There was once a world before this and in it lived people who were not of our tribe. But the pillars of the earth collapsed, and all were destroyed. And the world was emptiness. Then two men grew up from a hummock of earth. They were born and fully grown all at once. And they wished to have children. A magic song changed one of them into a woman, and they had children. These were our earliest forefathers, and from them all the lands were peopled.
— Tuglik, Igloolik area, 1922
IT WAS HENRY DAVID THOREAU that remarked that most men fish all their lives without realizing that it was not always fish they were trying to catch. From my own vantage point the act of fishing has always been a combination of several constituent parts, least of all sometimes the fish. The fish are always a big part of it but it has always been more about the journey than the destination, the means and not the end, the places and people, not only the number or size of fish. There are some places and people that we meet along our journey that leave such a deep impression on our souls that they become part of who we are and never far away from our thoughts, despite the great distances of both time and space that often separate us. One such place that has forever imprinted its mark on me is a place called Nunavik – the Inuktituk word for a place to live.
My impulse to travel to Nunavik was largely to fish for arctic char while visiting with an old Inuit friend in Kangiksualujjuak for a few days and then heading up to his camp on the Koroc River for a week of fishing – but discovered something far more interesting than the char. This country was about as close to being on another planet as one could get without booking a flight to mars on the space shuttle. Everything about this place – the people, culture, history, and landscape – was so wonderfully foreign and timeless, desolate yet beautiful.
On a map Nunavik lies North of the 55th parallel in the province of Quebec and is bordered by Hudson’s Bay to the West and Ungava Bay to the north, and to the east by the Torngat mountain range which borders Labrador, a territory of half a million square kilometers which is mostly inhabited by roughly eleven thousand Inuit people living in fourteen villages. The Inuit are the aboriginal inhabitants of the North American Arctic from the Bering Strait to East Greenland, a distance of over six thousand kilometers. The Inuit culture, descended from the Dorset people, is one of the oldest cultures in the world and has remained largely unchanged for ten thousand years.
Our first morning in the village were fortunate to witness a community hunt in the harbour at high tide, with over four boats out in the bay using both guns and harpoons while onlookers from high on shore assisted by yelling sightings of the submerged whales. It was quite a sight to behold and went on four around an hour until the carcasses of two beluga whales were dragged ashore and quartered on the rocky beach while everyone in the community descended and gathered on the beach to assist. Giants strips of blubber almost a foot thick were sliced off with sharp ulus and it was soon divided in equal proportions amongst all in the community and the balance would be destined for the community freezer where it became available to anybody in need. The beauty of the Inuit culture is that all successful hunts are shared with the community. Those that can no longer hunt, the aged or infirm, are always provided for. Society is based on co-operation and not competition, the collective and not the individual. There is a tremendous sense of family and community in the Inuit culture, one of the key societal values that have formed the basis for group survival for over ten thousand of years in this harsh environment.
As we watched the ritual spectacle unfold a young man driving an ATV pulled up to us and introduced himself as David’s nephew and relayed the message that our host needed us back at the house to get prepare our gear as we would be heading back out on the tide and needed to hurry if we wanted to catch the outgoing tide. We were beginning to understand how the rhythm of life here, for both fish and people, was largely influenced by the tides and the winds that exerted a gravitational pull on everything. Barely fifteen minutes later David’s wood ribbed canoe, a sturdy twenty footer with a sixty horsepower outboard, loaded with all the gear and a week supply of food, churned through the choppy waters of Ungava Bay and headed northeast along the coastline towards the mouth of the Koroc River.
The coastline of Ungava Bay is an endless landscape of mountains and islands made of ancient volcanic rocks that rise like sentries to the sky and meet the horizon like the profiles of great sleeping giants. The glacial recessions from eons ago have left the rocks smooth and bare, the rounded crest sprinkled with moraine. We are above the tree line and the scrub and vegetation is all sparse and low lying. In places the tundra is draped in lichen, a rich tapestry of magenta and purple and green and ivory, which under the low angle of the midday sun give a pinkish hue to the mountains. Despite scanning the shoreline for signs of caribou or polar bear there was no wildlife other than flocks of raucous seabirds that flew overhead and a ringed seal that had breached momentarily in one of the channels between some islands.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the mouth of the river and we dragged the canoe over the rocks to higher ground, above the high tide water level. The campsite was a few miles upriver and while David used the ATV to transport some of the gear, most of it had to be laboriously walked to camp along a muddy hillside trail at the base of a ridge. It was an unusually hot day with the mercury in the mid-nineties and we stopped to rest along the way near a giant cavern at the base of the ridge in the shade where we the air was too cool to harbour the hordes of black flies that had discovered the sudden presence of new food source. As David thoughtfully poked through the stones with a stick, as if seeking to perchance unearth a relic from the past, he mentioned that this place had once been the home of his grandfather along time ago.
