SHARE

Feature_NorthwordsNWTabove&beyond, Canada’s Arctic Journal is proud to bring our readers the stories chosen as this year’s winners of the annual NorthWords Great Northern Canada Writing Contest.

This year, Jane MacKay of Kimmirut, Nunavut, received First Prize for One Step at a Time or Mussels for Etua: a short story about her adventures becoming established and comfortable in the small hamlet of Pang River Inlet, Nunavut.

The Emerging Writer Category was declared a tie between The Beauty Up There and “Untitled”. The Beauty Up There, written by Bo Wallenius of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, compares a southern locale to life in the North, with all the breathtaking beauty he has discovered in the Arctic. “Untitled” shares a heartfelt account by Lillian Li of a teenager’s lost friendship while living in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

De Beers Group of Companies generously donated cash prizes, $500 to the winner and $250 to each of the Emerging writers, with additional sponsor support to NorthWords coming from our publication.

Judging the competition was Richard Van Camp, NWT writer, and Cara Bryant, president of NorthWords.

We invite you to turn the pages to read these beautiful and heart-warming stories.

One Step at a Time or Mussels for Etua

by Jane MacKay

There was a risk in heading north with Cam, Terri knew. Friends at home in Nova Scotia often pointed out the huge distance and high cost of travel to Baffin Island, how long and very cold their winters are, and the further realities of a language barrier and very different culture. Well, what was life without a little adventure, Terri had asked herself.

As usual Grandad said the right thing. “Just take it one step at a time, Sweetheart,” he had advised. “That’s really all a person can do. And be sure to keep us posted on how you and Cam are making out up there. I’m sure you’ll both do just fine.”

The final leg of the flight made it clear that this was indeed a big adventure, one they wouldn’t soon forget. Two young pilots at the controls up front, eight passengers fastened into camp cot-like seats to the rear and a haphazard pile of boxes and luggage in the middle lashed down by an odd arrangement of straps and buckles. With the thrill of a circus ride but cold reality of relocating to a far-off place, they were off aboard a Twin Otter bound for Pang River Inlet, Nunavut, on the shores of Baffin Island.

Getting established in the tiny hamlet was first on the agenda. In his rough and tumble friendly way Cam settled quickly into both job and community. Without a job to help get the ball rolling however, Terri would have to work a little harder. Luckily, her red hair seemed to give her instant celebrity status, at least among the children, especially the little girls.

“What’s your name?” she was constantly asked while out for her daily walk. These kids were bilingual! But each time the beautiful child’s face beaming up at her resembled the last and Terri immediately felt inadequate. How was she going to remember who was who? Why even bother asking their names when they were so hard for her to remember? Try harder, she told herself. Just try harder. And she did. And things slowly got easier. The friendly hellos were encouraging, even if so far it was just the children. It was a start. The first step. Like Grandad said, one step at a time.

Her daily walks became longer. Hiking up and down the hilly dirt roads Terri rose to her personal challenge to go a little further each day. She loved the stark beauty of her new surroundings, the rocky hillsides and beautiful natural harbour. And the wild flowers were lovely as they made their modest June appearance along roadsides and up rocky inclines.

Taking Cam’s advice, Terri waved at passing vehicles: the water, sewer and garbage trucks, the ubiquitous pick-up trucks and the many ATVs, the family vehicle of choice usually driven by a mom or grandmother with multiple young passengers. And they waved back! Another step.

About week three Terri and Cam got their first chance to buy a soap stone carving. Answering a knock at the door they were met by a smiling Inuit face and characteristic so voice asking if they might “like to see this bear.” It was a wonderfully joyful dancing bear and they bought it on the spot. Thus they met Etua, one of their neighbours and a fine carver. A step.

The teenage boy approaching Terri along the road was carrying two rifles. She knew by now it was not unusual to see people with guns. Impulsively Terri blurted out something about hunting. The young man slowed his pace to answer. “I went to the edge of the land,” he said. “For seal. My friend shot one. I have cut-up meat in my bag,” he said indicating his backpack. Terri felt immensely grateful that this teenager would take the time and make the effort to speak to her — in her language, not his — and tell her about the success he had shared with his friend. One step at a time. One kindness at a time.

“She loved the stark beauty of her new surroundings, the rocky hillsides and beautiful natural harbour.”

“Sam says low tide’s the best time to get mussels at the falls,” Cam told Terri over supper Friday evening. According to the Pang River Inlet tides site that would be around 3:30 the following afternoon. So their weekend quickly took shape around this outing.

Setting out Saturday aernoon they passed Nujalia, a familiar face to Terri by now as a fellow frequent walker who, when asked, said sure he’d like to go along. In no time Nujalia was sitting beside Terri in the truck, explaining his ATV was out of commission so he was glad of the ride.

