Weekend on Baffin Island
Telek is the only luxury resort under the midnight sun: a cluster of heated tents where you can eat seal steak you shot yourself from an outboard canoe, hook into an Arctic char, and earn — like the writer Kalunakotak —an Eskimo name to take home with you
TOWARD THE END of August I set off timidly for a long weekend at Telek. the first tourist resort in Canada owned and operated by Eskimos. I feared that the promised amusements might degenerate into a battle for survival against cold, hunger and charging polar bears. But 1 returned convinced that within a lew years thousands of Canadians and Americans who are even bigger softies than I am will be booking Arctic vacations.
Although 1 elck is only a hundred and fifty miles south ot the Arctic Circle, 1 rarely shivered. While 1 lived under canvas, I enjoyed comfort, elbowroom, cleanliness and good food. Invigorated by sea air and moved by majestic scenery. 1 exulted in the thrills ot seal hunting and Arctic char fishing. 1 bought Eskimo carvings and prints directly from some ot the most famous and talented artists north ot sixty. A memorable felicity lay in the absence of radio, newspapers, television and telephones, and the feeling of deliverance from such headline - hunting bores as Lumumba, Miss America and the members of the Toronto City Council.
lelck is still far over the rim of civilization. It stands near Cape Dorset on the southwest tip of Baffin Island, NWT. When the resort opened in 1959 it had a bumper season of twenty male and female guests. But last summer it attracted only two visitors. Jim Houston, regional administrator at Cape Dorset for the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, advised the Eskimo owners that the slump might be due to a lack of publicity. So, at Houston’s suggestion, the Eskimos invited three other journalists and myself to try out Telek's attractions and write about them. The others, Sid Lathom of True magazine. Rosemary Gilliatt, an Ottawa photographer. and Barbara Hind, a Halifax ChronicleHerald reporter, agreed with me at the end of the trip that Telek deserves a plug.
Telek belongs to the West Baffin Island Eskimo Co-operative, an organization designed to increase the incomes of some four hundred Arctic natives who live largely on the animals they kill. But through the WBIEC the Cape Dorset Eskimos also pool and sell fox furs. Arctic char, carvings, prints and handicrafts. At the end of last summer the WBIEC had more than twenty-five thousand dollars in its bank account. Now it is trying to increase that reserve by building up a tourist business at Telek.
We Telek-bound tourists left Montreal in a temperature of ninety degrees. The stewardess of the Nordair DC-4 told us to expect about thirty degrees on disembarkation. So. toward the end of the flight, we changed into Arctic clothing. Around midnight, after six and a half hours of
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“At Frobisher, a government official told us that drink is wrecking the Eskimos who work in town”
flying, we reached Frobisher Bay, a military and civil airbase on Baffin. A chill wind stung our faces as we walked across the tarmac. On a nearby beach thousands of small icebergs glinted in the artificial light of the town. Despite the lateness of the hour the airport lounge was packed with parka-clad Eskimos and whites who watch the arrival and departure of aircraft rather as southern country folk go down to meet the trains. Among the crowd was a young white construction man who played a fiddle, and a hunchbacked Eskimo who danced to his tune. Both were drunk. Eskimo children, some in native attire, some in trashy city kids' garments, stared wonderingly. In the coffee bar were a number of plump bespectacled U. S. Air Force desk men, some sturdier Canadian students obviously up on summer construction jobs, and several bearded giants who looked like the bad guys out of Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.
There are two thousand permanent residents at Frobisher Bay, most of them civil servants, military men or construction workers. The Canadians live in aluminum or wooden huts lining rubbishlittered unpaved streets. Although the married women make the interiors bright and cosy, the general aspect of the Canadian section is depressing. It compares most unfavorably with the American section. Here U. S. Air Force men live in a handsome three-story building that resembles a city apartment block.
We checked in at the East Coast Lodge, a shanty - like hotel operated by Alec Gallacher, a thirty - nine - year - old Scot who aims to become the E. P. Taylor of the Arctic. He charged Lathom and me twelve dollars a night each for sharing a room that leaked during a rainstorm. We slept in narrow iron cots and in the morning made our first hesitant acquaintance with indoor chemical plumbing. At noon the Rustic Room, the inaptly named cocktail lounge, was full of whites and Eskimos. Some would stay there until midnight.
À melancholy introduction
A government official told us that drink is wrecking the Frobisher Eskimos. They receive the same wages as whites, live in packing-case hovels on the fringe of the town, and have plenty of cash for benders. Because they cannot hold their drink they frequently are thrown out of the Rustic Room and present to the tourist a sad spectacle.
