and all over the ice.

The best part about fishing, though, was watching the Inuit set up their holes and patiently wait, bobbing their lines up and down to attract the fish. They scooped out the slush with their bare hands quite often, and laid on their stomachs for hours to look down into the hole. if you looked in the hole, you could see the bottom of the lake, and the idea is you watch for a fish to go by and then you jerk the line.

I asked Mary (one of the elders who had come with us) if she had put anything on the end of the line, and she said "No, you don't have to. Sometimes I put a little piece of orange peel and today I put some white plastic."

She was pretty quiet, but I offered her a granola bar and she let me look after her line while she ate it. Then she started telling me her fishing stories... According to her story, she was fishing one day and caught thirty fish in one hour. Apparently everyone who was with her started digging holes near hers, but no one was able to catch anywhere near as many fish. Now there may be a bit of exaggeration going on, since I think she only caught one tiny little fish today, but it was nice to hear the story anyway.

We stayed out on the lake for about five hours. Ina, the school ESL teacher and trip organizer, had brought bannock, caribou stew, Atlantic Char and hot chocolate, which they kept piping hot all day on a couple of burners in the tent. It all tasted incredible... especially seasoned with all the fresh air.

I didn't have any luck fishing, but I did manage to score a snowmobile ride out further into the wilderness. Cecil, the high school principal, took me out about three or four kilometres past the lake, up onto a mountain. After surviving a pretty harrowing and uncomfortable ride on a kamotik, the cushioned snowmobile seat with its gentle, shock-absorbing ride seemd like a luxury cadillac. And the million-dollar view is something I will remember forever.

When we got back to the camp, lots of people were still hard at work fishing. I couldn't believe how long some of the women could lay on their stomachs in the snow and just watch for fish!

All good things must come to an end, and eventually we had to pack everything back up for the long ride home. I was kind of dreading the bumping and banging, but I didn't want to seem like a wimp, so I put on my brave face and hopped back in the kamotik.

We only drove a short way before we stopped to check on another group that had been fishing at a different lake. One of them had found an arctic fox along the way, and being a complete tourist, I had to take a picture. I mean how often am I going to have the opportunty to see and arctic fox this close? It was quite small, and had apparently been injured, possibly in a trap. The guy who found it was going to take it home and use the fur... it sure was soft! When we were ready to start on our journey again Emma offered to change seats with me, and after a reasonably convincing amount of protesting (I thought), I agreed.

Well I wish I could describe the incredible journey back! Firstly, Emma said, "How in the heck did you do this?? I can't hack it- I just have to see where we're going!". She proceeded to turn around, but even turned the other way, she agreed that the bumps were excruciating. I felt really bad for her, but a little vindicated... I was beginning to think I was a wimp!

And as for me? Well, I had the most incredible ride through the most amazing scenery... it was like being in another world. The bumps were no where near as bad sitting in the back, and I could see this frozen wasteland stretched out for miles in front of me. I was sorry to see Cape Dorset appear on the horizon about a half an hour later... I could have gone on that way for days.

The kamotik ride out was definitely a little rough, and I just had to take a picture of my "war wounds" when I got back to prove it. Both arms got pretty banged up from the hard plywood sides.

I also took a picture of the two Atlantic Char we managed to get from one of the guys who had more luck fishing than we did. They were huge and you just can't get them any fresher!

All in all, I have to re-iterate... This was a trip of a lifetime. I am so incredibly grateful to the folks at Sam Pudlat school and especially Ina, who organized the whole thing and David and Frances for making sure I felt welcome on this amazing experience. I had no idea what I was in for when I prayed for good weather last night as the dancing bears and kids sent me to sleep, but I will be saying my own private "thank you"s to whoever answered for a long time.

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