Should've known. Even at the airport. Ottawa, Gate 12. Big Boeing seven thirty-seven. First Air jet, 200 seats, but there's less than 20 people in the gate area. Half white. Half non-white. Feel like neither. Can see them thinking: either this guy's on the wrong flight or he's a nutbar — going to the Arctic in a kilt, he'll be a permafrosted icecube in 5 seconds.
For carry-on luggage a third of the people have big boxes of Tide, a third boxes of Tim Horton Timbits and a third briefcases with this government or that government stamped on. I don't fit, wearing a kilt. Going up to Iqaluit to get called to the Bar as a lawyer — NWT lawyers (me, as of only a month) can get grandfathered in before April's end, before newly-born Nunavut was even a month old, still in swaddling clothes. And a month-old Inuk child now looking at me in the lineup from her mother's parka hood, her amauti, coming home from the big doctor in the south, the mother says.
No inside heated airport ramp whooshing us on to the front side door of the aircraft, and there onto the welcoming pasted-on-smile of the big airline flight attendants. It's out into the cold, on to the tarmac and going up a rear-entry ladder — up another orifice so to speak, ingress via the egress. Get on board. Whoah. What happened to all the 200 seats? Where's all the other passengers I thought were on board already? Shrunk the seats down to 25 — the rest all cargo, we've got a heavy load today, even a take-apart truck, I'm told. On-board flight announcements in Inuktitut, then English. If we go down, the Inuk find out first which way to get out, so figure I'll just follow them, and not wait for my own announcement. No French announcements at all. Guess they will have to figure it out after we've left. Hope they've big lung capacity in case we hit water, cos Iqaluit's on an island.
Keep looking out the plane window all the way north. Leaving Ottawa, no snow, all melted, all brown-green vegetation now. Going north, watch ice slowly appear on small inland lakes, then big ones, then on rivers, then snow here and there, then snow everywhere. As we cross sea-ice over to Baffin Island, start to lose height for approach into Iqaluit, and can now clearly see the land. The irregular hilly scratched treeless landscape is completely white, and fully drifted in on one side — as if a giant has come along and dropped a huge box of icing sugar on a bumpy surface and then blown it in one single direction all in one go.
Man sits down beside me on final approach. Walkman blaring, can even hear it above the roar of the retrothrusters behind us, and we're in the last row. "I'm lost", he says. Mouth opens when he talks. Can count the teeth. Only five left, and they don't meet. I think to myself, "You're lost? How the hell do you think I feel? You're Inuk. I'm qallunaat [white]. You're going home." "Too much drink this morning", he tells me, with right hand motions downing scotch, actually downing several scotches. "Lost. We going Pang? You know Johnny?" Flight attendant tells him to get back to his seat, stop bugging people, landing in a minute. I say it's o.k., he can stay. He stays. We land. Johnny comes on board to get him. Guess the crew radioed ahead. "My friend, Oojeen" he says to Johnny. Johnny looks at me, repeats the name, "sounds Inuk" he says. Makes me feel partway welcome, maybe even partway Inuk, at least my name could maybe pass for being Inuk — except probably translates to "fat walrus farting under yellow sea-ice."
The town has an absolutely huge airfield — flying in, it looks ten times bigger than the town. Maybe it is, it's a former U.S. Strategic Air Command Base from the sixties, so wide and long that it's actually a backup emergency landing for the Space Shuttle and also a . forward operating location. for Canadian F-18's. Its airport building however looks like a yellow plastic ice-cube, manufactured in Taiwan, dropped from the air at the end of the tarmac. Taxi driver at airport . I'm Flip. has goatee beard and long pigtail, but somehow a bald head, though covered (when he's not rubbing it) by an Arctic Cat baseball cap.
Go to courthouse. Wait for judge. Go to courtroom number 2 to see what's going on. Elderly Inuit couple beside me on back bench speak Inuktituk loudly to each other ("she's half deaf" he tells me). Asks me if I'm here to play the bagpipes here in court. "No". "You from Scotland?" "Yes, via Ottawa." "Ott what? Where's that?" Tells me most of his relatives are Scottish on one side, and can I come to his house tonight to play the pipes, "No, that's right, you don't play. You Scottish?"
