August 1, 1966
Elizabeth Arnajarnek feeds a pre-chewed morsel of caribou meat to her baby at a camp on the Barren Grounds in 1966. The Inuit gather thousands of duck eggs and eat them raw or hard-boiled. They store them for the winter.
Noises and voices drifted through the fog; the creak and groan of tide-moved ice; the honking of Canada geese; the plaintive calling of red-throated loons; the lilting song of snow buntings; the haunting, mellow woodwind crooning of courting eider drakes.
Early next morning, the fog lifted. We climbed a hill topped by an inukshuk, an ancient, roughly man-shaped Inuit stone marker, and gazed across the sea dotted with dark granite islands bathed in the golden light of dawn.
Our boats full of pots, pails, zinc and plastic wash basins, and large wooden crates, we set out to raid the holms, the rocky islets that are the eiders' favorite nesting places. Men, women, and children stumbled across the algae-slippery coastal rocks of each islet, scrambled up the sheer ice foot, and then spread, screaming with glee, across the island as dozens of eiders, sometimes hundreds, rushed and clattered off their nests. Each nest was lined with a thick, soft layer of brownish gray-flecked eiderdown and contained, on the average, four large olive eggs. The Inuit took the eggs but left the down; traditionally they dressed in furs and had no use for down. Since it was early in the season, most ducks had just laid their eggs.
We rushed from island to island and collected eggs all day, and at night we feasted on them. The children, impatient, pricked many and sucked them dry. The adults preferred them hard-boiled. They made a filling meal; each egg, in volume, equals nearly two hen's eggs, and many Inuit ate six to ten at each meal. The albumen of the hard-boiled eider egg is a smooth, gleaming white, the yolk a vivid orange. The taste is rich and rather oily.
In a week we visited dozens of islets and amassed thousands of eggs. The Inuit also shot at least a hundred ducks and several seals. It seemed amazing that these yearly raids had not decimated the ducks. But they were made so early in the season that most of the robbed ducks probably laid another clutch of eggs.
Killiktee explained to me that in earlier days a taboo forbade the Inuit to camp on eider islands. They visited the islets and took the eggs, but they camped, as we did, only on the largest islands, where few ducks nest, thus avoiding prolonged disturbances in the breeding areas. The ducks, Killiktee said, seemed just as numerous now as sixty years ago when he had first visited the Savage Islands as a boy. Polar bears sometimes swim to the islands, kill all the ducks they can, and eat the eggs. One year, Killiktee said, while the Inuit were on holms, collecting eggs, a polar bear came to camp and robbed their stores. He ate at least a thousand eggs and crushed the rest, leaving a gooey mess upon the beach. Killiktee laughed, amused and without rancor. "Happy bear!" he said.
Less lucky was a gosling caught on an islet by one of the girls. She kept it in a Danish cookie tin and tried to make a pet of it. The fluffy yellow bird peeped pathetically and, inevitably, died after a few days. The girl cried, heartbroken, over her dead pet, and then she skinned it and ate it.
All crates were full of eggs, and ducks, seals, and whale meat filled the boats. The fog rolled in again and our boats traveled through a clammy, grayish, eerie emptiness. Killiktee led, the two other boats followed closely. Dark rocks appeared for moments and vanished into the gloomy gray; ice floes loomed up abruptly. Killiktee never hesitated. "How do you know where to go?" I asked. He smiled. "I know," he said. He had traveled along this coast a long lifetime; he had seen it, memorized it, knew every current, every shoal, every danger spot. He stood in the stern like a graven image and guided our boats through the weird gray void of the fog.
In the evening he veered into a bay, a good place, he said, to catch char on the rising tide. The men set nets, the women boiled pots of meat and tea, the children played. Killiktee, tired, lay down on the shore, and moments later he was sound asleep. A dark shape upon the dark, ice-carved granite, he seemed to meld with rock and land.
Back home at Kiijuak, all eggs were carefully examined. The cracked ones we ate soon. The others were placed in large crates and stored in a cool shady cleft among the rocks. They would last the people in our camp well into the winter.
In fall, an Inuk from Lake Harbour passed our camp and took me along to Aberdeen Bay where the people quarry the jade-green soapstone for their carvings. While he had tea and talked with Killiktee, I packed and carried my things to his boat. Killiktee came to the beach. We both felt awkward. Inuit traditionally joyfully greet visitors, but visitors leave in silence and alone with none to see them off. Their language has many words of wisdom, but none for good-bye.