About a month after our first land trip to Marvin’s cabin, my wife and I got the opportunity to go on another. This one was a school land trip, part of the land skills courses taught at John Arnalukjuak High School, and it was a very different experience. First of all, there was a total of thirteen people: seven adults and six grade 11 students. And this time, we went north from Arviat to the Maguse River, and then inland to a group of cabins that the school had permission to use.
Lesson #5 – The land can change incredibly fast
Our first land trip was a constant battle through bog and muck and water. But this trip was completely different. The first half of the route was along a dirt road, no problem for the Hondas. But it was the second half of the trip, when we had left the road, that astonished me. In barely a month, the mud, bog, and open water was gone. Instead we traveled over frozen ground and iced-over rivers and ponds. There was still some rough terrain, but nowhere near the wrestling match of the first trip. The bog had become hard pavement, the ponds frozen thoroughfares.
Being from Newfoundland (and having gone through thin ice more than once) I am naturally nervous when crossing frozen bodies of water. But the intense cold of the north means that once the temperature drops below freezing the ice forms and thickens quickly, and there was plenty of ice to support our vehicles. But since there was little or no snow fallen yet to give us traction, it was also difficult to control the vehicles on the glassy surface of the ponds, and we occasionally took small unplanned detours. But compared to the first trip, this one was a breeze.
It was a cold breeze, though. On our trip to Marvin’s cabin we were wearing fall clothing, light jackets and pants with a few shirts. Now that the temperature had dropped, we were bundled up in winter coats and layers of sweaters, socks and hats. One of the students took a look at my thin cotton gloves and immediately loaned me his spare caribou skin mitts. Winter was definitely right around the corner.
Lesson #6 – There is nothing barren about the tundra
It stretches for as far as you can see in every direction, and you can see very far. An endless vista of flat rocky ground, covered in moss and lichen and grass. The flat tundra is broken only by the occasional small hill or esker, or by the frequent bodies of water, and it looks very barren indeed.
But that is an illusion. If you look closely, you can see that the thin layer of snow on the ground is covered with animal tracks. Hare, ptarmigan, arctic fox, caribou, polar bears, and the occasional wolf have all left their prints, and if you pay attention, you can see life everywhere. Ptarmigan hiding in the scrub brush, ready to take flight; herds of caribou grazing; foxes curiously watching you from a distance. Beneath the tires of our ATVs, the frozen ponds teem with fish.
And it’s not just the animals that leave tracks. There are Honda tracks everywhere, footprints where people have stopped to eat or to examine a trail. There are cabins on the horizon, proof that not only are there people here, but that people are at home here. Just because there are no trees doesn’t mean there is no life.
Lesson #7 – Animals are smarter than you think
Ptarmigans will take flight if your Honda gets too close. The foxes watching you with curiosity – most likely wondering what tasty things you’ll leave behind – will run away if you start towards them.
Most impressive of all are the caribou. They will often graze within gunshot range, watching you idly and sniffing the wind, unconcerned with your presence. If there’s an obstacle between you and them (the Maguse River, for example) or if you just aren’t paying them much attention, they will placidly continue about their business.
But as soon as you decide to hunt them, their heads come up, they sniff the air again, and they turn tail and run. How they know when you change from passive visitor to active threat, I do not know. I think they’ve learned what rifles are, and when they see them sliding out of their cases, they know it’s time to leave.
Lesson #8 – You are no longer the teacher
Working at John Arnalukjuak High School is not that different from working at a high school back in Newfoundland. There are differences in the culture, the isolation, and the weather of course. But in general, the school environment and the courses that are taught are familiar, comfortable territory for those of us who grew up and were taught ourselves in similar institutions.
But out on the land it is a different story. This is not a place that I’m used to, and I quickly learned that out here, I was the student, and the students are the teachers.
The students could recognize most, if not all, the tracks that you see in the snow. They know the landmarks used to navigate, and they gave us tips on how to best approach a particularly difficult bit of terrain on a Honda. They know how to watch the land to spot caribou, or seals out at sea. One of the students showed me a clever squatting technique, useful when nature calls and there aren’t any trees around to lean on.
Just before we were ready to leave the camp and head back to Arviat, we spotted some caribou. The hunt delayed our departure by a couple of hours, and we ended up driving back to Arviat in the dark. It was absolutely magical to be driving over the land, with the stars overhead and the waters of Hudson’s Bay just over the horizon. Ahead of us were the taillights of another Honda, driven by a student who was safely leading us back to the lights of Arviat.
The two land trips that we have taken so far have been very different. But as different as they were, they both took us out of our comfort zones and into the wonderful landscape of Canada’s north. Life above the tree line might strike some people as hostile or barren, and they may think that the tundra is a difficult place to live. But it is actually a very welcoming place, with a giving landscape and warm, friendly people who have mastered the craft of living here.