The Odyssey of Igtuk Mikktookeeuk
The barrens of the Canadian North are a harsh place, suited only for those few men who can endure its constant rigors. An iron land, iron cold, where the ground is permanently frozen even in the warmest of its short summers. A country where the temperature can drop 60 degrees in a day and the wind chill can reduce it to over a hundred below zero Fahrenheit. Only the strong could survive here, and Igtuk Mikktookeeuk was strong. His Inuit culture was built upon survivors. Ten years earlier when caribou were scarce, Igtuk had joined the postal service. His job was to deliver the mail on the toughest routes, to access the hard to get places, to navigate terrain where nothing else could move other than by dog sled or snowshoe. This is but one of his stories.
The date was Nov. 25th 1974; Igtuk had been given a parcel, which had to be delivered by Dec. 25th, a date the white men called Christmas. The journey would be 1500 miles long, over frozen rivers, lakes and tundra. He would have to average 50 miles a day for 30 days to succeed. As he gazed at the box on his sled he was confident of success, although he held no delusions on the rigors ahead. His 7 dogs were the best in the land, a new breed malamute-wolf-cross. These powerful beasts were avid runners. The lead dog, and his personal favorite was the oldest, yet still strong enough to command the respect of the other dogs. He had affectionately named it Mutt after his late wife. With rations barely enough for 20 days he was fully loaded. He carried 300 lbs. of frozen fish for the dogs, and a bundle of smoked moose meat for himself. Igtuk knew he would have to rely on the land for part of his sustenance. There was only one Macdonald’s in the North and it was far away in Whitehorse.
Leg#1---The first week went by uneventful; Igtuk supplemented his meager rations by shooting 3 ptarmigan with his 30-30 Winchester. He frugally did it with one shot by patiently waiting until they stood in a row. He fed the steaming guts to his ravenous dogs.
Leg#2---Igtuk passes through the land of the dead caribou, so named because many years before an entire herd of them froze to death. Their skeletons could be seen for miles; still standing up, the way they died. When the wind blows the bones make an eerie sound. The natives call them Northern wind chimes. 11 days have now passed.
Leg#3---After crossing a knobby treacherous mountain range called Mik-op-taa-gee by the Inuit (which translates into knobby treacherous mountain range) he came upon the frozen Great Bear River which he traveled up for 100 miles before heading inland to a tract of land called ‘the windy plains’ where no trees grew and nothing stood taller than a foot off the ground and the wind always blew. Up to now his campsites had been well chosen but this one would be poor. Igtuk uses the last of his wood for a small fire and huddles with his dogs. 20 days have now passed.
Leg#4---Windy plain is now far behind, now Igtuk is crossing the ‘Great White Lake’. Care must be taken crossing this huge void as no landmarks of any kind are available and G.P.S.’s haven’t been invented yet. Fortunately the stars are visible and he travels mostly at night. By chopping a hole through the 4 ft thick ice he manages to catch 6 whitefish and 2 large char which feeds him and the dogs. 27 days have elapsed.
Leg#5---Igtuk realizes he is almost out of seal oil, which he had planned on burning at night for heat. He eats the last of his rations when the temperature drops to minus 70. He finally crosses ‘Great White Lake’ and enters the land of Haak-hahn-ha, which actually doesn’t mean anything; they simply had some vowels left over from other place names. Haak-hahn-ha being rolling hill country gives him respite from the wind. 30 days have passed.
Leg#6---Igtuk is roused from a restless sleep to see a pack of wolves drag off his sled dogs. All are killed except Mutt who has wisely remained by his master’s side. Igtuk tries to fire his rifle but the mechanism is frozen, he attempts to thaw it by urinating in the breach but the brittle metal flies apart like glass. Fortunately the wolves depart with the corpses of the dead dogs. Igtuk presses on with Mutt pulling the near empty sleigh and Igtuk walking in his moose hide snowshoes. 34 days gone by.
Leg#7—Igtuk decides to forego the leg system of travel since it is time consuming and tiresome. He opts for a system of 1 leg, which saves recording time. Under extreme cold conditions the human body burns up a lot more energy than in warmer climes. To prevent freezing he had to burn his sled and eat the hide thongs that tied it together, he also had to eat his snow- shoes (which he shared with Mutt). Next to be eaten were his spare deer hide gloves and his sealskin underwear (Mutt wouldn’t eat the underwear). On the 40th day old Mutt passed away. After saying a few words Igtuk cut him up into an assortment of chops and steaks and prepared a fire with his skis (which were for emergencies only) and settled down to a feast. After stuffing himself, he gazed longingly into the dying fire and noticed the remaining ribs from his old pal, and thought to himself, “Gee, Mutt would of liked those bones.”
The next morning, refreshed and invigorated he strapped the parcel to his back and set out. Mercifully the temperature had risen to a balmy 40 below zero. He felt confidence swell in his breast. The address on the parcel was for George McGee, a rustic old trapper, reclusive by nature but friendly and kind. After walking a few miles he could see the plume of white smoke emanating from the river rock chimney of a cabin. With the smoke came the distinct odor of cooked venison. George was home. Igtuk took tremendous pride as he handed the parcel to the old trapper. It turned out to be a gift from his daughter in Vancouver. George gave the appearance of a little boy as he tore open the package. Finally peering inside his smile turned to a scowl and he said “God damned Christmas cake again, Hell I hate the stuff, still got last years, usen it as a door stop, Christ yad think she’d send me something I can use like a new rifle or skinnen knife! Oh what the Hell I guess it’s the thought that counts.” Having said that he threw the cake into a corner where it landed with a resounding bang.
*Aftermath Igtuk and George remained friends for many years and often wintered together. In 1996 during an especially cruel winter their food ran out and ole George got et. Igtuk survived and now works as a Chef in Whitehorse Yukon…