Friday, August 26, 2011

From hunting to skinning to eating

Well, I promised to finish my caribou hunting tale and I figure, better late than never. With the caribou strapped to the back of David's ATV, it's tongue sticking out of it's mouth and it's legs shooting straight out the back, we made our journey to Elders' Cabin. The cabin, which sits outside of town on, what I call the road to nowhere, but the locals call the road to Elders' Cabin, was the home of dozens of youth that weekend. They were taking part in a suicide prevention camp that was meant to teach basic counselling skills, self-esteem and leadership. The bumpy trip back was a lot quicker than the trip out to the middle of nowhere where we shot our tuktu. It was like, now that we had our kill, we were on a mission to eat it. When we arrived at the cabin, David lifted the caribou off the back of the Honda and onto the rocky ground. It was there that he taught the youth how to skin the animal. Speaking in Inuktitut, he showed them that you first make cuts down the legs of the tuktu. Then you make a long incision down the belly of the animal. David then took hold of the skin and pulled it back. From there, he used his fist to push the skin away from the meat. As he plunged his hand, wrist and arm between the layers, it sounded like the peeling of an orange, but amplified to a much higher decibel. After separating the first side of skin from the meat, he turned the animal over and asked for a volunteer to give it a try. Two young guys, in their teens or early 20s, rolled up their sleeves and got in there. Once the skin was completely disconnected from the body, David made a few precise cuts around the animals face and with one fell swoop, one of the youth pulled the skin out from under the animal. But that's not where the lesson stops. David went on to show the crowd how to properly butcher the tuktu. He showed them what parts to keep and what to discard. By the end, there was just a pile of body parts lying around on the pebbles. The edible parts and the not-so-edible parts were thrown in different areas. The head was here, a leg there, stomach here, intestines there. Although I'm not one for blood and guts, I didn't find anything gross about what I witnessed that day. It was actually quite brilliant. Aside from when I fish, I never see where my dinner comes from, so be there from start to finish was quite something. After David had completed his task, the useful parts of the caribou were lifted onto a tarp and the inedible parts were disposed of. I can still picture David with intestines hanging from his hands and blood up to his elbows. In keeping with the experience, as the meat was being further prepared by elders, I tried raw bone marrow. Without even thinking, I popped it in my mouth and was surprised when it melted and tasted like butter. The next thing I tried was raw kidney. I was handed a piece by a guy who was holding the entire kidney in his hand. He was slicing off pieces and popping them in his mouth. His hand was covered in blood, as were his teeth and lips. That was probably the least appealing part of eating the kidney. It wasn't something I would want everyday or even order on a menu, but it was definitely edible. From there, I went to tongue. The tongue, to many, is the most delicious part of a caribou. It's not eaten raw, though. It's first boiled. I was expecting it to be extremely tough, but it was actually easy to chew and relatively tasty. I would say, by far, my favourite was the marrow. I mean, who doesn't love the taste of butter?
I actually didn't realize until later that night when I had gone home that I didn't eat any of the actual meat. I guess that just means I'll have to go on another hunt, or I'll at least have to make friends with someone who can make me a caribou dinner.

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!