The following is based on a collection of family stories and memories about Inuit resilience and perseverance in Labrador. Alex Saunders is a life-long writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of Aullak (“On the Land”), a book used in schools in Northern Labrador, and a number of papers on addictions and intergenerational trauma. A recognized Elder, Saunders serves as a healer and facilitator in the Labrador Inuit community. Currently, he lives in St. Lewis, Labrador where he is raising his nine-year-old grandson. This story was published with support from the Emerging Writers & Artists Fund.
My heart was beating like a drum. It felt as if it was almost coming out of my chest as I lay on the bare ground just over the little rise that separated me from the spring sea ice. My breath was coming in great heaves and my head was spinning, only aware of the smell of the good earth as I lay there trying to get my senses back to normal. It was the most frightening experience of my life and one that I would remember for the rest of it. I had just shot at a seal from the land. It was near enough for a kill shot but I only wounded him and had gone out on the sea ice to see if it may be dead after all. As I walked around the hole where the seal was lying, I noticed some blood on the edges. I walked in a wide circle around the opening, noticing that little tiny bubbles of water were erupting all around me. My attention was centred on the seal hole, hoping it would float up dead, but I watched where I placed my feet, careful to keep them away from all those tiny holes that I never paid much attention to. I walked slowly and carefully back toward the land. About forty feet away I realized the danger I was in, when all of a sudden the ice gave out and I went down into the very cold, clear water, way over my head.
I lost the rifle I was holding. It fell to the seabed as I surfaced to gasp air and try to figure out what had happened. The ice was pretty well eaten away by the strong tides that cut around the point of the land and the Arctic sun, which gave about eighteen hours of sunlight every day this time of the year. The ice was rotten, full of holes. I tried to break the ice to get to shore. I am a good swimmer; I spent my wayward youth on the banks of the Grand River from June to September in the Goose Bay area of Labrador, and learned more about swimming while serving in the Canadian Navy. But it was slow work in the ice-covered water that was extremely cold. I was getting exhausted in a matter of minutes. I went underwater to look around and saw my rifle about twelve feet below, which gave me some hope. I should be able to get it back after I had rested for a while. The tide was out about two feet, so I swam underwater towards the shore until I could get my feet on some rocks and get my face out of water to breathe air trapped under the ice. I moved slowly, half walking and floating towards the shoreline until I got in water where I had to bend my knees in order to keep my face above water so as to breathe. When I figured the depth to be about chest high, I reached down to the bottom and found a good-sized rock. I put my head under water and pushed up with my legs, my body bent at waist level as I shot up from the bottom with all the force I could muster, raising the rock above my head to smash away at the ice overhead. The ice near shore was softer than what I had just been walking on. With one hit I was through, my shoulders and head were above ice level and I could claw my way ashore and stumble across the beach rocks onto the dry land of the island I was camped on.
The tips of my fingers were blue — bet my lips were also — and a terrible shivering and shaking began as I stripped away my outer clothing and boots while stumbling in the general direction of my little tent, which was set up for the night. My feet and lower legs looked pale grey and I couldn’t feel the stones and sticks that I walked over. The shivering helped to warm me up, causing the muscles to produce motion thus helping to warm the body, a common trait among the Inuit people that developed over millennia in order to circulate their blood in a bitter environment. The Inuit are an ancient people, said to be older than the moon. My skin was burning with the cold, tingling all over. I remember being in the water and starting to feel the water becoming warm, knowing then that I had better get out of it as fast as I could, or hypothermia would set in real quick. I was losing it now. The land was spinning; I didn’t know what direction to take that would lead me to my tent, a sleeping bag and dry clothing. I fell into a shallow depression in the earth, thank God it was dry, the sun was high, warm on my long johns; my head was hurting like crazy and there was no one around to help, not even a dog for solace. I couldn’t go to sleep, I might never wake up and no one knew exactly where I was. I twisted and turned, beat my head off the ground to try to get rid of the sand that seemed to fill both my eyes, my vision almost completely gone. I lay back, face pointed directly into the sun. I needed some warmth. I lay there letting my shivering body relax, feeling the heat of the sun on my skin, but I desperately needed something to warm me completely throughout. I felt a lethargic feeling settle over me that I knew to be dangerous and I fought sleep. After a while I could see out of a tiny slit in my left eye, the other was still a blur. I noticed the position of the sun at about three o’clock in the blue sky. I knew my tent door, was facing south so I had to keep the sun on my right side and back as I straggled along to find my white tent somewhere in this silent land. I walked, I don’t know how long, stumbling along, half conscious, sometimes aware of the sun’s position, all the time with the earth spinning, dead tired and with a tremendous headache. I woke up half in and half out of my tent door just at dusk. The sun had set. I don’t know how I got there, how long it took, or how long I was unconscious, but at least my eyes had cleared up somewhat. I was so stiff and cold I could hardly hold the Bic lighter to the dry wood shavings I had made earlier to get the tent stove roaring.