The air was fresh and crisp. Terri’s fingers tingled as she plunged them again and again into the shallow water collecting more and more mussels. They were plentiful, many more than she had expected. Further along the shore Nujalia scrambled at the water’s edge, clearly having good luck too. “So many, and so big!” he called out to them. More than I imagined. It must be a full moon.”

Back in the truck with their bounty of the freshest mussels in the world, Nujalia was beaming. “I’ll share these with my aunt,” he said, which gave Terri an idea.

“We have enough to share too,” she said to Cam. “Let’s ask Etua if he would like some,” which Cam agreed was a fine idea.

At his front door Etua’s eyes widened. Yes, he would like to have some mussels.

“Nacomie,” Etua said. “Thank you.” One more step.

One step at a time.

One kindness at a time.

One friendship at a time.

The Beauty Up There

by Bo Wallenius

“Why the f… would you want to live up there,” a friend of mine asked last time I was in Victoria, B.C.?

“That’s simple, it has a beauty all of its own,” I answered. “I can honestly tell you that I’ve seen beauty up there that you won’t see here in Victoria.”

“Like what,” he asked?

“Well, let’s start with 24 hours of sunlight during the summer. Seriously you can read outside at midnight. en there’s. the 24 hours of darkness during the winter. I’ve seen blizzards where you couldn’t see the end of your house stairs and the blizzard lasted for four days…”

“Big deal, a blizzard,” he interrupted me.

“It is a big deal. When your communities stores run out of things because the planes can’t land to re-supply or the trucks aren’t running and your house starts to run out of water.”

“What do you mean run out of water? Just turn on the tap.”

“Up there we have water trucked into the houses and the sewage trucks come and pump out your sewage tank. So during a blizzard when neither one is running, you learn about living that the people here in Victoria will not understand.”

“Up there I’ve seen and heard clouds of mosquitoes that were so loud I thought somebody was coming down the road on a quad. I’ve seen muskox and …”

“Who cares,” he interrupted again?

“I care,” I said feeling like I was talking to a dim-witted child. “I care, because it is an area where you can go and explore and see things that you won’t see here. Also you don’t have to worry about a bunch of people stopping and asking you stupid questions while you’re doing something.”

“One of the best things for me is the fact that I can go fifteen minutes out of my house and I will be away from town. I can see wildlife…”

“We have wildlife in Victoria.”

“Sure you do. You have raccoons and seagulls and winos and junkies and prostitutes. You have traffic jams and police sirens, air pollution, gangs and homelessness. And if that isn’t reason enough for me to enjoy having moved up North, let’s take a look at some of the following.”

“I have allergies that bother me for 50 weeks of the year in Victoria; up North they might bother me for two weeks. Up North I feel like Norm from Cheers; everybody knows me. Here in Victoria I’m just another fat guy walking down the street.”

“Up North I find most people to be warm and friendly; here in Victoria not even close. The peace and quiet is amazing compared to the hustle and bustle of Victoria and other cities in the south.

And I would sooner have snow than rain; you know how much I hate rain.”

He was silent for a moment, “So are you ever going to move down here?”

Laughing I told him, “No. I will come for a visit now and then. But up North is where home is.

I like the idea of owning my own house, which is something that just wouldn’t happen here in Victoria.

I like going out onto the land and just listening as the wind blows. You can feel your soul relaxing. No police sirens, no arguments, no traffic jams, just peace and quiet.”

“But things aren’t perfect up there, are they? You mentioned the prices of things,” he said.

“True enough, the cost of living is higher and the selection is not as good in the grocery stores.

Sometimes travelling can be harder due to the weather and so on. But I belong there. I literally feel content and at peace up there.”

“So there’s no chance of you moving back to Victoria?”

© Tyler Olson | fotolia.com
© Tyler Olson | fotolia.com

“None, unless they find a cure for allergies and I get to keep my current income. Since moving up North I have managed to buy my own house and a new snow machine.”

“Also I have taken up new hobbies like writing and snowmobiling. I’ve met some of the most fascinating people up there, with some of the wildest stories that I have ever heard…”

“Like what?”

“Well there was a fellow who told me that one day as he was walking down the street towards his house he passed a pair of wolves walking in the opposite direction.”

“No way.”

“Way. And there are so many other stories like people taking jumps on their snow machines that were over a hundred feet in length. And this was witnessed by others.”

“And like I say, it has a beauty all of its own. Like when you have snow on the ground and a full moon, you can see for miles across the tundra. In the distance you might hear a wolf or not. But sitting there on your snow machine it’s so peaceful and the beauty can be breathtaking.”

“Also I found this amazingly beautiful woman up there. The crazy thing is I never ever thought that I would. You wouldn’t believe how wonderful she is. Man, she brings out the good in me. We’ve laughed until we had tears rolling down our faces.”

“Just thinking about her makes me grin.”

He was silent for a while as he thought hard. Then he said, “So tell me about the beauty up there.”

“Well, her name is…” I said laughing.

