Canadians who love their Shield--
To see it bare
Should venture to the Arctic
And view it there.
--Jim Flosdorf, Poems from the Soper River
Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada
15 May, 1976
When the letter came inviting Benton to spend the summer with his friends Innusiq and June and their family in Grise Fiord, he could barely contain his excitement. Of course, his grandmother forbade him to go. “Such a harsh, rough place for a youngster,” she pronounced. Benton wanted to point out that Innusiq was three weeks younger than him and his sister was two years younger than that, but decided it wasn't worth it. Trying to talk to Gran when she got like this was like talking to a post.
His grandfather came to his rescue.
“Nonsense, Martha. Seems to me you had plenty of adventures as a girl, and you’re no worse for the wear. Better, even, because you learned from them.”
“That was different. There was a purpose for my travels, George, and you know it. I was helping my parents with their missionary work. I don’t know what kind of learning Benton could do in Grise Fiord that he can’t do right here.”
“Grise Fiord has all kinds of history, Gran.” The story of how the Inuit came to live in such a desolate, barren place was a chapter of Canadian history that was both fascinating and tragic. The Grise Fiord residents were descendants of a cruel and selfish 1953 government resettlement program that forced a group of Inuit families into exile in a harsh and barren land, far from home and utterly against their will. The exiles adapted, mostly by learning the migration patterns of the beluga. They adapted because they had to, because their only alternative was starvation. Somewhere along the way, adaptation turned to acceptance, and despite its terrible beginning, Grise Fiord was now home to over a hundred residents.
“Nothing you can’t learn from books, Benton.”
Benton had plenty of books, and some of them were about Grise Fiord and the northern settlements. But this wasn’t the only kind of knowledge Benton craved. Ever since a death in the family had forced his friends to move away last year he had wanted to visit them in their new home. Not only because he missed them—which he did, sorely—but also because he knew that Innusiq was sure to be busy collecting stories and legends from the Grise Fiord branch of his family. Innusiq was forever looking for new tales, and Benton couldn’t wait to hear them. These were stories that couldn’t be found in books—or told in the occasional letter Benton received. These stories were part of a long oral tradition, and were meant to be heard, not read. Not that his grandmother would approve, not at all. Martha Fraser didn’t cotton to oral traditions—she preferred facts, preferably in print.
“Now, Martha, there are plenty of things a boy can learn that aren’t in books.”
Gran shot her husband an annoyed look. “Name one.”
Granddad folded his arms across his chest. “New fishing techniques,” he said, catching Benton’s eye.
“Yeah, Gran, fishing is really important in Grise Fiord, on account of how you really can’t grow much there.” Benton didn’t actually know if fishing techniques in Grise Fiord were any different from the ones in Inuvik, but he was sure fishing was important there, so he wasn’t really lying.
“The boy could learn a lot of practical things, Martha. Maybe even a few that’d be useful at home”.
“Like fishing, Gran. And Mr. Panikpak knows how to build a lot of stuff. He can teach me how to build a qamutik.
Grandad nodded. “The boy’s right, Martha. There aren’t many left who can build a sled like Eugene Panikpak.” Benton nodded in what he hoped was an encouraging manner.
Gran looked stern for a minute, then thoughtful, then stern again. “Well I suppose it’s all right. But I want you to take your journal, Benton, and write down everything you learn.”
“Yes, Gran. Absolutely.” With that, Benton ran off to make a packing list.
Grise Fiord, Northwest Territories, Canada
12 June, 1976
Lying at the southernmost tip of Ellesmere Island, Grise Fiord is the northernmost civilian settlement on the planet. The Inuit who live there call it Aujuittuq, the Place that Never Thaws. To fifteen-year-old Benton, this seemed the more accurate name.
Benton’s trip was long—over the winter road to Tuktoyaktuk, onto a small plane that would take him to Resolute Bay and another small plane bound for Grise Fiord. Innusiq and June met him at the airport, in the company of both of their parents as well as several smaller children who Benton assumed were some of the Grise Fiord cousins. Upon his arrival the entire group descended upon him—even the cousins, hugging him and ruffling his hair. Benton wasn’t surprised at all, because this was Innusiq, and Innusiq's family was Benton’s family, and oh, how he had missed them.
“Are you hungry, Benton?” Mrs. Panikpak asked, after Benton’s luggage was safely stowed in the back of the Panipak’s truck and they were headed away from the airport.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied.
“Mum has a feast ready for us in your honour, Benton,” said June.
“All signs point to ‘yes’”, said Innusiq, reminding Benton of the times they had played Magic 8 Ball in the summer twilight after Gran had gone to bed.
And indeed there was Maktaaq, and bannock, and corn dogs, and seal liver. The teenagers played (sometimes loud and rollicking) games with the smaller children; although the little two-bedroom house was small, everyone seemed to fit just fine. Benton ate some of everything, and then had seconds. He was contemplating thirds when he noticed that the hubbub around him had quieted. The children crowded around Innusiq’s dad, who had begun to speak in a low, serious voice.
