Thursday Tidbits

Posted on April 29, 2021 under Thursday Tidbits with 2 comments



Our ice fishing expedition. As good as it gets


“And I say way-hey-hey, it’s just an ordinary day,

And it’s all your state of mind,

At the end of the day,

You’ve just got to say, It’s alright.”

Ordinary Day – Great Big Sea


Let’s see. Nothing much has happened so far this week.

On Monday, I finished my third quarantine and received my second Moderna vaccine. On Tuesday I went ice fishing and yesterday I was standing on a picket line. Oh, pray tell, what will the rest of the week bring?

Q3. This is a term used in the finance and accounting world denoting third quarter profits, earnings etc.  I have decided to use it as a quarantine statistic. I have just completed a successful Q3 and breathlessly await Q4 when I come back to Nova Scotia at the end of May, but the way things are going, will the province even let me in?

The same day that I emerged from self-isolation, I received my second Covid shot. Some of my colleagues had quite severe reactions to the second needle while a handful got through unscathed. I was one of the lucky ones. I guess I’m like a piece of old petrified wood even though I wasn’t frightened by the prospects of being ill. Actually, my arm was far less stiff and sore with the second shot.

I have been a member of a union twice in my life. The first time was the Teacher’s Union in Alberta back in the late 70s and now up here in the north. Many of my friends back home belong to a union whether they be teachers, university employees, hospital and nursing care workers. The north has provided me with so many firsts, so it seems only appropriate that it provided the backdrop for the first time for me to walk a picket line.

Everybody has to pay dues. I’m not talking about union dues which I happen to pay. No, in life we all pay dues. It just comes with the territory. The north has a unique way of extracting dues. Cold, dark winter days, difficult social issues, spotty internet, and travel delays are just a few of the things that challenge those of us who live and work here. But, oh, the rewards, if you are patient.

One of the most interesting programs offered by our school is called Culture. (something I am sorely lacking!) The purpose of the program is to preserve Inuit traditions. There are a lot of hands- on activities from carpentry to beading and sewing to activities on the land like hunting, fishing and trapping. While I was in Q3, the culture instructors arranged for an ice fishing outing for our two grade 6 classes. It was scheduled for the day after my second Covid shot. Remember this fact later in the story and recall that I didn’t have any immediate reactions to the needle.

In order to go out on the land with a group of students, we were required to have professional guides. There are many reasons for this all centered around safety. These people are as familiar with the vast landscape as most people are of a Tim Horton’s drive thru. They all carry rifles.

I was a little leery about committing to go. I had been told that some of the effects of the second Covid shot don’t kick in until 24 hours after the fact which coincided exactly with our departure time on Tuesday. I was also concerned about the long skidoo ride, a reason that I cancelled my participation in a trip to the famous Pingualuit Park. Both my back and knee have been causing me a lot of grief this winter. However, I realized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that there was no way I was going to miss it. I take some comfort that my back and knee won’t hurt after I die… unless this is what hell is all about! Armed with extra strength Tylenol and a small backpack with snacks and a coffee thermos, I headed to the school.

One of the nice things about being old is that people pity you. The Culture teacher, aware of my infirmities, arranged for me to sit on the skidoo seat. The other option would have been one of the Qamotiqs, (The Q is pronounced like H) the large wooden sleds used by the Inuit to transport supplies and families. I hopped on behind the guide. The good news is that my seat was comfortable. The bad news is that the passenger seat did not have a back rest. The other thing I have discovered about skidoo seats that they are quite wide and your legs are quite splayed out. Now if you are a person who spends a lot of time on a skidoo (or a gymnast) I’m sure your upper leg muscles eventually adapt. These days, my muscles are not supple. That is a gross understatement. We had scarcely travelled five minutes when I could feel the muscles in my upper legs cramping up. They were as tight as a rusted lug nut on an old truck wheel. I wondered if there was a Groinocologist in Kangiqsujuaq!

I took a few deep breaths and prayed that I wouldn’t have to dismount before we even got out of the village.

