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Up Here is pleased to present the winner of this year’s Sally Manning Award for Indigenous Creative Non-Fiction to Peter Igupttaq Autut. A comedian and writer, Autut says this story of a childhood hunting trip with his dad contains “beautiful moments” forever engraved in his mind. Thanks to Michael Kusugak, Richard Van Camp, Cullen Crozier, and Up Here publisher Marion LaVigne for judging this year’s contest. 

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I’d be reading a Stephen King novel way out there, outside of Chesterfield. Inside the igloo, you could wear a sweater and chomp on your Klik and bannock with Red Rose tea. This was after chiselling out 12 feet of ice and putting in the 150-foot gill nets; after travelling at least four hours exposed in the snowmobile and qamutik. This was after building the igloo for at least four people. Then, set up the High Frequency radio to call in 200 kilometres away to Chesterfield Inlet that we were OK. 

By 3 pm, the skies were already having a rave. The stars twinkled and the aurora borealis were starting their rhythm for the night. If you thought there was no music, if you listen closely, just maybe the north wind was ever discreetly singing to the stars and northern lights.

Maybe all this was hard work at minus 42 C. Maybe it was necessary to feed the family, as my Pops’ income solely came from janitorial work. We’d all be dressed in caribou clothing. Everyone seemed to have a job to do. Not much talking but getting ‘er done. Every now and then, look around for animals. It was mostly bare. Maybe a curious fox, hoping for snacks. 

We’d bed the snowmobiles with covers for the next day. The lantern was placed just high enough not to melt the snow, and the Coleman stove was turned low for the night. This was the time to go into one of Stephen’s novels and immerse myself with how the chapter was about to unfold. 

Pops was and is an elder—he could care less if the books were left behind. I needed these to pass the time, and I would go so deep into the book I couldn’t hear the radio. All through the evening you could hear people from all over Nunavut speaking. I’d pay attention, too, when and if someone may be lost or looking for someone else who’s lost. They’d be requesting radio silence then. 

I’d be so warm in the igloo, you’d forget just how cold it was outside, and dark. I’d go to ‘water the plants’ outside and be reminded very quickly it was cold and beautiful. I can’t tell you just how beautiful the night sky is in Nunavut, with the northern lights and stars, and every now and then, a shooting star just to add that ingredient that makes you go, “Wow!” It was the ting in the ear—old man winter biting your ear off—that would remind you to go back inside. 

I’d go back in refreshed and ready to sleep again in an igloo. I’d be looking up and I could see the top layer would be melting, but would not drip down; it would glide to the edge of the igloo. At a certain point it would stop. It was at the right spot between the temperature from the outside and heat from the inside. Before I could say, “pretty cool,” I’d drift off to sleep and I too was joining the rave for the night. 

Pops would turn on the radio about 5 am and he’d be making hot tea and heating up mom’s bannock. We’d have about an hour before things got busy. A few stretches on the caribou-fur bedding. We’d be getting ready Sunday to go and get the tuktu now. We’d tie up the qamutik. Everything had its place. We even had a spot for the future catch of the tuktu. 

It was so far away from technology—no TV, no radio (well, HF radio). We were out there. We’d pack up knowing we only had a few hours to find the tuktu in the few hours of daylight we had in minus 40. It was the female caribou with no calf we were looking for in December, January, and February. It was interesting that they were the only ones running away and the others that we weren’t after were hanging out like it was feeding time. 

Once we had the catch, Pops made a quick butcher of them. We’d still have to go back to the nets, but they’d most times be only 20 kilometres away or so. Once we got back to the nets, we slowed down and focused. It didn’t matter now how dark or how windy it got. This was just before GPS was getting popular. You still needed the paper map to connect the numbers to where you were. Pops had this way of travelling like the old ways, using the snowdrifts and wind. It was quite amazing to watch. At the time, I didn’t know just how far back his technique was from. I appreciate it that much more that I got to witness his way of communicating with the land. If the sky was clear, he could use those stars, too. 

We’d have only a couple minutes to take the fish off the gill nets. At minus 40, it wasn’t long before they froze. We’d work with no mitts. When I was younger, I’d be lucky to take off one fish. As I got older and had a better sense of working with the nets, it was quicker. We’d usually have one fish out for about half an hour. It was frozen enough, but not that much and Pops would cut it up and we’d have that for early supper with hot tea and bannock. 

Once everything was wrapped, and Pops had his cig, it was go time. We’d only average about 40 to 50 kilometres per hour. It wasn’t fast, but wasn’t slow either. There on the sled, I’d be looking at stars, passing the time. It could be a four-hour ride. Pops usually timed it perfect to mom’s cooking.

Back home, there were homemade donuts, hot bread, and caribou stew. Sometimes, mom surprised us with lemon meringue pie—well, it was more for Pops cause that’s his favourite. But like the little fox, we’d get a piece too if we worked hard enough. 

We’d bring in a couple caribou and about 20 char, and I’d have to go to several elders’ houses to bring them some caribou and char. I didn’t like this, but had to. I’d try to make a quick getaway, run back home to where all the food was. I really didn’t like to bring the char to the elders. I was young and had my own thing of dos and don’ts, I guess. It’s amazing, after all these years, people’s families still recognize me as the kid who brought the char for their parents. I’m like, “No, mom made me do it!” They still praise me. Thanks, mom. 

Pops never made it feel like hard work. In between standing in the cold, building the igloo, we always had time for quick smiles and enjoying what we were doing. I close my eyes, and there are certain areas of the land that are ever close in my mind, yet thousands of miles away in reality. I got to play outside in the cold, yet that wasn’t a factor. We sure respected the cold but we got along just fine on those weekends. 

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Originally from Chesterfield Inlet, Peter Igupttaq Autut is a comedian and writer who won the first ever Crackup Iqaluit Comedy Competition in 2018.