|The hunters watch for approaching narwhals|
It was quickly apparent that time has little meaning there. By 3 a.m., five hours after I would normally have been asleep, the camp was still lively, food was being shared, and hot tea was still being offered. Two more families of hunters had arrived, their two children were still awake and exploring the nooks and crannies around camp, and the men were sitting on a driftwood log talking quietly and watching for narwhals. Their wives were watching from high above at the observation point.
|Mads Ole strikes the narwhal with his harpoon.|
Mads Ole and I were warming up in the tent when someone called out from the lookout at 4:02 a.m. that narwhals were approaching. Before I even understood what was happening, Mads Ole dashed out of the tent, ran up to the observation point, and quickly verified the location of the whales. Then he jumped into his kayak and took off, followed shortly by the other two hunters. When I finally climbed to the lookout and raised my binoculars, I could see dozens of narwhals in all directions. From my vantage point it appeared that the hunters were surrounded by narwhals, some of which looked as if they were very close to the kayaks, yet the hunters sat still, not paddling closer, and never hoisting their harpoons. It was exciting to watch, but probably quite frustrating for the patient hunters. At 5:07 the hunters returned to camp, but as they were climbing out of their kayaks, another call came out that more narwhals were approaching quite close to camp. Only Mads Ole decided to try again.
Within minutes he was in perfect position to intercept at least a dozen narwhals swimming in a line towards him. He waited, unmoving, then took a couple paddle strokes, then waited some more. The narwhals came closer, and several swam right by him, appearing to me like they were just arms’ length away, and still he didn’t move. Then three narwhals surfaced at once just behind him, and as they went under, he paddled alongside them and lifted his harpoon, but they resurfaced too far away, so he lowered it again. I thought he had missed his best opportunity, but two whales trailed the group, surfaced, dived, and when they surfaced again, one was right beside Mads Ole. He quickly raised his harpoon, held it in the air for what I thought was far too long, and threw it. The harpoon struck the narwhal in the flank, and the animal responded with a sharp slap of its tail and dived, taking with it the sealskin float to keep it from sinking.
A celebratory cheer rang out from the hunters and their families, and surprisingly, from me as well. As difficult as it was for me to watch, I was pleased for the hunters that they were successful in providing food for their table for the coming months. And I was pleased to be offered a piece of muktuk – raw skin and blubber from the freshly killed whale – to help them celebrate the hunt. But I was equally pleased that their success meant that I could return South again from the coldest summer of my life.