Sat March 12
No school today…we are going ptarmigan hunting with Pascal and Sak, another teacher. Sak tows his komatik behind the snow mobile, I pile in on top of foam mattress and get ready for the ride. Our destination is ‘the willows’ about 30km out of town. The sun is in full force but the wind is bitter…town is noticeably warmer, out of the wind, amongst sheltered slopes that circle the harbour than ‘being on the land’. (Later, I find out its –40C plus wind chill PLUS ski doo chill – what the heck does that make it?).
Clothing list: wool long johns, thick fleece pants, gortex ski pants, Sorels which are rated to –60C, socks, wool underwear top, wool sweater, fleece coats, expedition ski jacket, wool gloves, down mitts, balaclava, neoprene face shield, snow mobile helmet. And I’m cold. The helmet is a tight fit and keeps my head warm…silly me, I don’t bother with the chin strap and my hands are too cold to fasten it anyhow.
Barb joins me in the komatik. It’s a rough and bouncy ride and with no soft snow to cushion the runners, we felt every lurch. Driving directly into the stiff northwest wind and wearing no helmet, she feels the full brunt of arctic wind chill. I yell and wave my arms, hoping to attract Pascal’s attention. Eventually, the group breaks for a warm up stop. It is obvious that we are not the only ones cold.
After 10 minutes, we continue on to a small plateau along side another frozen river. Five or six caribou wearing their winter white coats and silvery white chin ruffs prance with little hops across the tundra. Frozen caribou pee is orange in colour...the shallow snow has been pawed away from the lichen, black nuggets blown into snow tracks, the only leavings.
Finally, the third stop is at the Willows. This grove of ‘trees’ is about 2 – 3 feet tall! the shelter they provide from the wind is significant however – its not only the ptarmigan who find shelter in their branches. Leaving the others, I climb up a gulch, and find a dead caribou, only fur and legs left…what? Out of no where, a sole Inuit hunter passes me by, slowing his snowmobile to study at me, a big red blob on the white landscape. He looks rough and weather worn, two guns strapped across his back, a dead wolf, frozen tongue lolling, riding silently in his komatik. We nod to each other before he turns, disappearing in a cloud of snow dust. I return to the others who are ready to return to Lake Harbour as their ptarmigan hunting effort ran out of steam.
It’s a speedy return trip: 40 to 60 kph compared to the 20 to 40 kph going out. Tipping up the visor of my snow mobile helmet, I peep out, a cautious voyeur, inspecting the cold. The speed brings tears to my eyes which freeze my eyelashes against my cheeks. Body relaxed, eyes frozen shut, I give way to the motion of machine over more determined tundra.
In town, we lunch at the Coop…the restaurant is small, a cafeteria style room with a friendly self serve atmosphere. Hungry, I help myself to bannock donuts and steaming coffee. It’s club house sandwiches and fries for all of us. A few ladies chat with us while we wait. About 70 years old, tiny in statue but very animated, Annie shows me her pin collection – I wish I had thought to bring some from Hamilton!
Later in the afternoon, despite the wind, I want to inspect the frozen sea ice. Barb and I walk down to the harbour and across to ‘the heel’ (Lake Harbour’s landmark rock hump) – it’s hard to fathom a tide rising and falling under such a solid mass of ice but the evidence is there. Ice walls have been scraped clean over our heads. The sea ice is very green, huge chunks are jammed up to the end of the bay. Snow scrunches under our feet, faces feel nipped by cold wind. A neoprene face mask keeps frost bite from my cheeks and nose tip but my eyes water and exposed nose bridge actually hurts from the cold.
Dinner is pizza with caribou pepperoni…Sak and Shelly come for over, I listen to stories about living in the north as we wait for the dough to rise. People from many different backgrounds now weave threads of their lives together. I consider going out to look for more northern lights but its such a production to get dressed…feeling lazy, full and sleepy, I opt to retire for the night.