I'm going to take a break from the blogging world for the holidays, but before I do, I'll leave you with a story from the north. It's my version of a commonly heard tale about children, adversity, courage and helping each other. Be back in January!
Alaraluk knew he couldn’t go. He should have gone a month ago and now it was too late. He was weak and cold and knew he probably wouldn’t live out the winter. The grand-children, Paca and Asita would have to go and they would have to go soon if the little family was to survive to see the summer. He looked over at his daughter. She knew what he was thinking and he knew her answer. The children, 11 and 9 were too young to make the trip by themselves.
“There’s no other way, daughter...”
She didn’t answer. They had had this conversation several times already and it led nowhere. Instead she sighed and pretended to continue repairing the skin boot she held in her hand. He knew it was too dark to be sewing, but he said nothing.
“Paca! You will take the snow shovel and the two dogs. You and you sister will have to make the trip to the cache on Kikitarjjuak where we buried the bearded seal last summer. You remember the place...”
Paca didn’t say anything, but his grandfather saw his face brighten slightly and his eyebrows raise.
“Take Asita with you, to help carry the meat home. It should take two days each way if you hurry and the weather stays calm. The kamotik is too big for only two dogs to pull, so take two seal skins and use them to make sleds to pull the meat home on. Don’t let the dogs eat their traces or their harnasses. You must be careful.”
Again Paca said nothing, but his grandfather knew he understood and that he welcomed the responsibility being placed upon him. Both he and Asita looked at their mother, but seeing nothing in her face they could read, they knew the decision had been made. Slowly they began to dress in their outdoor fur clothing.
Once on their way, Paca felt better. It was sad to leave their family back in the snow house, but he knew his grandfather was right. They needed this meat if they were to live. The hunting had not gone well after their father had been drowned in his kayak walrus hunting that summer. Their grandfather had been lucky to kill a few seals at breathing holes during the winter, but recently he had been caughing up blood. He hadn’t found the strength to even go outside for a week now. There was nothing left to eat, not even scaps. These seals were all that was left, but would keep them going until the Spring hunt returned with the coming of the sun.
The two children trudged along the shore beside the tide barrier with its jumble of slippery snow-covered ice blocks. On their left the snow covered sea ice stretched towards the southern horizon. They watched, as they made their way along, the sun’s rays brightened the southern sky, but within a short time it began to get dark again and they both walked on in the pale greyness. Asita was thirsty and stopped to retrieve a bladder from under her parka. It had contained snow, but the warmth of her body had turned it to water. Drinking quickly, she packed new snow down its opening, tightened the skin line around the stopper and slipped it under her parka again. Up ahead, she noticed Paca had also stopped to drink, too proud to let her see him. She ran to catch up and they both walked on silently.
After several hours, Paca announced they would have to make their way through the ice barrier and head out over the sea ice to Kikitarjjuk. This was a shortcut which would save them time and Asita agreed. Besides, she pointed out, they could find a place to sleep on the sea ice and that would be warmer than on the land where it was always cold. A few miles out from the barrier, they came to an ice ridge where snow had blown into long drifts. Not having a snow knife, they couldn’t cut snow blocks to make a house, but using their hands and the shovel, they dug a tunnel into one of the drifts big enough for both of them and the two dogs. They used the seal skins to lie on and, tired from the long walk, both were soon asleep.
The next morning Paca peered out and was pleased to see it was still calm and clear. Soon both the children were on their way again, each holding onto the trace of a dog as they made their way across the undulating snowdrifts that covered the sea ice. Ahead lay the almost-island of Kikitarjjuak with its cliff side facing them. The seal meat cache lay on the south facing slope and was identified with a pile of rocks. They reached the spot just as the sun made its daily showing aroun noon time, a bright purple blaze on the horizon far out over the sea ice to the south. Asita was the first to spot the pile of rocks making the cache. Together they began digging with the snow shovel, but it was hard work. Both the hard, wind-blown snow and the frozen rocks covering the meat made their task difficult, but in a few hours, the meat was uncovered and wrapped in the seal-skins ready for the long pull back to their waiting family.
“We’ll stay here tonight, Asita. Then we’ll be fresh for our trip home.” Asita agreed. There was no possibility of going as far as their snow caves from the previous night. It was too far and they were simply too tired. It was better to stay here and leave in the morning. Once again, they made a snow cave and bringing the dogs inside, they were all soon fast asleep.
The next day, it was foggy, much to their surprise for that was unusual in the area. A breeze coming from the west was bringing it to them. That meant they would be facing into it on the return trip, but there was nothing much they could do about it. Using his knife, Paca cut small slits in the leading edge of the skins so the dog traces could be tied to them. At first the dogs kept turning back to smell the meat as they too were hungry, but the two children kept prodding them onwards. By mid-day they passed the ice ridge where they had spent the first night. The fog, if anything, had got thicker during the morning and as they walked along it became harder to find to find their footsteps. Paca made note of the direction of the snow drifts and whenever their tracks disappeared, he used the drifts to avoid losing their way.
