A learning experience
Fort Chimo, 1964
Away, alone, at last.
No clock, no bell,
Naught save the sun
To track unbounded thought.
The peace not found in me.
May 10, 1964. It was just after dawn when the noisy old DC4 dropped out of the cloud cover and began its approach to Fort Chimo. I rubbed my eyes to clear them of too little sleep and looked out the small window. Below, the black spruce, shortand thin at this latitude, were still lodged deep in snow. The plane banked to line up with the runway and the river that took up the whole window was a vast expanse of ice, with blocks the size of buildings rising in jagged pressure ridges.
With a thud, the landing gear extended and locked. Beneath my seat an electric motor cranked the flaps out to their final setting. After a few moments, runway lights began to flit past my window, reflecting off snowbanks in the still-faint morning light. The engines throttled back, and the bark of cold rubber on cold tarmac announced I had arrived in the North.
Located along the tree line about 1,500 km north of Montreal, Quebec, Fort Chimo was originally an Inuit camp site, the base from which migrating families caught and dried Arctic char from the Koksoak River during the summer months and hunted seal in nearby Ungava Bay. Later in the season they stalked caribou as the herds moved south to winter in the protection of the spruce forest. The 19th century brought a Hudson Bay trading post to Chimo and the 20th century invaded the settlement in the form of a Lend-Lease Air Base and weather station, to serve the fighters and bombers being ferried to Europe in the Second World War.
After the war, the Department of Transport continued to operate the weather station to support growing commercial air traffic over the North Atlantic. Fort Chimo became a re-supply point for the geodetic survey of Canada in the 1950s, and for private prospectors in the ’60s. By the time I arrived it had grown to a year-round community of about 200 Inuit, 30 whites and 300 sled dogs.
The ice went off the river by the end of May. It left the lakes by the end of June and began to reappear in September. In the four months or so of relative warmth, plant and animal life flourished in the long days. Tufts of Arctic cotton covered the tundra. Ptarmigan shed their winter plumage anddarted among the willows and spruce, cackling nervously. The Arctic owl and fox were usually content to hunt the less elusive lemmings but still the ptarmigan had to beware. Several times each summer a polar bear would wander into the area from the Bay or a black bear would come north out of the trees.
As June gave way to July, the talk among the local men was increasingly about seals. How many had been sighted in the Bay, how far offshore they were and when the first hunt would be planned.
Norman Ford was the son of an Inuit woman and a settler who, I gather, had stayed on in Chimo after a time with the Hudson Bay Company. He had grown up in Chimo, hunting and fishing with his mother’s people and helping around his father’s outfitting business. But he had gone to high school in the South so that, as his father put it, he could choose where to live when the time came. Norman had inherited his father’s quiet confidence and he moved as easily among officials at the Bay’s annual dinner as he did with an Inuit family in a two-room dwelling. Of medium height and build, he walked with a slightly head-down posture of modesty, but when he met someone, he engaged that person completely, his bright eyes and generous smile lighting the weathered face beneath a wind-blown crop of jet-black hair.
Norman occasionally dropped by the dormitory in the evenings to visit or shoot pool, and when he did, he didn’t seem to mind all my questions about seal hunting. He explained that the men would travel in groups of two or three freight canoes, three men to a canoe. They had seal skins stretched on wooden hoops that they would raise as blinds when they drifted near the seals. They always used small-bore rifles because they were less likely to scare the seals off. This was open-water hunting, a lot trickier than the ice floe stuff. A seal would pop up anywhere and you only had a few moments to aim and shoot. So be patient, and let the best man do the shooting.
Claude was another student labourer like me, in Chimo for the summer with DOT to repair the runway. He was probably 18, a year younger than me, but he liked the outdoors as much as I did and gradually the idea formed between us that we would somehow join a seal hunt. The only realisticprospect of getting out onto the Bay was with Norman, so we began to work on him.
In Inuit culture it’s not polite to say ‘no’. It’s better to accede to direct requests as a matter of courtesy, and then expect that obstacles will come up toensure that awkward requests need not be acted upon. But the obstacles that emerged in ensuing weeks were not very onerous and Norman didn’t seem to be seriously trying to discourage us. Warnings like rain and wind, long hours and boredom didn’t faze us, and the day came when the three of us set off in the runabout for Ungava Bay. Warm clothes, extra fuel, a few food rations, knives, plastic bags and a rifle made the boatseem a lot smaller than it had looked on shore. As a last-minute addition, we threw in two fishing rods. There was the occasional rain squall as we headed downriver, but the sun appeared among the clouds often enough to allay any real weather concerns. The current added to the momentum of the outboard and we beganto eat into the 40-kilometre trip at a reassuring rate.
A few kilometres out of town we overtook two freight canoes, also heading for the Bay. Dog-trimmed parkas framed faces that greeted us warmly. Seal skinblinds leaned against the gunnels and canvass packs between the seats rippled in the breeze as the long canoes cut reassuringly through the steady beat of wavesserved up by a quartering head wind. The hunt was on and the men were ready.
