Days began and ended at the fishnets. The haul of iqalupik, arctic char, was so plentiful that soon each tent was flanked by a small stand of stiff pink bodies, stuck tails first into deep drifts of snow. When we got hungry, we simply slipped an arm out the door and snagged a fish. Sometimes we cut it up and made soup. More often we ate it raw, slicing the char into our mouths. Frozen sushi, Marvin called it, fresh and cold, almost tasteless, with a note of steel from the knife blade.
Beyond the nets, our hours vanished into a well of small tasks. In the day's few hours of weak sunlight, there were stoves to tend, ice to melt for drinking water, tents to relocate when the ice below them turned to slush. Snowmobiles regularly broke down in the unforgiving cold. At one point, a mother polar bear appeared near camp with two cubs, which made the act of heading off alone to relieve oneself -- already dismal enough in the puckering cold -- an even uglier prospect.
During the mission I shared a tent with Marvin Atqittuq and his father, Jacob, who at 74 was one of Gjoa Haven's most celebrated hunters. Jacob Atqittuq had been born in an igloo and spoke only enough English to make occasional jokes. Over his lifetime he'd survived brutal winters and hungry bears, searing frostbite, boat accidents, even a season of famine that had killed many Inuit. Each morning he woke before us, and at the foot of the broad mattress we all shared, he cooked bannock, a sweet, doughy bread, and softly sang old church hymns in Inuktitut.