It was an instance of First Contact, such a remarkable rarity nowadays.
Having gathered around us, some of the natives looked admiringly at our spiffy Arctic garb, others fingered the bulging tubes of our Zodiacs, and still others gazed in wonder at our giant ship anchored offshore.
It was obvious that they’d never encountered people like us before, and equally obvious that they didn’t know what to do with us.
For this was the first time a cruise ship
had ever visited the Inuit village of Quaqtaq (Tapeworm), so named because an Inuk who came here some years ago found worms in his shit, and his companions promptly celebrated the fact with a place name.
At last a local stepped forward and asked if anyone would like to go caribou hunting. A group of us hopped into the back of the man’s pickup, and off we sped over a road that alternated classic washboard ruts with seemingly bottomless potholes.
Soon we found ourselves in a realm of pure geology, all rock-ribbed, rock-strewn, and — except for a few stray patches of sedge and some dwarf birches — supremely barren.
Several times we got out of the pickup and scanned the horizon, but we saw no antlers. However, we did see something just as good: a wilderness so primal that it took our collective breaths away.
As an old Arctic hand, I’ve undergone frostbite, been marooned on desert islands, endured snowblindness and suffered gastro-intestinal anguish from eating ipsanaq, the half-digested clams in a walrus’ stomach.
Then there was the time I fell through the ice of Angmagssalik Fjord in East Greenland. The cold — the harshest, most severe I’ve ever known — struck me like a flying brick, and clambering onto dry land, I began shivering so violently that I chipped a tooth. My shivering subsided only when an old Greenlandic woman smeared my body with a greasy substance that turned out to be, not seal fat, not whale blubber, but Crisco.
I figured it was time for a risk-free experience of the Arctic, and nothing seemed more risk-free than a cruise.
A start-up company called Cruise North immediately appealed to me, since it was owned by Makivik, a Quebec Inuit corporation, which meant its profits would end up in the hands of the province’s 9,200 Inuit rather than a few fat cat CEOs.
Also, Cruise North went where other cruise companies feared to tread — i.e., off the proverbial map.
So I signed up for In Hudson’s Wake, a weeklong trip that followed the route of Henry Hudson’s 1610 expedition into his namesake bay.
But whereas Hudson had sailed a 55-tonne, bluff-bowed barque, the Discovery, I’d be travelling on the 834-metre, 2,800 tonne Ushaia, an Antarctic cruise ship on loan to Makivik during the austral winter; and whereas most of Hudson’s crew had been mutinous English sailors, the Ushaia’s crew were Argentines who, I felt reasonably certain, would not mutiny unless some took away their gourds of yerba mate.
And so on a day when the high latitude light seemed to burnish everything it touched, even the mosquitoes, the Ushaia set out from Kuujuaq, northern Quebec’s metropolis (pop. 2,900), and headed north into Ungava Bay.
Right away someone spotted bearded seals basking on an ice floe, and there followed an orgy of picture-taking. Whereupon Bruce Qinnuajuak, one of our Inuit guides, remarked that while seals might look nice in a photograph, they looked even nicer on a plate.
“Give that man (Bruce) a taste of the cat!” declared one of the passengers, presumably in jest.
But 40 lashes is a relatively benign punishment compared to what might happen to someone who eats photogenic pinnipeds.
For atmospheric and oceanic currents have long been carrying poisonous chemicals (mercury, flame retardants, organochlorines like PCBs and DDT, etc.) from temperate regions to the Arctic, where they accumulate in the fat of sea mammals.
The Inuit regard this fat as an important part of their diet, with the result that many of them are now so full of contaminants that they could be classified as toxic waste sites.
In the not too distant future, they may be forced to exchange their harpoons for cameras, thereby becoming just like everybody else.
“How come there aren’t any icebergs?” asked a woman passenger.
“It’s almost September,” I said. “If you’d been here in June or July, you would have seen plenty of icebergs.”
“I always see them in Antarctica,” she told me.
I later learned that she’d been on eight cruises to the southernmost continent, and thus had visited it more times than Scott and Shackleton combined.
Not far from Quaqtaq, on Diana Island, we encountered a creature that can’t be seen in Antarctica.
There were half a dozen of these creatures — part cow, part sheep, and part frayed bathmat — browsing the island’s eastern slope.
Its surreal components notwithstanding, the muskox is the Arctic’s ultimate survivor; not only has it been around since the last ice age, but it’s also the only mammal that doesn’t bother to seek shelter during the furor of the Arctic’s winter storms.
To get a better look at the muskoxen, we began trekking up a steep slope ourselves.
Meanwhile, I was finding clumps of qiviut snagged to the serrated edges of birch leaves or lying on the ground.
