Dennis’ Diary: Returning to my roots

I like to think I can handle any situation, especially when it comes to travelling in Canada’s rugged North. I grew up in Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, and most of my youth was behind the wheel of a snowmobile or motor boat. I’ve logged a few miles in my day and take great pride in my skills as a “man of the land”. But travelling with the Canadian Rangers in Taloyoak and Nunavut has brought me a down a few notches.

                                       The Rangers heading off from a routine stop. Few landmarks up here…

Our two previous trips with the Gjoa Haven Rangers were cold and long, but handling the snowmobile and qamutik was relatively easy on the flat terrain. Taloyoak, however, has a completely different terrain: truck-size boulders and steep grades. And when you are pulling a twenty foot long qamutik (Inuit sled)—with a custom built plywood cab designed to hold two film crew, twenty gallons of gasoline, enough grub to feed the Kozaks, camera gear up the wazoo, and camping and sleeping supplies—it can be a nail-biter. And, oh yeah: the tow rope is twenty feet long. I should automatically be qualified to drive a freight train after pulling that monster.

                                      These Rangers carry serious weight on their skidoos.

Okay, enough of that. The trip was amazing, and I don’t use that word too often. Making the centuries-old journey to the uplands of the Boothia Peninsula in search of char fishing lakes and rich sealing grounds was a spiritual experience. The elders were a direct pipeline to an ancient history as old as the sun-bleached skulls littering this vast and unforgiving land. Look no further than Ranger Cpl. Abe Uquqtunnuaq for traditional knowledge. Abe’s shock of white hair and the deep lines across his leather beaten face are all you need to know about this land. Abe has a built-in GPS that Garmin would give a million shares for.

                                      Abe Uquqtunnuaq

Our first stop was at Lord Lindsey Lake where we set fishnets for the fat char that swim its depths. I remember setting fishnets with my father as a child; helping the men untangle the char from the nets brought me back to a simpler time when the land was my mother. Afterward, I washed my hands in the snow and felt that familiar sting that told me life is harsh, but it tastes so good too.

                                         The first catch

Moses Iqalliuk, one of our Ranger companions, fell sick to a bout of pneumonia. He’d been jovial—hamming for the camera on occasion—but his one lung struggling for air reduced him to a heap on the tent floor. We learned later that he’d lived a hard life. He was orphaned at as a boy and the Rangers were like his family; he loved to spend time with them. We had to send Moses back early to Taloyoak for emergency care, with his childhood friends David and James. He was medivaced out later that night to Yellowknife for further treatment, and we hear he’s recovering well.

                                      Moses Iqalliuk

No trip we’ve been on has been without its share of snowmobile breakdowns. Snowmobiles are like a man’s right hand up here. They are used for everything from grocery shopping to hunting Muskox. They are running a minimum of three hours a day, and up to sixteen on the road. A good hunter will go through one snowmobile a year; it’s no wonder they break down.

                                         The Rangers are masters of their skidoos, and David Tulurialik is no exception.

This one in particular had an overheated piston. We’d been travelling too slow for the motor-driven fans to cool the motor. A call on the satellite phone dispatched two Rangers from town with spare parts. But one of the gaskets was torn and the nearest Canadian Tire (*ahem*) was closed. So they had to make one from a biscuit box. There’s very little one can fix without a biscuit box and a knife.

                                      MacGyver has nothing on these guys.

The next day we travelled to the rich sealing grounds that have fed the Netselingmuit since biblical times. The elders showed the younger ones how to find a seal hole and how to prepare for a kill. Patience and hunger have perfected their hunting techniques to a science. Afterward, we feasted on fat seal meat. The uncooked protein of warm seal liver is like drinking a case of Red Bull. You feel the energy shoot from your toes clean on through your skull and up into the ancestors.

On our trip home, we drive through a whiteout: blowing snow which restricts visibility to a mere quarter mile. We had to drive hard to keep up with the Rangers. Even with high-tech sunglasses designed to cut glare, the blowing snow hid the ridges of the hard snowdrifts that lay ahead, tossing us from side to side.

                                         The weather can turn on a dime, and driving through a snow storm may be your only way home.

Half an hour from town, Big John’s snowmobile bit the bullet and died on the side of the road, like an old horse that’s been ridden too long. He simply left it and rode with his son home. “I’ll get it tomorrow,” was all he said.

As we ready to embark on another adventure, my blood is starting to stir. The aches and pains of cold and stress are forgotten. The open tundra calls my name and I have to answer it. Like the Rangers, this land is my mother and my master. No matter how much my shoes cost.