The campsite was situated on flat rocky outcrop that overlooked the river. There was a main cabin, a low wooden structure that included the kitchen and dining room, toilets and showers, as well as four other adjacent bedrooms which could accommodate close to eighteen guests. He had all the amenities, including electricity and running water and during the summertime he often leased it out to prospecting mining companies as a base of operations for activities further north on the tundra. Near his docks, which served as anchorage for both boats and float planes, there was a gas storage depot with dozens of empty hundred gallons barrels of diesel fuel strewn around the structure.
Upon our arrival we noticed that there had been some unwanted visitors as a strip of outdoor wood panelling had been torn from the kitchen wall and a window had been broken; the telltale signs of dried blood and white bear fur that remained on the shards of glass were an indication that at some point in the recent past a polar bear had attempted to access the stock room where David kept his provisions.
We helped David open up the camp, fired up the generators, got the water running although discovered that the hot water tank was broken, boarded up the kitchen window with wood planks, settled into our rooms, unpacked our bags and set up our tackle. It had been a long day and just as the sun was setting behind the mountains and everything between the heavens and earth exploded into a fiery corona which transformed the waters of the Koroc into flowing red magma, the solitary howl of an arctic wolf echoed hauntingly through the mountains.
Later that night we sat around a camp fire and and ate a meal of grilled char, French fried potatoes with onions, and fresh banyon bread washed down with Labrador tea made from the orange leaf of the juniper bush that he had gathered from the tundra on our way to camp. It was close to midnight when the fireworks began and we sat back in silence and awe as we watched the aurora borealis light up and drape the sky in an ephemeral drapery of luminescent filaments that danced through a backdrop of a million stars on a dark and velvety screen.
While modern science tells us that this phenomenon is formed when protons and electrons from the sun travel along the earth’s magnetic field lines at rapid speed and explode into colors as they burn off high in the atmosphere the Inuit have another explanation for its occurence. Their mythology has taught them to believe that the northern lights are the spirits of their ancestors dancing in the skies and talking to them, reaching out from the great beyond. They are one of the few people left on the planet whose modern existence is still informed by their ancient mythology.
At first light next morning we headed back downriver towards the first set of rapids above Ungava Bay. This was the first staging area for the anadromous char to briefly acclimate their bodies from salt to the freshwater before their migration further upriver to spawn. In this pool they would all be silver bullets, fresh sea-run fish from the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean that would migrate many miles upstream to spawn and then overwinter under the ice in the river system before returning back to the ocean the following spring. In the cold water the char fry are very slow growing and remain in fresh water for a full year until they have reached around six inches in length before returning to sea
In the clear water it was easy to spot the fish and as soon as we arrived noticed the silhouettes of a few char a few feet from shore, slowly finning in the slack water of the counter current. We quickly tied some lures on and flipped them out into the chute of the rapids, slowly retrieving our offerings through the deep water at the tail of the big pool. Like spectral ghosts the char would appear in pods of three or four in the water at your feet, there one minute and gone the next. Within no time we were locked into to our first fish and for a period of around three hours, as the tide rose bringing with it pods of fresh run fish, we averaged a fish every five minutes. It was a small year class in this school and they all ran around five to seven pounds, not very big for this system, but extremely strong and stubborn nonetheless.
The next few days were occupied helping David out with some minor camp repairs and touch-ups before his outfitting season started and guests would begin arriving by float plane, dropping out of the sky and landing on his doorstep like insects. The pace of life around camp slowed down with the unusually warm weather and there was no urgency to spend every moment fishing on the river. Other things around camp needed to be done: we helped fixed the hot water tank, moved mattresses and prepared the rooms for guests, took photos of the camp for his website, listened to David’s stories of the Inuit people that had been passed down from generation to generation, went on long hikes across the tundra in search of Inukshuks, and fished for several hours every day, mostly during the two rising tides which were best. There were always fresh fish coming into the river with the swell of each new high tide, here among the highest recorded in the world, raising the river by a good fifteen feet, and although the fishing had always been good it wasn’t until the day before our departure that we finally located a pod of giant char.