Qiviut, the underfur of the muskox, is probably the warmest wool in the wool. I have a qiviut cap that I always bring to the Arctic and, when I’m wearing it, I’m often so warm that I feel like throwing off all my clothes and frisking about in the nude.
Right then and there I decided I needed a qiviut scarf, so I ventured off on a little collecting trip.
You don’t just pick up the qiviut and toss it into a bag. First you have to remove all the debris, including random pellets of muskox shit and the occasional scat of lemmings.
This is an activity that requires some concentration, and you can easily lose track of your surroundings while searching for the qiviut and likewise making sure that it doesn’t become a scatological mess in your bag.
So it was that I found myself on the far side of the island without really knowing how I’d gotten there. Pulling some qiviut from a ground-hugging birch, I suddenly heard a series of rough snorts.
I looked up to see a large muskox standing not 30 metres away. The expression on its bearded face (the Inuit call the muskox Umingmaq or The Bearded One) seemed to say, “You’re in my territory, dude.”
The expression on my bearded face said, “Uh-oh, here comes trouble.”
The muskox lowered its head and charged.
Consider a Jeep Cherokee with a very nasty hood ornament bearing down on you, and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s like to be charged by a muskox.
For a moment, I imagined myself impaled on the animal’s curved, lethal horns. “Well, he always said he didn’t want to die in a hospital,” my friends would tell each other. Then I turned and ran.
Actually, I turned and tripped, plunging headlong onto a not necessarily soft outcropping of Canadian Shield granite. When I looked up, the muskox was grazing on some sedge and completely indifferent to me.
My only injury was an imprint of the Canadian Shield on my left cheek. It could have been worse, much worse. For example, a German tourist once walked up to a muskox and tried to pluck some qiviut directly from the animal; the resulting blow not only gave the man a severe concussion, but also knocked out a number of his teeth.
You don’t mess around with a creature that has an ice-age pedigree.
In the early 17th century, there was no way to calculate longitude, so Henry Hudson should be forgiven for thinking that his expedition’s goal, the Spice Islands of the East Indies, was a relatively short distance from the Canadian Arctic.
Not being the sort to indulge in sightseeing, he didn’t pay much attention to the local scenery, although the expedition’s chronicler, Abacuk Prickett, did have this to say to about East Digges Island: “In this place, a great many fowl breed, and there is the best grass I have seen since leaving England.”
Nearly 400 years later, the fowl in question, thick-billed murres, were still nesting on East Digges by the thousands, no, the hundreds of thousands.
We watched them take off from their cliffside roosts, and then return with their beaks full of seafood fish, squid and shrimp.
To catch this seafood, murres can dive down to depths of 200 metres, using their wings to “fly” through the water.
“You can get much closer to penguins,” said The Woman Who Preferred Antarctica.
“Well, early mariners used to call murres ‘flying penguins,’” I told her.
“The nonflying type is a lot easier to photograph….”
Get rid of that bloody camera, I wanted to tell her, and use those twin orbs in your head commonly known as eyes.
I wanted to tell the same thing to some of the other passengers, too. For their eyes seemed to have become vestigial organs. But lest you think I’m prejudiced against cameras, on at least one occasion I’ve used them to excellent advantage; on Baffin Island, I once threw a Zeiss Akonta A at an attacking polar bear, which stopped and investigated this curious chunk of metal, thus allowing me to beat out a hasty retreat.
Now we were approaching Mansel Island, 3,411 square kilometres of calcareous rock whose relatively low latitude 62’N — belies its isolation from the rest of the world.
In fact, far fewer people have set foot on Mansel than on that crowd-pleasing non-place, the North Pole. Or I should say fewer non-Inuit.
For Dorset period artifacts indicate an Inuit presence on the island for at least 1,500 years. In 1912, an Inuk gave a young mining engineer named Robert Flaherty a dramatic account of his 10 touch-and-go years here.
Comock’s tale of survival was doubtless on Flaherty’s mind when he made his classic 1922 film Nanook of the North.
Escorted by Bruce, our rifleman and bear sentry, we began trekking over the island’s raised beaches, gravel berms and broken limestone.
This was an irreducible landscape where not variety — the facile handmaid of the tropics — but the lack thereof presented itself with utmost simplicity. We could have been hiking on the moon, except that our lunar neighbour presumably doesn’t have rearticulated caribou skeletons lying around everywhere.
And I suspect that it doesn’t have noisily nesting Canada geese, either.
At one point a brown warbler-like bird flitted by, and I asked Bruce if he knew the
name of it. He looked at the bird, then said: “Not good to eat.” This answer helps explain why there are no outstanding ornithologists among the Inuit.
On a raised beach, we found an old Inuit burial cairn with a moss-covered occiput and a few long bones inside it.
