It was summer, 1970 and I was a member of a Scintrex crew comissioned to fly a geophysical exploration survey in the North West Territories of Arctic Canada. We were based at tiny Repulse Bay, an Inuit hamlet on the Arctic Circle, at the root of the Melville Peninsula. My first impression of Repulse Bay was repulsion. A strong smell of rotting meat blew through the just opened door of the aircraft that flew us into the village. As I soon discovered, the putrefaction wafted from the carcasses of whales, narwhales, and seals strewn on the shore. Narwhale were hunted for their long, twisted tusk, actually a tooth, and used for carving. I once watched a man hack a tooth from a narwhale carcass with an axe: the memory is sickening still.
A second strong recollection is of gaggles of giggling Inuit children, yelling and splashing in the puddles on the airstrip runway and lanes of the village. The kids celebrated daylight 24/7 in shifts, brothers and sisters spelling eachother, right under the windows of our bunkhouse. It was hard enough trying to sleep in full sunshine, let alone being seranaded by rowdy, happy kids.
The Inuit folk of Repulse Bay were friendly. I got to know one family quite well. I was once invited to tea. The mother showed me how she skinned seals using her ulu, the curved multi-purpose Inuit knife. To honor me with a special snack treat, the father stepped outside to slice some caribou hanging near the door. Using his own ulu he pared paper-thin sheets of the raw meat speckled with white polka dots of sliced maggots. Yum.
One member of that family was even more amiable – the eldest and prettiest daughter took a strong liking to me. One afternoon we walked out onto the tundra; we could not walk along the shore very far because ice still partly hemmed the village, despite it being summer. The nearby ice did not cool her ardor: I had to staunchly resist her randy and insistent charms, conscious of watchful eyes in the village, Alas! I have not always been so sensible as I was that day, but then I have not often been deterred by demonstrations by a girl’s parents of their sure skills in carving flesh with ulus.
Many villagers were skilled at carving narwhale ivory, whalebone and soft soapstone rock. Folk would pick through piles of rock and bone stocked outside the Oblate Mission Co-op and then sell their finished art to the Co-op. Inuit art at that time was starting to win great interest. Repulse artists produced beautiful but often cookie-cuttercarvings destined for Toronto and Montral dealers. I enjoyed discovering unusual pieces left behind on the store’s shelves which the Oblate Father thought would not sell. I owned many soapstone and bone treasures by the time my work at Repulse Bay ended. Although over the years I gave away or sold many pieces, I still have a few, including three soapstone masks carved for me by the friendly mother. She sculpted her face and just those of her two younger daughters. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that I had already seen too much of her amiable eldest lass…