I was camped on bare dry ground on a little hummock with a low hill behind me, and lots of driftwood at the shoreline. I had a small homemade one-person tent that my aunt had made for me. My uncle had made the small tent stove out of scrap quarter-inch metal he found laying around the beach at Nain. The stove wouldn’t last long, but then again it didn’t matter, as I expected to only take about ten days to walk from Nain to Davis Inlet where the old homestead lay. I was only about fifteen miles from the Old Place now, about ten miles to the big island and then overland among high hills for about five miles and I would be home with the Old Folks.
I got the stove going. I had a boiler and a quart kettle full of spring runoff water. Luckily I had lots of wood cut up and fry bread made and a good supply of dried caribou meat and fat along with rice and beans. Man, I needed the heat. I closed the door, tied it tight so as to not have any chance of a draft of wind. I put the kettle on to boil, took off my damp long johns and hung them on the dry string in the roof of the tent and sat on the warm caribou hide, wrapping my sleeping bag around me. I could feel the heat seeping into my bones, even into the marrow, and the wrinkles in my feet and hands started to disappear. My fingertips weren’t blue any more, nor were my feet grey, so I knew blood was flowing good again. I kept the stove stoked to the brim, adding dry wood when I could fit a piece into the small stove. Because of the thin material, the stove gave off good instant heat but would be no good for a lasting fire. I had it as hot as a sauna in the tent, so hot that I even began to sweat, one extreme to another, and it felt so good to sit there with beads of sweat dripping off my chin. I drank sweet raw tea that I let cool sufficiently so as not to ingest a hot liquid that could cause shock. I drank one cup after another until I had the kettle almost empty, then I ate some fry bread and dried caribou meat and new pink seal fat. The fat would do me good; I believed my father when he said fat acts like a furnace in your stomach and warms your whole body.
After eating, it started to get dark and I started to get nervous. My rifle was at the bottom of the ocean. All I had now was a small-bore 22-calibre gun that wouldn’t even dent the hide of a polar bear, and they were around the area at this time of year. They moved south among the large seal herds that birthed their young on the ice pans flowing down from the Arctic. Spring was a dangerous time to be where I was, among the outer islands of the Labrador coast, right in the path of the seals and their mortal enemy, the Great White Bear. “The great wanderer,” the Inuit called them, as they travelled on the sea ice and hunted seals from Greenland to the northeast coast of the Newfoundland island.
I was exhausted. I needed sleep of the worst kind. I was tired, head aching, after just overcoming a near drowning and walking barefooted for God only knows how far. The food in my stomach and the heat were soothing and I was nodding off to sleep. Perhaps I would be safe for the night anyway. My long johns were dry but stiff with salt, so I put them on anyway along with dry outer clothing, loaded and lay my little gun and axe near at hand and rolled up in my sleeping bag fully clothed, because you never know when Mr. White Bear may come scratching at your tent walls. Falling asleep, I remembered a story my mother told of an old Inuk in the Cape Mugford area who killed a polar bear with his axe in order to save his bullets for shooting caribou. I hoped real hard that I wouldn’t have to test my abilities with a small gun and an axe against a monstrous bear.
The short night passed quickly. The sun seemed to come up about a foot or two on the horizon from where it set about four or five hours ago, just dip down and up again, almost like a ball on a string. Mid May wasn’t an ideal time to be out on the sea ice walking and hauling a homemade toboggan in unfamiliar territory, but it was what I wanted to be doing. I knew the general direction I needed to travel to get home and felt like quite the seasoned traveler after being way in the country hunting caribou with my cousin Wilfred. The last month had passed very quickly, and it was nice to linger in Nain, to get to know my extended family and to see the beauty of the North. The whole year had passed quickly for me and I had learned a lot from my quiet cousin and his teachings by example. Shy and as funny as they came, he was endowed with a Native intelligence that was amazing to learn from.
I had spent about a month and a half in the most Northerly community in Labrador with my Uncle Julius Ford and my Aunt Rosina, my Mother’s sister. Their son Wilfred and I went into the barren lands to hunt caribou by dog team in April, where we slept in a tent and a couple of wondrous nights in an igloo that we found on the barrens. It was a wonderful experience that any young man should have, and now I was walking back to my home in Davis Inlet. I wanted to walk, to see and smell the land, hear the wildlife and to have whatever adventure that came my way. But I may have left it kind of late as the big thaw was fast approaching and I wasn’t an experienced Northern man.
