Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Here, once again, is a Christmas story to enjoy during the Holidays. I will be closing the Ckayaker office for the next week or so, but look forward to returning in the New Year. Stay well!

The three Inuit stood beside their snow-machines and stared at the snow shelf. It clung precariously to the dark cliff and jutted out towards the black curling water. The last time they'd passed this point, the shelf had stretched out into the middle of the river making for an easy passage. At that time only a small smokey hole indicated the presence of a river beneath the ice. Now the unusual warm weather of the past few days had changed things dramatically.

"Looks dangerous, doesn't it?" Alaku nodded ahead at the narrow snow shelf barely wide enough for a snow-machine. "What should we do?"

"Still wide enough to get by, but it won't be there when we return. We'll have to find another route home..." Kudlikuluk was obviously ready to try running it in spite of the clear danger of sliding sideways into the cold, rushing water.

It was decided to undo the snow-machines from the kamotiks, the wooden sleds each man pulled behind his snow-machine. Instead, the sleds were attached by ropes. They would follow several meters behind the snow-machines, but more importantly, should anything go wrong, the driver could quickly reach behind and cut the rope, freeing the snow-machine, thus allowing it to escape if need be.

Kudlikuluk was first to go. He circled his machine below the shelf and then gaining speed, headed right for the cliff. At the last moment he turned onto the shelf, carving a wide arc in the snow as he passed up-stream to the safer ice beyond. At that moment his kamotik was jerked into following his track as the trailing rope went tight. The first sled was over safely. Following the same maneuver, each of the other men guided their snow-machines and sleds across the tricky bridge. There was a heart stopping moment when Anguti's snow-machine suddenly started sputtering and briefly lost power just as he accelerated towards the shelf, but then it caught and ran the shelf without incident. From there, they followed the river-side cliffs further up the river without incident.

The short few hours of day-light had long since turned into night when the three reached their destination, a small windowless cabin built years previously from discarded panels of plywood filled with rigid insolation. For the next several days, the men checked the gill nets which they'd strung under the ice earlier in the fall. Gradually a pile of lake trout and arctic char piled up on their kamotiks. Another day and they'd begin the trip home for Christmas. Each one was looking forward to their arrival in their small community. They already had enough fish to see that everyone would enjoy a good meal on Christmas Day and beyond.

To pass the time during the brief day, each of the four had dug a hole in the flat ice of the bay under the cliff. Lying on their tummies and peering into a hole dug through the ice, they fished in the old way using a bright dog's canine tooth as a lure and a three pronged fishing harpoon. Slowly bobbing the lure up and down would attract the fish and a quick jab with the spear could catch them - if you were skilled. Alaku wasn't happy however. It had been getting more humid than he liked. The weather was about to change and he was uneasy. The others still wanted to catch more fish. After all Christmas was still more than a week away. Having lots to eat would be welcomed by the community. When the wind picked up during the night and the cabin began shaking, Alaku's words were on everyone's mind, but they said nothing.

With two days to go before Christmas, the weather finally cleared enough to try heading home. With luck, there was still time to make it before Christmas. The three of them were tired of being cooped up in the tiny cabin with little but fish to eat. The days of waiting had dragged slowly by and with little to do, the three men spent most of the time in their sleeping bags trying to stay warm. Now that the storm had broken, they quickly began the task of digging out the sleds and snow-machines from the new-formed snow drifts and began securing the load of fish onto the kamitiks. Wrapping the loads of fish up inside large canvas tarps, the cargo was then laced to the cross-stringers of the wooden sleds using seal-skin ropes which didn't freeze like modern rope. With a last look around,the three snow-machines roared into life and one behind the other, the men headed a few miles upstream to where a small tributary entered the main river. At this point, the cliffs were lower and in one spot a gully had formed where the snow-machines had a chance of climbing out of the river valley to the plateau above.

Alaku was the first to try the gully. Half way up his snow-machine began bogging down. The two men watching at the bottom ran up to help. First the sled was unattached and slowly lowered back to river level. Alaku pulled the front skis around and gunned the engine, spinning it around and then headed down. Another version of the rope trick was decided upon, this time Kudlikuluk attached his machine to the front of Alaku's. Both men circled to gain speed and then charged the gully. Just as Alaku began to bog down in about the same spot, Kudlikuluk's rope went taught and he was able to pull with enough force to bring the heavy load to the top of the gully. This tactic was used to bring all four of the kamotiks up to the plateau above the river and glad to be out of the river gorge at last, the men headed home happy to know there were no more obstacles between them and home to slow them down.

