Nunavut hunting stories: out to the floe edge for beluga
Coral Harbour man nabs qinalugaq from an ice pan
When people who are not hunters think of going for a run, they might imagine prancing in expensive sneakers along paved pathways or maybe over spongy tundra, if they live in the Arctic.
When beluga hunters go for a run, they might carry a .30-06 Springfield rifle and a borrowed harpoon and run precariously along an ice edge where it meets open sea and then jump to a free-floating ice pan for better positioning and then stand, and wait, and catch their breath.
So that was Rick Ningeocheak, 26, panting and sweating on an ice pan about 48 kilometres (30 miles) southeast of Coral Harbour on June 6. It was late afternoon. He’d been seal hunting but he could smell the qinalugaq — beluga; could almost taste the maktaaq.
“I’m pretty young and able so it wasn’t that hard,” he said, of his mad dash along the floe edge, weapons in hand.
When told he was being modest, he laughed. “Yeah,” he said.
As the seasons turn in Nunavut, so do harvesters turn to different animals and different places to find country foods. Some are now collecting goose eggs or hunting ptarmigan. Some are anticipating the spring seal pup harvest.
And some, like Ningeocheak and his nephew, Greg Ningeocheak, know that pods of beluga are now feeding at the floe edge off the southern coast of Southampton Island.
As far as Rick knew, no one from Coral Harbour had managed to harvest one yet this spring. It was the pair’s fifth trip to open water in as many days. They were determined.
The two hunters had only moments before stopped for coffee and snacks about a kilometre back from the floe edge when they heard the spray of blow holes and realized the whales were close by.
They had brought a small boat, but there wasn’t time to haul it out. Besides, driving closer to the water would cause too much noise and possibly scare the whales away.
Rick grabbed his weapons and made a beeline for the sea on foot. Greg lagged behind, unable to keep up with “atanarjuat.”
By the time Rick arrived at the edge of the ice, the whales he could see had moved out of range. So he jumped out onto an ice pan and stood there, waiting, under a blazing, late afternoon sun.
“Out of the blue, a pod of eight come out, all white, right beside me, that I didn’t see. My nephew started yellowing at me because he’s behind me on the ice and he’s saying, ‘There’s the whales!’ but I was looking at the sun and couldn’t see them,” he said.
But then he did. So he fired. And they dove. And he thought well, that’s that, another failed attempt. Then one floated to the surface.
If you shoot a beluga in the right spot, just after it inhales and dives down, Rick says, the air in its lungs will keep it afloat for a while. That’s what he did, and it’s a good thing too because the animal was too far for Rick to snag it with the harpoon.
He kept his eyes on it while Greg raced back for the snowmobile and boat, returning about 20 minutes later. Rick hopped in the small boat, paddled out to his prey, stabbed it with the harpoon then paddled back to ice while pulling the white whale behind him.
They attached the rope to the snowmobile and slowly, laboriously, hauled the beluga out of the salty water.
“That was my first time shooting one off the floe edge. I’ve caught many on the boat,” he said. “I was proud, big time.”
And then he did what his father had taught him to do. He brought the catch home, went door to door to the elders and gave them maktaaq, shared some with others he knew, and kept enough for his extended family to enjoy one meal of it together.
And just like that, it was gone.
“A lot of young guys were asking for some but I said, ‘nope.’ It’s got to be elders and older people first because they’re the ones who really crave that, eh? Fresh food,” says Rick.
When asked if he ever considered selling his catch — a growing and controversial practice among Nunavut hunters — he said no.
Hunting is expensive and he said he understands why people sell country foods. But it’s not his way.
He then described struggles he’s had in life but asked politely that we leave that out of the story. He’s just trying to live healthier now, and closer to the land, he said.
“I’d choose hunting over everything,” he said.
“It feels like a very good blessing, joyfulness, ‘cause I know I’ll be giving people food and I grew up hunting and that was my first time catching a whale from the floe edge so I was proud of that too. My mom’s making dips now with the fat. I don’t know, I just feel great. Hunting is fun for me.”