Last weekend we spent some time on the land camping. This was our first winter trip “out on the land” for this season. Generally, going “out on the land” up here means “going camping”, “going to the cabin”, “going fishing” or “going hunting”. Well, we went camping for four days, taking some time off from work.
Friday night was spent packing our gear on two “qamutiiks” (Inuit sleds, handmade, approximately 14 – 16ft long) and making sure we had enough supplies and warm clothing for any type of weather. When you pack for winter camping, you need to make sure that you have enough warm clothing for the potential fact that the weather will drop to -40C. We are living in the arctic after all! So…what do you pack? Including all the gear such as tent, sleeping bags, caribou hides, food, stove and fuel, I always try to make sure to take at least one book and a set of cards. You never know when you might get stuck in your tent during a blizzard. We had that experience last year when we went camping on Easter weekend and were tent bound for 2 days because of a blizzard. I forgot my book and had to spend my time entertaining myself playing solitaire (Rob does not play cards) and tobogganing with Jack, our dog.
Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early and started the day with a hardy breakfast – instant Quaker oatmeal. We finished the last of the packing including tying down our gas cans onto the qamutiiks. We each were taking 30 gallons of gas just for our snow machines. We then met up with some friends, John Avaala and his family (an Inuit family) and were to follow them up to their cabin west of Baker Lake towards the Thelon Sanctuary. The term ‘follow’ is interesting, because if you want go out with Inuit families, and if they want you to come along, they’ll say “We don’t mind if you follow”. To many of the Inuit people we know, they don’t feel that it’s up to them if you come or go with them, you have that freedom to come and go as you wish; of course the trip is more enjoyable if they enjoy your company.
The weather was overcast but not too bad too start with, but as we went along the overcast weather started to create a condition called flat light. Flat light conditions happens when diffuse lighting from overcast clouds causes all surface definition to disappear. It becomes impossible to tell how far away the snowy surface is and to distinguish hills from flat trails or snow from the sky. It also make it hard on the eyes when you are travelling and trying to follow the trail (if there is any).
After travelling about 140 kilometres (80 miles), we finally made it to cabin that is on Schultz Lake. Exhausted but happy to make it, we still had to put up the tent. We usually use a wall tent (Canadian of course) when we camp in the winter but had an opportunity to try the Alaskan Arctic Oven tent this time around. It ended up being much warmer than the wall tent with a condensation-free interior and a much better option for putting a stove inside for warmth. When we set up the tent, we usually have caribou skins under our sleeping bags and have a Coleman stove and Coleman lantern to heat up the tent. Yes, we cook inside the tent! It took me awhile to get used to the idea of cooking in the tent, but when it is -30C outside with lots of wind, you need heat, lots of heat!! Also, Rob got me a new mummy sleeping bag from Wiggy’s that was rated for -40C and kept me very warm. Rob’s had his for about 10 years, and still loves it!
The cabin that John Avaala owns had a wolverine try to break into it, so our first night was spent listening to all the weird noises outside with Rob going out a few times to make sure the wolverine (??) was not trying to get into our gas cans, gear, etc. When you are lying in a warm sleeping bag, it is hard to leave to go outside to check on weird noises, or to use the outdoor facilities. Once you are outside, you make a quick run for it because the cold air hits you instantly! We later figured that the noises were the ice on the Thelon river shifting during the night and the wind hitting the tent at the right times to make it sound like an animal.
Sunday, Rob went with Jamie Kataluk (John’s son-in-law) to go hunting for caribou while I stayed around the tent. Rob and Jamie saw a lot of wildlife tracks including wolf tracks, arctic hare, and caribou. Jamie was able to find a caribou for his family and we had fresh caribou meat for dinner that night. I know some people might question why we hunt or condone hunting, but when you look at the history of the Inuit culture and the cost of food prices in the north, you will understand (a gallon of milk costs $16 to $20 dollars compared to $5 or $6 down south!!). I have been at community meetings where people have said that they can’t afford the cost of meat and don’t like the taste of store bought meat, but that’s a discussion for another day.
So I spent my time around the tent organizing and chiseling a few ice fishing holes. It took me about an hour to get 2 holes chiseled. I never caught any fish, but it was fun watching the kids try, especially Jamie’s two year old Bridget .
Monday, Rob and I went snow-machining around the area. We saw arctic hare and ptarmigan but I never got an opportunity to take any photos. We did see a lot of caribou tracks and wolf tracks but never saw any of them. That evening we had the opportunity to try Uqsuq (bearded seal) and Muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) soup. Rob made the Muktuk soup and it was very good. I won’t say that I would try Uqsuq anytime soon, but at least I can say that I’ve tried it. That night Rob was violently sick (several times) and we did not have very much sleep. Rob had dried sausage sticks earlier that day and he thinks that it was the cause of him getting sick.
Tuesday morning saw us slowly getting ready to go back to town. The wind picked up during the night and it was very chilly while we tried to pack. After about 2 hours of getting everything packed onto our qamutiiks, we made our way slowly back to town. We did pick up another passenger, Robin (John’s youngest son). He wanted to go back to town and we offered since I had room on my snow-machine (I have a two seater machine). Robin drove my machine most of the way back and I got to see ptarmigan and caribou along the way. At one point in time, Robin and I switched and I drove my machine with Robin on the back seat and pulling one of the two qamutiiks. At one point in time, Rob stopped and waited for us as we were going a bit slower than him. I drove up next to him thinking that qamutiik would stop in time. The next think I new, the snow-machine, Robin and I were on tipped over and I heard Rob screaming. The qamutiiks which weighed about 700 lbs with all the gear slid right behind Rob’s machine and the front of the runners pinned his legs to his machine. Rob initially thought the qamutiik broke his leg, but luckily they were only pinned. After sorting things out, we continued on our way to town. We weren’t even 20 kilometres from town when my machine slowly died. We tried everything, adding more oil, changing the spark plugs, but nothing seemed to work. Rob never even noticed that we weren’t behind him anymore and it was about twenty minutes before he came back. He hooked up the two qamutiiks to each other, Robin sat on one and I sat behind Rob on his snow-machine. We travelled very, very slowly to town but finally made it home. Rob and Robin went back to get my machine and it is now sitting in the back waiting to be repaired (it needs new pistons, sigh). We were tired, exhausted, and stinky after 4 days of no showers, but happy to have gone camping.