The sun lit the southern sky briefly at mid-day, then darkness set in again. They stopped a few times to make tea and have something to eat. Once again the weather was turning against them by late afternoon. They all noticed the snow starting to drift across their tracks. Two machines roared to life. Anguti's wouldn't start. Try as he might, the machine would sputter and die as soon as he touched the accelerator. It sounded like there was ice in the carburetor. Anguti quickly dug into his toolbox and came up with some tools. The other two cut out some blocks of snow with an old saw and made a snow-screen. This would make working in the wind a bit more pleasant. Within a few moments Anguti had the carburetor removed and dismantled, Sure enough, he could see ice blocking one of the tiny jets. By holding the still warm tea-kettle against the carburetor inside his parka, he had it melted. Checking to see no more ice was there to cause problems he had the machine re-assembled quickly and it started! The men headed out into the dark landscape, one behind the other homeward bound.

The land was mostly small rolling hills and somewhat monotonous. Suddenly sensing something unusual, Kudlikuluk looked behind him to make sure everyone was together. He was alone! Swinging around in a wide circle, he retraced his route. "Now what...?" he said almost aloud. Coming around an outcrop a few minutes later, he found the others once again huddled around Anguti's stalled snow-machine. By now the snow was drifting higher into the air and making visibility more and more difficulty. He must have water in his gas as the same problem was recurring. They decided to leave the machine and it's load of fish and continue on. To stay and repair it would leave them out in the coming storm. To leave immediately, they could probably make the community in time for Christmas. Making others happy was their primary goal.

Anguti sat on top of Alaku's kamotik and the two remaining sleds once again headed towards town. About an hour later, it was Alaku who looked back to make sure Anguti was alright. His sled was gone! What the...!! He turned back and this time drove for over a kilometer before finding his sled with Anguti sitting beside it, out of the wind, enjoying the last of his hot tea from his thermos. "About time you got here!" laughed Anguti. "Don't you ever look back?" Embarrassed, Alaku looked down at the broken link which had held the sled bars to the hitch bar on his snow-machine.

Kudlikuluk roared up the trail as they finished attaching the sled this time with a rope instead of the preferred solid pipe arrangement used in this hilly country. Hoping this would be the last problem they'd have to face, they headed home once again, but they all knew these delays were making their hopes for Christmas less likely to happen.

Even in the dark, the men had a good idea of where they were. Their spirits, which had been getting lower as the visibility got worse and their difficulties increased, now began to rise again in the more familiar surroundings. Coming around a low hill, a glowing light suddenly appeared where no light should have been. It would appear for a moment, then disappear in the blowing snow. Slowing down, they cautiously approached the light. It was a snow-house! Someone was out here in the middle of nowhere in a snow house! What were they thinking? Who could it be? Why weren't they celebrating Christmas in the community?

As they drove up to it, they watched someone struggling out of the low doorway and stood up. It was Maggie, probably the happiest and fattest lady in the world! She stood up and greeted them wearing her usual dress, a bulky store-bought parka, baggy leggings, and beautiful, hand-sewn sealskin boots on her feet. She beamed out a big welcoming smile and invited them in for tea.

"Where you guys been? You missed Christmas!" Maggie laughed at them.

"What do you mean, missed Christmas? Christmas is tomorrow..." Alaku grinned back.

"Boy, you guys are really lost! Lost in time too. You've lost a day, somewhere up the river!" Maggie laughed and turned to go into the snow house. "And it looks like you've lost a sled full of fish as well. Some fishermen you guys are...!" Maggie seemed to find this part the funniest of all. She laughed so hard, she started to cough.

The three men looked at each other trying to puzzle this revelation out. Following Maggie into the snow house, they were greeted by her two little children, whose faces peeped out from under thick caribou skin covers. The snow-house was brilliantly aglow. All around the snow house Maggie had stuck candles into the snow walls, lighting the interior up like a giant lantern.

"My husband and a few others have been out looking for you people. Since yesterday. Today is Christmas, or it was." Maggie had become a bit more serious as she looked around for some tea mugs to hand out. "We were beginning to wonder where you three had got to with all that fish you promised us!" The twinkle in her eye seemed to sparkle in the multi-candled snow house.

None of the three could quite believe they'd lost track of the time, but the dark days of being storm-bound in the little cabin must have been the reason. About an hour after arriving and several mugs of tea, frozen fish and dried caribou later, Maggie's husband and two other men arrived. Anguti's snow-machine was on one of their sleds and his fish laden kamotik was being pulled behind the other. Maggie and her husband decided to stay over in the snow-house and treat their children to a few days of living in the old way. The rest all headed to town and to the feast which had been delayed too long already!


Silbs said...

Thank you for the gift of a traditional story. It's a lost art, Michael, and you have the gift. All the best.

Crystal said...

Very nice! Thanks for a peek into a unique lifestyle.

Stan Mac Kenzie said...

Very nie Michael.

Best of the season to you.


Anonymous said...

I congratulate, what excellent answer.