Judge comes out to meet me, all in black — except black jeans, black shirt, and black cardigan. "We're informal here. You're better dressed than me." Courtroom number 1 best view in Canada — Frobisher Bay: sea ice, 8 foot thick, air vents blurted up every 10 to 20 yards because of the 40 foot tide, and a full 12 miles across the frozen bay to the mountains on the other side. I see 6 ski-doos doing 60 down the ice. Judge Browne: "They're going hunting and fishing. Friday. Leave early. Overnight." "What for?" I ask "Caribou, seal, ptarmigan, char, turbot."
Lunch with Nora Sanders, Nunavut Deputy Justice Minister. "Let's eat Chinese", says Nora. At the Chinese Restaurant everyone except me and one other couple (Anne Crawford and husband Neil) are Inuk. Staff too Inuk. But Chinese restaurant all the same. Chinese food. Two won ton soups, two egg rolls. I pay. Leave $20, "keep the change." "It's more" cashier says. "Leave another $5.00 and say, thank you." "$31.75," she says, and then says her grandfather was "Gunn from Glasgow, came over to get whales, but sorry, don't speak Scottish." I think, "sure didn't come here to eat, too dear." "That's o.k.", I say, "don't speak Inuktitut, we're equal." She smiles. Didn't tell her I don't speak Scottish either, and if Gunn was from Glasgow, neither did he — they probably took his thick Glaswegian brogue and vocabulary as something otherworldly (which it is, as one side of my own family comes from there too).
Stay at Cam MacGregor's B & B. Longtime resident. High school teacher. Everbody waves to him, especially children and young adults. "It's always like this. Know them. Know their families. Know where they've come from. Who they are. Why they are. I'm marking all their final exams now, that helps." Takes me for a drive around town. On radio Inuit news on first, then news in English, then Scottish fiddle music. It's always that pattern and always Scottish fiddle music — "Scottish music, and Scottish dancing too, is big up here, particularly out in the communities — it's the Inuit influence. Cam says. Inuit influence?" "Scottish whalers, 1850 through to 1910, used to overwinter in Cumberland Sound, left Scottish souvenirs, and culture too. Musta been them kilts — such easy access." Drive up beside natural lake above town (town's water source) and look out. Herd (about 20) caribou amble by ("amble"'s the right word — they've a very distinctive gait — as if been trained to be a harness racing horse with that peculiar loping stride, but failed the final exam). Their feet and ankles are wide like a camel's — really noticeable, big pads, big cloved feet for walking across the snowy crunchy tundra — built-in snowshoes.
The town has no streets, that is, no streets with names. None at all. 4,000 full-time residents, and a total of 900 buildings, including government buildings in all. The houses have numbers, but the numbers don't necessarily go where you'd think they'd go. Tried to buy a map - none. Only the taxi drivers have maps — they made it — and drive around town like they're holding up the Holy Grail, a plasticized Holy Grail, holding it up in their left hand in front of their faces, and driving with their right. Sure hope they're all right handed.
Cam tells me the ground is permafrosted at 6 inches to a foot — i.e. that's all that ever thaws out — the rest is frozen solid, period. "How do they build?" I ask. "Everything's on stilts, footings. 30-foot-long steel stilts drilled into the rock one by one — that explains the oil-drilling-lookalike-rigs you see around town. $800 — $1200 per stilt each, and $30,000 to $80,000 per house before you even start to build. "And cross-bracing on top — and that cross-bracing's important" says Cam, "one hundred kilometer plus winds are common in winter — you have to keep the buildings up off the frozen ground, and insulate as best you can." Kind of like putting all of your warm clothes on, then jumping up in the air and just staying there. We're just about to leave, and another herd of caribou walk across in front of us, between us and the town — well actually in the town, the boundary's behind us. Can't shoot'em, not here anyways — municipal by-law no firing a gun in town. Territorial ordinance no shooting caribou within 5 miles of a town or hamlet. So these caribou guys have the safe smile of chewing their cud in peace — their only danger is walking into a traffic accident, or maybe a traffic light, or bumping into a pedestrian — and there isn't much traffic anyway — but they also have to make really sure that they don't go for a five-mile walk in any direction, otherwise they're dinner.
