July 18, 1999
Kayak Nunavut 99
Published July 18th, 1999
Our attempts to leave Mittimatalik have been thwarted. It is approaching 11 pm and under the 24-hour Arctic sun we stand at the shoreline of town and look across the still frozen waters of Pond Inlet to our destination Bylot Island. We are so ready to leave. It is not procrastination Marcus that keeps us here. Gear has been carefully chosen and packed, kayaks outfitted, skins for the kayaks riveted and secured, food considered and measured. The weather has been perfect for days but is no longer favourable for the sled dogs to pull as the ice has become sharp and cuts their paws. We have shut one window; a couple of others remain open.
In the past the hunters would have made bearded seal skin booties for their dogs to extend the sledding season. More recently canvas has been used. The ice after all remains fast and thick through Navy Board and Pond Inlets and Eclipse Sound that separate north Baffin from Bylot and will remain here until the end of July. But the dogs have now been tethered for the summer or dropped off on an island where they can roam free and escape the mosquitoes on hot days. Fewer people use dogs now, although there has been a resurgence over the past decade or two. Snowmobiles replaced many of the teams in the 1970s.
But still, it had been a snowmobile and komatiq (traditional sled) that we had arranged to take us out to the floe edge off the southeast corner of Bylot Island. A notice was put on community radio last night asking if anyone would drive us to floe edge. Someone dropped by this morning to say they would and arrangements were made for him to pick us up at the hotel at 5:30 pm. At this time of year travel is often done in the evening after the winds have abated, the light lower and more favourable, and the ice hardened up after softening in the warmer daytime sun. But 5:30 came and went and by 7 when Mike went looking for him on the beach he had, quite simply, left without us. Later we again made arrangements with someone else to take us out. He'd let us know, he said, after he spoke to his brother who was sleeping. But the next morning, he too had left without a word.
I have thought in the past that Pond Inlet, like other Arctic communities was a place of cultural contradictions. Not only the dog teams and snowmobiles run the traditional side by side with the modern. Celebration days include centuries-old games of fortitude and perseverance like ear pulling, one-foot high kick, and knuckle hop as well as drum dancing and throat singing along with a dance at the community centre of hard rock, rap, and (god help us) the macareena. A teenage mother, baby in tow, smoking cigarettes in front of the Co-op or Northern store, wears Nikes, hip-slung jeans, a poor boy cap and an amautiq, a woman's traditional coat with huge hood that doubles as a baby carrier. This combination of new and old comes as a disappointment to many whites that venture north with a romantic vision of Inuit in furs and skins not goretex and fibre-fill. 'Such a shame they are losing their culture' is a sentiment held by some.
But these cultural combinations are no more contradictory or incongruous than modern and traditional combinations are in our own southern culture. Despite our modern technology we still find a role, for example, for a backyard laundry line. We don't think of hanging clothes out to dry as particularly quaint and pine for a time 'of purity' when there were no dryers or dry cleaning. Our southern desire to lock the Inuit into pre-turn-of the-century ways serves our purposes, and denies them conveniences, luxuries and changing fashion that we have come to expect. Nellie Cournoyea said in 1986, "When someone says 'I want to practise my own culture,' it doesn't mean going back to freezing in igloos and hunting with bows and arrows. It means regaining the control we had over our lives before They glamorize and romaticize the Inuit and give us status the others don't have. Canadians like to talk about us eating frozen meat and living in the cold. It gives Canada something that other countries don't have. Everybody likes the Inuit."
I was reminded of this a few years ago while on a trip to Arctic Bay on Baffin's northwest corner. I was readying a qummaq, a traditional summer dwelling, down on the shore to be slept in that night by clients Mike was leading on a kayaking trip. It is a dank, low-lying structure traditionally made of sod and skins with whalebone crossbeams. I was spreading caribou and musk-ox skins to cushion the sleeping platforms when an Inuk, on the shore with his dog team, struck up a conversation. "What are you doing?" he asked. "Preparing the qummaq to sleep in." I replied. "You know there's a hotel in town, eh?" "Yah, but you know we qallunaat like this traditional thing", I said, apologising for our apparent stupidity. "Gawd", he said turning back to the dogs, "I'm glad we don't live in those anymore."
We have had our misconceptions about Inuit culture and they have had theirs about our culture. Minnie Aodla Freeman, speaking at a celebration in Yellowknife a few years back 'A Century of Canada's Arctic Islands', said " Because it was not known who they really were and where they came from, Inuit called them (whites) arnasiutiit - 'Women Kidnappers'. They were described as being tall people, with long blonde hair, who smoked white pipes I used to get scared to go very far from our settlement by myself However old they are, those arnasiutiit has a tendency to kidnap women and if anyone touched them, like shaking hands, the person who was shaking hands, the person who was touched usually died not long after the event " The unknown on both sides has given rise to all kinds of assumptions and misunderstanding.
Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding that resulted in us still being here in town. But, with some assistance from Dave Cook at Toonoonik Sahoonik outfitters we have arranged with one of the community's respected hunters, Hamm Kadloo to take us as far as Elijah Panipakoochoo's camp near Mt Herodier on the Baffin side. From Elijah's camp, Mike and I will pull our smaller komatiq with our kayaks mounted on top. The ice is still 1-2 metres thick. There is about another 2 weeks before it breaks up and we need only about 4 days if we are to walk the whole distance. We are here, after all, to kayak, so when we do finally reach open water we will cache the komatiq for later retrieval and start to paddle. At the leads (open cracks in the ice) we can float the unit as a whole across the water. At this point we expect to go with the komatiq as far as Beloil Island on the Baffin side or Button Point or Cape Graham Moore on the Bylot side.
We take our gear down to the shoreline. Already, where fresh creek water flows into salt water, the annual sea ice has given up its hold on the land. The ice 'foot' as it is known has stepped away from the shore. Where it has torn its seam the hunters hopscotch across the little pans of ice floating in this moat to the still fast and still thick ice where their snowmobiles and komatiqs lie haphazardly parked. The ice is littered with broken murre eggs, brought back from the cliffs near Cape Graham Moore, and seal carcasses brought back from the floe edge. Behind us, on the hill above town, a life-size Christ hangs nailed to a cross, a gift from France that arrived in the 1930s with the Oblate missionaries. The sun behind him throws a fiery halo about his head. Elsewhere in the bible he is known as the 'lamb of God', in the Inuktitut-language bible he is portrayed as 'God's seal pup'. The ice over the water and the snowcapped peaks of Sirmilik glacier soften to lavender and baby pink. To the south the weather is changing but we are confident the westerly winds will keep it behind us for now. We have a long but exciting journey ahead of us. We are finally on our way.
By Pamela Coulston
Published July 18, 1999
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