In Baffin land
A true Story
By: Alan Sullivan
"The builder...hewed his way out through the bottom course".
Tuktu picked his spear from the sledge and shuffled up
the hill. On low ground the snow was too powdery for igloo-building, but
higher up it was rammed tight by the wind. One of the waiting women cracked
a fifty-foot walrus-hide whip over the restless dogs. The other followed
with her black eyes the squat dwindling figure with the right arm that
stabbed so steadily into the deepening drift. Presently Tuktu lifted his
hand. The dogs picked up their pointed ears an hurled themselves forward.
The women stumbled alongside the jerking sledge. A long day was nearly
done, and they were very weary.
Tuktu swung his dag into the snow and cut out a block.
It was two feet long, fifteen inches high, ten inches thick, and slightly
tapering. Then he cut another and another. In a little while there were
enough to make the bottom ring of an igloo.
The white pit sank as the igloo rose. Nowrak and Ungluck
watched and shivered while they plastered the chinks. This was always the
coldest part of the day. The dogs lay motionless. They knew nearly as much
as Tuktu. At the end of it all, the builder thrust up the key block, dropped
it neatly into place, and hewed his way out through the bottom course.
Now the Traveling-gear of the Baffinlander is a
a bundle of caribou skins, a stone lamp, flint and steel, a pinch of frayed
wood for tinder, seal meat and blubber, and his dog-team and what goes
with it. So in very few minutes the sledge was upended, the robes as food
and lamp thrust inside, the dogs fed, their harness buried deep in the
snow and stamped tight, and the igloo itself sealed by closing the door
with the block hewn out of it. After this the dogs curled themselves
into round balls of heaving fur, while in the gloom of the igloo Ungluck
struck fire, and lighted the seal-oil in her stone lamp.
The night deepened. In the north hung shimmering curtains
of palpitating colors that glinted on the fridgid wilderness, and smote
with silver the perfect curve of the dome that Tuktu had built, and inside
the builder joked with his wife and daughter, and chewed complacently at
a long strip of frozen seal-meat.
Fourteen hours later he emerged, and scraped the snow
off the sledge-runners. Ungluck crawled out and handed him a tin of water
that she had melted, drop by drop, by hanging a lump of ice over a stone
lamp. He filled his brown cheecks to the bursting, and squirted a jet up
and down the runners. It froze instantly. The sledge was shod for the day.
The dogs, dragged to their single traces, snapped viciously, then spread
out, fanlike, behind the old lead dog. The long whip cracked, and Tuktu
lifted one corner of the sledge to break it loose. In another instant the
yelping team was straining down-hill through the loose snow.
To reach the tidal ice, Tuktu faced a drop of twenty feet
from the land. It was a miracle how he reached it with the sledge unsplintered,
but Tuktu was used to such miracles.
Now, those who eat raw flesh and drink blood and live
without fire and water can do much that is beyond wiser and softer men.
So it was that Tuktu, the Walrus, with his wife and daughter, loaded his
worldly possessions on a sledge, and building himself a new house every
night, came by way of the tidal ice of Fox Channel to hunt the square-flipper
seal near Amadjuak Harbor. The journey was only three hundred miles, a
matter of a month.
But, trotting ahead, with his gaze wandering to the rock
ridges that paralleled the shore and began to reveal black crests in the
strengthening sun, Tuktu was uncomfortably aware that not only would he
find the square-flipper seal near Amadjuak Harbor, but he would also almost
certainly find Nunok, the Bear, and Aivick, the Caribou. They were both
suitors for the hand of Nowrak, the Gull, the plump-faced girl who trailed
her heels near the snow and surveyed her father with black and lustrous
Nunok was a large man and strong, a great hunter and rich;
but he had, Tuktu reflected, a sullen and angry temper. He always lived
in the largest igloo, but he was cruel to his dogs. Rumor whispered that
a white sailor from a whaling-ship had quarreled with Nunok over a woman
from Bathurst Inlet, and the sailor had never been seen again. But nunok
was a rich man.
Aivick, on the contrary, was good to look at, but poor.
Every one liked him because he made every one laugh with his stories
and jests. He could hunt well when he wished, but he did not often wish.
He would never be rich, but - And here a strange, discomforting thought
filtered into the little man's brain: is it better to be happy or
to be rich? He glanced automatically back at the sledge, and noted the
faithful mound of fur within which was his own wife, Ungluck, the Goose.
