Read an Excerpt
THE HAYES ARCTIC EXPEDITION, 1860-61:
One incredible ice floe covered twenty-four square miles. It rose twenty feet above the sea and reached an estimated depth of 160 feet. The estimated weight was six thousand million tons, a floating glacier, expanding year by year, as the ancient ice, hundreds of years old, remained frozen, fresh snow accumulating and congealing into new ice above.
Alika, hand on his harpoon, his unaaq, ready for an instant kill, had been at the seal hole, the aglus, for three hours. His younger brother, Sulu, who had begged to join him on the hunt, napped beside him on the sledge. They were on the west edge of a large, thick ice floe attached to land in the Greenland Strait, waiting for a shiny seal head to appear. The floe was old. Perhaps it had broken off from North Greenland and had drifted across the narrow strait, refreezing against the remote Ellesmere Island bank.
The time was mid-October 1868, on the eve of the long winter darkness. The shallow noon light was already fading. Snow had fallen a week earlier and would stay until almost June. The caribou were mating, char were spawning, and the sea ice was forming. All over the Arctic, inhabitants, both human and animal, were preparing for the frozen siege.
Jamka, the lead sledge dog, had sniffed out the small hole where he expected a ringed seal would soon surface to breathe, and Alika had prepared for the day's hunt by building a windbreak of snow blocks and a snow-block seat next to the aglus that he covered with a square of polar bear hide to keep his bottom warm. An indicator rod of caribou bone was in the hole. When a seal came up, it might touch the thin rod, wiggling it and alerting him.
Many of Alika's elders often waited a day or two for just a single strike at the wily ringed seal or the bearded seal, the only two to spend the entire year above the Arctic Circle. But Alika didn't have the patience of his elders, and a worried glance at the snow-laden sky told him they should soon start for their village of Nunatak, which was seven miles south. A northwest gale was approaching. Alika could feel it coming, with its thick wind-driven snow. Winter weather was usually predictable eight hundred miles southwest of the North Pole. The stars had twinkled brightly the night before, often a sign of bad weather.
Descendants of the Thule people who had first settled in the north a thousand years before, fourteen-year-old Alika and his brother, ten-year-old Sulu, were Inuit, meaning "mankind," and their diet was mostly from the sea, mostly cooked.
Alika said to Jamka, "You promised me a seal a long time ago."
The Greenland husky, dark eyes always seeming to have an intelligent expression, stared back as if to say, "But I didn't tell you when."
Jamka squatted near Alika. At 110 pounds, he was a huge dog, with black-and-brown fur six inches thick. His undercoat was naturally oily to prevent moisture from reaching his skin. His bushy tail curled over his back. His ears were small, like those of most other Arctic animals, offering less area to absorb the cold of forty-five degrees below zero. He had a broad chest and big bones. There was wolf blood in him. In the Inuit tradition, the village children trained their dogs for sledge work. Alika had trained Jamka.
When Alika was seven years old, he and Jamka had bonded in an emergency, and they had been almost inseparable ever since. One September day, when the ice was still thin on a lake two miles from Nunatak, Alika was fishing for char when the crust broke. Into the water he went. Jamka pulled him out by the parka hood and dragged him home. Alika well remembered looking up at Jamka's wet belly as he slid on his back along the snow. He was convinced that Jamka thought like a human, and he trusted the dog with his life.
He looked over at Jamka and said, "I hope your nose isn't drying up." The adult hunters trained the dogs to sniff the seal breathers. Papa Kussu had done that.
Jamka continued to stare at the hole.
Ringed seals usually surfaced to breathe in what the white man judged as every seven minutes, but it was possible for them to stay down as long as twenty.
There were hundreds of the cylinder-like holes dug from beneath the ice. Three-hour waits were nothing, because the hunter could never tell which holes were being used. Only dogs like Jamka had that talent, and even they were often wrong.
Alika rose and called to the other dogs that were half buried in the snow. It was past time to go home.
Jamka stood up, also looking at the quickly darkening, threatening sky. Very experienced, Jamka seemed to sense danger in guiding the team, as if he knew exactly where hidden crevasses were; where the thin ice was. He'd fought polar bears and been wounded by them. He was the best lead dog Kussu had ever owned.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the floe shook and a loud crack shattered the stillness. Alika watched in horror as the dark expanse of water between the ice floe and the shore began to widen. Three feet! Five feet! Seven feet! Alika's body stiffened with fear and helplessness. The same thing had happened to several villagers without kayaks to reach shore. Their floe had split off, and they were never seen again.
Alika didn't know how to swim, and even if his feet were to find bottom and he could wade across carrying Sulu, water would seep into his polar bear pants and sealskin boots and underpants. Even if they could reach land, they'd surely freeze onshore, turn into human icicles. He needed time to cut snow blocks, build a small house, and start a seal-oil fire to dry their clothes. Going into the water would be a fatal mistake. The cold would kill them.
As he watched the shoreline fall away, Alika guessed that an iceberg aimlessly sailing slowly south down the strait, a ghostly and deadly mountain of ice, had rammed the floe, tearing it away from the permafrost shore, the always frozen earth. Now they were trapped in the gloom on a ship of ice, surrounded by hundreds of smaller ice cakes. The distance from shore would surely widen. Maybe they'd lose sight of the white-encrusted land completely. Total afternoon darkness was also near. They might not even see the village, where they lived with Papa Kussu and Mama Maja, as they slowly passed it. Unless they were very close, shouting would do no good in the wind and night.
Sulu had awakened, his small face a ball of terror. Alika said, "Don't worry, Little One, the wind will blow us back to shore." But he knew that chance was indeed slim. The prevailing wind this day was from the west, opposite of what they needed to reach shore again. He spoke in Inuktitut, the native language.