As sleepy as I was, I rolled over and went outside for a look around. No sign of Mr. Bear, thank God, but I never relaxed my watch as I know how dangerous they are. They have no fear of man and will attack if a female with cubs. The older bears, mostly males, attack if you come too close to their kill, and are known to kill bear cubs to try to drive the female into heat again. Satisfied that I was safe for the moment anyway, I crawled back into the tent for another couple hours of much needed sleep and when I awoke the second time it was about six in the morning and I felt more rested. I drank tea, ate raw seal fat and fry bread, and spread my hide and sleeping bag out on some low Arctic willows to dry in the sun and wind, knowing they would smell wonderful at night when I rolled up in them to sleep once again. I had a small towel and a bar of face soap that I was supposed to use every day but hadn’t touched in the week since I left Nain. I took the towel and my small gun and ax, then started to walk back to the point of land where I had fallen thru the ice yesterday. I walked bare footed with my thick woolen socks in my hand, knowing what I had to do. There was no way out; I had to have that heavy gauge rifle to ward off any curious or ornery polar bears and to hunt seals for food.
I was sore all over, my head still ached, my feet felt as if they were dead, but my eyesight was clear and I knew without a doubt that I had no choice but to get that gun. I walked about forty-five minutes to the place where I had crawled ashore yesterday. I must have walked in circles on the way back to my tent as it had to have taken about four hours from the time I left the place to when I woke up. The task at hand wasn’t pleasant, but it was absolutely necessary. I pulled drift wood from the shore line and made a big roaring fire by a large boulder. The wind was warm from the southwest and it was a very nice day. I dried out my new sealskin boots in the wind and my clothing from yesterday by the fire and waited until nothing needed to be done but add lots of big wood. Then I stripped off, laying my towel near the shore, and waded into the icy cold water that was solid ice only yesterday. It took my breath away. I started back to land when I got knee deep in the frigid water and stood on the rocks just looking at the water and ice near where the gun lay. I went back to the fire, feeling so lost and alone, afraid of drowning in that cold water and thinking of all the young seals that were going south with the ice floe. So were the polar bears, who came vividly to mind. Imagine facing one of those with just a useless little gun and an ax. What choice do I have? Get the gun and then you will have a chance, I thought.
I entered the water again, not letting my shortness of breath stop me this time, and when I was waist deep in the ice cold water I thought of places in the world where people did what they called a ‘Polar dip’. By God, if they could do it, so could I. I dove head first into the clear cold water after taking a long shaky breath, letting the air out the moment my head went numb with cold. I saw the gun. It looked so close in the clear water but I had to force myself to swim about ten feet down in order to get it, which I was lucky enough to do on the first dive. I headed for the surface and shore which wasn’t very far away. Seeing the blaze of the fire and smoke billowing when I broke water gave me an extra boost of energy that helped me into water shallow enough to walk ashore.
I stumbled among the smooth rocks at the water’s edge, coughing and shaking, barely able to remain upright. I had no strength left and all feeling had left my entire body. I remember feeling so heavy, but my head was clear through it all and I grabbed the towel and rubbed my head and upper body without even feeling the towel touch my skin. I instinctively knew better than go too close to the hot fire. Some ancient skill kicked in and I went downwind of the fire and stood in the smoke with flankers flying all around me. After a minute or two, I could feel the heat. I jumped up and down, slapped my arms around my naked upper body when I was able to move and tried to dry the rest of my body with the towel. Slowly sensations began in my body; my headache came back, I could feel my sore feet again, tingling began all over the place, my skin turned red and I could breathe and see better. Slowly, slowly I came out of the stupor that the cold water had left me in. I got dressed in dry clothes, lay around the fire for about an hour, then gathered up my two guns and ax and started to walk back to camp. It was a beautiful day, as were so many this time of the year, but I knew that it could be dangerous out on the land yet. Summer was the only time you could really relax when you were away all by yourself out on the land.
I remembered a story that my mother told about a spring storm that blew in from the Atlantic Ocean about the middle of May. They were at the Old Homestead helping to get some firewood hauled home for their summer use. The wind and snow came from the east, straight up Davis Inlet run. It was mild and snowed and blew a gale for a week. Deep windrows formed on the ice and snow drift curled from the top of them. The wind blew for another day after the snow stopped. They knew my uncle lived about eight miles away, as did another family of Inuit, and they were concerned for the safety of both as the uncle was alone and an old man, and the woman lived with her two sons while her husband was away hunting. The boys were young, about 10 and 12, and could help with the chores around the house but my father was concerned that they may have run out of firewood. They got ready and left in the snow on their dog team. Travelling was hard, up one drift, down the other side, to stick the nose of the Komatik into the drift which they then had to strain to lift out. The snow was heavy, wet and packed hard by 90-mile-an-hour winds. Two miles up the run and they could change direction and run between high land through what we call a “rattle,” an area where the narrow opening of the land causes the tide rip to form open water. Here the ice was swept clear of snow and they flew through the rattle coming out the other end to the land where the other people lived.
