Standing on the edge of nowhere, there’s only one way up – so your heart’s gotta go there.
– Words from Cher’s, Song for the Lonely
I stood on the edge of Cher’s nowhere feeling like it’s the biggest somewhere I’d ever been. Out front, relief clung to my frozen breath and swollen eyes – reminders from our frigid adventure. This was mixed with a tinge of longing for what I might never see again.
Photo credit: R. McInerney
I would miss the most picturesque mountains and fjords, and the glacier-carved river beds that dredged my soul.
The images already felt unreal as I considered their place in my life going forward. What vestiges of this untouched nature would live on inside of me? Would they would return in my dreams or quiet moments that sought inspiration?
For now, I stood apart from them, on this new and somewhat uncertain ground in Pangnirtung. Pangnirtung is the Inuit namesake for “the place of Bull Caribou.” The people here will tell you the caribou have retreated beyond the painted snow caps and their windswept harbor. The future for them is anything but certain, with the caribou population of Baffin Island having declined by 98%. There are, sadly, fewer than 5,000 of them spread out across the world’s fifth largest island.
But tonight we won’t talk of caribou, or mountains, or things that go missing. Instead, our team has emerged from the Akshayuk Pass grateful to be back in the land of showers, warm beds and real food. We are especially excited about an evening feast. It will be one of unusual delights promised by our Inuit guides. While hiking on the trail, they suggested we taste the Arctic fish and seal, both important sources of food in the north.
Photo credit: R. McInerney
For the townsfolk, fishing is also a cultural tradition observed with uncompromising religious piety. Every Saturday, many of the town’s stores are closed because families go fishing.
This year has been a good year with plenty of Arctic char and turbot. It’s not often that outsiders get to try seal meat. It is reserved for special occasions like today, thanks in large part to our trail guides.
We are tremendously honored because seal is expensive and hard to come by.
As our group leaves the inn, we head to the frozen lake. At the bottom of the gently sloping ramp, we can already see a few snowmobiles have gathered, with lots of people mulling around. They are old and young, standing close to a tent with a few stray dogs hover nearby.
Inside the tent, two small burners heat pots of water that will be used to cook whatever skinned fish isn’t eaten raw. I see one boy I recognized from earlier at the community center. He keeps popping inside the tent to hungrily grab at another piece of bannock sweet bread that’s piled high on two big platters. This is the second time we’ve had a chance to enjoy this donut-like bread since arriving.
It is a delicious reminder of the lingering Scottish influence in Nunavut. Men who crossed the Ocean in search of the Northwest Passage stayed for months, sometimes years, cohabitating with the Indigenous people and then returning to their homeland. Their legacy survives in the many Christian names that have made their way into the Inuit culture.
Photo credit: Shilo Adamson and True Patriot Love
Over the course of a few hours of our fish celebration, people come and go. They are curious about our group of big puffy coats and black Baffin boots. We are smiling and sporting new Pangnirtung hats – brightly-colored knits with tightly woven geometric patterns. Our hats connect us to the people and this place, and recharge our energy. Our big smiles are met with warm and often toothless grins, all from people who are genuinely happy to see us.
Before long, the sun begins to slide down the mountains and the sky is awash in hues of peach and rose. We gather round the seal and the pile of frozen fish dumped in a large pile. The circle of onlookers closes in too, as we wait for the carving to begin. Many have come prepared with their own knives in hand so they are ready to enjoy stabbing at the fresh fish and filling their mouths.
I do not remember the name of the carver but can still picture his shiny bright eyes. He is happy in the center and asks if we are ready to begin. The crowd lets out a small cheer as he spins the body of the seal round to align its head at the top of his straddled feet. He does so with great panache as a patterned trail of red blood from the seal’s wounded head smears the clean snow.
And so the methodical gutting of the seal begins. The carver’s knife is sharp and cuts through the skin and fatty body effortlessly. I am more fascinated than disturbed, and can’t help but watch.
The cuts are quick and move in a well-versed rhythm, down the center from top to bottom. The carver then angles the blade about 45 degrees before gliding it over the rib cage and under the outer coat.
There is such artistry, like a painter’s brush moving over a canvas. People reach out when the main body of flesh is cleared and then removed. Big pieces are cut into smaller ones as those who have brought their own knives peck at the cubes of seal. Our team is offered small slivers and some of us try it while others casually skip away.
I lift a piece to my lips and quickly pop it into my mouth. The seal tastes like fresh sushi! Delicious although somewhat bland. There are no dipping sauces but I smile happily to indicate my pleasure and honor their offering. I’m truly grateful and proud to share in this feast.
The attention turns to the group of char and turbot fish lying next to the seal. They are slightly frozen but the carver slices the skin down as if cutting the coat from a pineapple.
This time the townsfolk don’t wait til he’s finished and reach in, uninvited, to take pieces. But no one minds.
There is plenty and even the dogs are thrown lumps of fish to enjoy. We all agree the char tastes like salmon.
While I am not particularly fond of sushi, today is different because I have traveled a long way and lived on the edge of the unfamiliar.
The sky is dark and we linger only long enough to finish with a sweet piece of bannock or a last piece of cooked seal or fish from the boiled water. Most of the people have gone and we are full.
This Inuit town, where many people go hungry or struggle with homelessness, has opened its arms and heart to us. The lights shine brightly overhead under a vast and enduring canopy of stars.