Thinking mostly of the Little One, Papa's name for Sulu, Alika shook the fear out of his head and tight stomach. One member of their village, old Miak, had survived being trapped on a big drifting floe. His terrible passage had taken months before he was rescued hundreds of miles down the strait by hunters. Alika tried to remember what Miak had said: "Get rid of the dogs. You'll be lucky to feed yourself. Toss them overboard. They'll run for home and alert the village. Build yourself an iglu. Watch out for bears. Don't go outside unless you have a rifle..."
Shore at this point was still only fourteen or fifteen feet away from their floe. Alika quickly unharnessed all the dogs except Jamka and pushed them into the water. Nanuks, polar bears, were always hungry, and Jamka would be the best defense against them. He knew their strong odor.
The six dogs paddled ashore, and Alika watched as they climbed up onto the bank and shook the water from their tough coats. They moved out into the closing dusk as a pack. Ideally, they'd run straight to the village, unless they encountered a bear. They'd surely attack it, Alika knew, and all six could be killed. He hoped the inuas, the always watching and listening heavenly spirits, would direct the dogs away from any prowling nanuks.
Alika thought that if the dogs arrived safely, his papa and the other villagers would quickly figure out what might have happened. Only Alika could have unharnessed the dogs! He must be injured or, worst of all, adrift on a floe with no way to reach shore. Sulu has been missing all day and is undoubtedly with Alika. Poor Little One.
Alika put his arms around his brother and said, "Don't be afraid. Papa has put everything on the sledge that we'll need. Once the dogs reach home, Papa and the other men will launch the big boat and paddle out to find us. We'll build a small house. We'll stay here near the aglus and hunt after we build the house, all right?"
Sulu nodded. He was almost too frightened to speak but did manage to say, "We can't use the sledge. The dogs are gone."
"We can use parts of the sledge, and everything that's on it," Alika said. "You'll see."
"What happened, Alika?"
"An iceberg hit the floe and broke it from shore."
"Why did the berg hit us?"
"Bergs have no brains, Little One."
Like Alika's, Sulu's intense eyes were black; his hair, straight and black, too. His caribou-fur parka hood framed a reddish-brown face that was holding back tears.
Rather frail and sometimes sickly, Sulu was an apprentice to the old ex-hunter Etukak, and his soapstone carvings of birds, a most difficult subject, were already the talk of Nunatak. Etukak said young Sulu was very talented.
Everyone in the village knew that Sulu was different and remarked about it. Mama called him "the gentle one." And he had that strange love of birds. He'd never put an arrow through a dovekie or an owl or a raven. And in the summer hunts, if he found a bird with a broken wing, he'd try to fix it.
Alika had seen him turn away when a seal was killed; when a caribou or musk ox was brought down; even when one of the thousands of hares was trapped and killed by Mama.
Out of Sulu's hearing, his papa and mama had talked about him-Papa dismayed that he might not hunt, his mama understanding. Alika had overheard them several times.
Suddenly the storm raged in from the west, with roaring wind gusts driving the snow. Alika turned the sledge over and gathered Sulu and Jamka behind it. These western storms were usually short-lived, and the boys had no choice except to huddle together and wait for it to pass. Alika shielded Sulu with his body. Storms were routine for Jamka. He just went to sleep.
Alika thought of home and the safety of their village, which was located fifteen miles from the west coast of Greenland across the strait. They could walk or sledge to Greenland on solid ice during the winter. Nunatak was the most modern settlement in the High Arctic, because of the nearby wreck of the American ship Reliance, a three-masted sail-and-steam vessel. Wooden hulled, it had been crushed by floe ice ten years earlier.
When its crew of fifty-five men, plus sixty dogs, abandoned the Reliance, the villagers stripped its hull inside and out, even to the ship's brass bell. Only the steam engine was left to rust away. The Reliance, a fine new ship, had been headed for the Arctic Ocean, with plans to send four sledges, the captain, and sixteen crewmen to the North Pole. They would have been the first humans to reach that celebrated geographic goal. But the kabloonas, the white men, had no idea of the power of huge slabs of ice and the tides.
Although it was home to some of the animals he needed to hunt, Kussu and the other villagers had always feared the ice. Alika did as well. It could crush anything in its way. With wind and currents pushing it, with its rumbling, screeching, thundering, or sawing noises, it could send towers of frozen water into the air and create vast ice landscapes of sharp hummocks, or hills. The Reliance had offered little resistance.
Alika went with his papa to the explorers' ship before and after it was crushed, amazed at what he saw; amazed at how the white men lived aboard that three-masted giant umiak, with its steam engine. It burned something called coal. The men gave him fancy food that made him throw up. What they clearly did not understand was ice. They were helpless when the hull popped open like the full stomach of a musk ox. Earlier they'd shown the villagers the huge timber ribs of the ship, saying they were unbreakable. The villagers had laughed and laughed. The tuvaq, the sea ice, could destroy anything.
After the crew and the three Inuit dog handlers left on sledges for the few settlements en route to Canada's Hudson Bay, far to the south, the residents of Nunatak put every inch of wood on their sledges as well as every single pot, pan, sheet, blanket, every item of left-behind food, and every lump of coal. They made trip after trip back to the village for a whole summer. Alika had helped.
And so what had been one-room sod-stone-and-sealskin dwellings were now made of wood, with roofs and wooden doors and wooden floors. There was even a proud community hall building, courtesy of the Reliance wood.
Nunatak then became remarkable and exceptional because the few coastal settlements from Ellesmere on down to Baffin Island and the Hudson Strait were really just summer tented and winter iglu hunting camps. Unlike Nunatak, those camps were not meant to be permanent. Nunatak, once a collection of temporary makeshift huts and iglus, could now properly be called a village.