Like Ataata, Like Irni
“Irni, are you ready? Be sure to match your movements with the seal and only fire when it looks up really high. Calm your breath and don’t rush.”
“Yes, ataata. I’m ready.”
He spoke with such confidence for a boy of 13—at that moment I was more nervous than my son. I have been hunting for years and learned how to calm my nerves and slow my breathing, but I was just so excited. I felt like a child again, as if I was the one trying to catch my first seal on that spring morning.
Spring is important to Nunavummiut. After a long, cold winter, it’s an event. The thought of it gets people through the extended dark nights of -30C and colder. In the middle of February, usually with a frostbitten nose, I often say to myself, “The cold weather is an investment in a great spring.” This just means that the sea ice will get thicker, therefore extending its life into the warmer months.
In a place lacking roads anywhere beyond municipal borders, the sea ice is our highway and our snowmobiles and qamutiqs are our vehicles. Even after all the snow on the land has melted, the sea ice remains for a while. Depending on where you are in the Arctic, this sea ice highway may remain open into July, allowing access to camping grounds, fishing spots, and rich hunting areas—all without the risk of freezing any limbs. It is a time of plenty, when food sources are easier to reach. We begin to experience 24-hour daylight and even the seals take time out to enjoy the warmth by sunbathing on the sea ice.
Ringed seals are well adapted to the Arctic and, though it may seem unusual, they do not migrate to open water in the winter. They need air to live so they maintain a number of breathing holes by biting and clawing through the sea ice all winter long. Like us, they love to relax and lay down in the sunlight, sometimes even taking a nap right on the sea ice. It’s definitely a well-deserved Arctic-style siesta after months of rigorous work throughout the winter.
When the weather warms in April and May, you start seeing black dots everywhere on the sea ice. Picture a large smooth expanse similar to salt flats, except it’s floating on the water and it’s teeming with plump seals. Their numbers are estimated in the millions and they are a staple in Nunavut communities. This life-giving food source has sustained Inuit for thousands of years and keeps families fed today. Though common and abundant, seals are very skittish and hard to catch, especially on the sea ice where there is no cover.
Irni and I saw the seal from a distance as a black dot and we slowly drove towards it on our snowmobile. From afar, you must watch its movements in order to get close. If it moves too much or begins raising its head often, then it may be getting nervous. When it gets really nervous, the seal will start to shimmy towards the breathing hole. It will inch closer and closer, sometimes dipping its face in the water. After crawling up on the sea ice, seals will turn to face the breathing hole. This ensures the quickest getaway if predators like people or polar bears approach too closely. So shy are seals that one time an ever-so-annoying raven landed by one and scared it back into the water just as I was preparing to shoot. The raven’s subsequent “Caw! Caw!” resembled a laugh. I wasn’t happy, but all I could do was laugh back.
As we got closer to the seal, we turned the snowmobile’s engine off. I took out and assembled my taluaq. It is a traditional piece of equipment specific for stalking seals. Essentially, it’s a white sheet resembling a small sail and it’s used as camouflage. My wife sewed mine a couple of years ago and it includes a zippered slit to peek through while stalking.
“Irni, stay right behind me, okay?”
As rebellious as teenagers can be—and for all of the attitude they show at times—my own experience has been that they demonstrate a lot of focus and respect while out on the land. We moved slowly, holding the taluaq ahead of us. Depending on how shy your seal is, the stalk is sometimes 50 metres or it can be a few hundred metres. This particular seal allowed us to come fairly close—our stalk was probably less than 100 metres after shutting down our machine.
The key to a successful stalk is to stay downwind and to keep the sun behind you. Seals have poor vision above water. With the sun at your back, you are able to use the glare to your advantage. And if you don’t stay downwind, the seal might smell you. It may not immediately flee, but a whiff of human will heighten their alertness and make your hunt that much harder.
Every 20 or 30 steps we took, we had to stop because most seals are vigilant about their surroundings. They make sure nothing is sneaking up on them and they will wake from their naps often. It amazes me how they can have so many short naps over the span of even 20 minutes.
We took quiet steps, peeking through the zippered slit. As soon as the seal’s big eyes nervously scanned the flat horizon of white, we froze. “Don’t move, irni.” He didn’t say a word. He simply stopped. I wanted to look back as a sign of confirmation, but it was not necessary. This young man already knew what needed to be done. No “good job” or high-five was required.
As soon as the seal’s head dipped back down to rest, we continued to walk. It would perk up and scan the horizon and we would stop again. This repeated itself a few times until we were ready to lie down to take the final shot.
We were probably at 150 metres away. Still, the seal we had been pursuing seemed anxious. It kept looking our way and the increased activity it was showing meant we couldn’t get much closer. We set the blind down carefully and lay on the ice just like the seal. My son loaded a round at my request and I had him settle in to catch his breath. We lay there side by side. He appeared calm. I pretended to be calm.
“Irni, are you ready?” I asked. I reminded him to shoot only when the seal looks up high. He patiently followed the movements of the seal and waited for the perfect moment. He fired and the seal lay there not moving.
“You got it, irni!”
We stood up and I gave him a big hug, holding back the tears from my eyes.
I will never forget that moment. Everything culminated in that shot. All the years of teaching him how to ride a snowmobile, the little lessons on navigation, the target practice on pop cans, the small-game hunting, the endless hours of travel. All the times he watched me hunt, skin, and portion out meat. This same little boy that used to fall asleep in my lap while ptarmigan hunting now caught his first seal. He was so happy.
Part of our family tradition is to drive around town delivering meat after a successful hunt. I grew up with a single mother and I know how hard it can be to make ends meet, especially when it comes to feeding your household. This is why the majority of my catch goes to single mothers in the community. It gives me great pride to be able to provide much cherished country food.
That evening when we did our rounds of deliveries it was from my son’s first seal. He was the one taking portions of meat from the back of our truck, walking up to people’s doors and handing out bags. The joy on people’s faces was priceless. Of course his mother and grandmother got the best cuts and they gave out several kuniks (kisses) to my boy in return.
No culture has ever stood still in time. Although we may use boats, snowmobiles, guns and even cellphones, my traditions remain. They are rooted in the ways of my ancestors going back millennia, but they are not stuck there. I am proud of who I am and for our understanding and respect for animals, our hard work, our need to share. And I make no apologies ever for the food I catch and share.
For years I’ve tried to instill in my son a sense of duty—to serve your community members and to carry on the tradition of sharing.
I now see him doing just that.