January 2, 1960
"The whale meant food and life and glory, the primal thrill of being, and at that moment nothing else mattered.... We ate the steaming seal meat; drank the fat, scalding broth; and glowed with marvelous warmth."
Arctic Memories - Beginnings
WE TRAVELED FROM NOWHERE TO NOWHERE IN A WORLD ALL WHITE, eleven dogs, a long sled, a fur-clad Inuk and I. We had spent a week at the floe edge, the limit of landfast ice, and the hunting had been good. Jes had shot and harpooned eight seals. We had eaten well and our sled was heavy with meat - food for his family and dogs - and with seal pelts he would sell at the store.
We felt the coming of the storm. The air was still and oppressive. Gulls, screaming, flew toward the distant land. The sky turned leaden black. We should have left hours ago. But a pod of narwhals was feeding close to the floe edge; the eerie stillness was filled with the plosive "pooff," "pooff," "pooff" of their breathing. Small plumes of exhaled breath hung briefly in the icy air, and a few times we saw the gleaming ivory tusks of the males.
Jes wanted a whale. His entire hunter's spirit was focused on those whales, wishing them closer, closer. He was the perfect predator, quietly poised in total concentration, the ultimate Arctic hunter, as his people had been since the dawn of time. The whale meant food and life and glory, the primal thrill of being, and at that moment nothing else mattered.
While Jes's soul was in that strange mystic sphere that links the hunter to his prey, I sat apart and nursed my white man's worries. I had spent far too many years in the Arctic not to know that the coming storm would be hell, the trip home utter misery and, if the ice broke up, exceedingly dangerous. It was 60 miles (96 km) back to the village.
The storm struck, and Jes did not get his whale. He rose slowly, reluctantly. The tension seeped out of him and then he smiled a marvelously boyish smile, shrugged, and said: "Ayornamat. (It can't be helped.)" An Inuk does not rant and rave; his language has no swearwords. He does not rail against God or Nature, but simply accepts adversity. He does his best; the rest is fate.
We lashed the load upon the long pliant sled with utmost care, passing the bearded-seal thong back and forth, pulling it tight with all our strength. Jes called to the dogs. Normally they would have leapt into a joyous gallop. Now they moved without enthusiasm, their tails, usually cockily curled, drooping sadly. Like me, they feared the storm.
At first, brief lulls alternated with vicious gusts. Then the storm became steady and we traveled into a hissing, roaring avalanche of snow. The dogs hated it. The wind-lashed ice spicules hurt their eyes, and they tried to veer away from the wind. Jes beat them, coaxed them, directed them. There was only snow, the screaming wind, and nothingness; we seemed suspended in time and space. But Jes was guided by sastrugi, snow ripples created by prevailing winds, and by the knowledge of a thousand trips since he had first gone to the floe edge as a small boy with his father.
We traveled for hours, our faces seared by the wind, our fur clothing plastered with snow. The ice changed, became rugged, hummocky. We were in a tidal zone, close to a coast. For a moment I saw a cliff and then it vanished again in the whirling white. Jes walked ahead now, leading the dogs through a maze of ice blocks. Near the base of the cliff he tied the dogs securely to a stone upon the ice. "Come," he said. We clambered up an incline, perhaps a beach in summertime, walked past a house-high rock, squeezed through a triangular hole between the rock and the cliff, and were suddenly in a spacious cave. Jes laughed, delighted by my amazement, the magician who has performed the perfect trick.
Jes unharnessed and tethered the dogs, then cut up a seal and fed them. They rolled into balls, noses tucked under bushy tails, and soon the snow covered them with an insulating blanket. I lugged our sled load into the cave, shook the snow out of the bedding furs and my clothing, and made supper: a big pot of seal meat boiled on a Primus stove.
After the elemental chaos of the storm, the cave felt calm and secure. It had obviously served as sanctuary to other Arctic hunters for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. In the back were low sleeping platforms of pebbles and flat stones. Soot streaks along the walls and roof showed where seal-oil lamps had burned and flared. The cave floor was scattered with bones, remnants of past meals. Bone, stone, and ivory shavings and splinters marked places where men had sat and made or repaired tools or hunting weapons, and broken toys spoke of children who had once played in the cave.
We ate the steaming seal meat; drank the fat, scalding broth; and glowed with marvelous warmth. Jes made tea, boiled it until it was coffee-black, and we drank it syrupy-thick with sugar. We were safe, warm, full of food, relaxed and utterly content. Long, long ago, said Jes, Tunit had lived in this cave, a giant people but stupid, and the Inuit had killed them. His stories - part myths, part ancient oral history - - spanned the ages. The Primus hissed, and outside roared the storm.
We spread our furs on the ancient sleeping platforms and, minutes later, his deep, even breathing told me that Jes was sound asleep. Cozy in my furry cocoon, I looked at the soot patterns on the cave wall, listened to the eldritch screeching of the storm, and thought sleepily about my other life: our pleasant, book-filled home in Montreal; my wife; our children. It was early May. Maud would be working in the garden. The boys should be home from school. The first tulips would be blooming. As I drifted off to sleep, it seemed part of a dream.