I have been blessed with the opportunity to hunt in several places over the world. There is something to be said for the collector mentality of some hunters. The variety of animals, their habits and habitats, along with local-devised tactics for success provides a fascinating background for those fortunate to travel long distances to hunt. I’ve enjoyed much of that, but what really piques my interest is meeting people from different places.
Although I have been to the Arctic and sub-Arctic several times and each trip was interesting in many ways, it wasn’t until the fall of 2005 when I finally experienced the ultimate Arctic adventure—living and hunting with the Inuit.
On this hunt we took several flights to get us to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories; then another to Cambridge Bay, a small hamlet located in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, Canada. At that point you are a few degrees north of the Arctic Circle, and you are presented with a certificate declaring that. From there, we jump into an old Otter and fly some 125 miles back toward the mainland and land at an Inuit encampment about a mile or so from the mouth of the Ellice River. While we hunters stay in a plywood shack with a stove, the Inuit—who, by the way, made the trip across the Queen Maud Gulf in boats more suited to a small freshwater lake than the ocean—stay in canvas tents. The whole family makes this trek, from little 3 and 4 year olds up to some older members of the communities in their 60s—fairly old for Inuits.
While we hunt, the rest of the community fishes for char and large trout along the river. The women are kept busy with their ulu knives splitting the fish from the head to just before the tail and turning then inside out to dry on racks, along with the caribou and musk ox meat brought in by the hunters. It’s amazing to watch them work, and they can split and hang a 30-pound char in a few minutes, stopping only to put an edge on the half-round-bladed ulu on a nearby rock along the shore. They are nothing, if not very resourceful people.
The first day hunting several of us took nice caribou after crossing the near mile-wide Ellice in the little aluminum boats the Inuit used to cross the ocean. We were told to bring our overnight gear with us the next morning, because we were going down river and across some 30 miles of the Queen Maud Gulf to Melbourne Island where a large herd of musk ox called home.
I dutifully came to the shoreline with my sleeping bag and hunting gear after breakfast the next morning. My Inuit guide, George (not his real name, but his Inuit name was impossible for me to pronounce, so George it was) held up his hand, signaling me to wait before loading into the little boat. George spoke little English, so we learned to communicate through a rather crude bit of sign language. He then turned the boat sideways so that it was parallel to the shoreline and took a pair of 2 x 8s about 10 feet long and laid them on the gunwale toward the stern of the boat. Next he took his 4-wheeler and ran it up onto the boards and teeter tottered it so that it was crosswise to the boat. Then he signaled me to come aboard. Mind you, he did not put so much as a bungee cord, much less a rope, to secure the 4-wheeler. Along with the rest of the hunters we headed down the river at a pleasant pace and into the gulf.
About a third of the way to the island, the ocean began to get what saltwater anglers refer to as “lumpy.” At first the swells weren’t too bad—perhaps a couple to three feet—but within a half hour it got to rolling 6- and 8-footers. The 18-foort aluminum boat that was made for small freshwater lakes was having difficulty making progress in the rollers because it did not have the mass to punch through them. Seawater was splashing over the bow soaking us. I was hanging on like an old saddle bronc rider to the only handhold I could find—the under lip of the dash.
A half hour into this rodeo I looked back to see how the 4-wheeler was faring. It was tipping onto one board as we tried to negotiate the rollers, the wheels coming up nearly a foot off the forward board. The whole thing threatened to roll off and take the stern and motor with it. It occurred to me that this might be a good time to secure a personal flotation device—lifejacket, if you will. To my unpleasant amazement none could be found. Later I found out why. They would be useless. The water temperature there is about 35 degrees and a person will be dead within 3 to 5 minutes. By nothing short of God’s grace we eventually made it to Melbourne Island. To make a long story short, we were there about 24 hours, and I was the only one not to score a musk ox.
Thankfully, the return trip to the camp was considerably calmer than the trip to the island. I spent the next six days on the back of George’s 4-wheeler before finally getting my musk ox.
But sharing the camp and culture with the Inuit was always a pleasure. The kids constantly invaded our cabin to socialize and play games with us. One guide, I believe he called himself Mark to us Caucasians, showed me some harpoon tips he hand made from brass that he used for the big char in the river. They were beautiful and showed a lot of care and workmanship. One of the ladies showed us how to make bannock, an Inuit recipe for baking powder bread. It’s too cold for yeast to work at that latitude. Bannock, by the way, tastes a lot like a doughnut without any icing.
Before we left and after we were all done hunting, some of the older boys wanted to try our rifles—Remington Ultra Mags—and did remarkably well with them. Life must be so harsh up there that a little recoil from a powerful rifle didn’t mean jack to them.
I left there with the same mixed feelings I have every time I’ve had to leave the Arctic or sub-Arctic. That country is some of the last true wilderness on the face of this earth, and I am an unabashed wilderness junkie. On the other hand, once the hunting and fishing is done, there is very little to do there. Too, soon it would be winter—20-hour a day of darkness and temps that make Wyoming look like a Caribbean resort. As much as I love the wild country, I need to see some sunlight.