They were concerned about the uncle that lived alone among big trees farther along the shore from where the woman lived. They crossed the little bay and over a small neck of land to get to my uncle’s place. When they got there, the woman and her two children were there also. She said, “Did you see our house, Aunt Maggie?” Mother and Father looked at each other and shook their heads, then my father said, “Boy Nora, I believe we drove right over your house with the Team.” She said, “Yes you did, wonder we never died in there.”
They had run out of wood and the weather was too bad to go into the nearby wooded area to get more. The husband was away hunting caribou, so the woman and her children stayed in bed all day and night before getting up on the last day to light their coal oil lamp, which went out right away. She thought it was out of oil so she lit a candle. It was very dark in the house and they all had headaches. The candle only flickered and gave very poor light so the woman knew something was wrong. The wind-up clock said 7:00 a.m., it should have been light long ago. She went to the door leading to their porch, which had a big window in it, and the light wasn’t any better. She was becoming unnerved and couldn’t breathe properly so she opened the outside door to get some air and ran into a solid wall of snow. Then she knew, the house was covered over with snow and they had very little oxygen. She got busy right away by shoveling snow into the porch area, which she soon filled up. At this time she was digging away from the house, hoping to dig out of the snow drift, before she realized that it could take days and she only had hours in which to work safely. She got the boys to don their outerwear as she did herself, and they pushed the snow into the house as she started to dig upward with her small wooden homemade shovel.
It took them hours to dig a small hole up through the snow to reach the surface that was only big enough for her to crawl through. By this time, the house was full of snow and there was no turning back; it was either reach the surface or suffocate. Their dogged determination won out and they broke through the hard crust of snow on the windswept surface. They were covered in moisture from snow melting with their body heat and from sweating as they worked in the confined space. They struggled to walk in the blinding drifting snow, stumbling and crawling in the general direction of my uncle’s one-room house with all his pet dogs. It was the dogs that alerted my uncle of their plight as they had walked past his house in the complete whiteout, missing it by mere feet. The dogs either heard them or smelled them and started to bark and run around excitedly in the small house. My uncle opened the door and heard the woman crying out, “Come on boys, Uncle Harvey’s house must be here somewhere.” He got his coat and boots on and went out the door with about ten little dogs following him. Some of them ran ahead in the storm and found Nora and her children. Uncle Harvey was yelling out to them as they followed the dogs back to his house. They were in bad shape, clothing frozen stiff, face, hair and clothing full of frozen snow, and exhausted from all their labours. He took them in and thawed them out by his good wood stove, giving them tea and fry bread to eat. They stayed with him until her husband came back after the storm was over and all the men pitched in to shovel their house out. The snow was packed almost as hard as cement and men had to use iron shovels to chop the snow away in blocks. The snow was about four feet over the top of the roof and the men dug down to the roof and dug out the windows and doorways. This took several days, and when they went inside they saw that the floor had been severely damaged by all that pressure from the weight of the snow. The four-by-eight home-cut stringers were broke off at one end of the house where there wasn’t a partition to provide any support for the ceiling. It was a real wonder that the house didn’t collapse onto them as they lay sleeping and they were lucky that they lit the lamp when they did. Any longer and they would have suffered hypoxemia. My uncle had room for my parents, so my father went into the woods and brought home several days’ worth of firewood to keep them warm and left all their food supplies with the woman before he and Mother went on home to Davis Inlet.
My mother talked of another such incident that happened somewhere up North among the high hills where a small family lived all by themselves. It was a complete family with a mother, father, two sons, a daughter and the grandmother, mother of the wife. They had built a home under a high mountain and lived there for a long time, never experiencing any difficulties. It was a good place to hunt, fish and trap wild animals. In the spring when the sun was warm on the land and the little brooks were running at the tops of their banks, the men were away almost every day hunting seals basking on the sea ice. It had been an average winter but with a lot of snow that mostly blew away with the wind off the high mountains. Sometimes a snow twister would travel through the valley and things would fly around for a little while before settling down to normal. There would be landslides in the spring with ice, snow and rocks tumbling down the mountain side that never caused a problem for the people living there.
One warm May day, the men were away hunting and the daughter had gone onto the near hills to look for ptarmigan and Arctic hare, leaving the two older women home alone. The grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair and the mother was at the big iron wood stove cooking supper when they felt the ground vibrating and then heard the roar of a landslide near their home. No one really knows what happened, but the snow and rocks completely destroyed the house. There was evidence that one big rock and snow ball had rolled down the mountain and ran right over the house. After frantic digging through the rubble, they found the two women and then buried them under that high mountain. The wife was all broken up by the iron stove that must have fell on top of her and the Grandmother was found with her knitting needles sticking into her body everywhere. It was an accident of nature that ruined the family. The remaining survivors took what they could and walked to Nain where their descendants live today.