June pulled on Benton’s arm. “Story time, Benton, come on!” Benton nodded and sat down on the floor between June and Innusiq, and listened.
”One day in the old times, when everyone could be what they wanted and there was no difference between animals and people, a fox and a hare were having an argument. It was dark, and the fox was happy; he thought darkness was best, because it brought him cover and made it easier to hunt. Sometimes in the darkness the fox could even steal from the traps of the human beings without getting caught. Now, the hare did not agree. She wanted light so she could spot the small plants that grow very close to the ground and make up a very nice supper.
The argument between the hare and the fox began to grow angry and loud, as arguments sometimes do. ‘Darkness is best!’ yelled the fox. ‘Darkness, darkness, darkness!’ ‘No, Light is best!’, cried the hare. ‘Light, light, light!’. And suddenly, the darkness everywhere was replaced by light, because as everyone knows, light is more powerful. But dark came again, and then light, and then dark, each one taking turns. And so it is today.”
Innusiq had been listening raptly, chin in hand, elbow on knee. He had probably heard the story a hundred times, but it didn’t matter, because it was a story of his people, exactly as true as every story ever told. This was something Benton’s grandmother would never understand. It wasn't that Gran didn't like stories, it was just that to her a story was only important for its historical value. Benton wished sometimes that his family was more like Innusiq’s, for whom stories were like breathing, and the line between myth and history was a faint one. After all, a story like this one was even more important in a place where it was dark around the clock for four months out of every year.
After the smaller cousins had been carried off to bed, Benton sat in the front room with June and Inussiq. “I brought you each a present”, he told them. He reached into a knapsack at his feet and pulled out a small frame that held a picture of all three of them. They were several years younger and dressed in Scout uniforms. He handed it to June, who was sitting next to him.
“Hey, it’s us!”
Innusiq laughed, craning his neck to see from the recliner. “Hard to believe we were ever that young, eh?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” shrugged Benton. ” It wasn’t so long ago.”
Suddenly a small voice called from the bedroom. “Junie! Hey, Juuunie!”
“Uh-oh, that’s Penny. I forgot I promised her a story before bed. See you guys later, this could take a while.” June stood up and headed toward the bedroom, but before she left she planted a quick kiss on Benton’s cheek. “Thanks, Benton, that’s a really nice present.”
Benton willed himself not to blush but failed miserably. “You’re welcome.”
After June left, Innusiq took her place on the couch next to Benton. “So, what’d you get me, huh?”
“Who says I got you anything?”
“Um, you did?”
“I did? Oh. Yeah, I guess I did.”
“So, what is it?” Innusiq peered over Benton’s shoulder, trying to see into the knapsack.
“Well, um. It’s not much, but—“
“Just let me see it, okay?”
“Okay. “ Benton pulled out a square box and placed it in Innusiq’s outstretched hands.
“It’s a Magic 8 Ball!”
“Wow, thanks, Benton, it’s a perfect present."
“You really like it?” It was obvious that his friend liked the gift, but Benton, being fifteen, wanted to hear him say it.
Innusiq opened the box and pulled out the toy. Smiling broadly, he turned it over and read the message inside in a Very Serious Voice. “IT IS DECIDEDLY SO."
Benton laughed. “I don’t know what would have happened if it had said, “BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW."
“I guess I’d better not tell you now,” said Innusiq simply. “I, um. Got you something, too."
“You didn’t have to—" Benton was much better at giving presents than he was at receiving them.
“Of course I didn’t have to, stupid. I wanted to.” And with that, a small package was pressed into Benton’s hands. He opened it carefully—this obviously wasn’t some plastic toy. Inside was a replica of a qamutik like the kind Innusiq’s dad made. It was hand-carved, its runners and straps unpainted but well-sanded and varnished.
“You made this?”
“Wow, it’s—I don’t know what to say.”
“’Thanks, Innusiq’ might work.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard.” Innusiq wasn’t quite laughing, but he had a gleam in his eye that told Benton he was close to it.
“Hey, so. I have something else for you.”
“But you just gave—“
“No. Something else.” Laughing, Innusiq grabbed Benton’s wrist and pulled him through the front door, leading him at a run across the yard to the small shed Innusiq's father used for a workshop.
The air inside was warm from the stove that had only recently been turned off.
Innusiq clasped Benton’s arms and pulled him down onto a bench. They sat like that, faces close together, for a long minute. Innusiq’s expression was thoughtful, as if he were deciding something very important.
“Something else,” he whispered, and kissed Benton softly on the mouth.
A little while later, Benton gave Innusiq a similar gift in turn.
They had many more adventures that amazing Arctic summer.
And for Christmas, Innusiq visited Benton in Inuvik. But that story is for another day. Fortunately, like all stories, it is patient, and can wait.