They were very happy, he and she, and they were not rich. They had never
been sad until a bull walrus killed their only son at Hope Inlet. And now?
He gave it up. "She is a good girl," he said to himself; "she will have
a good man."
Tuktu could see specks on the ice long before he reached
the hunting-ground. The dogs smelled the end of their journey, and raced
forward. They tore into a cluster of igloos, and instantly the air was
full of frenzied yelping that was quelled only when the lash of a fifty-foot
whip whistled above them, and cracked like a rifle-shot. Unguck and Nowrak
dived into a friendly dwelling with the fur robes and the stone lamp, and
Tuktu, having upended the empty sledge, turned, and looked into the hooded
faces of Nunock and Aivick.
"You have come at the right time," said the latter, smiling;
"the hunting is good." Then he added with a laugh, "Even I have killed
"So you can see the hunting must be very good," came in
Nunok's cold voice. "You will sleep in my igloo to-night. It is large.
I expect you. See, it is the farthest out of all."
Aivick began to chuckle.
"I, too have expected you. See, my igloo is close."
Tuktu hesitated, and at that moment Ungluck and Nowrak
crawled out among them. He turned to them with sudden relief.
"Nunok and Aivick say the same words - that we sleep in
The old woman's face wrinkled with amusement, then her
eyes fell upon the rich man in his new fur cloths.
"We will - "
A tug at her elbow, and Nowrak whispered quickly.
"We will sleep with Aivick," concluded Ungluck, showing
her rusty teeth.
"What does one night matter?" he said, and turned quickly
Darknes fell like a cloak; then the moon climbed above
the stark hills and shed a radiance on the igloo of Aivick, in which there
was much feasting. And Aivick told his funniest stories in the flicker
of the stone lamp, while the women held their sides and munched sheets
of delicious blubber. After which their host and two freinds danced the
Spirit Dance of welcome to the new-comers.
Now, the tale of that wonderful hunting of square-flipper
seal near Amadjuak Harbor is still told in the igloos and tupiks of Baffin
land, and it is also told that before the hunt was half over Nunok and
Aivick had begun to look at each other without turning the head, which
is a bad sign in the North. The only difference was that Nunok frowned,
while Aivick laughed. This went on for a day or two till the rich man came
to Tuktu and demanded Nowrak for a wife. When Aivick heard of it he demanded
her also, and Tuktu could only look from one man to the other with trouble
in his eyes, because he knew that murder would follow whoever got the girl.
So he asked Ungluck what he should do.
The next morning, if any one had looked behind the igloos,
he would have seen Nunok and the old woman talking very ernestly, after
which the rich man laughed and walked out to his own air-hole, and stared
down into the water with a smile on his face, as though he were looking
for seals. And the same night Ungluck told Tuktu that the best way to decide
the matter was to give Nowrak to the man who killed the most seals on the
"Then Nunok will get her," said Tuktu, thoughtfully.
His wife nodded.
"It is well; she cannot live on jokes and songs, and Aivick
has nothing else."
"I have enough for another one," answered Tuktu, slowly
for in the bottom of his heart he liked Aivick, and did not like
Nunok, for all his wealth.
Ungluck's voice had a touch of anger in it.
"You will not live forever."
The news filtered quickly through the village. When Nunok
was told about it, he did not seem surprised, but only grunted, and began
examining his seal-spears very carefully. Aivick did look astonished, and
then a curious expression came to his eyes, as though he were looking at
something a long way off, and he began humming the "Song of the Swan."
The igloo of Nunok was much farther from shore than the
rest. It was, in fact, placed close to his air-hole because Nunok was so
keen a hunter that he wanted to lose no time. A quarter of a mile farther
out was the edge of the ice.
When Aivick came out to hunt next morning, the whole village
came with him, and they found Nunok already sitting on a pad on his ice
block, with his feet in a caribou-skin bag, watching intently for the single
air-bubble that marks the approach of the square-flipper seal to his breathing-hole.
So intent was he that he hardly turned to look. Then Aivick settled himself
on his own block two hundred yards away, and immediatly opposite. He stared,
sometimes toward Nowrak, who was walking shoreward with her mother, and
sometimes at the motionless figure of Nunok, and sometimes into the patch
of green water at his feet. Then he began again to hum the "Song of the
Nunok killed within the hour a seal so large that they
had to chop away the sides of the air-hole to get him up, and at a sign
the villagers brought out their knives and ate and drank before the frost
should stiffen the warm, quivering flesh. Aivick got up with a laugh and
helped himself, then bowed his thanks to the still form at the other air-hole.