A score of Frobisher’s prettier Eskimo girls are bathing daily, using heavy makeup, wearing sexy clothing, and hanging around the cocktail lounge waiting to be picked up. All in all. Frobisher is a melancholy place for a tourist in search of the clean vastness of the Far North.
On Friday afternoon the Misses Gillian and Hind, and Lathom and 1. piled thankfully into a Canso, an amphibious aircraft operated by Nordair to make
charter flights out of Frobisher to outlying Arctic settlements. We llew low, westward and upward, over steadily rising ground that in black and white would have suggested the dreary backside of the moon. But the emptiness and monotony were relieved by gorgeous colors. The dome-shaped rocks glowed under the sun in every tint of brown and grey. Hundreds of mountain tarns shaded down from surface hues of milky green to great depths of midnight blue. Sheltered hollows were carpeted in green and silver caribou moss. Here and there, in patches of brilliant scarlet, purple, yellow and white, grew exquisite Arctic flowers.
Under azure skies we llew over a great breeze-whipped bay stippled by dazzling blue and white icebergs, undulating pancakes of amber seaweed, and foam-polished knobs of orange rock. On some of these rocks old bull walrus lolled in the sun, protected from the wind by the surrounding close-packed bodies of a dutiful harem.
Three hundred miles out from Frobisher Bay we sighted Cape Dorset, a collection of gaily painted frame houses and snowy white tents clustered around a proud flagpole flying the Canadian ensign. Nine miles across the bay another flagpole marked a much smaller tented camp. This was Telek. set in a bowl in craggy hills that reminded me of the Western Isles of Scotland. The Canso put down in a sheltered inlet. Two big outboard canoes, manned by smiling Es-
kimos and a brawny, handsome white man, scudded out to meet us. The white man was Jim Houston, the regional administrator, under whose guidance the Eskimos are trying to make a success of Telek.
As they ferried us ashore the Eskimos talked excitedly and Houston, who speaks their language fluently, grinned at me. “They’ve already christened you Kalunakotak,’’ he said. "It means "the tali one with the receding brow'.” I felt a little anthropoid. But I cheered up when we followed Houston into a big white dining tent and accepted a welcome drink of Scotch with ice cubes. The water, served from a pretty pitcher, was fresh from an Arctic stream and made the most delicious highball I've tasted in years.
The tent had a stout wooden floor, dove grey benches, a big dining table, and a circle of plastic and aluminum garden chairs for lounging. It was warmed by an oil stove and lit at dusk with bright oil mantle lamps. Next door stood the kitchen tent, fitted with running water, a modern sink, and a gleaming white refrigerator and stove fueled by propane gas.
My sleeping tent, high enough for a tall man to stand upright in. was furnished with a wooden cot, a thick underblanket, an inflatable mattress with a clean white pillow, a mantle lamp, a warming stove, and a washstand containing a basin, soap, a nailbrush and towels. Its floor was of soft green caribou moss.
At a convenient distance were two clean, odorless chemical lavatories.
A well-scrubbed Eskimo boy, smelling of Lifebuoy, brought hot shaving water 10 my tent. Other Eskimos carried my Titles, rods and bags up from the beach. Their wives, in sealskin boots and gay parkas, with extra-big hoods for the projection of the babies they carried on their backs, stood in the distance, against a TOW of staff tents, smiling shyly.
The Eskimos working at Telek perform with great efficiency and enthusiasm the junctions of bellboys, porters, chambermaids, cooks and guides. They receive daily wages from the funds of the cooperative.
As we dined that evening on steaks cooked by a young Eskimo woman and served by her fiancé, a young Eskimo in hornrimmed glasses, 1 realized I was living as comfortably as any wealthy white hunter on safari in Africa.
Houston told us a little of what he's learned about the Eskimos during twelve \ears’ residence among them. He does not share the theory that the primitiveness of Eskimo life is a scandal and should be changed by means of an economic and educational crash program. He says: "You've seen what’s happened at Frobisher Bay.” He believes in building up the Eskimos’ economy on traditional lines and that this can best be achieved by enabling them to earn the money to buy more guns, ammunition, boats and tents and so increase the hunting kill. He wants to see the brighter children receive a better education in their own land and eventually become equipped to take over the technical positions now held bywhite men.
