Baffin Island, Canadian High Arctic: People reckon our Inuit settlements in the Far North are cut off from the world, but they’re plain wrong. The world comes to us, more’s the pity. Along with back-packing pensioners who live off their own biscuits, we get a fair sprinkle of movie big-shots and rich folk who all want to see the Arctic ‘before it vanishes’. Pure hogwash, I tell them if they’re steered my way.
One time last summer I heard a shuffling downstairs and there was this mournful little fellow standing in a puddle of rain. I’d put him in his sixties. Some outfitter had gussied him up in polar bear pants and a purple parka, topped off with a floppy fur hat, like a Klondike prospector. ‘Hello, I’m Justin,’ he said. ‘I think I’m lost.’
Lost and troubled, for sure. With his staring eyes and glinting spectacles I had him pegged as one of those suicidal dentists you read about. Only a foreigner could speak such perfect English, I reckoned, and when he muttered that his family name was Wallaby I thought of all the hassle of shipping his body back home. I didn’t want my cussedness blamed for his death. So I invited him in and gave him a glass of screech.
That was a mistake. Between sobs, he didn’t stop gabbing. It turned out I had guessed wrong. Justin Wallaby was some kind of executive with a large UK corporation, responsible for closing down dozens of local branches. It had made him very unpopular. Everyone hated him and made fun of him, he said. I asked why didn’t he ask his boss for another job? ‘I am the boss,’ he wailed.
After a second shot of rum he rattled on about his happiest days in a sailboat, the only times he felt really alive. The fellow could talk himself out of the devil’s jackbox.
Coffee sobered him up fast. ‘I have a question for you,’ he said, his eyes sharp behind his pebble glasses. ‘Are you a believer?’
For sure, I told him. I believe in the holy trinity – the Bombardier snowmobile, the Remington 30.30 rifle and the Canada Goose parka. The rest is nobody else’s business. ‘People’s religion is not something we talk about in the village,’ I told him. ‘I don’t even know who the shaman is.’
That got his interest. He’d seen our Anglican church and wondered where the shaman fitted in. I tried to set him straight: ‘We’ve got devout Christians and just-in-case Christians, but near everyone thinks it foolish to ignore the spirit world and the old beliefs. It’s all tangled up together.’
‘Fascinating,’ he said. ‘So an Eskimo can have pagan beliefs but pass himself off as a Christian.’ It was a twisted way of looking at things, but I guess he was right.
Duty done, I was showing him to the door when I was struck by an idea. We talked about it as I led him back to his hotel.
To cut to the chase, the next morning a harsh wind nearly blew Justin off the dock, but he jumped aboard as nimble as a goat, so he wasn’t lying about his sea legs. The Serpent was a 22ft lake boat with outboard unsuited to Arctic waters but a popular cheap model for the Inuit. The truth is, our crew were one man short because Barnabas, the settlement’s dumpster driver, had a bad wolf dream and called in sick.
Justin Wallaby intended to sign up for the hotel’s whale-watching trip to Cape Crawford, where he might spot one or two bowheads in the Northwest Passage. But the promise of seeing hundreds of narwhal got him real hepped up. He was now our stand-in for three days.
The wind hit us like a train when we pulled out of the bay, shaking the basin of Admiralty Inlet fiord like a horse trough in an earthquake. Justin turned pale when I pointed to a wrecked lake boat that the wind had flipped on to a rock shelf at the foot of 800ft cliffs. We were last in a procession of six boats, nose-to-tail to reduce turbulence.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked. When I told him we were riding along with a narwhal hunt, the little fellow got all swole up and red faced: ‘I demand that we go back,’ he shouted. ‘No one said anything about killing whales.’
‘It’s not what you imagine.’ Bill, a retired wildlife officer and wise old friend, looked up from the Coleman stove, where he was boiling tea. ‘It’s not a massacre,’ Bill went on. ‘The Inuit take a few narwhal for food and because the thick skin, called muktuk, is a highly concentrated source of Vitamin C, keeping them healthy. But think of it more as a glorious tournament where two nations meet in companionship, where there is spectacle and jousting, and a friendship treaty is renewed. Are you familiar with the Field of the Cloth of Gold?’
Justin looked mystified. ‘Of course. The peace summit between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. They shared the same bed, as I recall. Very progressive for the sixteenth century.’
Bill continued: ‘Right. What we are going to see is something even more remarkable – a queen displaying her wealth and power on a similar scale, but in a sea pageant.’
Justin made a giggling sound. ‘What’s the Inuit for ‘Pull the other one’?’
Our other crew member, the Reverend David Igloolik, had remained silent until then, watching Justin with close interest. David is the settlement’s Anglican vicar. ‘It will make more sense when you see it,’ he said. ‘But it will help to know the brief legend of the queen Bill referred to.
‘The story goes that narwhal are controlled by a spirit named Sedna, half-woman, half-whale, who is sometimes seen among the largest herds. Some stories portray her as the victim of a cruel husband. Tied to a harpoon line, she sank to the bottom of the sea, where she now rules all creatures. Periodically she allows animals to be taken by hunters who perform rites and show respect for her slain subjects.’
Justin had his hands over his mouth. ‘You can’t be serious,’ he said.
David smiled. ‘Be patient and judge for yourself.’
Six hours later we joined five Inuit families crouched on a rock promontory watching the first narwhal pods arrive. Not far away a boatload of Inuit were craning their necks to spot whales that were plainly visible to us. ‘What do you see?’ the Rev Igloolik asked Justin.
‘The narwhals are surfacing behind the waves and submerging as they fall,’ he replied. ‘They’re hiding from the boat. It’s almost as if they’re playing a game.’
‘They are,’ said David.
Three hours later, our rocky outcrop was surrounded by thousands of narwhal which paraded up and down in family groups, the males aiming their long tusks at the sky. ‘Lances in a medieval joust,’ Justin laughed. ‘It’s incredible. What are the tusks used for?’
‘Letter openers are the best guess,’ I said. ‘No one knows.’ Of course he had more questions, which I tried to answer. We had seen Sedna’s abundant wealth, but what was her power? ‘What is given can also be withheld and the Inuit would starve in the old days,’ I said.
Why were the Inuit pointing their rifles at the whales but not shooting? They were admiring the whales through their telescopic sights. And the narwhal, in turn, were studying the Inuit. Humans and whales watched each other at close quarters for another day without a shot being fired. This strange annual convention between the different species has been taking place for generations.
In the early hours, a cry of ‘Narwhal!’ went up and people ran from their tents to haul a shot whale up the beach. But Justin, the killer of local branches, snored through it all.
A day later, we watched him wander off the dock towards his hotel.
‘A strange man,’ David remarked. ‘I thought I recognised him but I was mistaken. I hoped he’d learnt something, but I think he’s more confused than ever.’
I told the Reverend of the friendly advice I’d offered our guest: ‘I said, ‘Maybe you’re not cut out for business. Perhaps the church would be more your line.’ He just seemed to shrivel up. You know what he said? ‘I think it’s too late for that.’