Fri March 18

Today is departure day from Lake Harbour. The plan is to return to Iqaluit, overnight there, then fly south the next day. I’m sad to go and don’t want to leave, having enjoyed the warmth and companionship with new friends. It feels like the end of summer camp, when fragile friendships are wrenched apart unable to withstand the test of distance. It has been festival time with the carnival in town: now, with the performance coming to a close, people prepare to return to routine, a fun easy time coming to an end.

My last few hours are spent aimlessly wandering around town, taking the few photos, finally checking out the school. It’s a new building, just one year old with a library, kitchen (community caribou cook offs), gym, class rooms, all filled with bright sunshine and sheet linoleum, kids art work in the hallways, alphabet posters in Inuktitut and English. A cheery place that students, teachers, people take pride in.

A few days ago, while browsing through the Coop store, I spied a carving that kept coming back to my mind. A muskox, long shaggy fur coat textured, light footed,  prancing, dancing, body arched, head thrown up, scenting the wind. I return to the store for a closer look, wondering if it has been packed up and shipped to southern galleries yet. The longer I look at this muskox, the more I see him running across open tundra. Related to goat family, this fleet footed prehistoric survivor from the glacial ice ages, currently roams throughout much of the circumpolar world. How they appear to float across the tundra through shimmering heat waves of summer or winter! There are no musk ox on Baffin Island, I wonder where the artist Lucassie Ikkidluak, got his inspiration. The more I looked, the more stronger the feeling in my stomach whispered “take me home’. Decision made, he is carefully wrapped for the long journey to a foreign pasture, a living room table top in Hamilton.

So we make ready to depart. Our cavalcade of three snow machines, three komatiks and seven people has switched gears from ‘hurry up and wait’ to a sudden frenzied rush of last minute packing. It’s quite a departure, the kids from school milling about, caught up in the excitement of something different going on. Plus it’s Friday and school is done for the week. Waving frantically, a group photo, we load up and depart.

5pm and I’m riding the snow mobile, sitting behind Thomasee. We start the bumpy departure, heading out of town in the direction of Soper Lake…there we pause and wait for the other two parties to catch up.

Beautiful evening twilight fills the sky, blues deepening from indigo to still a crack of robins blue where the sun rolls slowly down to the horizon – I’m looking forward to the journey: we could have flown back to Iqaluit but opted instead to make the 6 hours overland journey by snow mobile, how most people would travel in winter.

With some skidoo miles under my belt, I’ve learned to relax neck and shoulder muscles and use the knees and big leg muscles as shock absorbers to cushion the jolting. Thomasee is a considerate driver, he announces when a particularly bad bump is going to be unavoidable. It seems that we reach ‘the willows’ in record speed: peaking over his shoulder, I see we travel between 40 and 60, but I don’t know if this is miles or kilometers. Flying over flat sections, I begin to recognize a few landmarks from the weeks’ previous excursions: where we spotted some caribou, the shape of a ridge, a pile of rock.

Even to my inexperienced eye, it’s apparent that the winds have been increasing. Crossing some river ice, I can feel the snow machine lurch sideways, blown by a particularly strong gust. Thomasee slows down and heads for a snow patch along the river bank. Pascal and Koochi, riding together, are nowhere in sight. Koochi is driving, and like a young pup, testing the responsiveness of  Pascal’s sporty new ‘Summit’ snow mobile. Sak, with George and Barb in tow, has assumed the role of leader over the group and our two snow machines stay within sight of each other.

Riding along a frozen ribbon of river, darkness continues to creep down the valley, with only a faint rim of light remaining. Through my helmet visor, I can see a few stars above. Suddenly, Sak’s snow machine including komatik, does a complete 360 turn, blown by the wind! I’m stunned at the unexpected power of this invisible element. I watch from our skidoo, like a slow motion horror film, helpless, as he drives over a small rise and fall in the river ice, the edge of his komatik catching a rock. Tipping over, George slides out amongst the contents and with a sickening bounce, his head hits the ice.

Immediately everyone stops and rushes over. Sometime ago, George had removed his helmet in order to see better when filming. He seems groggy but is not bleeding, insisting that he is OK. Sak is horribly upset, feeling responsible for the spill. It’s difficult to assess for damage in the dim light but the front runner of the komatik is split. Sak decides to return to Lake Harbour for a new komatik, Thomasee will ferry George, Barb and I to the nearest emergency shelter (2 km away) where we will wait for Sak. It’s now 7:30pm.

Pascal and Koochi arrive at the shelter just after we do. They left their komatik on the trail ahead, having turned back to see what was taking us so long. They found Sak’s abandoned komatik on the river and deduced we would be here. Koochi produces a candle: immediately the 10 x 10’ shelter seems more palatable. It’s pretty basic inside with an orange metal sloped roof, two benches, unfinished but insulated interior. Tea, sandwiches and cookies come out. I break out a chemical heat pack to warm my chilled fingers and oddly enough, knees. It’s largely ineffective but with no alternative, I hope for Sak’s quick return.

The wind rocks and shakes the walls – no snow is falling but the wind picks up the dry snow and hurls it along the ground thus creating this ‘ground blizzard’ condition. The sky is visible overhead but the ground is masked by a swirl of white. George and Pascal doze, Barb and I giggle, Koochi listens with one eye open. Thomasee waits outside and returns to Sak’s abandoned komatik…by 10:30pm, we are all dozing, trying to fight the chill of inactivity. Thomasee returns from his outpost, still no sign of Sak. The candle slowly burns away. No one talks about it but Sak is over due. We are worried, given his solo travel in deteriorating conditions.

The sudden roar and light announce the arrival of a snow machine. In walks Mathew, not Sak. Mathew is on his way back from Iqaluit heading to Lake Harbour, going home for the weekend. He has a CB radio and tries to reach his Dad in Lake Harbour for about 40 minutes, to find out any information regarding Sak. Just as he gives up, Sak walks in the door. Wind blasted and snow coated, he looks thoroughly chilled – conditions are terrible, visibility is pretty much nil. I wonder if we should just crash out in the shelter overnight, as we have sleeping bags and thermorests. But if the blizzard lasts for several days, well, a good reason to get out while we can.. Some mysterious nonverbal communication passes between Sak, Koochi, Thomasee and Mathew. The decision is made to return to Lake Harbour ASAP.

Shortly after midnight, we load and drive back to Lake Harbour. It will have to be an early start in the morning as we have that afternoon flight (which is now today) to catch. With the wind at our back, the return trip feels warmer. By 2am, we drive through Lake Harbour’s deserted streets but are so pumped with adrenaline, no one wants to call it a night. We joke for about 15 minutes, a few kids come by and ask what we are doing back here…finally, the group splits up. Inside Pascal’s house, the phone rings as we walk in the door – its one of her students, asking what’s up – news sure travels fast here, even at 2am.