INUKJUAK: MAKING READY FOR WINTER
The following is an excerpt from Isa Smiler's autobiography which first appeared in the summer/fall 1977 issue of Inuktitut magazine.
We would go hungry if we stayed in an area for too long a period of time, because soon the animals became scarce. Yet we were unable to move until the lakes and sea were covered with ice. This was the time to get ready for winter; harnesses and ropes were made, kamiks were made for the dogs and the kamotiks were made ready. Once it got really cold, the men would go out to get mud to use on the runners of the sleds. They would always make sure to get the mud while they were close to a supply and while the ground was not completely frozen. Once they found a supply of mud they chopped the frozen earth from it with an axe, then collected the soft mud with homemade knives and put it onto a piece of seal skin that was once a part of a kayak. Before they started the job, they built a wind shield so the mud would not blow away. The men would always work together in groups. Each group had a job to do that was different from the others. Once the mud was collected, they would put it onto the runners of the sleds. Before they applied the mud they covered the entire sled with snow, leaving only the runners showing. Then, during the evening when the mud had frozen, they would smooth out the rough areas with a handmade axe. When this was done they would pour warm water on top of the mud. This was continued until there was a thick layer of ice. The runners were always watered again in the morning or when necessary. Once the mud was on their sleds, they were quite careful with them, so as not to break any chunks off by hitting rocks, dog manure or, landing too roughly. It was difficult to control the sleds when the dogs were going full speed and to try to prevent them from bumping too hard on the ice. It was great fun going full speed, but to protect the mud, we had to slow down. If a chunk broke off one of the runners, the men would always go back for it [to] make sure that everything was in good condition: the mud on the sleds, the sleds, and the dog harnesses.
Many times when we went hunting we would sleep overnight in order to reach the hunting grounds, depending on if we were hunting for fox inland, seal hunting along the shore quite a distance from home, or hunting for caribou inland. We would leave home early in the morning and travel without stopping, unless it was for tea or a meal along the way. It was really enjoyable nevertheless. After a day's journey we would stop and look for the right kind of snow to build an igloo, then we would settle down for the night. If the snow was too hard or too soft and was not suitable to build an igloo, we would look around until we found the right type. There are different forms of snow and we have the names for all of them. For example, stiluqaq, aqilluqaq, pokak, pokaqlak, and pokanaqyuk. The best type for making an igloo is pokanaqyuk, and the best kind to melt for water is aqilluqaq. When there is not enough good snow around to make water, any type is alright. As soon as someone saw a suitable spot to build the igloo, the dogs were guided there. First, the snow was tested to see if it was any good, then if it was alright, the dogs were unharnessed. The harnesses were folded in an orderly fashion and the kamotiks were unloaded, everything being put in order. When that job was done we would help the person who was building the igloo by filling the gaps between the blocks with soft snow. Sometimes it got dark while the igloo was still being worked on, so a lamp was lit to make it easier for the ones who were filling up the gaps. It was important to make sure all the holes were filled, otherwise we would be cold. When someone was taken on the hunt for the first time, he was taught how to build an igloo and how to fill the gaps properly. When the person building the igloo completed his work, the supplies were passed in to him, so that he would not have to go out and get them. The bedding was the first item passed, then the rest of the supplies followed. The dog food was the last. Besides building the igloo and receiving the supplies, the man inside was also responsible for starting the primus stove and boiling water for tea; with this done the dog food had a chance to thaw out. Once the igloo was completed, the gaps filled in and the supplies handed in, the rest of us would go inside and brush the snow off our clothes. Then the door was closed up.
If our food (seal or fish) was really frozen, the snow was brushed off it and it was cut into pieces and put on the stove. Before our tea was made, we would eat, having the tea last. Our igloo would get warmer after a while. Lastly, the dog food was thawed out, even if it took some time, so the dogs would have a proper meal. Then it was the dog's turn to eat. The younger children would go out and watch the rest of the dogs while the older men took one dog in at a time to feed it. The dogs were so anxious to be fed that sometimes they would try to get into the igloo and quite often they got hit, especially the greedy ones. Every one of the dogs had a name and when their name was called they got their chance for a meal. But quite often the ones who were not called would still go in, anyway.
