by Robert J. Galbraith
The snowmobile rolled and contorted amid the frozen fissures and walls of fragmented sea ice, natural highway markers in this vast Arctic desert of ice and snow. Crawling on at a walking pace, other times not unlike that of a roller coaster, the machine ground on, blasting my colleague and myself with a steady shower of ice crystals and heavy gasoline fumes shooting out from under the snowmobile.
We held on tight to the seal-hide runner cables of the Qamutik, a traditional Inuit sleigh, where we both sat one in front of the other, bundled in caribou and dog fur tunics.
Harnessed to the rear of the snowmobile by a 20 foot yellow nylon cable, the large wooden sled seemed as though it was about to fall apart at any moment, spilling its human cargo and wooden crate of survival gear onto the pack ice. But bound together by the resilient seal hide cord, it rolled and fell over the punishing ridges of deep-blue ice, like a snake hastening over a forest floor.
It was the first time I had ever been above the Arctic Circle, 2,500 kilometres north of my home in Montreal. I had left four days earlier during a balmy March day, with a near record-breaking temperature of 40° Fahrenheit.
Taking a two-hour ‘First Air’ flight north to Iqaluit, the capital of the Inuit homeland of Nunavut, I watched the earth below me change from majestic maple and pine forests to a great white openness, with not a tree in sight. Three days later I took another flight north out of Iqaluit. This lasted two hours, landing us in Igloolik, where we hoped to track, interview and photograph the elusive Inuit film director, Zacharias Kunuk, in his own backyard.
The temperature had dropped to -45 degrees Fahrenheit in Igloolik, 80 degrees colder than when I had left Montreal. It was a killer cold, virtually unbearable, but love at first feel to this photojournalist. At times I could swear my teeth were freezing when I took too deep of a breath, a painful cold that could only be described by being there. But it was the cutting edge of extreme journalism to an adrenaline junky like myself, one who relished the potential reality that death was never far away, in this land of ice and shadows.
Our sled came to an abrupt stop while a second snowmobile, being driven by hunter/film director Kunuk whizzed by and stopped 100 feet ahead of us. Stepping off his snow machine with a gaffed lance in one hand and a stainless steel hunting rifle slung over his back he lay flat on his belly with his nose barely above the hard packed snow.
A partially frozen fissure of water and ice, about four inches wide, ran along the hard pack for a distance of some 200 feet, where it disappeared under a wall of broken and disjointed ice chunks. For a moment I thought he was sick, but with the quirkiness of an ostrich he turned his raised head to us and said, ”It’s a female breathing hole, we’re looking for a young male seal, they taste better.” Just as quickly, he rebounded up and was on his machine before we had climbed back onto the Kamatik.
For the rest of the day it was like a game of ‘Hide and Seek,’ with Zacharias taking the lead and zooming off into the distance as our driver, Laurentio, also a great tracker and hunter, kept in sight of his pal Zacharias.
Throughout the day we must have stopped near a dozen times, over a period of 8 hours, sometimes to check a seal breathing hole, other times to share a cigarette, a cup of tea and a Social Tea biscuit.
The tea was prepared by filling an aluminum pot with snow and boiling it up on a Coleman camp fuel stove, which was stored with the other necessary items, including extra seal skin boots, in the wooden box on the Katamik. Tea bags were then dumped in until the brew resembled a steaming dark brown soup. It was a hot refreshing drink and got the chill out of our systems, at least until the snowmobiles and our Qatumik explored further.
During one of the last breaks, an Arctic Fox meandered 100 feet away past our makeshift tearoom. About the size of a small to medium-sized dog and pure white, the dark-eyed predator stopped in front of us and raised its keen black nose to catch a whiff of our biscuits and tea. As suddenly as it appeared, it trotted off into the seemingly lifeless vastness of the Arctic. It was then that I realized that the Arctic isn’t a frozen wasteland of waiting tragedies, but a land of concealed life, if you have the patience and knowledge to read its face and moods.
I asked Zacharias why he didn’t shoot the fox, who had a pelt that looked like silken ivory. “Isn’t that how you make a living up here?” I asked “By selling or wearing the pelts and eating the meat of these animals.” Zacharias responded by saying, “that’s all changed now, in a large part. The European anti-fur lobbyists have crushed the fur-gathering people like the Inuit.
“There’s no market for the skins anymore,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “No one will buy them from us. And now rabies has reached the north and is spreading, especially in the foxes, because we don’t hunt them and keep their numbers down.” He went on to say that, “they have few natural predators but starvation.
“I don’t think the anti-fur lobbyists like Greenpeace know what they are doing to our culture, by painting us with the same brush as the industrial-style fur-gathering nations like the Norwegians or Canadians. “We would never wipe out the life that we love,” he said. It suddenly occurred to me that Zacharias and his people are the farmers of the northern ice.
The sky was continually changing, from a hazy ice particle-type fog, which hung like a cold biting curtain, to a clear big blue sky, and every variation in between.
The ice fluctuated from eight feet thick to four inches as we neared closer to the open ocean of the Fox Basin. Reaching the edge of the pack ice, the thin salt ice moved and heaved under our sled.
Zacharias saw our concern about venturing onto thin ice and told us, “Don’t worry, salt ice is much more flexible and stronger than fresh water ice.” Easy for you to say, I thought to myself, as I knew that over the decades numbers of hunters had suffered the cold black death of drowning in these life-taking, and life-giving waters.
But one never talks about death here in the Arctic like the city cultures do – it’s a terrain of survivors, and the hunted.
Since his film’s launch in 2001, Zacharias Kunuk has been busy touring the world on an almost full-time basis, promoting “Atanarjuat.” The English name of the movie is “The Fast Runner”.
He and the Isuma production staff are working on the script of their next project, a text entitled “Angakkuq”, which translates into English as “Shaman.” It is a script about the encounters between Christianity and shamanism in the 1930’s Arctic, a time when the Christian missionaries arrived in the north to preach their beliefs on the Inuit.
Before leaving the community I took a walk along the main road and along the frozen shoreline that has been the lifeblood of Igloolik for thousand years. The weathered stone hull of the Anglican Church sat cold, empty, and unused. Separated by a small frozen creek, and a stones throw away, lay its companion in death, – the peeling wooden shell of the abandoned Catholic Church. Anchored into the permafrost, both structures resembled obtrusive twin artifacts from a long forgotten civilization.
Now, as relevant as the faded pages of a discarded history textbook, the two houses of the lord are now a flashpoint, a detour in the road of the advancing destiny of the Inuit and their beloved homeland, the Great White North.