Quest to see the magic ship
Once word came that the annual supply ship had embarked from Quebec and was heading North, my parents talked of nothing but the thickness of the ice on the Koksoak River.
Would it melt soon enough?
What if icebergs blew in, blocking the mouth of our river?
Could the ship get close enough without running aground?
How would we survive winter without supplies?
Radiophone updates crackling into dad’s office spread quickly across town: Ship rounded Newfoundland’s east coast, past Labrador heading to northern Quebec, then Ship navigating eastern Ungava Bay. Spontaneous ululations filled the air when news was telegraphed that the ice blocking our river’s mouth had broken up.
Now, Fort Chimo was abuzz — the ship was sailing the Koksoak River, would soon drop anchor in deep water and send a barge load of supplies to our isolated settlement of five hundred people and about a hundred sled dogs. This ship, a lifeline from the Outside world, ensured our survival in a harsh sub-Arctic climate.
Inuit seal hunters spotted the ship and sped full throttle back to Chimo, juicing their freighter canoe engine, driving it up on the gravel shore. Shouts of “Ship Time! Ship Time!” ricocheted around town. Napping huskies perked their ears and howled. Ravens atop poles croaked in their language. The entire community — Inuit, Whites, kids, and a few unchained dogs rushed to the shore. Hoping to be first to spot the barge, I stood scanning the river with my parents and younger brothers — nine-year-old Kenny and five-year-old “baby brother” Eric. Our brown and white husky pup, Pingwa charged in and out of the freezing river, yipping and circling with excitement.
Once the barge docked, Eric, Kenny, Pingwa and I crowded in with the rest of the kids to watch the frenzy of adults offloading cases of food and ammunition, long boxes of hunting rifles and forty-five gallon drums of fuel, stenciled with HBC, for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Next came cardboard boxes of food rations for government employees, then huge crates of prefabricated housing, even a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Andre, the tallest and oldest boy, assumed himself leader of our kids’ gang. I was eleven too, but a girl. I suppose that ruled me out. Andre begged to get in on the action. “Let me help, I can do that, I’m strong!”
“You kids get out of our hair,” mom shooed us away, lumping us into one collective nuisance. Dad added: “This is dangerous work. Go play somewhere else.”
Our gang retreated north of the dock to puddle in the icy river in our rubber boots, waving off angry clouds of mosquitoes, prodding slithery sculpins in tide pools, tossing sticks for Pingwa to fetch, and skipping rocks at flotillas of birds, inciting flutters of outrage. Giant horseflies tore fleshy chunks from exposed forearms. Knowing not to waste mom’s time over minor complaints, we slathered our bites with river mud.
Still, the ship time action remained irresistible. This was the most excitement we’d seen since that floatplane crash-landed in a thunderstorm. We snuck up onto a flat spot on the granite hill overlooking the dock, watching crates and boxes being stacked high onto skids and hauled away. Tarpaulin-covered humps soon dotted the settlement.
For three days we hounded the adults to take us to the deep water to see the ship, the source of such largesse. Every day they waved us away like mosquitoes: “Buzz off, we’re too busy, the ship is too far. Can’t you see we’re working all day and long into the midnight sun to get this barge unloaded?” They muttered, “Don’t you realize the ship’s on a tight timeline to reach other communities before freeze up?”
Couldn’t they see how obsessed we were? We pictured the ship as a cavernous metal hulk and shivered at the possibility of it running aground in our shallow waters if the captain wasn’t careful. Was that rumour we’d overheard true? A few years back caseloads of whisky had drifted in from a shipwreck and the entire community was drunk for a week? No adult had time for our questions.
In our imaginations the ship grew magnificently tall, possibly with furled white sails. Kenny told Eric the ship was crawling with pirates like in Peter Pan. Pirates with hooks for hands, wooden legs and eye patches, shouting, “Hoist the sails boys, anchors away!” Wide-eyed and gullible, Eric begged nightly for the next chapter of our ship time tales.
We had to see that ship! Perched on our granite platform above the dock, our gang hatched a secret plan. Andre said we couldn’t risk taking the littlest kids. Kenny and I cornered Eric: “You’ll stay in tonight after supper; pretend you’re sick. Don’t you dare tell mom and dad.”
“But I want to come too,” he whined.
“You’re too slow. Plus, you’d get scared.”
We both knew how to bribe a brother who, according to dad, was a ‘bottomless pit” for anything edible. “If you keep quiet, we’ll get you chocolate bars from the Hudson’s Bay store,” I said. Eric, expert at wheedling, negotiated us up to 10 bars.
Eric enacted our plan perfectly; mom fell for his faked stomachache and sent him to bed. After supper, Kenny and I called Pingwa outside, met up with four others. We began climbing the rocky Canadian Shield above the houses and tents of Chimo, playing our usual game of hiding behind boulders, leaping out to attack imaginary foes, shrieking when we scored a hit. Halfway up I looked back at our small settlement and said, “Ok, the adults are too busy unloading to notice, let’s hurry.”
We edged further and further up the granite hill — a dark, sleeping mammoth streaked with pink lines, splotched with brilliant orange and pale green lichens and mysterious black spirals. Birds squawked off rock ledges as we climbed, flying high to safety. Summer brown ptarmigan flapped on the tundra to divert us from their nests.
At the top, after a quick look backward, Andre shouted, “Yippee, no one is following us!” and led our charge down into the spongy moss valley like a bold cavalry, except with one dog, no horses or swords.
