Tobi’s Diary: Keeping All Fingers and Toes, pt. 1

It’s hard to describe what “sub-zero conditions” feels like, unless you’ve been there. You think you’re prepared, with your Gore-Tex coat and your Sorel boots, your North Face fleece and your MEC wool long johns. Sitting in a warm house, electric kettle at the ready for hot tea, and wool slippers on, it’s hard to project yourself into a space best compared to a perfect deep freeze, and to imagine what you’ll need to survive for 24 hours out there.

It’s simply impossible to imagine, you can only experience it: that’s what I learned on my privileged trek out “on the land” with the crew this week as we followed a Ranger patrol.

You don’t mess around with the cold up here!

Director Dennis Allen sets off across the flat, snow-covered expanse on his skidoo.

How I got there…
I ended up going on this unexpected adventure because our sound man, Nick Huard, suddenly came down with something nasty the night before. The team had been filming one of our main characters with his family as they ate a traditional meal of frozen caribou—freshly caught from the last patrol—Arctic char and whitefish, all sitting together around a cardboard box on the kitchen floor. They would cut off thin slices of the frozen meat and fish with an ulu, a very efficient moon-shaped blade, scooping it into their mouths with some gently fried onions and butter.

So Nick, who loves food and especially freshly caught game, could barely keep his stomach in place as they filmed this beautiful feast. Later that evening, we went to capture a traditional drum dance and square dance at the community centre, and he told me I might have to take over if his cookies didn’t stay in place. He was looking a little green. Sure enough, at one point he dumped his kit and harness over my head, pointed out the levels and master key on the mixer, said “point the boom in the direction the sound is coming from,” and hightailed it out of there. Poor Nick – lucky Tobi! I was only too happy to sub in; I just hoped and prayed I didn’t screw it up.

An Inuit-style ulu. Evidence of the tool’s usage dates back as early as 2500 BCE

Fast forward…
9 am Wednesday morning: I’m sitting at the kitchen table, transferring photos and attempting to communicate with home base in Montreal. Nick is not looking good. Even his 2-foot long ponytail looks like it was dragged through a ditch. He couldn’t keep anything down and refused all offers of eggs and toast.

Decision time! Nick decided to bow out, and the race to equip Tobi for the cold was on! I was given a rabbit fur hat with ear flaps, an 800-count down jacket that made me look like the Michelin man, an extra pair of down ski pants, and many, many warnings to bring extra socks. I made sure I knew where my extra batteries were, got a quick sound tutorial from Nick, nervously packed my few toiletries and our food in a day pack, and we were off!

The qamutik (an Inuit sled) packed with caribou skins and various supplies.

The Qamutik ride
It was bumpy, to say the least. Paul and I were in the back of a sled being pulled along behind Dennis on snowmobile. It slid – and bumped, rocked and rolled – along the hard ground on two runners, which are now usually coated with plastic. Traditionally, the coating was char skin, and the scales of the fish helped it slide along the ground and prevented it from going backward. We have 3 layers of caribou skins and a thick foam to buffer the ride, but it’s still pretty bone-rattling.

About an hour out, we stop for tea and coffee, and a quick carb-up of Pilot biscuits and butter. Paul and I eat bologna sandwiches; the slice of luncheon meat tastes delectable out here in the cold.

A typical ‘packed lunch’ for the crew: nothing keeps you warm like comfort food.

Avoiding the freeze
My toes were not that cold, and I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal. We’d been out all day in -25 to -30 degree weather for about six hours by then, and it was now close to 5:00 pm. Paul had finished shooting the arrival of the Rangers as they set up camp close to a small rise in the otherwise flat landscape. Dennis rustled us up a borrowed army tent, and went on a ski-doo to pick up some heavy stones from the top of the bluff. He and Paul set up the tent by tying one side to the slats of the qamutik (sled) we’d rented from someone in town—the same sled Paul and I were bumped along in for 4 hours on the way there—and lashed the other side of the tent to the stones.

Dennis, looking completely comfortable in the bitter cold, has a quick snack to go with his tea.

Minutes later, Sammy Kogvik brought over an old Coleman stove that he used for spare parts—it was a little battered, missing its grate—and some Naptha gas, as well as a massive stockpot and kettle. As Adam Ukuktunnuak got the little cooker going, we unloaded the sled of all our gear so we could lay the caribou and muskox skins down on the frozen ground. We were grateful as the little Coleman cranked out the heat, as the temperature was already starting to drop.

That’s when Paul demanded I take off my boots and socks. He felt my socks, which were decidedly wet, and then handed me his extra pair of nylon liners and woolies to put on. I had gotten many a warning not to let my feet get wet or cold. Next to being bareheaded, it was the surest way to freeze your whole body. I wasn’t all that worried, after all I was wearing Sorels rated for -40, wasn’t I? And my whole body was toasty thanks to sound man Nick’s oversized parka and two pairs of ski pants. And ear warmers. And a running cap. And a rabbit fur hat. And liners and down gloves. You get the picture: I was like a walking advertisement for warmth.

Going Sealing
As we went out to film the Rangers who had gone out sealing, I was feeling pretty good. We’d checked the sound levels in the tent and apart from some extra noise I made as I repositioned when the Rangers drove by (loudly!) on ski-doo as we filmed their departure, and the levels seemed fine. I thought, “it’s going to be okay.”

Adam and Sammy crouch next to the qamutik.

We drove out to the first hole where we could see Adam Ukuqtunnuak standing in his bright red coat. Standing stock-still, he motioned for us to be quiet as we approached. We were standing on sea water, and the seals they were hunting could be right beneath us. We tiptoed up and set up to film, and after that… nothing. Adam stood there still as he could, directly over the hole, rifle in hand, looking intently into the water. It dawned on me that they could do this for hours, waiting for a seal. Adam later told us that he used to do this all day when he was younger, but he doesn’t “have the patience for it now.” Watchers of the North took on a new meaning as we filmed him watching.

We moved on to film Paul Iquallaq, a great hunter, guide and outfitter in these parts. He was a little more agitated when we walked over. “Shhhhh! You can talk but you can’t walk!” he said to us. We stood with him for about 15 minutes as he watched the little hole.

These men are serious about their time out on the land: they are hardwired to try and get something if they are going to be out there. It used to be about survival: you only could get meat that you hunted yourself. Now, things are different. You can buy a round beef roast at the Northern or Co-op store. But at $25 a roast, you are much better off getting caribou or seal. Their palates have adapted to game and seal over the generations of living in this land, and Manitoba beef is a poor substitute.

The last sealer we filmed is an elder, Jakob Atkichok, dressed from head to toe in caribou fur. He says he’s too warm, but as the wind increases and temperature continues to drop, I  start to get seriously cold. Not dangerously, but I don’t know how much longer I can stay out. We leave Jakob staring intently into the hole, and return to our tent.

A verdict on my snow gear … to be continued.

This is a mildly edited version of a post from Tobi’s production blog, Tobi + Arctic. Go check it out; it’s full of great pieces that are good companions to what you find here. All pictures by Tobi Elliott.