Well, I again have been so involved that I have hardly had time to use the Internet! I had an unexpected layover in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, due to fog farther north in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, which meant I met an elder named Roger who was on his way home from a shift at an NWT diamond mine. I also met a new Dene friend and caught 20 northern pike in less than an hour in a small spawning stream! Ahh the north!
When I reached Kugluktuk on Friday May 25, I learned that it was the last day of school, so nearly the entire town was going camping for the weekend via snowmobiles across the 3-foot thick sea ice! (Many people work during the week so must return Sunday evening, although many also subsist on social assistance payments and hunt as they please or are able). So I ran around like a mad Qablunaq (white person, the term may be derogatory) trying to join on a trip. Roger had earlier said I could join him hunting, but he snowmobiled away on the ice just as I was going to his house to say yes! I ran down to another place people go onto the ice, and, thanks to the kind help of other Kugluktukmiut (people of Kugluktuk), met a man named Kanok, who was waiting with his snowmobile on the shore while his wife Wendy and 4 kids prepared in town. A quick ride via ATV back to the house where I was staying to get dressed, and then off across the ice in a wooden box tied to a sled behind the snowmobile! It turns out Kanok is Roger and wife Lena’s son in law and was going to a small cabin on the same island as Roger! I ended up spending most of the next two weeks with the four of them and their children! They let me tag along goose hunting on the mainland by the Rae River to the west, where Kanok and I and his brothers spent many hours chatting, playing cards, and doing magic tricks while crouched in a stone blind hoping geese would fly over head. Once I went with Roger to harvest caribou above Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River (where Chipewyan and Dene men massacred Copper Inuit during Samuel Hearne’s expedition in 1771). The caribou were not afraid of the snowmobile in the least! In addition to shooting, skinning and gutting two caribou, we had a bit of excitement pulling the snowmobile out of two feet of slush and water into which we inadvertently drove a number of times (it being the time of spring melt).
A few days later, we all drove east along a chain of islands set into sky blue water that sat up to a foot deep on top of the sea ice. Snowmelt! Terrifying to snowmobile on what seemed to me like the empty ocean, where a hole could be anywhere! We camped in protected bays in islands where low ponds attracted traveling waterfowl, running out of the tents to call and shoot the birds as soon as we heard their cries. One day Kanok and I drove snowmobiles 15 km or so farther to the northeast to look for goose eggs on ponds in the middle of snowless, rocky islands. This entailed learning how to drive in slush, cross cracks in the sea ice with only water below, waterskip across deep areas, and bomb up 10 meter high snowdrifts onto the island tops, where we circled the ponds on bare ground, rocking the snowmobiles back and forth on the bumpy tundra vegetation. I tried my best to avoid boulders, streams, and bedrock, until we finished our survey without eggs (an unusually late spring this year!) and I had to follow Kanok off across 500 m of pure bedrock, rife with angles, stair steps, melt water streams, erratics, and steep ledges. All of this with a kid also on the snowmobile! If you can snowmobile on rocks, you can snowmobile on snow! So, it seemed incredibly easy once we returned to the ice and I took the sled and all the children in tow! Such trust! Fortunately, despite a low fog that had dropped, we made it back safely, thanks to a GPS and Kanok’s knowledge of the area, in which he has traveled since he was young.
Back at the island cabins, I helped hang caribou meat sliced thinly by Lena and Wendy onto open-air racks to dry. A few days later we skinned and separated the leg bones, broke them open with a hammer or rock, and scooped out the marrow with the back of a spoon. Eaten raw with the meat that was now dry like jerky (but fresh and nutritious with no added salt or smoke), this was one of the most delicious foods I’ve eaten all year. Rich like butter, yet incredibly light, the marrow was filling and nutritious, if a bit fatty for today’s lower calorie expenditures.
In the past few days the river has broken through the dam of ice at its mouth, washing over the sea ice and wearing it away. For 300 or 400 meters away from shore the sea ice is gone, with a muddy churning river flowing out into its delta instead. Now people will put in their small boats and drift down with the current to catch arctic char in nets. Spring and 5 degree C weather have arrived rapidly, breaking the ice MUCH quicker than is normal!
As usual, I have been incredibly fortunate to meet kind people who adopted me temporarily as a son, allowed me to go out with them and their family onto the land, and shared their homes and stories. As in all the places I have visited, the people rise to beauty and meaning in spite of hardship. Here, the most commonly mentioned issue is the aftermath of residential schools in which children were stripped of their language and heritage (taken far away from their family igloos and skin tents for many years, abused in the process, etc.). Today, people live in subsidized southern homes, which seems to disincentivize work, for rent rises to match salary. Snow machines and other equipment are expensive so many cannot go to the land to harvest country food and must rely on food from others or store-bought, unhealthy, and also expensive southern food. Alcohol and drugs are abused. Suicides affect nearly every family, and continue to increase. I do not pretend to be able to understand or accurately describe any of the current issues, so I will not try. The scant time I have spent in each community, or visiting each indigenous group, is by no means sufficient to gain that sort of insight. But what I can say is that most of the peoples I have visited this year share some aspects of a suite of challenges, most of which are shared with the southern regions, with the non-indigenous peoples in these countries, but perhaps to a lesser intensity. These include alcohol and drug abuse, loss of language, dietary shortcomings/insecurity, loss of traditional knowledge about key species and environmental patterns (in large part due to climate change), suicides, sexual and physical abuse, land rights claims that are being slowly addressed, encroachment from extractive industries (which brings pluses as well as minuses), and on and on. All of these are connected and appear overwhelming, yet somehow, from the great difficulty, people draw forth moments of beauty, lifetimes of determination, and hope for the future of their peoples.
The men and women who have shared with me their sleds, sleighs, snowmobiles, tents, chums, lavvus, huts, cabins, homes, clothes, animals, meals, stories, knowledge, land, and lives as I ephemerally joined them this year, all share a collective memory of their homelands that draws from a much deeper history than that of us southerners, whether explorers, exploiters, or do-gooders. In my short year, I have only felt a minute portion of this current of knowledge, spirit, and energy, and I cannot succinctly express how I have changed as a result. But I can say that we have much to learn from, and much to redress with our northern neighbors, and the way to begin will be to slow down and to listen.
This will be my final blog post. Thank you for your support and occasional viewership, which have made it worthwhile for me to share my solitary experience with you as best as I could. If you would like to speak with me about anything, please do, as I have no concrete plans for the future. For now, I will slow down and listen.