When it became dark enough, so that the water only reflected,
and one could not see into it, there were four seals beside Nunok, while
Aivick's Spear had not tasted blood. So the rich man came to Tuktu and
"I will take the girl now."
But Nowrak shook her head.
"I am not ready; I will come to-morrow."
Nunok began to protest, but Tuktu, because he was sorry
for Aivick, and because this was the last night the girl would spend with
her parents, said:
"It is well; to-morrow is soon enough."
Then they went back to Aivick's igloo and ate heartily,
and Aivick sang and danced for them; but there was a break in his song,
and his feet were heavy. In the middle of it all Nunok crawled through
the tunnel entrance and said, "I bring gifts for Nowrak." So they
went out and saw and wondered. There were caribou robes, and carved walrus
tusks, and copper knives from the Coppermine River, and dressed dog-skins,
and a looking-glass that shut itself up in a flat box. The wealth of the
whole tribe was there.
"By way of the tidal ice"
Nowrak looked at it.
"Nunok is very generous." She then added, "When it all
comes back." After that she crawled back into the igloo without another
Nunok, wondering what was the matter, turned suddenly
to Aivick. "Will you dance and sing in my igloo to-morrow? I will pay you
well for it."
"I do not sell my feet or tongue," answered the other.
The rich man sneered.
"Of course not; who would buy them? I really meant to
give you a present - because of Nowrak."
Aivick chuckled, and a curious thing followed. He took
Nunok by the arm, and together they walked out to the igloo of the latter.
There the singer looked north and south for a long time, as though he were
tracing sledge-tracks on the snow. His eyes were half closed, and his face
was like the face of a man who has been nearly dead, but lives again. He
blinked as though he had been asleep.
"You will indeed give a present, and because of Nowrak,"
he said quietly. "It will be the largest present you have ever given."
Then he walked slowly to his own igloo and left the hunter
That night all save Aivick slept very deeply, for their
stomachs were full. But he got up as soon as it was light, and for the
first time in his life there was no smile on his lips. He looked toward
the igloo of Nunok, expecting to see him coming in, then gasped with surprise,
because the ice-field had parted, and the waters were now, it appeared,
close up to the rich man's house. The broken part had disappeared. It was
strange that Nunok should not be visible.
The young man's heart began to beat in a way that was
quite strange to him. So he crawled back and woke up his guests. They all
stared with much astonishment and started on a run, calling out as they
passed the other igloos, and in a few moments the whole village was following
them. Aivick, being very quick on his feet, got ahead, and as he neared
the edge of the ice, he saw that it ran straight for Nunok's house. But
the house itself seemed uninjured.
"The dogs lay motionless"
He reached the edge, and stopped and stared. One half
of the igloo remained, but the other had disappeared with the drifting
floe. It was sheared exactly in two parts, just as if some giant had swung
at it and split it with an enormous dag. The half with the raised edge,
where every eskimo sleeps, had gone, and with it the rich man in his slumbers.
The other half, into which Aivick could see by peering round the end of
the snow wall, contained all the lost hunter's wealth. There were spears
and robes and knives and the square box that had swallowed music, which
he got from the Hudson Bay post above the Narrows.
Then Tuktu ran up with the two women, who were breathing
very hard. When Nowrack saw what had happened, she looked at first very
sober; but she caught the eye of Aivick. They stared at each other, and
both broke into screams of laughter.
Tuktu frowned at her. "You fool, you were nearly the wife
of a rich man."
"Do not scold her," answered Aivick, "for it is all hers,
and I shall be the husband of a rich wife."
Tuktu tried to look very angry, but could not.
"Let us get these things to a safe place."
That evening Nowrak bathed herself in seal oil and put
grease on her hair. The song had come back to the tongue of Aivick, and
his feet were light again.
"I hope," said Tuktu, when his son-in-law took the girl
to a new and beautiful igloo, "that you will forget your songs and keep
A smile came into the eyes of the young man, for he was
"When my wealth is forgotten, my songs shall be remembered,"
he said softly.
source: Sullivan, Alan, In Baffin Land, The Century
Magazine, 1915, p 703-709
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