2015 Hudson Bay Expedition – A Very Repulse Welcome

Repulse

I wonder who should play me in the movie.
My short visit to Repulse Bay, a remote and insular Inuit hunting village perched on the arctic circle has all the dramatic trappings of good, pulp cinema. Though I’m still trying to figure what kind of story it is, or even who are the good guys and the villains.
Is it your standard Into the Wild/Deliverance drama, where a disillusioned urbanite on a quest for adventure gets more than he bargained for, confronted on all sides by foul weather, hostile wildlife, testy locals and baying creditors?
Or a romantic comedy, where the goofy outsider arrives from the sea, greeted with wariness at first until he wins the heart of a feisty CBC reporter (I’m thinking Drew Barrymore here). He gains love and acceptance, though at the price of an contentious off-screen divorce settlement from his once supportive and understanding wife.
What about an anti-colonial indigenous production, where noble Inuit hunters face off against an undercover eco-terrorist who has infiltrated their community to sabotage a centuries-old tradition with anti-hunting seal sonar warning beacons?  Nefarious plans foiled, he runs cowering and naked into the unforgiving wilderness that will surely consume him.
Roll credits and fade…
Here in real life, things are just kind of suck. I motored into Repulse feeling modestly triumphant, wondering if I was the first boat to brave the ice this season. Would I be greeted warmly as some minor conquering hero from the south?
As it turns out, the answers are “no” and “hell, no”.
I’m almost used to the first words of greeting in these Inuit towns being “You aren’t Greenpeace, are you”? I’ve learned that neither humor nor sarcasm get me very far, so I stick to the flat blanket denial. It’s easy enough, since it’s also true. While I certainly carry all my precious, west coast liberal ideologies with me in a bespoke, hemp messenger bag, I also understand the role of traditional hunting in indigenous societies. Plus I really like a good steak.
From what little I know of Greenpeace, if they wanted to make a splash they’d send some hot French actress out here with full video and social media team. A solitary balding white guy in a leaking crap bucket? Not likely to warm the cockles of their target donor demographic.
The Inuit have hunted marine mammals like beluga and narwhal, along with caribou on the land, for centuries. Though any visions of a solitary fur-clad hunter slipping into his kayak and with stealth and skill, tossing harpoons at a passing seal is perhaps a little outdated. The modern hunt involves an aluminum skiff and massive outboard motor, roaring out of town as it carries hunters armed with high powered rifles. I’m not here to judge the relative merits, I’m just pointing out the obvious. Regulated numbers of narwhal and walrus are hunted during the short summer and the tusks are sold to the local Co-op store. Traditionally, the meat and muktuk are to be harvested and eaten.
In a remote town hundreds of miles from anywhere, there’s little doubt that hunting is one of the few sources of income or productive activity available for young men. It’s also a cultural touchstone, a link to their history and to the land. The local community is eager to avoid the kinds of bad publicity and backlash that anti-hunting groups have mustered in the past. Any outsider, particularly one showing up alone and unannounced from the south, is greeted with suspicion.
Over the past two summers of visits, I’ve done my best to build goodwill; chatting with folks who stop by, handing out photo postcards, waving to other boats out on the water. But I neglected to announce my presence to anyone at the hamlet government or hunting organization here, which was perhaps a mistake.
Working solo and on a shoestring, I try to fly under the radar. If you announce your intentions and ask permission, you’ve given someone the power to say “no.” But in the absence of any real knowledge about what I’m doing here, folks drew their own inventive conclusions.
I knew I’d stepped in it when a big local guy started giving me shit at the Co-op store. It was a little hard to follow his line of reasoning, but the upshot was…You’re Greenpeace. You can tell all the pretty lies you want, you scared off all the seals with sonar. You better get out of town. We better not find you out on the water…
No amount of charm, humor or bluff was getting me anywhere. So I went to get gas, get provisions and get out of town. Not fast enough, apparently. When I retuned to the boat, I found the cockpit spattered with rotting muktuk (beluga whale fat and flesh) and even stinkier fish carcasses. If there was ever a moment to roll cameras this was it, but instead I just dug up a pair of kitchen gloves, picked up the offal and washed out the foul smelling mess as best I could.
I just thanked my lucky stars they didn’t get my sleeping bag, too.
After that, I launched a one-man charm offensive. Seeking out and chatting up hamlet officials, the mayor, the folks at the Hunters & Trappers Organization, the kid pumping gas, anyone who crossed my path. Two RCMP constables, following rumors of trouble, found me. I was invited to speak at the next day’s town council meeting, where I introduced myself and talked about my expedition and my wildlife photography.
I listened to the elders’ concerns. In Inuktituk, translated into english for my benefit, with my response translated back into Inuktituk. It was slow going. I addressed their questions and fears as best I could, but some were still deeply suspicious. I invited anyone who wanted to visit down on the boat, offering a tour to assure them I carried no nefarious pinniped sonar warning equipment.
I wish I could say I gave a rousing oration, wowed the room and was greeted with newfound respect and…yes, love… in the community. At this point, I’d be happy with grudging acceptance for a week or two, and then mutual relief when I’m on my way. But life isn’t a movie. I’m just a guy out on the water, finding a measure of personal fulfillment alone in the arctic wilderness while trying to take some new pictures and do my job.
There wasn’t any cinematic scene of departure, just me slinking off into the morning fog. Though I can’t help seeing it through the lens anyway. The plucky little boat motoring off through the ice, a ragged but still ruggedly handsome Ed Harris looking back just once, before the boat disappears behind a veil of mist.
Share

Leave a Reply