A visit with the Inuit

Filed under: Living on the Earth |

A visit with the Inuit

by Larry Joseph Calloway

The last people to blame for unnatural global warming are the Inuit of the far north. They were always close to nature—living in ice houses, burning oil lamps, driving dog sleds, paddling kayaks. But they are the first people to deal with the full tragedy of the end of nature as they—and soon we—know it.

By chance, I saw this personally in the near Arctic five years ago, and I feel compelled to write about it whenever the news quotes scientists saying another state-sized ice sheet is now dark water. Or politicians saying, Yo-ho, get ready to drill, baby.

The chance came about because a close and generous Canadian friend made an offhand bid at a charity auction and came away with a pair of air tickets to a place called Pang. She took me along.

Pangnirtung is the proper name, a coastal town of 1,300 population up in the 14-year-old Canadian province of Nunavut. Pang is just below the Arctic circle on Cumberland Sound, which arcs off the strait between Canada and Greenland. The sun rises and sets during lunch this time of year (January), but we were there in August when the days are still long and it can even rain.

The First Air flight was delayed by weather. We waited two days in Iqaluit, the provincial capital, and filled the days appreciating cultural adaptation. New buildings there are curvy fiberglass creations with maximum insulation and minimum windows. A cartoon sign at the housing  authority (in English and Inuktitut) showed a stereotyped Eskimo nailing together an igloo.

When we finally stepped down from the Hawker prop plane at Pang, a crowd of townspeople were waiting to meet relatives and claim packages. We checked in at a frontier boarding house with two-cot rooms and a bathroom down the hall at $190 a night. Each. It was full of construction workers who wanted to be somewhere else, preferably where alcohol was legal.

Our plan was to backpack in Auyuittuq National Park, a wilderness of sharp granite and high ice at the northern end of the sound. We bought three-day passes at the park headquarters and the ranger said we were group No. 60 that year. In the mandatory orientation, we were warned about the Arctic weather and . . . bears.

Big bears, up to 1,500 pounds. Carnivores. Swimmers. White.

But unless we wanted to walk five days to Davis Strait, the Inuit ranger said, we’d be better off looking for polar bears at  the Toronto zoo.

We hired a boatman named Joavee Aliyuktuk for the two-hour run to the park next morning and spent the rest of that day walking in the rain on a trail beside a torrent pouring off the mountain overlooking Pang and the placid water of Cumberland Sound. The alien environment was beautiful—the fresh air, the white noise of the river, the clouds at the crest, the softness of the deep tundra. The nearest tree, it is said, is 600 miles away.

Walking around town we saw TV dishes aimed almost horizontal on modular homes anchored against the wind by cables. There were dog sleds with traditional lashed planks stored for the summer but no dogs. The Inuit now pull their sleds with snowmobiles.

In the morning we checked out, stashed our baggage and waited for Joavee. He was a little late and a little downcast. “Bad news,” he said. “The park is closed.”

What?

“There is a bear.”

The previous evening, a patrolman reported by radio that a bear had appeared at the park entrance, where none had ever been seen, and it went south along the shore of the sound, apparently looking for food. The rangers sent radio messages to the shelters along the park’s single trail, warning the few backpackers to stay inside for the night and buddy up and exit in the day. This was in case the bear was going to loop around and go north. An order was issued closing the park to new visitors, which affected only two people. So what would we do now?

Well, there was this historic whaling station about two hours south. Soon we were skimming along in Joavee’s boat, a wooden hull with twin Honda outboards roaring. And the weather was clear for the first time in days.

Kekerten Station was established on an island in the sound by Scottish and American whalers in the late 1850’s. One of them wrote, “We was terrified to go out in the boats, the whales was that large and numerous. They raised quite a heavy sea with tails and fins.” These were bowhead whales, ice-edge feeders weighing about 90 tons, not the toothy whales mythologized by Herman Melville.

That part of the sound was always jammed with ice, which broke up in the summer but never disappeared. As we idled toward the island I saw only one bright white lump in the expanse of dark water.

