Thurs March 17
Pascal’s school class is going on a field trip: it’s a hunting expedition and we are invited! How exciting. As a city kid, I have no idea what this entails but her students are enthused and the excitement grows. I hop on the back of Koochi’s snowmobile, George gets in the komatik. It’s a rag tag collection of 6 machines, cobbled together from junk yard parts but the kids have their own wheels which is what counts. We head out over the Soper and up the river to look for caribou – nobody wants to fish and I’m glad. Its an exhilarating ride, a beautiful cloudless sunny day...we are all bundled extra warmly as Pascal has cautioned that out on the land is colder in town plus the speed of the snow machine will make it even colder. Ha, I know this first hand!
We come to three caribou almost immediately but Koochi says they are ‘wrong’ - I don’t understand why – lack of antlers or size or location or their sex - but I accept his judgment without comment. After checking that everyone is OK, we head out again.
Speeding up what seems like a steep hill, I hang on to Koochi for dear life (although kids later laugh and tell me that hardly counted as either a hill or going fast). We pause on top, he scans the frozen plain below with binoculars, again checking the grazing caribou for something. Again, these animals are somehow not right and we continue on our way. At 16 years old, Koochi has a poise, calmness and serious nature far beyond his years. Later I learn he’s the male head of his family and has been for years. No wonder he seems years more mature than the giggling teens in tow.
We meet other hunters returning to Lake Harbour, their komatik loaded with caribou. We slow and words are exchanged, one of the fur clad men gestures towards the north. Parting, within 15 minutes we come across a group of 10 animals. The rest of the group has dropped behind, understanding the drama about to unfold. Behind a small hummock, Koochi drops prone on the snow and carefully fires two rapid shots.
The caribou is down but still alive. Koochi runs up to the animal and quickly severs the spinal cord with a small hunters knife. Others now arrive and congratulate him on his kill. Without hesitation, he tosses a rope around the antlers and using the snow machine, tows it behind a wind protected hillock. Peeling off his over coat and heavy mitts, he starts to skin the caribou.
I’ve not seen this before and am quite fascinated. Starting at the hooves, he splits the skin and peels the fur up an off each leg. Then he slits the belly area and punches the skin off using his fists – the flesh was dry underneath the fur. The lack of blood surprised me. I take off my gloves and touched the still warm flesh – now I know why he was able to skin without gloves. He continues to pull and cut the skin off, ending at the head, before tossing the skin on the snow.
The naked carcass looks much smaller with out the fur. Now each quarter is cut off, then the two back strips are removed. The guts are finally removed and some blood is drained. The kids slice out choice organ meat (lungs, hearts, liver?) using knives, ulus, and nibble the delicate bits. Someone steps on the guts, the contents tear open – I examine the well digested lichens, not noticing any smell in the cold. As the ribs come off and neck bones separated, everything gets eventually wrapped in the caribou skin and loaded back into the komatik. What remains on the tundra are the head, guts and leg bits (from the knees down). The entire process yields about 150 to 200 lbs and takes 1 hour of hard work.
A lesson I learn is that things rarely go as expected. No wonder the Inuit are masters at adaptation! Returning to Lake Harbour, I ask Koochi to drive slow as I want to savour the return drive. We are bringing up the rear – far ahead, we can see two machines have stopped. It’s the girls and they have run out of oil for their machine and blame Pascal. I can’t see the logic in this but keep my mouth shut. Koochi unloads me and the caribou loaded komatik and heads off to town, 15 minute drive away. Pascal comes up, somehow getting behind us: Koochi drove slower but took a short cut, experience showing again.
We gather and wait for the oil…before long, Koochi returns with the necessary oil. We all start out again but within 500 metres, a second snow machine fails. It seems to be a mechanical failure and rather than tinkering, Pascal simply tows it the short distance back to town. Then, another snow machine runs out of gas…thus out of the six machines which left town, only two return under their own power (one having returned earlier in the day with the other hunters), both towing komatiks.
But the events don’t damper anyone’s spirits. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. Pascal’s machine can’t climb the remaining hill while towing the out-of-gas machine, so it is simply unhooked and left on the tundra. Everyone piles on where they can fine space, mostly the komatiks. It’s a race between Pascal and Koochi, to see who can get to town first! Barb and I elect to walk back, freeing up some valuable real estate. Plus my back just couldn’t take the bumps and jostling of the komatik any longer and never mind the gasoline fumes. We can hear the kids hoot and holler, cheering in a race to the finish.
Its 5:30pm when I finally get ‘home’, totally exhausted after this 7 hour field trip. A quick dinner of caribou stew, rice, cheese and canned tomatoes. Younger kids start to come to visit, after the pattern of most nights. Pascal returns to school to prepare for tomorrow lessons. Mattoo comes by with a sculpture of a polar bear, showing us before he takes it down to the Northern Store. I catch up on my journal before slipping outside for a look at the sky. The northern lights look hazy tonight – it seems some thin cloud cover has slipped in, dimming usual brilliant night sky - a change of weather tomorrow?