Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their adventures – those times when, far from what’s familiar, you must improvise in the midst of a wild travel moment. They are the stories you can’t wait to tell when you get home.
One winter I decided, in a fit of contrariness, to head north for a short vacation instead of to the sunny south. I ended up on Flaherty Island in the Belcher archipelago on a February night, sitting on a pile of caribou furs in an igloo chewing a piece of raw seal while a half-dozen Inuit women in parkas crowded in and started throat-singing.
It’s probably safe to say that most Canadians have never heard of the Belcher Islands, the southernmost outpost of Nunavut, in the southeast corner of Hudson Bay. The only community on the islands is Sanikiluaq, a small sprawl of raised bungalows around Flaherty’s Eskimo Harbour. Home to about 850, it is named after a legendary Inuit hunter who could outrun a fox.
A small tour company was offering an authentic northern experience, the highlight of which was two nights in an igloo built a short distance from the hamlet’s outskirts by Peter Kattuk, Sanikiluaq’s mayor at the time. In fact, Kattuk built a snowy annex big enough to accommodate himself, his wife and three children. We would all be igloo-mates for two nights – chilling in our crib, as it were.
“Will you mind if there is a seal at the igloo?” Kattuk asked before we left the hamlet by snow machine for our first night on the land. A seal carcass is a traditional Inuit symbol of hospitality. Eating quak, frozen and raw, is considered a delicacy almost as great as maktaaq, whale skin. There was no whale skin at the igloo, but the promised seal – a frozen, torpedo-shaped corpse – was leaning against the tunnel entrance along with Kattuk’s rifle, a reminder that nanuq, the great white bear, prowled the land here.
The throat-singers would take the frozen seal, but I needn’t have worried about missing a chance to taste the delicacy. Kattuk had some fresh seal on his side of the igloo duplex and with the curved blade of an ulu knife carved off a chunk. It had the consistency of hard raspberry jelly, and the blood-rich meat was surprisingly neutral in flavour, leaving only a slight aftertaste of copper.
My northern adventure had its down sides. Igloos have no plumbing. If nature calls in the middle of the night, you have to throw off the furs, pull on the parka and the boots and crawl outside. Admittedly, there is a certain frisson to baring your bits in -35 weather under a full moon while watching the Northern Lights writhe across the horizon and hoping nanuq is not looking for a midnight snack.
On my last day in Sanikiluaq, I travelled to the ice edge under a pile of furs in a wooden sled pulled by a snow machine. On the way back, the driver stopped to examine some bear tracks, looked back at me and did a classic double-take. “Did you not feel that your face is frozen?” he asked quite casually. Raising my hands, I discovered to my horror that my cheeks had turned into nerveless hockey pucks. I spent the rest of the trip rubbing at my numb face and hoping my nose wouldn’t fall off.
With my swollen, peeling, ointment-covered cheeks, I returned home looking more like the victim of a mugging than a happy tourist. It was one of my most memorable trips, but the following winter I went south.
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