We had canoed across the huge river and back down to the first pool, where eons of cascading white water had eroded a deep round basin in the rocks with a huge back eddy that swirled continuously back to its original source. Over a hundred fish were stacked up like cordwood at the base of the rapids and the first cast produced a beautiful fish that followed my spoon like a pike, hitting the lure repeatedly until finally getting hooked onlya few feet from the rod tip. This fish went absolutely ballistic and when it was finally beached it was bright silver and weighed close to fifteen pounds. Remembering a promise I had made earlier, I kept the fish for supper, said a prayer of thanks to Sedna, goddess of the Ocean for allowing us to share her bounty, and tossed it into a retaining pool on the rocks left behind by the high tide. This fish as well as all others we would catch would be kept for consumption as David no longer wanted me to release any fish, lest the gesture perhaps find offense with the gods and bring disaster among the community.
Some explanation is in order. As life on the tundra is always harsh and where opportunities for survival are always uncertain and sometimes infrequent, it would be considered rude to refuse the gifts of nature that have chosen to sacrifice their lives for the survival of another in need. The char or caribou, according to the Inuit, have consciously made the decision to surrender their lives, and as such, this great gift of sacrifice cannot be refused. It is primarily for his reason catch and release does not exist as such in the Inuit culture although they are extremely respectful of the resource.
Inuit religion and mythology is animistic, spirits or souls inhabit all living things, including both people and animals and all people contain inua or souls that live on in the underworld after death. By believing that all things, including animals, have souls like those of humans, any hunt that fails to show the appropriate respect and customary supplication to the deities could only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves. As well any notions of ego or pride in a successful capture or hunt are not part of the Inuit mindset and they are very careful not to offend the spirits in any way. Because all living things possess a spirit the greatest peril to the Inuit lies in the fact that their diets consists entirely of souls. It is therefore imperative that the appropriate respect is given to the creature that has given its life up for another to survive.
A few minutes later and the graphite rod was bent again into a deep arc but unlike the other fish, this one felt different, was heavier, and seemed to possess preternatural strength and intelligence that was not found in any of the other fish. It stayed deep in the pool, moving alternately from the base of the rapids and then returning to its tail, almost intently gauging the strength of its unseen adversary and testing its will to keep its own movements confined within the waters of the giant basin. But then suddenly it decided to have no more part of me and headed out towards the middle of the river and when it reached the fast water at the base of the chute decided to head back towards the security of the Arctic Ocean.
The spinning reel shrieked in protest and monofilament was melting off the spool at a dizzying pace and there was no way to control this fish as the drag was set as tight as it would allow without breaking the ten pound line. Further disaster struck when the fish made its downstream run and snagged the light line around a boulder on the other side of the basin. With rod held high above my head I began sprinting around the rocky perimeter of the pool, stumbling and falling in the shallow water before sprinting back up to the top of the other side of the basin, where the line had caught around the boulder.
Miraculously, I managed to dislodge the snared line, and for a split second, it went slack and the fish seemed gone, but then suddenly felt its weight again as it continued on its journey towards the ocean. Within seconds, whatever line I had managed to regain was now rapidly vanishing off the spool once again. This fish was uncontrollable and I followed across the slippery rocks at breakneck speed, clambering over giant boulders and slogging through the deep tidal channels in between them where distances were too far to safely negotiate. But despite all valiant efforts, the line continued to disappear at a faster rate than I could cover by foot and a hundred yards or so later, with a thousand different strategies about how to land this fish running through my mind, the spool spiralled down to its last few wraps before the knot broke and the reel was once again quiet.
Exhausted, soaking wet, and gasping for air, knees still shaking, bruised and bloodied I collapsed on the riverbank and glanced upstream to where the epic battle had begun. The fish had brought me over a quarter mile downstream and had taken over two hundred and sixty yards of line from my reel. It marked the first time in my life I had ever been spooled.
For a long and indeterminate period, as all notion of linear time had fallen astray, I plunked myself down on one of the boulders and hung my head in a mixture of fatigue, agony, and incredulity over the event that had just unfolded. It had struck a deep and visceral chord within me that went beyond the simple and egotistical truth of just losing a fish – after all, this was not the first big fish ever lost. I thought alot about what had brought me to this place and what had been discovered. There was neither regret nor recrimination for here there is no place for vanity nor weakness, only a heightened sense of respect and admiration for the nobility of all life in this timeless tundra.