“Untitled”

by Lillian Li

Iam Yakone. (My name means red aura in Inuit). I, Yakone am 18 years old. (This is straightforward). My father is English. (I got my fire engine hair from him).

My mother is Inuit. (She suffered a stroke last year, so she smiles a lot instead).

I, Yakone never liked learning. (I act out a lot).

I, Yakone was changed forever by Aklaq. (I’ll elaborate).

I am Yakone and I’ll be graduating this year from my windowless high school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Aklaq, he won’t be graduating because he’s dead.

Baffin Photography © Jason Miller
Baffin Photography © Jason Miller

Everyone in our small community thinks I’m angry. Word gets around pretty quickly here. Although his parents don’t blame me for the accident, I think they whisper about it amongst themselves at 12 in the morning. In the summer, we get a lot of light. I wonder if that helps to uplift their mood.

Maybe I am angry.

I’m not sure though.

I wonder if this feeling of liquid weightlessness is how Aklaq felt as his body bobbed like an apple in the frozen bay. It’s impossible to imagine. I can still feel the warmth of when he held my hand for the first time. But that seems like centuries ago.

Today I let myself reminisce on the above ground sewage pipes. It’s a dangerous luxury.

“Yakone, is it? You’re feisty, like your name.”

“No.”

“Yes; I heard that you hit Maya square on the head with a book today…Jane Austin, was it?”

“She tore a page.”

He chuckles.

“See…?”

“No.”

I despised Aklaq at first. When I first told Maw about him, she told me that his name meant black bear in Inuit. I thought that was funny.

Aklaq with his gentle eyes.

Aklaq with his warm, cocoa skin; nowhere near being charred and black.

Aklaq, the sole person that attempted to interact with me when I was deemed an antisocial pessimist.

Aklaq whom I shared the Canadian History course with.

“Louis Riel is the answer, not Jacques Cartier.”

“Shut up.”

Aklaq, who lived on the street a few paces down from me.

In house 612. (In Nunavut, we go by house numbers and proper street names are non-existent).

Aklaq, whom I begrudgingly agreed to have lunch with at the only local Tim Horton’s in town. (Only because he’s terrible with directions and he helped me to cheat on my math test).

“You know, you’re nicer than you let on to be.”

“Shut up.”

“And I was going to buy your meal!”

Aklaq who got suspended from school when he pushed a girl for pushing me.

Sometimes I wonder how I missed the obvious clues that indicated that this boy liked me.

We ship a lot of our necessities up seasonally. All of the stuff we buy goes into this big storage container that sits squarely at the back of the house. Maw can’t help unload all the materials because of her stroke, and Dad is always at work because we can barely afford to put food on our table.

“Put that down, you Eskimo!” (Aklaq is 100 percent Inuit, so it’s an offensive term.) I don’t need your help!”

He gives me a major side-eye and ignores me as he boastfully scopes up three bags worth of canned goods in each arm.

“Hurry up Niviatsiak, open the door for me before I drop the eggs!”

I don’t remember when I started falling for him. But it didn’t hurt.

I do remember when I learned he fell through ice and died. It also didn’t hurt, I just felt numb.

He ruffles my tangly hair, replying before I even ask the question.

“Going to Montreal, Niviatsiak. Everything’s cheaper — I don’t have much cash le to spend at the local super market.” (Everything in Nunavut is a lot more expensive, presumably because of the cost to fly in all our supplies).

He sheepishly digs one of his hands into his pocket for the car keys, while the other finds its way to my face and gently cups my chin.

“I’ll be back by daybreak.”

Aklaq never came back. The ice on the bay was thin that winter.

And this is the part where I’m supposed to feel …something.

But I don’t feel anything at all. It’s almost like the coldness of the Arctic winds have seeped into my soul and created an eternal winter. I’m numb, inside and out. And still half expecting him to bring back those ripe oranges he promised. Aklaq isn’t here to warm me anymore.

I still can’t fathom the thought that he’s gone. I feel like I would be betraying him if I could. Aklaq never gave up on breaking down my walls, and if I accept the fact that he’s dead then I would be admitting defeat.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over it; but there will be a day when I see him again.

For now, I will treasure the sweet memories.

How my eyes widened to the size of saucer plates when he first kissed me.

The faded scent of cocoa and incense on his skin every time he pulled me close.

The firm grasp of his callused hand around my delicate, bony ones.

And perhaps, most importantly, the indescribable feeling of falling in love.

On the surface, it may seem I live the typical life of a girl from Nunavut. Just as I am about to look up at the darkening sky, I feel a warm breeze hit me.

The night is just beginning to creep in, and stars are starting to speckle across the dark canvas. It’s the same sky Aklaq and I looked at so long ago on our first date.

On the surface, it may seem I live the typical life of a girl from Nunavut. But I know that’s not true.

My life has been altered forever by one person.

Aklaq.