Up early next morning. Food gathering. Hunting and gathering - caribou. With Inuk hunter David Akeeagok (government policy analyst during the day) friend of Nunavut Justice lawyer Doug Garson and his Inuk wife Tak. Still trouserless, But not unclothed — kilt — if am going to be a hunter and gatherer, gotta be culturally correct and wear ancient clothing. Be literally dressed for the occasion. Dave and Doug on the ski-doo, I jump in the big pull-behind qamotiq. The qamotiq jumps all over the place like a Mexican jumping bean. Dave's got the rifle. I've got an 18 inch Scottish ceremonial sword stuck in my belt. Defensive only, but stupidly makes me feel like Braveheart, even though I'm squeamish about using the rifle, and know anyway that Dave is the designated hunter — or as he's now officially called, "harvester" .
We throttle out through the in-shore sea-ice, out through Frobisher Bay (the ice goes on for 20 miles before you hit open water) up an inlet, over a pass, and up into the high country. Two hours later, first caribou. Dave: " too skinny." Half-an-hour later, two caribou at 200 yards. We motor slowly along towards them — not on foot or crawling — spooks them, think it's wolves. We stop at 100 yards. They stop. Both look at us. Simultaneously with the thunder clap, the second one drops. The other one strolls on slowly, doesn't even look back. We rush — don't want to wound it and have it die slowly. It's quivering, and while still on its side, it's moving three of its four legs as if walking — the fourth leg smashed at the shoulder by the bullet. Dave puts his hand over its eye — I think at first to comfort it — but later he tells me it's to check the blink reflex — if it doesn't blink when you touch its eyeball, it's dead. It blinks. He finds a soft indentation at the nape of the neck behind the skullbone, puts my finger there to show me, then slips his knife into the brain from behind. No more blinks. Cuts an artery in the lower neck — shows me where — white snow now red.
He hands me a knife. "Do what I do." He cuts, I cut. He peels, I peel. He slices open, I slice open. He does one side. I do the other. He is so gentle, so instructive - shows me where to cut with his hand on mine, how to pull away some parts with a balled-up fist — feel like his son. "Cut the meat, not yourself", he tells me. I keep my fingers out of the way. Only cut myself once. My blood and the animal's co-mingling, coming together, but only I am alive to feel it, tell of it. Not the animal. Now and then he gives me a wordless paternal smile and nod of approval.
Doug watches — "supervises" he says from the other side of the ski-doo. "I only like to eat it, that's all. Don't even like to cook it. So I'll supervise from over here."
After 20 minutes, we' ve 100 pounds of butcher meat on one side, a large red patch of snow in between, and on the other side 100 pounds of eh, well, let's not go into it in detail. But Dave does. When everything's spread out, gives me an Inuit anatomy of the internal workings of the caribou. How it all works — from one orifice to another — and tells me how it's got two stomachs, why the stomach contents are so green and pureed, and even why the caribou carries "warbles" (insects inside cocoons) subcutaneously — under the skin on its back — "They're good fried", he says, "but not as good as raw liver dipped in the green stuff" , which he does. "What does it taste like?" I ask. "Kinda like raw liver dipped in stomach contents, there's no other way to describe it." I guess. "D'you know what my name 'Akeeagok' means? Stomach. Really.
