July 25, 1999
Kayak Nunavut 99
Published July 25th, 1999
We are, I think, exhausted although I'm too tired to be sure. We were finally able to leave Mittimatalik a couple of nights ago, towed by Hamm's snowmobile across the annual ice still fast in Pond Inlet. We are on route to circumnavigate and explore by kayak, trekking and ski touring Bylot Island. Hamm, a steady man, wears a fur-lined cap pulled low over his ears, a bomber jacket with the logo of a snowmobile company advertising on the billboard of his back, hip waders up to his thighs. We were shunted together in an arctic train: snowmobile, then covered komatiq (sled) with gear, food and us and finally an open komatiq with our kayaks strapped on deck. Engine, cargo, and caboose making its way across frozen tracks. We made our camp on the ice at 4:30 a.m. near Elijah Panipakoochoo's camp at the base of Mt Herodier.
A few hours after we finally went to sleep the wind began to pick up and the kayaks to buck at the end of their lines. We heard one slide across the ice and Mike went out to ratchet down the 6" ice screws. Our tent had been pitched on a good section of ice, which by morning and high tide has shrunk to a yard of about 20'x20' of dry ice.
When we woke we spent time visiting with Elijah, his wife Rachel and two grandchildren. Elijah has pulled his snowmobile up on land. He is finished for the season. He is, he says, too old to jump so many leads. When the ice breaks he will launch his boat and hunt from it. On the line behind their tent are strung char like laundry to dry to a jerky. They are flayed open with the tail uncut, so that each side hangs over the line. The meat is scored in cubes to increase the surface area the wind can dry. He gives us one to take on our journey.
From Elijah's camp we began to haul our kayaks mounted on the komatiq. In all, the rig weighs about 250 kgs, or about twice our combined body weight. Theoretically it should pull fairly true and clean over the ice but we have purchased one that is a scow. Fine to be pulled by snowmobile, not so fine by a human. It allows much time for reflection and my thought was 'Where once I was just an ass, now I am also a mule'.
The komatiq is an incredible tool of traditional technology. The larger ones are about 20' long and consist of two wooden runners with upturned tips, lying parallel about 4' apart, across them lie 2x4' slats like railway ties. These cross bars are lashed on to the runners, never nailed, to retain flexibility as the sled undulates over uneven ice and snow surfaces, working at the same time both together and individually. Here, high above the tree line they were made, if one was so lucky, by driftwood that would have moved for years on currents from as far away as Siberia and Alaska.
Since the 1820s, the Tununirmiut (the people of this north Baffin region) have had several shipwrecks at their disposal, most notably a whaling vessel shipwrecked on the north side of Bylot near Maud Bight at Umiarjuavinirtalik. It has provided generations of Inuit with hard English oak from which they made sled parts, ulus (women's knife) and other tools.
In 1987, Mike traveled with four others from Baffin Island over Ellesmere to Greenland by dog team and komatiq. He said that in the past, lacking found wood, the sleds would often be made from whalebone, caribou antler, muskox horn, caribou skins stuffed with mud and water and frozen into runners and even lashed with frozen char.
The journey, which also included team leader Rene Wissink and three Inuit from Igloolik: Paul Apak, Mike Immaroitoq and Theo Ikkumaq, retraced the last great Inuit migration back in the mid-1850s. The migration was led by Qillaq, reputed to be an angakkuq, or shaman. Most of the research on Qillaq was done by Father Guy Mary-Rouselliere, the former priest of the Catholic church in Pond Inlet who died in his church when it caught fire in the mid-1990s.
Qillaq's friend Uqi somehow talked Qillaq into killing a man named Ikieraping because Uqi was worried about being avenged for killing Ikieraping's brother. With a murder on the head of each, it was time to leave the south (in the area now known as Cumberland Sound). Qillaq's influence as a community leader and shaman was apparently strong enough to convince 50-60 others to follow him and Uqi.
They headed north, stopping in the region we now find ourselves, Mittimatalik and Bylot Island, where lived a sister Arnatsiaq, who was also an angakkuq. In about 1850, further problems with Ikieraping's relatives forced the group to move north again. They headed across Lancaster Sound and stayed on Devon Island for, it's believed, eight years, making benefit of a supply cache left there by the British vessel Phoenix. Then on the Ellesmere Island, deep into Smith Sound and finally into Greenland, which at that point is only 45 kms from what are now Canadian lands.
They arrived in Greenland in 1870 where they came upon Polar Eskimo of the same culture that brought Inuit from eastern Siberia. However, somewhere in their history, the Polar Eskimo lost certain skills. While they had lots of reindeer, they were rarely eaten as they had no bows and arrows, they caught narwhal and beluga whales only rarely and only from the floe edge as they had no kayaks. Nor did they have kakivaks (a two prong spear) or hooks to catch char. Their hunting was reduced to more primitive -- and more dangerous - polar bear and walrus out on the ice.
