I did it. There’s no hiding anymore. I’m guilty as sin. More guilty than the Governor-General of Canada. I admit it. I have been to the Arctic, have hunted seal, have tasted warm seal meat… and I loved it. Every damn second, every single bite.
I have also brought arctic char south, have eaten it raw in my Toronto apartment. I did so at the same time that I shared my stash of whale blubber (muktuk) with a few friends, along with a tasty white wine. There! I said it! Guilty as charged – and damn proud of it too.
I don’t know too many people in Canada who have had the pleasure, the honour, of going onto the land or the water with an Inuk (singlular of Inuit) to hunt for food. I can say that I’m the only Mohawk I know who has ever done so. There may be others but I’ve never met them.
I’ve been to the Arctic a few times. I’ve hitchhiked down the Mackenzie River from Wrigley to Norman Wells on my way to Inuvik. I’d been trapped by weather for days in Cape Dorset; happily trapped too. I’ve flown into and out of northern communities from northern Quebec to the the Delta. But I had never been on a hunt until I went to Taloyoak and later to Igloolik.
Igloolik is on a small, windy, bit of rock between the western end of Baffin Island and the mainland. It took me an hour to walk around most of it one day, followed by a angry female falcon. I had been warned to watch out for escaped sled dogs that had gone wild, as well as wolves and polar bears. Maybe the falcon was keeping watch over me because nothing else came near.
It was a warm mid-summer and on some days it really seemed like summer. People shed their heavy coats and a few even strutted around in t-shirts. I stuck to my fleece pullover and a windbreaker because the wind could shift. Heavy ice might flow into and clog the harbour within hours. The sun could be reduced to a lighter spot in the dark sky by the fog.
One weekend, when the wind had shifted, clearing the harbour of ice, one of the trainees asked if I’d like to go seal hunting. He asked if I had ever done so before. It brought to mind an old saying by Hollywood stuntmen who, when asked if they could ride a horse, always answered: “Like the wind.” He didn’t even raise his eyebrows when I used that one.
The next morning at his house, he pointed his chin to a heavy sweater, pair of quilted overalls, and a outer coat, boots and leggings. It’s summer, I thought, confused. I thought I had already dressed for the weather. It didn’t take long for me to know how wrong I was.
It was cold. I never got warm the entire five hours we were out on water. My feet were cold. My hands were cold. My eyeballs felt cold. It was damp and the cold seeped through all of those layers. The hunter, if he felt the cold, never showed it. All I saw was an intent look in his eyes as he scanned the waters ahead.
We headed out from Igloolik, into the Hudson Strait. We chugged along, making good speed. The water was calm. The skies clear. But, the hunter said, this could change with a snap of his fingers. He stopped the boat suddenly. Without a word, he picked up his rifle, put it to his shoulder, took aim in the gently rolling boat, and fired. I saw the bullet smack something that looked like a boxing glove about 200 feet away. The hunter nodded in satisfaction and moved the boat over to a seal which he hauled over the side.
“They sink fast. You have to get them quick.”
Then we sat with the boat going up and down with the waves. We sat for about ten minutes or so, then he began to rub his hand back and forth along the side of the boat. Again, he pointed with his chin, this time out to what turned out to be another little boxing glove popping above the water, disappearing, and popping up again only closer.
“He’s curious,” the hunter said still rubbing the side of the boat.
The hunter kept this up until the seal entered his kill zone. Then he lifted his rifle, a small .22-calibre, not the large calibre weapon I expected. He fired one more shot. This is how the morning went. By the end of four hours, he had more than ten seals in the boat. He missed only one shot.
We headed toward a nearby island. I confess, again, that I was freezing despite the warm sun. It’s cold in a small boat in Arctic waters. That’s all I can say in explanation. It’s cold out there, and I was freezing.
We pulled into a long fjord and tied the boat to a rock. We climbed the steep hillside and sat ourselves in the warm sun. We drank hot, strong tea and chewed on hard biscuits. He showed me some small dark berries and picked some along with the leaves that he said his wife would use for teas.
I sat there, warm finally, enveloped in the quiet. Gentle breezes ruffled the hillsides. The hunter poked me in the shoulder, looking down toward the boat. “Leopard seal,” he said. There was a huge shadow that slowly rose near the boat and became a long grey thing sliding through the water. It was nearly as long as the 18-foot boat down there. The seal surfaced, breathed, and slipped back into the deep water and out of sight. Like that, he was gone.
We spent another hour or so on the water. He bagged a few more seal. A storm came up suddenly. The wind tossed our boat around, and grabbed the hunter’s compass, flipping it end over end and over the side. He must have read my face because, man of few words, he said: “It’s okay. I know where we are.”
All I could see through the wind and driving snow were white tops on the water. Then, he did a typical Inuk thing. He turned off the motor, leaned into the storage compartment in the bow, and began to make tea. What else does one do at a time like that?
Strange, I thought, but he was right. We sat there in the tossing boat and waited until the storm blew over and the wind calmed. Then he started up the boat again and we headed home. I saw nothing out there but he seemed certain about our direction.
I almost didn’t notice when we pulled into Igloolik. He beached the boat, and we hauled the seal onto shore. Kids gathered like gulls, almost as noisy too. Other people showed up and nodded to me with a slightly confused look, then ignored me completely.
Knives came out. Seals were skinned, and dressed. The meat divided among families. The skins to be traded for fuel, ammunition, clothing and whatever else they needed. People picked up bits of heart or liver sliced with an ulu (woman’s knife), and slipped the still warm meat into their own or other people’s mouths.
I joined the impromptu feast there on the beach. I loved every minute. I have no regrets. That’s my confession. I stand by it.