He tells me the Inuit names for the parts of the animal, inside and out. Every internal organ has an Inuit word for it. Like being in first year medical school, listening to Dave. You'd think he designed it, made it. Everything's edible, everything's useable. An animal so perfectly evolved to the Arctic, it not only survives and thrives here, but every part of it is tailor-made for either food or clothing — sustainable development on four legs. "What about the head?'' I ask Dave. "Best part, roasted head, the best. Carrots and onions. Eyes my daughter's favourite. Amy, she's seven. Only when cooked. Chewy." "She prefer left or right?" Dave laughs. "When they're popped out, you can't tell.".
"D'ya know something else?" says Dave. "My granddad worked in Grise Fjord as a young man, then married my grandma. Know what he did? Worked for Hudson's Bay. Know where he was from? Scotland. He was from Scotland. Same as you. Never met him. Never knew him. George Gall. Died in his 20's of TB. Would've liked to know him. Would've taught him, like you."
Load up, get going. Go higher. Come across a herd of 20 higher up. Tell Dave my boy Morgan asked me to bring back antlers. Dave tells me he'd like to bring another caribou back to share with other families. We stop. One has antlers. He tries to drop it from 250 yards — rifle is sighted at 200. They all move. Keep moving. Misses. Three times. Tough shot. The antlered caribou stops and looks at us straight on, small antlers, but antlers yet. Dave spreads himself out in the snow like a sharpshooter. Waits for the animal to turn, for the side shot. He turns. Dave drops it, and it drops as if a huge wind just blew it right off its feet. The rest of the herd take off this time. I scramble to the downed animal. Dave and Doug get into the ski-doo. I get there first. It's looking at me. Blinking. Moving. Eyes expressionless, yet so expressive. Palm its side, heaving. Touch its eye, blinking. Dave arrives. No words. I cover its eye with my hand. The knife slides in. Feel life slide away. It's there one moment, it's not the next. Two seconds, no blinking. So fast. Two seconds, all it takes, to go from here to there. Or here to nowhere. Will it be that fast for us, or will it seem like hours, yet only be two seconds. Just a blink of the eye, that all it takes?
We set to work. No talking. Just doing. Know what I'm doing. It's cold out now, but hands warm and bloody, inside the animal. Dave tosses me the second stomach. "My father told me when I was a boy it's good for your head if you pull it on when still warm. It's called aagagosi." I look at him, see if he's joking. "No joke." I pull it on. Drips from the inside down over my face. "Stinks, but feels good eh?" "Yeah, warm anyway, grainy too."
I see a difference. This one's got an extra inside internal organ. Big too. "Extra stomach?" I ask Dave. "No, cut it open." I cut. A young but dead, stillborn calf, not stillborn, never born. Perfectly formed, hooves and all. No fur. Soft brown skin like a puppy's. Can tell it was a male calf. "The mother, females have antlers too y'know, that's why" says Dave. Wasn't ready for this though. Cradle the little guy in my warm slippery hands. Crazily remember the baby on the plane in the amauti. Can reconcile food-necessity of Inuit to hunt caribou. But somehow taking a life — even an animal life — unnecessarily, doesn't seem fair. "Leave it" says Dave, maybe figuring out my looks and my thoughts, or maybe he' s just saying, literally, "leave it". I leave it.
Partway back to town I tell Dave her name was Carla, Carla the caribou. He laughs. "Knew they all have spirits, didn't know they had names too." Two hours later, back in Iqaluit. Putting stuff away, getting cleaned up. "Dave, you told me to leave it, right?" " Right." " Well I'm leaving it. I'm leaving this little Scottish sword for you, for your children, and them to their children. In your granddad's memory. From me to you. From one Scotsman to another Scotsman, because that's what you are." He looks at me, his eyes look at me. Don't seem like Inuit eyes any more, not to me. He takes it." Qujannamiik, thank you", he says. "I'll tell them."
On the plane back to Ottawa there's no baby, no amauti. Think about how I felt when I was coming here. Thought I could not fit. Couldn't fit in. In a way I came home. In a way Dave came home too, home to his home, home to his ancestry. And his children too. But not that baby calf, and I felt sad, and sorry, for him. I blinked, blinked back a tear. That's all it takes, a blink of the eye, then it's over.