In order to get to our destination, we had to travel for two hours over some pretty rough terrain. Mercifully, there had been a recent snowfall that provided a bit of a cushion… but not much. After a lunch break, there would be another hour of driving to reach the lake where most of the fishing would happen.

After an hour of bone rattling driving, we stopped to stretch. The guides are wise and know that older folks and young students need a break. It took me several minutes to dismount. I asked my guide if I could switch seats with one of the students. I would ride in the Qamotiq where I could, at least, stretch out my legs. In the 69 years that I have been on this planet, that may have been one of the stupidest decisions I have ever made. The other guides chipped in with some cushions which I recognize immediately as shock absorbers.

I took my second extra strength Tylenol of the morning.

All that separates a human being from the ground in a Qamotig is some plywood. Did I mention that the terrain was quite uneven and bumpy? Initially, I was so relieved to have my legs extended that I didn’t notice the serious jarring to my vertebrae. When the skidoo would hit a bump (about every 10 seconds), the Qamotiq would actually levitate, hitting the ground with significant force. Sitting in a Qamotiq also requires you to hold on to side boards for dear life. This death grip puts pressure on your arms, and I could feel pain emanating from my needle site.

I learned something else very interesting for anyone contemplating a 2 hour ride in a Qamotiq. At this time of the year the land and lakes are covered in snow and ice. When you are travelling at high speeds along crusty snow sections, the skidoo grinds up the snow and ice and spits out small ice chunks like you might find in a pellet gun or a hailstorm. These come flying off the back of the skidoo in the general direction of the Qamotiq. One adaptation to protect innocent passengers is another piece of plywood attached to the front of the Qamotiq that acts as a deflector. However, about every tenth ice pellet finds its way over the deflector and directly into the passenger’s face. The first one caught me by surprise but once they started coming in rapid fire succession, I adapted and put on my goggles. When the snowmobile comes into contact with actual snow, it produces something akin to a fine mist that marathon runners might have experienced in a misting tent. While all of this might sound rather unpleasant, the writer in me took it in stride knowing full well that it would be part of this narrative.

One thing I have noticed about guides is that they are always watching, scouring the landscape. The first time I travelled with a guide I thought that this was because of possible polar bear or wolf sightings. The Inuit are hunters at heart and are forever watchful.

I forgot to mention during the previous whining session (!) that the weather was perfect. The temp was right around zero and there wasn’t a hint of wind. The skies were clear and deep blue. Sunglasses are mandatory or you might develop snow blindness. A few times, the guides spotted seals off in the distance sunning themselves. Immediately, the guides had their guns at the ready. The seals proved elusive as they disappeared back into a hole in the ice. I had this fleeting image of me sharing the Qamotiq with a freshly killed seal.

Ptarmigan are grouse found in mountainous areas of the arctic. They are snowy white. “There” said the guide, pointing off into the distance. It took my eyes a while to detect a ptarmigan. Moments later, he was holding the carcass of the deceased bird. This was repeated three times on out outward journey. The third requires special mention. P3, we’ll call him, was injured but did not die instantly. The guide had run out of ammunition and couldn’t put the unfortunate creature out of its misery. Another skidoo pulled up beside us. A few students, along with the guides, ran after the distressed bird and finally were able to capture and put it down. This whole episode might sound cruel to the uninitiated, but ptarmigan is yet another source of “country food”.

We stopped at one of the many (thousands) lakes for our lunch break. With our little side trip to shoot some grouse, we were the last group to arrive.

On outings like these, the homeroom teacher is responsible for his or her students. As sandwiches were being passed out, I noticed that two of my students were missing. These two 12-year old boys don’t care much for school which is hardly surprising. Actually, I think it is safe to say that they find it torturous to come to school. They are restless and find it hard to stay on task. Upon questioning, I found out that they had gone up into the mountains to hunt. They arrived back at our site, each proudly holding a ptarmagin that they had shot. Several students gathered around and before you could say “boo” all of the feathers had been removed. Any bystander could tell that this activity was just instinctive.

