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Archive for the ‘Bowen Island’ Category

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I’ve been having recurring dreams about Japan for 26 years. Even writing that sentence is nightmarish.

Early in the 1990s I lived in a tiny town mid-Japan, teaching English in two high schools as a participant in the JET program, where cadres of native English speakers populated classrooms across this tiny nation. Over the course of a few decades the Japanese government anticipated rapid globalization in education and commerce and wanted its country’s youth to have had at least a bit of exposure to the world’s dominant language.

Maybe the Japanese government was brilliant. But for those who grabbed the golden ticket, we were the lucky ones. In our towns and villages we were frequently “it” for the foreign population, the nearest English-speaking gaijin a train ride away. We were paid well, treated well, and outside of the classroom had all the time in the world…. to travel, savour and explore a unique country in a unique situation:

Would I ever have another chance to experience life as an illiterate minority?

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When I left Japan in 1991 I thought, oh, I’ll be back. I travelled through China for three months. Oh, I’ll be back. I went to Thailand. I’ll be back for sure.

And thus began a quarter century’s worth of recurring dreams: I’m on a plane headed to Japan. I don’t have luggage, a passport, money or anyone caring for my children. Or, I’m let off a bus in the Kansai countryside, no money, no luggage, no one taking care of the kids, and it’s pitch black outside. Or I’m back in my Ikuno classroom, at the front of a group of thirty students all watching me expectantly.

Each time, in every dream, I stop cold and wonder, What was I thinking?!

I also remember, too late, that I no longer speak the language.

Like my other recurring dreams about being one week from a sociology exam and realizing I haven’t been to class in six months, or breaking my teeth, or having surreal conversations with my late mother, I wake up and think, well, thank goodness it’s morning.

All of which is a very long way to tell you that hurray! I’m finally back in Japan.

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And savoury breakfasts are back on the menu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ice blown into the fjord from Cumberland Sound

Fog and ice blown into the fjord

Monday arrives, cold enough that we see our breath, and a white blanket of fog settles on the hamlet. Overnight the wind has shifted, coming from the northwest, pushing giant plates of ice into the fjord from Cumberland Sound.

The phone rings and our guide Peter Kilabuk tells us the ice floes and fog have made it too treacherous to go out on the water. We’d planned to go seal hunting but the weather has changed our plans, just as it has for many other members of the community.

A few days ago we met with Peter in a small building behind his house. Peter is a former Nunavut MLA and patiently answers our questions about lifestyle, food security, hunting and living on the land.

In particular he wants Liliana to see the stack of prepared sealskins, and jackets, pants and kamiks (boots) his wife has made from the skins they’ve tanned.

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The ringed seal skin is spotted and grey, shiny and smooth-haired. Until the seal hunt was banned in Europe, there was a profitable overseas market for this by-product of the traditional diet. The ringed seal is the tastiest seal meat, according to Peter, better than harp, bearded or elephant seal. The skins are softer and superior for clothing. The bearded seal, by contrast, does not taste as good (“like comparing elephant to cow,” says Peter) but has a thicker skin well suited to the soles of the kamiks.

We’d been hopeful to hunt a seal, participate in the butchering, and observe the whole process of sharing the kill, probably something we’d understand better seeing than hearing it described. But just as the weather is keeping the people from heading out to their summer camps, it’s keeping us on shore as well.

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We head out instead to the Arctic Co-Op and the Northern Store, to do some grocery store price comparisons. Liliana has created a week’s menu for a family of four, assembling a long list of ingredients, and wants to record prices, with the intent of comparing prices from the stores in the south. At the store we see Peter, Stevie the note-writer from church, Abraham the minister, and a couple of ladies from the elders’ centre. No doubt others recognize our pale faces, but these are the ones who smile and greet us.

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The food prices continue to astound and naïve as it sounds, we begin to have an appreciation for some of the challenges of life in the north.

We head back to Hannah’s for lunch. Hot dogs and French fries. I know she’s being kind, thinking generously of what southerners might want to eat. Liliana’s glance asks me how much longer we are going to keep this up. I add as much relish as the bun will hold.