Even the renegade black spruce that one at a time tried to survive north of town had disappeared now. Early July and there were still snowbanks along theedge of the river, highlighting the glacial forms that still mark this land as freshly as they did in the millennium in which they were carved. Small pockets of scrub willow and dwarf summer flowers had begun to soften the landscape. From mid-stream, with the wind in my face, I saw only the broadest outline of thisstory, the impressionist’s interpretation with its bold strokes of tan and burnt umber, of blue and white, and the subtle washes of green and yellow.
We had been travelling for an hour or so when Norman commented on what we were secretly hoping he would ignore: The wind had come up, and therunabout was being tossed assertively by growing waves. Eighteen-inch waves in the river could mean a swell and three-foot white caps in the open water. It would be difficult enough for the freight canoes and they rode much more steadily than the runabout.
Norman watched the clouds and the water and continued down the river at half throttle, but when we dropped onto the leading edge of a wave thatthreatened to pop every rivet in the boat, he finally called it quits. Giving us a shrug and a wry smile, he set up a long shallow turn that brought us close to the western shore. With its modicum of protection from the wind, we headed back upstream.
We were in no hurry now, so he didn’t bring the outboard back to full throttle. The current also worked to slow our progress, and the combined effectwas to give us a longer look at the passing shoreline. My mind turned from seals to fish, and I began to judge the outcroppings and backwaters in termsof their appeal to Arctic char. Suddenly I had an idea.
“Hey, Norman,” I shouted, “What about putting us ashore here?”
They both looked curiously at me.
“Sure,” I said, “We’ll fish today and tomorrow and you can come back and collect us tomorrow night.”
Claude took to the plan immediately but Norman didn’t think it was such a good idea. My enthusiasm took a boost from Claude’s support, so Ibantered on with arguments like us being willing to pay for Norm’s fuel. I ran a verbal check of necessities — fishing gear, parkas, matches… I madesome comment about us both being experienced campers and threw in whatever else I could think of to convince him. Though he was frowning with apparent concern, Norman didn’t say anything and at some point, he agreed.
He grounded the runabout on a shallow rock ledge that extended beneath the water and we carried whatever gear we thought we needed a few feet up from the water line. We agreed on a pick-up time and pushed the now-lighter boat back into the current.
The first thing I think about when I begin to set up camp is the fire. So Norman wasn’t even out of sight before I came to a sick and obvious realization: Being above the treeline meant no firewood. What would we cook with? How would we stay warm when the temperature droppedbelow freezing that night? Futile gestures to hail the figure fading up the river just added to the anxiety. I suspect that at that point, Claude was probably more concerned about me than about our predicament.
When I gave up and sat on a rock outcropping, the sounds of the land moved back in to fill the space around us. Waves lapped at the rock even in the lee of theshoreline and the wind hummed monotonously as it curled over the shallow ledge that protected our position. The intermittent sunshine now seemed more a tease than a reassurance. But as I recovered from the recognition of my own stupidity, I realized this was not a life-threatening situation.
My spirits began to lift, and a plan took shape. For fire, we’d make do with scrub willow from out on the tundra. We’d clean out a space under that rock ledge andput down fresh moss to sleep on. We’d live on fresh char and what we didn’t eat we’d keep alive on a gill line in the river for a triumphant return to town.
On a good day, what followed might be considered a learning experience.
Lesson No. 1: The willows that survive on the tundra are very small. They’re slow growing, too, so dead branches make up only a small portion of any plant. What that meant for us was that, after two hours of foraging, we had a pile of twigs that would not sustain the smallest fire for more than 30 minutes.
Lesson No. 2: The moss and lichens that make up most of the ground cover on the tundra look soft. They feel soft under foot and appear dry, but theyare in fact coarse enough to remove a miner’s calluses. It is impossible to collect completely dry moss, and what one does collect will be constantly onthe lookout to scratch any skin exposed to it during the night.
Lesson No. 3: There is no connection between fishing conditions in different bodies of water, and certainly not between trout and char. My weekendtrout fishing in lakes around Chimo may have been successful, but our char fishing expedition to the Koksoak River was a disaster. In the most part oftwo days, with two lines in the water, we caught exactly one 12-ounce fish.
Lesson No. 4: It doesn’t matter how comfortable you may feel moving around during daylight hours; lie still at night and you can freeze. Not literally, maybe,but every opening in your clothing becomes a vent and every conductive material a track for the cold. Fully dressed in our parkas and jeans we took upmore space than we had expected under the rock overhang. The guy in the back touched the roof of the cavity and the guy in front was exposed to the breeze. So we traded draft and claustrophobia periodically during the night, constantly rearranged the boots that served as our pillows, and we shivered.
Lesson No. 5: When it’s daylight at 2 am and you can’t sleep, 6 am is a long time coming. When you’re cold, tired and hungry, a rendezvous time canseem to take forever.
When Norman’s boat appeared on the horizon we were already packed and waiting. He took the whole reunion very matter-of-factly, but his smile wasreally a laugh. He wanted to know where all the fish were, and he acted surprised when we complained about the cold. He shrugged when we talked about the fuel situation and he just grunted when he saw our shelter. Thinking back on it, the only flaw in his performance was the fact that he had arrivedtwo hours early.
It’s been over 50 years, Norman. I still find myself out of my element sometimes but, thanks to you, I can chuckle at my foolishness when I do.