We raced up the next hill, excited to greet the big ship. At the top a panorama of pale blue sky framed an undulating mosaic of brown and green moss hummocks interspersed with grasses, low shrubs and purple clusters of Arctic wildflowers. Trickling rivulets thawed by the summer melt were harder to spot than the numerous small puddles reflecting the sky. From our windy outlook we scanned eastward and down onto the wide snaking river, its shores jumbled with rocks and stands of skinny sparse-needled tamaracks. No ship. In the distance another dark hill beckoned.
“Onward and upward,” roared Andre. I began chanting, “We’re going to see the ship, see the ship, see the ship!” Kenny addressed the ship directly: “Here we come Big Ship, ready or not, here we come!” Kenny had lots of imaginary friends.
I’d wandered the land alone before, but never dared go beyond the first hill into this forbidden wilderness. Exhilarated, sensing release from my enclosed world, the wind pressing my cheeks like freedom, I spread my arms to embrace the vastness, and fell flat on my back onto a thicket of Labrador Tea. I’d forgotten the tundra was riddled with lemming tunnels. Inhaling the piney scent, I leaned sideways, plucked some spiky kayak shaped leaves, caressed their fuzzy orange underbellies and took a nibble. The ooze of melting permafrost seeped through my pants. I leapt up, re-joining the others before anyone noticed my clumsiness.
Like the crumbs set out in a fairy tale, hill after hill beckoned. At each summit, we peered down at the river, shouting through the wind for the magic ship to show herself. None of us had ever dared venture this far from home. Up and down, we chanted and stumbled, sinking into damp, spongy moss, re-gaining our footing, hopping puddles onto lichen-crusted boulders. Soaking wet socks slid down, rubber boots blistered bared heels. The sun lowered, a hint of yellow smeared across pale turquoise.
At the next outlook Kenny implored the elusive ship: “Stop hiding! Show yourself now!” The river had grown choppy, rippling with whitecaps. Rising winds chilled our sweat. Trudging up hard rocks, down crevasses treacherous with tangled roots and sinking into boggy moss was exhausting us. But hadn’t we come too far to give up? The sun, now sieved though clouds hovering on the horizon, glowed pinky yellow.
Pingwa suddenly bristled on full alert, nosing the wind, then began circling and nudging us.
“She’s telling us to turn back,” I said. “She senses something’s not right.”
Andre was a gambler who couldn’t quit. “Only one more hill.”
At the next hilltop we clustered together, scanning the dark water below.
“Look! Look! There it is!” Kenny shouted.
Everyone strained to follow Kenny’s pointed finger.
“Can’t you see? It is right there.”
“You mean that dark spot way ahead? Are you sure?” I couldn’t make out any ship.
“Yes, that’s the ship,” Kenny insisted. His eyesight was sharper than mine. Mom had promised to get my eyes tested when we went south next summer.
“So, we have seen it!” I wasn’t convinced that tiny dot was the ship; I just wanted to go home.
“It’s way too far,” Andre admitted. “We better get home before dark. But don’t forget, we saw the ship!”
The way home felt much farther than the way out. Had we really gone so far? Plunging into deep, darkening ravines, Kenny whispered to me, “Is this really the way we came?” In the fading light the littlest ones, snagged by tangled roots, began to panic, crying for their mothers. Increasingly anxious, scrambling over rocks, stumbling through prickly dwarf willow, we urged them on. “Hurry, hurry, we’ll be home soon.” With the horizon now a deepening band of fuchsia, the white plume of Pingwa’s tail became our beacon. Surely home was over the next hill? But it wasn’t.
Then I heard wolves. Howling.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered to Kenny.
“Yes, are they getting closer?”
Desperation thumped in my chest.
“Pingwa’s still a puppy, what if they get her?” Kenny always imagined gruesome things.
Picturing Pingwa ripped apart by wolves, I turned sideways to hide my tears, not wanting my younger brother to see my fear, needing to be brave for the smaller kids. My mind was racing: Will we have to sleep out on the land? Why isn’t anyone coming to rescue us?
Thrashing through tangled scrub in fast fading light, Andre, Kenny and I grabbed the younger kids, yanking them along by one arm, running and staggering up the next rocky hillside. Pingwa circled us anxiously as we headed down into another darkening valley. The wolves sounded closer. Please, please hurry, I willed us forward up the next hill, stumbling and scrambling on the rocks.
Gasping for breath, we reached the summit and stopped short. Transfixed. Like magical fireflies, dozens of lights were flickering uphill. Our names echoed through twilight. The entire community was searching, their flashlights crosshatching the hillside. Kenny and I rushed down into the arms of our parents, relief palpitating through sobbing embraces. “We’re so sorry, we’ll never do this again, sorry, sorry.”
Our house was comforting with the yeasty aroma of mom’s fresh baked bread. Of course, we were severely reprimanded, told how “worried sick” we’d made mom, how disappointed dad was in our recklessness. Dad spanked us half-heartedly, “to teach you kids a lesson”. After the punishment, mom made hot cocoa and thick buttery toast.
By next morning the ship was gone. It took days to unpack the ration boxes piled beneath our tarp. Playing store — we tidily stacked our shelves with tins of fish, meat, fruits and vegetables, bottles of cooking oil, sacks of sugar and flour, packages of baking powder, yeast, pasta and dehydrated eggs and spices. Kenny snuck off to the Hudson’s Bay store for the chocolate bars. Eric ate them in one go, our parents none the wiser.
Tucked inside my nest of flannelette sheets and plump pillows each night, with Pingwa curled warm against me, I shivered at distant howls of thwarted wolves before drifting into dreams of still irresistible tundra tapestries – luxurious mosses, wildflowers blossoming against all odds, lichens, the solidity of granite, wind on my cheeks, sniffing for new scents.