After lunch Peter calls – the fog has lifted sufficiently that he feels safe taking out his boat amidst the ice floes.

We meet him at the dock, don orange windsuits, jump into his aluminum boat and are away. My girl has a smile I’ve not seen before. We are on the water, navigating the fjord, hunting for seals. Life is good.

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We do see a seal bob its head up and down in the water and learn a few things about hunting: The seal comes up for a breath, once, twice, maybe three times, and before the final breath will arch out as it dives down to swim. Once that little behaviour is recognized it’s easy to see. Secondly, an experienced hunter will know how far a seal can travel on a held breath and, having watched the direction of that final arc downwards, will have a fairly accurate mark of where the seal will re-emerge.

We didn’t. All the better for the seal.

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On the fjord banks we see some summer tents set up with small smoky fires and orange lines of arctic char drying in the sun. The collection of “country food” is an important summertime activity and given the prices of food in the co-op, a critical means of decreasing the monthly grocery bill.

Weaving between the ice floes we travel toward the mouth of the fjord until Peter says any deeper and we risk getting locked in the ice. Later Hannah remarks her brother got stuck in the ice once and could not come home til the wind shifted, two days later.

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As we ease out of the ice Peter pulls the boat to shore so we can scramble up the rocks for a better view of the sound. At the top of the crest an Inukshuk points rocky arms east and west and we see just how jammed with ice the sound is. It’s unlikely the ice will be break up anytime soon, says Peter, delaying the sea lift – loaded with dry goods and supplies – even further.

We head back, heady and thrilled by the ice and the blue. The Nunavut flag – white and yellow with an Inukshuk in the centre is so apt now.

We leave Peter at the dock, arranging for one more trip on the water later this week, and hike back up the shore to Hannah’s. The little puppy we befriended earlier bounds up to greet us. We have spaghetti for dinner.

A happy happy day.

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For some reason it’s hard to get out of bed today. Our little room at the end of the house is cool, and at night we leave the window open.

Because it doesn’t get dark the children have no natural inclination to head indoors and the sounds of their squealing and laughter are as bright and happy at 10 in the evening as they are at two in the afternoon. And the occasional yip yip of a dog or the skid of ATV tires on gravel are not governed by any particular schedule.

And the brightness does manage to seep in under the eyeshades early in the morning, so small wonder that Hannah’s schedule is one of rising very early, working in the kitchen, then napping for a few hours before rising again.

After breakfast (eggs and toast) we take the sandwiches Hannah has prepared (Arctic char, ham and cheese) and head up the mountain behind her house.

If you think of Heidi in her grandfather’s house, surrounded entirely by mountains, then cut the circle in half and drive a fjord up the middle, you’d have Pangnirtung. The hamlet hugs the shore of the fjord, and is completely ringed by mountains. No roads leading in or out. Northeast of here is the Akshayuk Pass, a 100-mile trail that will take you over the Arctic Circle and out to Davis Strait. But otherwise if you’re here you stay here.

Historically Pangnirtung was one of many coastal sites the Inuit visited, following the flow of food – seal, walrus, beluga, narwhale and char. As such small now-permanent communities dot the edges of Cumberland Sound, showing the traditional hunting and gathering sites.

Heading up the mountain behind Hannah’s house shows the fjord in all its spectacular springtime beauty. Pink, purple and white flowers find purchase on the sand and gravel. The Duval River pours into the fjord while underground springs spill water from cracks deep in the mountains. The moss and blueberry bushes make a spongy layer that’s like walking on an innerspring mattress. And the fjord’s immensity suddenly makes sense as the waterway that gives and takes.

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Right now the mouth of the fjord is jammed with ice and the people here can’t leave for their traditional summer camping sites. Usually they’d be on their way out, in their fishing boats, several generations of the same family, living on the land for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, hunting and gathering their ‘country food’ of blueberries, Eider duck and eggs, fish, seal and if lucky, a beluga or narwhale.