Through the exchange of technology and wives, the two clans integrated. Apparently Qillaq and his followers had finally found a safe haven where they could end their flight. But after six years, Qitdlarssuaq ('Qillaq the great one' as he was now called) decided it was time to go home. He was getting old and wanted to die in his own land. But he never made it. Deep in Smith Sound he died of severe stomach cramps. The rest of his followers made it as far as Makinson Inlet in southern Ellesmere. Along the way, many starved and some resorted to murder and cannibalism.
There are two interesting coincidences to the journey retracing Qillaq's migration: one genealogical, one macabre. Only after they began preparing and planning for the expedition did the Inuit team members discover they were all descendants of Qillaq. More chilling however was that upon arrival in Greenland in an area that can also trace one-third of its ancestry to the Baffin migrants, the team was met by Kadlortoq Meunge, an Eskimo hunter and his wife. A day after they met, travelling south together with their dog teams, Kadlortoq took ill of severe stomach cramps and died that night despite Mike desperately trying to keep him alive with CPR. The body was later flown to both Nuuq and Copenhagen for autopsies both of which left undetermined the cause of death.
I have had time these last few days to consider Qillaq, his migration and his death. We are now curled up in our sleeping bags at a site on the other side of Mt Herodier from Elijah's camp. I am thinking of other deaths as well. On the shore, overlooking our tent on the ice is an impromptu graveyard for a member of the 1906 Bernier sovereignty expedition and a German from Brandenburg, perhaps a whaler, who died here in 1915.
For kilometers we could see the crosses shining - amazed at how a little wooden cross with a faded coat of whitewash projects like a beacon illuminated in the Arctic sun. Inuksuit stand out like this on the Arctic horizon as well. Small stacks of rocks piled on a point of land can be seen at a great distance. You see them down south now. They've become part of cottage and garden decor. Little rock statues in the shape of a man, these are more properly known as inunguak "in the shape of a man" and inukshuk (or its plural inuksuit) meaning "in the capacity of a man". They have been used for millennia to indicate places of good fishing or hunting, a food cache, a spiritual location (particularly evident near Cape Dorset in southern Baffin), and used to mark gravesites.
Near Elijah's camp there is an inukshuk that was erected last year by local Inuit to mark the area where two kayakers from Toronto drowned last July while paddling just a few hours out from Pond Inlet. It was a very sad event that underscores how dangerous these waters can be.
They had left Pond heading in the same direction we now head. It was later in the month after the ice had broken up. Apparently they had decided to cross the shallow, wide bay at the foot of Herodier. It was a calm day when they set out but they did not have the experience to know that Herodier is capricious and produces strong and sudden gusts of wind at its whim. Instead of safely following the shoreline, they cut across. Part way to the other point they got caught in offshore winds that capsized three of the four boats. Two people drowned, the third was towed to shore hanging on to the hull of her companion's kayak.
We paddled the waters of Oliver Sound last year, 80 kms west of Herodier about two weeks after the drowning. One day, three young Inuk lads motored over to our camp. Out hunting seal they came across a torn dry bag with a sea-soaked sleeping bag inside and thought it was ours. It undoubtedly was theirs as later that week their kayak had washed up on those shores as well.
These are difficult waters and difficult landscape in which to travel. From the northeast shore and looking north east the next point of land-Greenland - is hundreds of kilometers away. Early travelers knew how difficult these waters are. But still they came. After Icelanders settled Greenland in the 10th century there was fairly regular traffic across Davis Strait to Baffin Island. They came to Baffin - which the Vikings called Helluland 'the country of flat stones' - to hunt exotica: narwhal tusk, polar bear, walrus ivory, eiderdown and falcons that were traded as far away as the Middle East. Narwhal tusk was, in fact, passed off as unicorn horn by the Vikings. Many horns, inlaid with precious jewels, became part of the regalia of European royal families. It was not until the 17th century that it was generally realized that this mythical unicorn horn was in fact narwhal dental work.
The Norwegian Otto Sverdrup did well in this extreme region. He, no doubt, came prepared in both supplies and attitude. He and his men, on an expedition up the Greenland coast, ended up over wintering on Pim Island off the coast of Ellesmere for four winters. They turned their boat 'Fram', lodged in the ice, into a workshop to keep the crew busy, a newspaper and novels were written, and holidays observed. Only in the last year did they have to give up their after dinner coffee. "It is very wonderful, now and again," he wrote in his log "to come right under the mighty hand of nature". We too, Mike and I, are now fully under the mighty hand of nature. She will continue as she pleases to blow 40-kilometer headwinds, rain on us as we set up our tent, and burn our tender skin with her powerful rays. And we will continue to pull our komatiq.
By Pamela Coulston
Published July 25, 1999
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