We scrambled ashore and read a placard that told how the bowheads would be harpooned and dragged up the gentle slope and ripped open for blubber. The oil was kegged and shipped off to be bottled as lamp fuel or to make soap. Some of the whale “ivory” was kept, but the rest of the carcasses were wasted. Some 30,000 bowheads were taken here, hundreds of thousands more at other Arctic stations. Humpback whales are an endangered species now, with maybe 500 left.

The relics at this soulless site were mostly of rusted iron—winches, kettles, barrel hoops. We saw a human skull, and everyone we told about this reacted without surprise, saying many died and many are buried at Kekerten. The whalers employed local Inuit people in all their operations, paying in weekly distributions of biscuits.

Franz Boas, the founder of modern anthropology, made Kekerten Station his base during two years of field work among the Inuit. His The Central Eskimo, published in 1888, is a relevant and readable classic. Boas lived with the people and learned their language. He paid attention to their stories, games, kinship, tools, food and—an academic innovation then—their interaction with the environment.

Boas, trained as a physicist, is a trustworthy source for what the climate was like here 130 years ago. He visited Pangnirtung in mid October 1883 with a group of Inuits hunting seals, their main staple, which he said were “found in abundance everywhere.” They are goners now. He said, “The glacier snout here is about 200 feet high.” Gone.

Joavee did not talk much about climate change. When I asked him about it at Kekerten, however, he did point to a mountain which he said used to be white year round. Now it is dirt.

A photograph of the whaling station site in a book of Boas’ letters and journals shows the ice-jammed water in the background. It was taken in August 1984, about the same time of year as our visit, from approximately the same location where we  saw clear water.

Back at Pang in the late afternoon we were told briskly that the boarding house was full. We had lost our room. Joavee said we could stay at his place—at the usual home-stay fee. It would be an interesting two days.

His wife, Leetia, is a founding member of the Pangnirtung artists co-op, which sells fine original stenciled prints worldwide. She cooked us many stews, chopping meat with an “ulu,” the traditional knife shaped like a crescent with a T-handle. (Boas described many of them.) Leetia and Joavee adored their grandson, whom they were teaching Inuktitut. They were quietly hospitable when they were not watching television – usually with the sound off.

Joavee was a skillful boatman who timed the tide, knew the rocks, and tuned the twin Hondas. He also knew where the rare seals were and how to turn their skins into fine winter mukluks such as the pair he made that hung in the mud room of the modular home.

Next day we convinced Joavee to take us to the park entrance (we were not allowed beyond that point). The tide was not in, so we had to walk a mile north in mud to get to the ranger station. On the way I saw tracks: big as dinner plates, with claws. They were headed south.

At the ranger cabin I talked with the patrolman, an Inuit named Matthew, who had reported the bear. He said he was sitting on the platform by the door when he was shocked to see the bear hunkered down on a rock near the trail. A young woman with a day pack was walking happily along, oblivious. Matthew knew he could not yell a warning to the girl because she might panic and run, which would trigger the bear’s instinct to attack.

So he got his shotgun and fired it in the air and the bear ran south along the shore and disappeared in the rocks. The girl came up to the ranger and asked why he fired the gun. Was it a signal that her boat was coming?

Matthew said the bear was a male about three or four years old and speculated he had ranged far from his kin in search of food. There are various estimates of how many polar bears remain—20,000?—but most agree they are in trouble, and there’s nowhere left to go.

The extinction of these marvelously adapted animals was unthinkable a few decades ago. The polar bear is a symbol of the Arctic. It is a sublime and immortal creature like Melville’s great white whale. It shares the Nunavut flag with the North Star, which is about as eternal as you can get in this universe.

But it was similarly unthinkable when Moby Dick was the exemplar of American literature that whales would ever be extinct. As Michael J. Bean, an environmental law writer, put it:  “Melville’s steadfast refusal to regard the extinction of whales as thinkable seems wholly irrational, a matter of blind faith masquerading behind a façade of learned sophistry.”

And a century from now that might be said of global warming.

But I would rather end with a happy image: the three children I saw in Pang having a roaring good time posing with a fractured umbrella—you know, those things carried in New York City to keep a thousand-dollar suit dry? They mocked it—and in a way us too. When it starts getting warm enough to rain in the winter in Pang, the children will still be having fun. Won’t they?

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