But the ice jam has prevented all of that this year and there’s a general air of “what can we do.” An anticipated tourist ship has rerouted, outfitters can’t take visitors hunting or whale watching, the Inuit can’t get to their summer campsites, and the sea lift, carrying provisions plus perhaps a car, a new snowmobile or ATV, furniture, a new stove, plywood, drywall, lumber, diesel fuel…. already a month overdue and while promised dates are frequently posted, the reality is the ice is not moving.

But up high on the mountain the scenery is stunning and on this sunny warm day there isn’t anywhere we’d rather be.

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We eat our char sandwiches, throwing a few crusts to the sweet puppy that has wandered along for the hike, and then drop down the mountain until we are back at the water’s edge. We collect sunbleached shells and tiny seal finger bones and then come upon a giant set of vertebrae. Judging from the fur and claws nearby it was a substantial furry mammal but any guess and I’d be bluffing.

We wander back to Hannah’s and it’s suppertime.

Nearly four decades have passed since I regularly consumed meat and I remind myself to buck up. It’s only for a week. I remark how good the meat is. What is it? Pork, she says, wondering what kind of southern person doesn’t recognize pork.

Two bones rest at the side of Liliana’s plate.

“You want more?”

“No thank you,” says the girl who has just eaten pork ribs for the first time in her life. She’s been game, she’s been stoic. She knows there’s only one answer.

“You vegetarian?”

She smiles. She is brave. This is our joke.

“Oh, no, Hannah. Not vegetarian.”

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Pangnirtung fjord

Pangnirtung fjord

My sweet travelling companion and I caught last Thursday’s late night redeye from Vancouver to Ottawa, via Toronto, through Iqaluit to Pangnirtung, only a bit painful because we were on our way Somewhere Wonderful. A brief stop in each airport, just long enough to find our way to the appropriate check-in.

We didn’t know yet but several of the people on the flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit would become our flightmates all the way through to Pangnirtung, some would become our dining companions and one poor soul would voluntarily evacuate his room so that we’d have a place to stay.

On arrival to the flight strip in Pang, everyone and no one had arrived to meet us. Looking back, we could have asked any number of people for a lift to our lodging as I recognized one man by his voice, another from his picture. While not there specifically for us, both kindly offered to take us where we needed to go – Hannah’s Homestay. The story was that 78-year-old great grandmother Hannah Tautuajuk ran a warm and friendly boarding house from her home and when I’d called her a month earlier she assured me she had no boarders in July and that all I needed to do was show up.

Liliana and I piled our bags into the back of a dusty 4×4 and were driven by Jason, an east coaster who arrived in Pang a year ago and now works at the hamlet office, across the labyrinthine paths that make up the roads of Pang. No street names but every house has a number.

We arrived at Hannah’s, number 765, and knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked harder. “Maybe she’s sleeping,” said Jason. Knocked again. It was pretty clear to all that no one was home.

We piled ourselves and our bags back into the truck and drove around a bit. Perhaps her daughter Julia was at the clinic where she sometimes worked. She wasn’t. What about the GN office where she also occasionally worked? (GN? Government of Nunavut, informed Jason.) Not there either.

We returned to Jason’s room at the hamlet office. I could imagine he deeply regretted having offered us a ride. Where would this mother-daughter-duo stay? He offered, perhaps reluctantly, “You can always stay at our place,” referring to the home he shared with others.

There’s also a modest hotel in Pangnirtung, known as The Lodge, where the business and government folk stay, run by the colourful Quebecois Louis Robilliard. Jason called over to the Lodge and said he was bringing us over. Louis too was not terribly overjoyed to see the two of us as his establishment was already full. He too telephoned Hannah, Julia, their home, their cell phones. Nothing. He disappeared out his back door for a few minutes, then returned.

Come with me. We did. There was one of the guys from the plane, hastily packing up and moving in with his buddy in the adjoining room. They’d be sharing a room, it turned out, so that Liliana and I had somewhere to sleep.

The guys were pretty cool about it and as we had dinner in the upstairs dining hall a little while later they regaled us with stories about travelling in the north at the whim of the weather. Turns out as well that Louis the innkeeper was also Louis the cook, Louis the server and Louis the busboy. After our raisin pie we returned to our room, but were intercepted by Louis the innkeeper. He was obviously concerned that we might be his guests for more than one night and he clearly didn’t have room.