"If we are going to populate the North,” said Houston, as we ended our conversation, "the best foundation for that population is the Eskimo community.”
Naked in the Arctic
That night, on Houston’s advice, I slept naked in my bedroll. The greater air space between skin and covering, he said, retains the body’s heat better than a light thick layer of night attire. Much to my surprise 1 was cosy. During the night, however, I had to go outside. I decided it would be too tedious to get dressed, so I dashed out in the nude. I yelped as a strong breeze and thirtydegree temperature snapped at my vitals, and raced back to bed shouting expletives. But once in my bedroll again, I glowed like a wiener in a bun and slept like Rip Van Winkle.
Next morning we embarked for seal hunting in two open whaleboats, each crewed by two Eskimos. 1 had a .22 rifle and a .303. Light and heavy rifles are essential for seal hunting at sea. With the light rifle you try to hit the seal about the head. With the heavy one you try to hit him tow'ard the after part of the body. The idea is to wound him with the rifles, not to kill him. If you kill him at long range he'll sink. The kill is made at short range with a harpoon attached to a long caribou sinew line and a float.
After half an hour of sailing along a noble coastline in brilliant sunlight one of the Eskimos in my boat shouted "Ugjuk!" At about three hundred yards we saw the head of a great bearded seal bobbing like a football on the surface. "Must weigh half a ton." said Houston.
Following Houston's instructions the riflemen in both boats fired their .22s for a near miss. We got what we wanted. The bullet splashes scared the seal and he dived. The Eskimos then drove our boat over to the point at which he'd vanished. Now we knew that he'd have
“The Eskimos fire at anything that moves, even seagulls . . . but, they’re not brilliant shots”
to come up for air again somewhere within about three hundred yards. In a few minutes he bobbed up. Once more we fired to miss, and to force him under. ‘‘Now,” said Houston, “he’ll be short of air and come up at shorter range.” Houston was right. Once more we fired .22s and I was among those who got a hit below the head. Down he went again. He kept coming up nearer and nearer to the boats and making quick flashing rolls. We fired .303s for body hits. I think I scored iwo myself. Suddenly he came up near the other boat and was at once harpooned by an Eskimo. In great excitement the Eskimos towed him to shore to butcher him.
I was entitled by my shooting to a part of the pelt but I refused it. All seal meat shot by white hunters must, quite rightly, be given to the Eskimo, who stash it away for the winter. Our ugjuk would keep several families in meat for many weeks, provide three or four pairs of fine sealskin boots and yield enough oil to keep an igloo warm through the cold season.
It took a little over an hour to get that big seal. The shooting was by no means easy because of the seal’s bobbing and the boat’s rolling, the constant need to change rilles according to the target presented, and the great care we had to take in observing safe angles of fire. Until he was harpooned and killed I’ve no doubt that the seal suffered from lack of air and wounds and I felt that there was about the sport a degree of cruelty. But my scruples were quieted by the Eskimos’ need for the meat, and by their delight in collecting so big a kill. Shortly afterwards, by similar methods, we shot a netchek, or small jar seal.
It is more exciting than shooting deer. The hunter fires not one or two shots in a day, as often happens in deer hunting. The frequent but brief appearances of the target, the early long ranges, and the unsteady foothold cause dozens of misses. I fired more than a hundred rounds that day, most of which were misses. The Eskimos were firing too and though they were good shots they were not, to my surprise, brilliant. I reckon our two seals cost thirty or forty dollars in ammunition alone so the meat, leather and oil were not cheap.
The Eskimos fire light rilles at everything that moves, including seagulls and sea pigeons on the wing, and look upon the ammunition expenditure rather as we would look upon a reasonably good capital speculation. Houston told us that seagulls make a good dish if they are cooked slowly.
On our way home we slid quietly into a small fiord and, as the Eskimos had anticipated, surprised a flock of swimming eider duck. We took up the .22s. A white man is not supposed to fire at eider but I broke the regulations. If the Eskimos were going to shoot at them, and if the Eskimos needed them for food and feathers, why shouldn't 1 help out? At about fifty yards we opened fire on the sitting duck. They were not easy targets— just a tiny bobbing head and neck. Some flew away. Some dived. But some seemed frozen by shock to the surface. These were our prey. We got seven in about sixty seconds.
“We’d have hit a lot more if we'd had shotguns,” I protested. "We'd have got a dozen of those in flight. Why don't the Eskimos use shotguns?” Houston said: "It’s just never occurred to them.