About mid afternoon Paca noticed the dogs acting strangely. They would stop repeatedly and sniff the air. Both of the children found it difficult to get the dogs moving again. What was it?
Finally just when they were too tired to continue they came to the ice barrier.
“Let’s stay the night here. We’ll be home when the sun comes up in the morning.”
So once more, the children dug a snow tunnel, but this time they left the dogs outside and brought the meat into the tunnel with them. Paca and Asita both removed the harnasses from the two dogs and brought them into the tunnel where they could not get eaten by the hungry dogs. Paca carved off two chunks of meat and fed the dogs, hoping that would keep them nearby until they were ready to leave the next day.
It was the sudden low growls of the two dogs that woke the children sometime during the night. Paca peered out, but it was still foggy and he could see nothing. Both dogs had left and from their sounds, he could hear them off to the right of their snow tunnel along the ice barrier somewhere. He got out and made his way towards the dogs, which were now snarling excitedly and rushing around. Although he could see nothing in the dark and the fog, Paca instinctively knew it must be a bear. He quickly returned and warned Asita.
“We must hurry. The dogs will keep the bear busy while we escape.”
The children tied the traces to the seal skin and began making their way through the ice barrier. It was hard work as their loads kept getting caught in the blocks of jumbled ice and their weight alone caused them great diffuculty. Both their minds were on the bear and, when they could, they peered into the fog for signs of it. At times, they had to work together to pull each sausage shaped roll of meat up and over some of the bigger blocks. Finally they were through the worst of the barrier and they headed along the shoreline where the going was easier. Neither had seen anything of the bear, but now and then they heard the dogs yelping, probable from just outside the ice barrier.
As they made their way along the shore towards home, one of the dogs came suddenly out of the fog and limped passed them. Asita, who was closest, tried to grab it as it passed them, but the dog shied and with a low growl, limped out of reach and disappeared again into the fog up ahead.
“It’s hurt, Paca. Where’s the other one? And where’s the bear...?” She looked at Paca, but knew he didn’t have any answers either. With the wind blowing from them to the bear, they both knew it would be following them unless the dogs had somehow managed to scare it off or injure it. They both knew that wasn’t very likely, especially now one of the dogs was injured.
“We’d better keep moving. We’re not too far from home now...” They both tugged at their loads and moved along as fast as they could. Within a few minutes, the second dog came up from behind them and made a wide circle before once again disappearing into the fog behind them. Almost at the same instant, it began snapping and howling. It was clear the bear must be very close, perhaps just a few meters back in the fog behind them.
“Leave your meat, Asita and help me pull mine! Maybe the bear will stay here and eat while we rush home!”
Both children grabbed hold of the single line attached to the roll of meat and hurried ahead as fast as they could. In the fog it was impossible to tell exactly where they were, but Paca thought he was starting to see familiar shapes in the snow as they made their way to the snow house somewhere up ahead. Behind them they could hear the dog charging at the bear, but the sounds were still too close and they didn’t seem to be coming from the spot they had abandoned the seal meat. Paca was afraid to turn around to have a look, but every moment he expected to feel the bear tearing at his back.
From up ahead, another dog began yelping. “What’s happening” Are there two bears? Did we get turned around in our fear?” Paca and Asita stopped for a moment to collect themselves. He noticed for the first time that Asita still had the shovel with her and he grapped it from her hands. He was about to throw it away as useless when the bear came out of the fog. It was only a few meters away. Turning to Asita he yelled, “Run! Get Grandfather!” The bear stopped, it’s head swinging slowly from side to side. The dog leaped on its back, but with a shrug of its shoulder, the bear threw the dog off and turned to swat it with its huge paw, a move that would have killed the dog instantly. Without thinking, Paca swung the snow shovel at the bear’s head. As it struck, he was amazed at how solid it seemed. The bear suddenly jumped around, its back to Paca and it padded off into the fog so only a vague outline remained.
Paca, still holding onto the shovel, turned and ran after his sister. He wondered where the bear had gone. Was it coming up behind him again? What was the dog doing? It had become suddenly silent, but he was sure the bear had not hit it. Paca was still running when he came to the komatik. He was home, but where was Asita? Running quickly around the snow house to the side where the door was, Paca came face to face with his grandfather. The old man was staggering on his feet with only his snowpants on. He was naked from the waist up. In his hands he carried a harpoon. Without seeming to hear or see Paca, old Alaraluk shuffled out into the fog singing an ancient Ai-Ai-Ai chant and intending to kill the bear with just his old seal harpoon. Paca ran after him, but after a few meters, he realized the bear had left. The two dogs had gone suddenly quiet and one was lying beside the kamotik licking its wounds. Paca went with his grandfather back along the tracks he and his sister had just made. As he walked along, old Alaraluk began to come alive and started to talk rapidly, pointing to the huge tracks the bear had left in the snow and lunging here and there at the fog with his harpoon as if the bear was still around. When they came to the untouched rolled up seal meat, he only looked at Paca and said, “Help me bring in this meat before the bear comes back. Good hunters don’t leave meat out for bait when there are hungry people at home.”