Thursday, August 11, 2011

Caribou hunting

It's truly shameful how little I have written about my Nunavut experience in the last few weeks. There is so much to tell and yet I haven't sat down to put words to the memories. I apologize for that, and will now try to redeem myself with a story about my experience caribou hunting last weekend.

While bouncing around on the back of Arsene Kaput's ATV, which he refers to as his Honda, I watched the land around me. My eyes were open and alert. I was looking for caribou.

Thousands of tuktu passed through Rankin Inlet a week before and hundreds, if not thousands more were expected to make their way south from Chesterfield Inlet any day, so we knew they were somewhere.

We were about 15 kilometres out of town, but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Aside from a few ATV tracks, the land appeared to be untouched and the cloudless sky stretched for miles. On the Honda, we crossed rivers, climb rocks and passed through mud. And then I saw one. It was the first caribou to cross my path, to come into my view. It was a mother travelling with one of her babies.

"We leave the mothers alone," Arsene told me as we slowly made our way past, trying not to startle her or her little one. I was mesmerized. They weren't as big as I was expecting, but they were beautiful. We watched as they made their way to a lake to get a drink of water and then kept moving, Arsene driving and me bouncing around on the back.

I had no idea how rocky tundra was until I hopped on the Honda. Everything looks so flat from a distance, but really, there are low-lying plants, like Arctic berries, hiding the boulders from sight.

The next caribou we saw was wounded. Arsene and our hunting buddy David both shook their heads at the sight. "We hate to see animals suffering," Arsene told me.

Apparently the meat on a wounded tuktu doesn't taste as good, but Inuit will feed them to their dogs. That way the animal doesn't suffer and the meat doesn't go to waste. Although Arsene and David wanted to put the tuktu out of its misery and put it to good use, we were on a mission to find a healthy caribou for David to skin and prepare in front of a group of youth. So, we kept moving.

As we drove, Arsene, who's a paramedic and a volunteer firefighter, told me about the first Honda he ever bought. He was in his early teens and had saved up all of his money from a part-time job. He had $3,000, enough for a down payment. So he walked into the Northern store and pointed to the one he wanted, but the manager said he was too young. Upset, he went home and told his dad what had happened. Arsene said, with a grin on his face, that his dad was so proud that he had saved the money to buy one himself, that he marched down to the store and told the manager to sell his son the ATV. Arsene paid it off by the end of the summer.

He was shocked when he found out I had never been on one before that day and asked me numerous times if I was okay.

David, who's from Repulse Bay, drove well ahead of us most of the time. When Arsene introduced us, he told me to never call Repulse Bay by that name to someone who's from there. He said ever since the Inuit found out the meaning of repulsive, they have been against their home being referred to that way. Instead, it's called Naujaat, which means a seagulls resting place.

Arsene was full of knowledge. I learned all kinds of things as we scoured the land. Like, the first time a Inuit youth goes hunting and kills a tuktu, they're not allowed to eat the meat. It's bad luck. If you don't eat it then it's believed you'll have good luck hunting in the future.

Arsene said there is a similar rule for seal. When you kill your first, you melt snow in your mouth and then pass it into the mouth of the seal. By doing this, you ensure that the same seal will come back to you every year. "It's worked for me, so far," he said.

Now I know you're all impatiently waiting for the part where we kill a caribou, so I'll get to it.

After travelling quite a distance and only seeing a couple of mothers and a few wounded caribou, we finally spotted a buck sitting on top of a ridge. David and Arsene stopped their ATVs and made a game plan. David had the gun, so he went first. He followed the buck for quite some time, probably 30 minutes, before he was in a good position to take aim.

Arsene said the reason the caribou kept running was because he could smell the ATV. Apparently they don't have good eye sight, but they have an incredible sense of smell. The trick is to approach the animal on an angle rather than from behind, he said.

Finally, the caribou stopped near a lake. David stopped his ATV, pulled the rifle off his back and took aim, using the edge of the ATV to steady himself. The first shot hit. We couldn't see it, but Arsene could hear it. So we approached and saw that the caribou was wounded, but not dead. David passed the gun off to Arsene, who lied down and used a rock to steady the gun. He let another shot go, striking his target. The caribou then stumbled its way into the lake, lied down and met its maker.

Having never been hunting before in my life, it was quite the sight. Even more amazing was watching the men lift the caribou, whose tongue was hanging out, onto a tarp on the back of David's ATV. They then strapped it on with ropes and off we went.

I think I'll leave the rest of the story for my next post. I hope I've redeemed myself. Happy hunting!

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