On seeing this cairn, Jessie, another of our guides, quickly walked away; she later told me that it was bad luck to gaze on dead people.
Other Inuit have told me the same thing. Indeed, I once saw a bunch of stalwart hunters studiously look away when a dog who’d excavated one of these cairns came trotting by with a human arm in its mouth. A young girl, apparently not as superstitious as her elders, remarked, “I think that belongs to my granny.”
“So how do you suppose this person died?” I asked Bruce, pointing to the cairn.
“Maybe starved,” he replied. Which was as good an answer as any. For not so long ago, it was more common for the Inuit to starve to death than die of old age.
It’s not difficult to figure out why. In the words of an East Greenland elder with whom I once hung out, “Look around here, and you will see that we are not living in a supermarket.”
Recalling these words, I now looked around, and to my surprise I spotted an orange-coloured object 100 metres away. The object turned out not to be a spray-painted polar bear, but a rusting snowmobile.
No doubt it’d broken down, and its owner — probably a hunter from the mainland village of Ivujivik — just decided to leave it here. Unfortunately, snowmachines aren’t biodegradable, so in all likelihood this artifact from our latter-day Iron Age will be resting on Mansel Island, one of the most pristine places on the planet, for a long, long time.
Another thing the Arctic has that the Antarctic doesn’t have is rock-throwing Inuit kids.
In Ivujivik, a bunch of them pelted us with questions — “How much does your camera cost?”
“How much did that Zodiac cost?”
“How many seals did you kill on this trip?”
And then, as we prepared to leave, they began pelting us with rocks.
Such volte-face behaviour has a historical precedent in these parts, for Hudson’s crew were victims of a similar incident not far from Ivujivik, at Cape Digges.
There they encountered “savages” who, according to Prickett, were “the most simple and kind people in the world.” The next day these same people mounted an attack on the white men.
At least we didn’t lose any passengers or any of our Argentine Zodiac drivers; the Inuit killed five of Hudson’s crew, including William Wilson, whose bowels were “cut” and who died “swearing and cursing in a most fearful manner.”
Justice, you might say, was served. A month earlier, the crew had mutinied and bundled Hudson, his teenage son, and seven of his so-called favourites into the Discovery’s shallop, then cast it adrift. Whereupon the man who was perhaps the most important maritime explorer before Captain Cook vanished off the face of the Earth. Or seemed to vanish: the Cree who live in the southern part of Hudson Bay have stories of a boatload of badly-used white men fetching up on their shores long ago, and also stories of several women who subsequently gave birth to red-haired infants. Henry Hudson reputedly had red hair.
There were no rock-throwing incidents in Inukjuak, a much larger, more modern community than Ivujivik. Besides, we showed up during morning rush hour, and everyone seemed too busy to throw rocks.
Four-wheelers were roaring back and forth, carrying kids to school, commuters to work, and shoppers to The Northern Store.
One of these four-wheelers pulled up at our landing spot, and seated in it was an elderly Inuit woman. A stocky figure with a mustache (her face suggested an aged Clark Gable), she was photogenic, and she knew it, for she held up five fingers to indicate how many dollars she wanted for her photograph.
Ah, I thought: the birth of touristic entrepeneurism.
Inukjuak was where Robert Flaherty shot most of Nanook of the North (think igloos, sealing through the ice, and Inuit dressed exclusively in fur clothing), but if he were to make a film in Inukjuaq today, he might entitle it My Satellite Dish Is Bigger Than Your Satellite Dish. Or maybe My Four-Wheeler Can Kick Up More Dust Than Your Four-Wheeler.
I told a local Inuk that the town bore not the slightest resemblance to the world of Flaherty’s film, and his reply instantly identified me as a white guy who romanticizes the natives.
“I once visited Denver, Colorado, and I didn’t see any cowboys there. Does that make it a bad place?” he said.
As the Ushaia continued south into Hudson Bay, the weather grew warm, the mosquitoes more insistent, and the terrain more verdant, with black spruce and tamarack now appearing along the shore.
We also began seeing boats of all sizes and dispositions, including a yacht captained by Donald Trump … or perhaps just a reasonable facsimile of the man.
The journey ended in Kuujjuaripik, a half Inuit, half Cree community that had the largest collection of discarded oil drums I’d ever seen.
Not long after I stepped ashore, a native lad who looked totally zonked approached me and asked if I’d like to buy “some good fuckin’ crack, man.”
Welcome to civilization, I told myself, and I had the same thought that Henry Hudson must have had when his crew dumped him in the shallop: Damn it, give me back my ship ….
Travel writer and adventurer Lawrence Millman lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and makes frequent trips to the Yukon.