The second in a three-part series based on a collection of family stories and memories about Inuit resilience and perseverance in Labrador.
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.
TO BE CONTINUED… ◉
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 pubished with support from NPA’s Emerging Northern Writers & Artists Fund.