NaNoWriMo Word Count: 1,542
Seven black skidoos pulled up to the the one-room plywood hut that Moe Ipeelie used as his hunting cabin on the land. It was nearly mid-day when Sydney Brindeau and six other riders, volunteering to search for Elijah, rode up to the place and the sun was making a low circuit in the southern sky like a bright ball curving east to west. It gilded the thin layers of clouds that hung long and wispy across the sky. No smoke rose from the single pipe chimney and Moe’s skidoo was gone. Sydney realized that he could be looking for Moe in the bay beneath the Walker Citadel, as well as Elijah.
Early March was still the height of ice sealing, when hunters traveled to the great white swaths of sea-ice to hunt the holes made by seals as they entered the water to fish. Most Inuit followed ancient hunting trails on modern skidoos, but a few like Elijah employed the traditional dogs, mixing old ways with new. The eastern trails followed the sea ice all the way to Pond Inlet to the north. Hunting meant sleeping overnight along the way. An experienced and fit elder like Elijah could build in iglu under an hour if the snow conditions were right. Sydney had heard much grumbling over the past too years about there not even being enough snow cover to build such a structure. But this recent storm had left the perfect snow.
Not only were snow storms becoming less dependable, the ice was becoming more dangerous. Two years ago, Clyde River, a town of only 1,000 souls, lost seven hunters during ice sealing. The elders had clicked tongues in worry, speaking in their native Inuktitut, not knowing how to advise the hunters. For 5,000 years they had followed trails and seasons mapped out and passed down from elder to youth. Their once rich tapestry of knowledge hung in shreds, unable to accommodate changes to sea, ice and land. One elder told Sydney that it was a new land that had no place for the wisdom of elders.
It was one thing to adapt to change, which Sydney thought the Inuit culture did well, but another to lose wisdom. How would he feel if conditions changed and all his acquired knowledge became obsolete, meaningless? Hunting on Baffin Island was more than a way of life, it embodied the Inuit. Who would they be without hunting on the land? Sydney’s thoughts had been on this all morning as the drove over endless flats of ice beyond the shadow of treeless mountains.
“Mountie Brindeau,” said Tobie, who had insisted upon coming with the party, “Moe is not here.”
Sydney nodded, already drawing that conclusion miles back when he saw no smoke on the horizon. At present, there were no skins drawn to dry, either. When had Moe been here last, Sydney wondered. “All right,” he said to the group of Clyde River men, “Let’s take a break. If Moe doesn’t show up in thirty minutes, we’ll head north to the Citadel.”
Enook Koonoo, Tobie’s uncle walked over to Sydney and Tobie with a hunk of arctic char in one gloved hand and a knife in the other. “Lunch,” he asked with a smile that revealed a missing front tooth.
“Yes, thank you, Enook,” said Sydney. Slowly he chewed the crystallized fish that was half-frozen, a taste he had become used to. He preferred caribou in this style, but the caribou had been tough hunting this winter. Some said the herds were disappearing, but others like Elijah, noted that they were moving to different places. Could it be that their trails were no longer safe, either? Sydney also thought it might have to do with increased air traffic over the island, including wildlife biologists that flew helicopter missions to collar caribou. Even seasoned pilots were talking about how different the sea ice was looking.
Sydney pulled out a thermos of hot coffee from his skidoo pack. He didn’t have more than the lid for a cup but passed it around to Tobie and Enook who shared communal sips. Enook smiled, taking a second sip.
“Ah, yes, coffee,” was all Sydney had to say. He never liked the brew before taking this outpost station five years ago, but friendship more than cold, opened the way to liking coffee. He always carried a thermos and offered a cup to anyone he met out on the land. It had earned him many friends.
Not that Sydney had expected Moe to show up, but it had been thirty minutes. “It’s time,” said Sydney.
Enook looked over the expanse of sea ice ahead of them where they would go. He said, “My grandmother says that in the old days the ice might melt a little in the day, but in the evening it would freeze up. I don’t think this ice has been freezing up at night.”
Sydney worried about that observation. “Do you think it is safe to go,” he asked.
Enook paused, looking at the white shelf that easily could have been a plain of snow, but was actually frozen sea. “The wind has not blown. Does that mean more melting? Or does that mean the ice won’t break up. I cannot say.”
Not wanting to direct more men to plunge into uncertain watery depths, Sydney decided to slow down the group and travel in intervals. “Enook, you lead. Each of us will wait two minutes before following. No fast sledding. Be cautious. Look ahead.”
“Look ahead for what,” asked Tobie.
Sydney suddenly felt like an elder. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe look for standing pools of water or flows of ice.”
“Like those tourists who got caught on an ice flow last year. Man, they traveled far,” said Tobie. “Do you think Elijah could be floating on ice with his dogs like a boat?”
It was a hopeful thought, but Sydney knew that the plane reporting the debris off of the Walker Citadel had flown up the eastern coast low enough to notice a hunter and dogs. If they could see a tarp and a cooler, they could certainly see the odd spectacle of a traditional hunter surfing the coast on a flow of ice. “Probably not, Tobie, but we look for people alive until we learn different.”
The youth nodded and skidoos fired up and formed a line, spread out in single file. Sydney brought up the rear. About two hours up the coast the skidoos stopped, one by one. In the distance the ice did look different, as if a laser had swept through melting pockets. Enook walked back to Sydney. “We cannot go this way.”
Sydney nodded, but if not this way, then what way could they go? “Is there another trail to the Walker Citadel,” he asked. Not that he had heard of one.
Enook said, “There is another trail if you live in Pond Inlet.”
Of course. The same trail, but traveling south instead of north. “No trail by land,” asked Sydney.
“No Mountie Brindeau, those river trails are windy, rocky and maybe not too safe anymore.”
Sydney looked at the pockets of azure water pooling amid white snow and ice like the kind of sapphire and diamond necklace his ex-wife would have wanted. Not on the salary of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police. After their divorce, Sydney had requested this outpost. To think, he had told his superiors. Thinking now, he was not sure what next. Procedure, he reminded himself. There is always a procedure. He could call in a search plane. No one would risk a boat early in March. Funny because it looked like boats might fare better out here than their snow machines. “What does it look like, closer to the cliffs,” Sydney asked.
“It looks strange,” said Enook. “The land is uggianaqtuq.”
Sydney said, “Explain that to me.”
Enook shook his head, but Tobie, who had joined them, said, “It is like when your friend acts strange, drunk or sniffing gas. Uncle says the land is acting strange.”
Just what Sydney needed—drunk land. If the land behaved as badly with these weather changes as Inuit did on alcohol, they were all in serous trouble. Why did it have to be so bloody beautiful? If it were ugly, like a ripped off limb, bleeding and gory, maybe it would get the attention necessary to heal. So white, so blue, so vast. The land did not look strange to those on the outside. No one cared if elders couldn’t direct ice traffic in their old age.
“What of Elijah and Moe,” asked Tobie.
Sydney rubbed at his mustache with a gloved hand. “Maybe there is hope after all. Both can survive on the land. Maybe they are just stranded around the bend of cliffs.”
Tobie nodded, but he chewed on his bottom lip as if not quite believing it was possible.
“We return to Clyde River. Another search will have to begin tomorrow,” announced Sydney.
By the time the seven riders arrived back to town it had long been dark and the winds they had been missing showed up. With a full-out blizzard that would delay another search for days.