And I reckon the ammunition would be too bulky and expensive anyway.”
The Eskimos kept the seven duck for themselves, although I was drooling for a taste of the flesh. That night, however, they gave us, as a special treat, a little seal meat. It came in small steaks, about three quarters of an inch thick, with half an inch of succulent fat around the rim. It looked like beef but tasted unlike any other meat I’ve eaten, and not a bit fishy. It had an enrapturing flavor of its own. The Eskimos take some of the meat by boat and lay it down in caches on the trails up to the winter cariboo hunting grounds two hundred miles away. It is so tender that on the winter trail they eat it raw.
Next day, when we set out across the bay for char fishing, we saw a rich Eskimo who owned a schooner. With his wife and his young concubine, with many children and many other relatives, he was unloading about thirty tons of walrus meat on a smooth rock. There the
clan was butchering the walrus for ivory and dog food. It was a gory finale to two or three weeks of hunting but the scene had a certain elemental splendor to it.
Later we passed many small islands and on some of them saw scores of emaciated husky dogs. Many Eskimos put their dogs on islands for the summer and feed them only once or twice. The dogs have to live on a scanty catch of jellyfish pawed up from the shallows. As our boat coasted along the islands the hungry dogs followed us along the beaches, leaping over rocks, splashing through pools, and yelping in hope of food. As we sailed away without feeding them they gathered on a final vantage point and howled like enraged guttersnipes who’ve been refused a handout. At this time of year an Eskimo going ashore to give the huskies a small feed of walrus meat must watch his step. he stumbles and falls among the dogs they'll kill him instantly and devour him. He’s safe only as long as he stands up, looks them in the eye, and deals out the customary kicks. A husky’s is truly dog's life.
Soon we came upon the Waldingham Castle, a British freighter that was standing off Cape Dorset and preparing to unload by barge a year's supply of building materials, gasoline, canned food and Hudson's Bay Company stock. When
our Eskimos saw the freighter’s crew their eyes bulged. The seamen were Pakistanis. Houston gathered from the Eskimos’ conversation that this was the first time they had ever seen brown men who were not of their own race.
Rosemary Gilliatt wanted to take our Eskimos aboard the freighter to get pictures of equatorial and polar races meeting in such a strange environment. The prospect of climbing forty feet up a n.onkey ladder against the heaving sides of the ship did not appeal to me. But when Miss Gilliatt took off up that ladder I, despite awful feelings of vertigo, felt bound to follow. We got the pictures, and if they were a bit over-posed and commonplace you may put down their deficiency to the stress of Miss Gillian's courageous climb. The first officer of the ship told us that the Pakistanis had been signed on at Chittagong, in one of the steamier parts of their hot country, and had never been to the Arctic before. They were so anxious to get away that they'd volunteered to do double shifts on the unloading. The Pakistanis gave the Eskimos a pail full of a dish that astonished them by its flavor — Madras curry.
Next we sailed to a river, up which we went in a canoe. We made two portages, and finally we fished for char. 1 caught three, which weighed a total of sixteen pounds. The sport is almost as good as salmon fishing. The char don't fight so hard, but for my money they taste as good as Atlantic salmon.
Harpooning is for Eskimos
Up this river we had afternoon tea in a little brown tent with two young marine biologists who were spending the summer studying the habits of char. They had discovered that char don't die after spawning, and some live up to thirty years. Char are so numerous here that even when they are not feeding you can often catch them by snagging them. The Eskimos scorn rods. They use nets or harpoons. I tried the harpoon but was unsuccessful. For one thing I couldn’t see the char as well as the experienced Eskimos. And when 1 could see them I found the water deflected my aim in a most frustrating manner. It's rather like trying to pick one's teeth when using a mirror.
From the char-fishing area we took a long walk over a headland toward Cape Dorset. On the way Houston pointed out several sites occupied by a different race of Eskimo more than two thousand years ago. These Eskimo had not developed the dog and sled. But they did something the later Eskimo didn't. They built round stone houses.
In the soft moss covering the stone houses we dug for an hour or so and came up with stone skin-scrapers, bone needles, bits of bows and arrows, and other tooled artifacts we couldn’t identify. By one ancient site there was a small pool. The bottom was two feet deep in walrus skulls, whalebones and other chunks of bone that had been thrown away by Eskimos twenty centuries ago. Houston said: "Canadian archaeologists haven’t scratched the surface up here. Some day they’ll come and learn a lot."