After the dogs were fed, there was still more work to do before retiring, such as checking to see if there was mending to do on the dogs' harnesses and ropes. When this was done it was finally bed time. The next morning we would get up so early that it was still dark out. Our job was to make tea for the older men when they woke us younger ones up. After breakfast, the first one out of the igloo would start working on the kamotiks, smoothing out the mud runners with someone else warming water for him. The water had to be the right temperature and good water, too. Just before daylight the kamotiks were done; we would then pack up our belongings again and load them onto the sleds. The harnesses and ropes were then put on the dogs. The dogs were rested and anxious to get going. When we first started traveling, they would race along and those that fell behind would try to catch up to the others. The dogs were so happy that when they neared another sled they barked at one another and sometimes they almost got tangled up with the other sled. It was the only way to travel at the time, so if the dogs were healthy and well rested it was an exciting way…
A Matter of Life and Death
One time, Samwillie, Noah and I were on a hunting trip, using one dog team, during the spring. It was one of those occasions where it was a matter of life or death. Noah was the eldest. We went down to Hudson Bay to look for open water. We had to go quite a distance before we could find anything, and when we found it, Samwillie and I went to one opening while Noah found another. Samwillie and I spotted a square flipper seal and my companion shot at it and wounded it. It was right at the floe edge, which made it difficult to reach. We thought we could get it by using a kamotik or a kayak, so I went to Noah to ask him for help. He had caught a seal as well, but he could not get to it either. He had tired of waiting for us so he had gone on ahead to try and reach the seal. When I reached him, he told me to go onto a small ice floe. I was a bit scared because I was not able to stand, so I tied a rope around myself and tried to reach the seal. Just as I was about to reach it, a walrus appeared out of the open water. We tried to ignore it, and I was able to get a hold of the seal and haul it up onto the main ice. We then started to head back to where Samwillie had wounded the square flipper seal, which by this time had died. We had to think of a way to get at it and we could not use the kayak. We could have just forgotten about it but it was Samwillie's first catch and the first animal caught by a young boy is always important. So he and I got on the kamotik and Noah pushed us out towards the seal. (When kamotiks were frozen and they had some ice on the sides they were able to float. But this time the ice on it was soft.) We hoped to have our kamotik cross the open water but it did not quite make it. It went down into the water instead of crossing to the other side. We tried to push it with our feet but that did not help any. The ice was not safe enough to walk on so we were stuck; we threw ourselves onto the ice and landed on our stomachs.
Although we had got a hold on the ice, half of our bodies were in the water. I tried to get up onto the floe but failed, so I remained in the water. Noah, who was on solid ice, told us to stay put while he got a piece of rope that was long enough to pull us out. First he asked who was in the most danger. It appeared I was, so he started with me. When he threw over the rope I tried to help him by using my arms for the leverage and holding the rope between my teeth. He pulled me ashore. Once this was done it was Samwillie's turn. He did exactly the same thing and by taking the rope between his teeth he made it, too. The next thing to do was to figure out just how we were going to get back our kamotik. Earlier we had spotted a walrus in the open water, apparently it had followed us from the spot where we had caught the seal, although we were not aware that it was beneath us while we were in the water. When Samwillie was in the water he could feel the kamotik moving beneath his feet, but did not worry about it too much. Afterwards, he realized that it was the walrus that had been moving the kamotik. It was a scary experience, because the walrus could have attacked us. In the meantime, it appeared again and was getting angry so we shot it to scare it away.
We still had the kamotik and the square flipper to worry about. One of my companions got the kayak, pushed it into the water and used the paddles as foot rests. He gradually pushed himself to the square flipper. He had several ropes around his waist and we were able to pull him, the seal and the kamotik back to where we were.
With our wet clothes we were really cold. It was getting dark as well, so we started towards the land. Samwillie was really suffering, he just could not get warm, as for me, I was cold too, but not as cold as he was. It was night and we could not hope to reach the land because it was quite a distance, so we built an igloo on the ice. The following morning we started for home. We were close to death, but we survived. Today my two companions are no longer living.