It is at times like this that I question the education system in the north. I keep thinking “square pegs in round holes”. These children have passion for the land like their ancestors. Would you rather be hunting ptarmagin or fishing for arctic char (to feed your family) or learning about adjectives? The land is their classroom and they have learned their lessons well. I was both proud of the boys and just a little saddened. If Armageddon arrives someday, these children will have a much better chance of survival than the so-called well-educated people from the south.

Another hour of a bone jarring ride brought us to our final destination. Six camps dotted the shoreline of a frozen lake, surrounded by huge mountains. We were told that a few men were about to check their nets for arctic char. We drove out onto the lake. There were two wooden poles packed in snow about 50 yards apart, sticking up out of the ice. A few men stationed themselves at each pole and removed the snow with shovels, revealing a cross like structure over a hole in the ice. There was a line attached to each wooden cross. The cross was removed from the hole and one group of people, including the students (of course, they knew what was expected of them) started to pull the line out of the hole revealing a net. They walked away from the hole pulling the net behind them. They looked like a tug-of-war team to me. Unfortunately, this net didn’t yield a single fish. Undeterred (The Inuit display enormous patience) the group moved to another location near by and repeated the entire process. The moment the students started hauling the line, you could feel the excitement. You could also tell by the tension on the line that fish would momentarily appear out of the hole in the ice. While the net was being hauled, the other students gathered around the hole and watched anxiously. The fish started to appear, caught up in the net. Students not pulling the line then assisted the fishermen in getting the fish untangled from the net. There were 18 fish in all, most of them large arctic char. It was mesmerizing and quite thrilling to watch.

I was never fully able to understand how they threaded the net from one hole to the other under the ice.

The next two hours was spent doing traditional ice fishing. Using big gas powered augers, the guides drilled holes into the ice. Many of the students brought their own mats (they looked a lot like yoga mats) and lay them down beside the hole. Lying in a prone position with their faces in the hole, they dropped their hooks and lures into the deep cold water, waiting for a bite. These same students who find it difficult to stay still in class, remained perfectly still, a few of them for the entire two hours, gently moving the line up and down. I tried fishing but from a standing position. I knew that if I got into the prone position, they might need a small Kubota machine to bring me back into the upright position.

Many of the guides and some of the students took off on skidoos and went further up the long lake to explore.

Getting back to the weather. When we weren’t zipping along at 70km an hour, it was positively warm out on the lakes. There was no wind. Most of us removed our parkas, hats and gloves. It was one of those legendary spring days in the arctic. It has to be experienced. It cannot be adequately described.

As much as I was enjoying this part of the day, I was filled with a sense of dread. We still had to get back home and unless a helicopter magically appeared, I was faced with two or more hours of pain. Earlier in the day, one of the Culture teachers, an Inuit woman, offered me a ride on her skidoo. Foolishly I had declined. When I realized that her passenger seat had a backrest, I sheepishly asked if I could drive home with her.

The Inuit are so graceful especially dealing with buffoons like me. She knew that I was (stoically?) suffering. Suddenly, I was sitting in a Cadillac. After only 5 minutes of our return trip, I knew that the ride home would be vastly different than the morning ride. I also expected that she wouldn’t be going at breakneck speed like the young guide I had previously. On this score, I was mistaken. The route back home was vastly different than the morning. The majority of the trip was across a bay. Until we reached the bay, her speeds were reasonable. Then she opened up the throttle. On several occasions she asked me if I wanted to drive. I was tempted but with students in the Qamotiq, I didn’t want to imperil lives.

The ride home took half the time of the morning run.

I was dropped off about half a kilometer from my apartment. The only time in my life that I felt this kind of pain was after running the Boston Marathon. All of the jostling of my body had taken its toll. If anyone had seen me, they may have thought that I had been drinking, such was the stagger of my gait.

It was easily, the most amazing day that I’ve spent in the north.

Even though I am a teacher, my students continue to teach me.

The Inuit are beautiful, warm and resourceful people. I am humble to be in their presence.

Other than these things, it was just another ordinary week!

Have a great weekend.

P.S. I would not advise a long skidoo ride as part of a recuperation plan for a second Covid shot! I did enough whining in this piece. You do not want to hear about the aftermath.


Full disclosure. I did not catch this fish.


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