And so, on a Sunday evening, we came to Cape Dorset. Half a dozen white families live there in frame homes furnished much like suburban bungalows. Houston's own two-story house, which cost the government forty-five thousand dollars to build, even has a bathroom with running water. But the running water doesn't work in winter because the plumbing freezes.
The kitchen looked like any other mod-
ein kitchen, its appliances being worked from electricity generated by gasoline motors.
The lovely Alma Houston is a heroic hostess. In summer she is always coming home to find an RCMP officer, a construction man, a government scientist, a pilot, or some other caller, patiently waiting for a drink, a meal or a cup of coffee.
Among the poppers-in on our Sunday were the local Anglican missionary, the government first-aid man. the Hudson's Bay Company factor, an Italian carpen-
ter belonging to a construction team, and a teacher who takes the Eskimo children in summer classes.
We went to inspect Houston’s biggest single contribution to Eskimo economic development — the Art Centre. It looks, as Lathom said, a bit like the inside of a Y MCA, but the carvings and prints displayed were well worth inspection. I bought, for twenty-five percent less than city prices, an owl by Tudlik, the greatest of the carvers. Now that he’s old and blind he carves by touch, yet in every animal and bird figure he turns out there
is a hint of his famous subtle whimsy.
Tudlik was too ill that day to receive visitors but I called at the tent of Kiakshuk, another ancient, whose specialty is carving the flat faces of stone and making stencils out of sealskin for prints. I bought three of his prints, one for an art-expert friend, who was delighted. We chatted haltingly through the interpretations of John, the Houstons’ eight-yearold son. Kiakshuk’s furniture was little more than a collection of eiderdown quilts, bits of old packing cases, stoves, lamps, chisels and knives. Despite his
seeming poverty, he had about him the serenity, dignity and courtesy of the artist who’s gained confidence with age and success.
Later Houston told me: “The cooperative draws many thousands of dollars a year from its art work. We have so many orders from dealers it is impossible to fill them all. Only the very old men practise art all the time. The others do it between hunting and fishing. They just sit around and carve at night when they are chatting. Nearly every man, in the community can turn out carvings that sell. It’s an inherited gift and so far the primitive tradition remains unspoiled. As the Eskimos become more and more exposed to southern influences they may lose some of their traditional style. So anybody buying the works today is making a solid investment.”
I walked back to the Houston home through the tented Eskimo village. The men were all down on the beach unloading cargo from the freighter. In some of the tents I caught glimpses of women scraping the fat off sealskin or making sealskin boots. One or two were making cloth parkas with sewing machines. Their conditions were frugal. But they all looked happy. Furthermore all were much cleaner than I had expected. There was no stench about the village except in the vicinity of a number of chained huskies. The children look fit and played vigorously much as other kids do.
When a white woman disembarked from an open boat in which she'd made a five-day voyage from Lake Harbor, two hundred and fifty miles to the east, the entire village turned out to greet her. She embraced many of the Eskimo men and women. She was a nurse who had once been stationed in Cape Dorset and was returning on a visit because she loved it.
The only things in Cape Dorset that offended me were three plastic igloos. They had turned a dirty yellow in the summer sun. Some government experts, apparently, feel the plastic igloo makes an economical year-round home for the Eskimos. I think they make a tawdry stain on an aspect of grandeur.
The next day, Monday, we had to leave, a little earlier than we had anticipated. As September begins the freeze-up threatens and there is a sixto eightweek period when float aircraft cannot land on the sea and wheeled aircraft cannot land on the ice.
“You'll have to go,” said Jim Houston apologetically, “or risk staying here until November." If I'd been rich, unemployed and single I'd have stayed, but I am none of these things.
The air fares, accommodation, food, boat rentals, ammunition, and the gifts one gives to the Eskimos instead of tips, put up the cost of a week's stay at Telek to a thousand dollars a person, starting from Montreal. A party of ten could make the trip for eight hundred dollars a person. It's worth every penny to those sportsmen and their wives who can afford it.
If you want to go next summer write to M. P. McConnell, Tourist Development Officer, Northwest Territories Tourist Office, Kent-Albert Building, Ottawa. He’s a government-paid agent for the Eskimo enterprise, and will supply you with all the information you need regarding transport, clothing, cash and other matters.
Any further recommendation required is provided by the case of a well-heeled, youthful New York couple named Ann and Peter Allait. I'he Allatts were in tne first party to visit Telek in 1959. They returned in I960. And they decided to stay for a year. ★