He began calling Hannah’s numbers again. Her daughter Julia answered and Louis passed the phone to me:

You came in?

Yes we did.

You’re here with your daughter?

Yes.

We had lots of cancellations this week.

Oh. I’m sorry.

I didn’t pick you up from the airport because I thought you were like all the rest.

Oh.

You want me to come and get you? Or do you want to stay at the hotel? It’s up to you.

I’ll still stay with you if that’s all right.

I don’t care. It’s your choice.

(Louis, overhearing both ends of the conversation, gestured that I should go go go to Hannah’s.)

We’ll stay with you.

Okay.

I returned the phone to Louis, paid for our dinner and we were out the door with Julia, on our way to Hannah’s.

We met Hannah – dark haired, crinkly eyed, all smiles and expressive face. She showed us our room, the shared bathroom, the coffee pot. “You need anything? You ask me.”

And we went for a walk in the bright-as-day evening sun. The wind was coming from the west, blowing over the ice-packed Cumberland Strait and I suddenly considered there was no way I’d brought enough clothes. Great ice floes rested on the beach, hung up there as the tide receded. Puppies and children ran about the dusty roads, little boys on bikes skidding on the gravel, the occasional adult making easy eye contact with the obvious visitors, each one calling out “Hi!” with a smile.

We returned to Hannah’s, ready for bed. It had been a long two days, broken up by the occasional nap.

Hannah met us at the door. “What time you eat breakfast? What you like eat for breakfast?”

I was prepared for this and had forewarned Liliana that we were going to respect local hospitality and eat what was in front of us. We would be guests after all.

You like bacon and eggs? I like bacon and eggs. You eat bacon and eggs tomorrow?

We’ll eat anything, said the vegetarians.

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Into the white

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Sunday was snowday here on our little outcrop. Cars were ditched — figuratively by us and literally by others — in favour of snowboots and we enjoyed a day of slippery slidey fun.

Junior forgot that coastal snow is wetter than the prairie variety and complained about wet feet from his sodden runners. Our friendly neighbourhood United Church minister gave him a pair of socks collected from the Christmas ‘mitten tree.’

And then, in pursuance of procrastinated holiday homework, he trotted off to the mid-island meadow, sister in tow, to take some photos.

Pretty, isn’t it? Both of them were freezing but in testament to the lunacy of youth, they followed through with it. Hot baths and hot chocolate followed.

Nicholas is preparing a series of photographs for a year-long school project and Liliana has centred in each one. The photos are not portraits per se but her presence provides a continuity throughout.

This is not the first time the model has had to endure pain for beauty. There’s another of her standing in the ocean…

Time for her to get a manager and discuss some recompense. Perhaps he can clean her room.

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Back in the workshop

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Back in the elfin workshop some sweet and crunchy and extremely healthy treats have been assembled.

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Marvellous, tasty and oh so nutty and nutritious bags of granola were mixed and toasted on trays in the oven,  creating a fresh baked aroma to rival the milk and cookies of Mrs. Claus. Organic oats (25 pounds of them as Mother Elf was bound to burn at least one batch), almonds, pumpkin seeds, maple syrup, honey, apricots and candied ginger — thank you Martha Stewart’s recipe file!

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The two young elves measured, packaged and taped and readied everything for delivery. Some snacking was suspected expected.

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Tomorrow the packages will be labelled and wrapped, ready for delivery.

The workable hours between now and the end of the week are rapidly dwindling. Happy to have this task all wrapped up!

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Winter gold

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The elves have been busy on our little island.

The much respected Elf Elder, passing through from the Canadian steppes, lugged in some of this golden goodness from his hardworking honeybees. He knows that no honey will ever be more loved and appreciated than that of his clover-collecting hive, now safely tucked away from the prairie storms.

Tall Elf, and one who may now be vying for role of Tallest Elf, put together these purty little labels. Mother Elf is finally and clearly convinced that last year’s gap year was of value. The kids knows his way around Photoshop.

This is part one of this year’s teacher gifts.

Tomorrow I’ll show you part two.

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