Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Our Inuit Friend

As firearms are not permitted in the Torngat Mountains, park officials encourage visitors to engage the services of an Inuit guide. The wisdom of such advice was made evident on our first day in the park. If John Merkuratsuk had not been with us when we encountered the starving polar bear, things could have turned out differently, to the physical detriment of not only the bear but to ourselves.

We were immeasurably enriched by John's presence among us. Not only was he our bear monitor, but he became our friend and companion. Utterly self-reliant, he was yet quick to offer help and support every step of the way. As we set up camp, John hefted heavy rocks from the beach to act as anchors to secure the tents from the almost constant winds gusting down the North Arm of Saglek Fjord. He was ever vigilant, scanning the horizon for any further threats from wildlife. When we hiked, he walked ahead of us with his rifle, or behind, if he felt the territory warranted it. He pointed out the fresh tracks of wolves and black bears and other creatures along the stream beds, judging when they had last passed by.

Even though he smoked, he kept up a quick hiking pace, nimbly and agilely negotiating the rocky terrain. He wore no high-tech gear like the rest of us. A baseball cap, a hooded sweatshirt, wind pants, boots and heavy duty rain gear sufficed. On rainy days he wore a pair of rubber waders. When we had to stop at stream crossings to take off boots and socks, or slowly step from slippery rock to slippery rock tentatively balanced on trekking poles, John forged on in his waders. Sometimes he would toss small boulders into the stream to create secure foot holds for the rest of us following behind. Back at camp, he would fetch water for cooking before any of us noticed that there was a need.

Early one morning, after a day of rain, I watched him down on the beach picking up two large driftwood boards and propping them up slant-wise between boulders. He strung a piece of old black fish netting between the boards to make a clothes line for our soaked gear. Another day, I saw him squatting down on his lime green crocs, intently studying a pile of tangled fish net and slowly and painstakingly unravelling it, hoping to reuse it to catch arctic char.

He had a wry, understated sense of humor that emerged more and more as the week went on. The second day, after a long hike, we returned to camp and found that the electric bear fence was not working. John sat down cross-legged on the ground, and with Greg Shute, re-read the instructions, trying to figure out what the problem might be. It was finally determined that the energizer was poorly grounded in the rocky soil. After considerable trial and error (by grabbing hold of the fence wire to see if we would be shocked--how else are you going to figure it out?), it was re-positioned in such a way that it worked...sort of. I asked John if he thought that the fence would actually deter a polar bear. He smiled and, as he walked away, said: "No comment."

John, reticent and private by nature, tolerated our frequently asked questions about Inuit culture and language. Steve Hyde carried 3X5 cards in his breast pocket and could often be found asking John what the word was for such-and-so, then jotting it down with his pen and tucking it away. By the end of the week, we had all learned a few words of Inuktituk. On the way back to the park base camp aboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, one of us spotted a large yellowish-white object on shore. Alerted, John held up his binoculars, gazed intently for a few moments, then yelled: "Nanuk!" The boat swiftly changed course to draw closer in to land. The huge male polar bear, estimated to weigh-in at 1,500 pounds or more, spotted us, lumbered down the shore, then stepped into the water and slowly swam away.

For the most part, John kept his own company, content to sit on the bench he had made out of a beach board balanced on two piles of rocks, gazing out the North Arm, the mountains rising up a thousand feet or more all around, his barrel-shaped coffee mug and rifle placed within reach beside him. I will always remember him this way. Although he lived with his family in Nain for much of the year, it was clear that John's true home is that vast wilderness place. He knew it intimately, respected it completely, and instinctively embodied his interdependence with it all.

Back at the park base camp the day before our departure, when he returned to his own semi-permanent tent and hung-out with the other Inuit bear monitors, I missed his close presence in a visceral way. He still looked out for us though, coming by early to make sure that we knew that breakfast was on.

Photo Credit: David Heald John Sitting on His Bench