The high Arctic Northwest of Baffin Island is a land without color. It consists mostly of gray whaleback hills rising out of a gray moraine, and the only highlights to draw the eye are the patches of snow and the occasional ice boulders, still present even in this midsummer landscape. "Canada's gulag," I told myself. "First they deep-froze it, then they photographed it in black and white." I tied a suitably somber black-bladed spoon on the line and flipped it out into the flat, gray waters of Stanwell-Fletcher Lake. The spoon had traveled to within five yards of the rocks at my feet when this pallid scene suddenly burst into color. Just as Dorothy's monochromatic Kansas whirled into the Technicolor of the Land of Oz, so now the leaden, lifeless waters of the lake blossomed into an extravaganza of silver and rose-pink.
"At last we meet, my beautiful Pink Lady!" crooned Nathaniel, our guide. The Pink Lady is a member of that sleek, mysterious, powerful race Salvelinus alpinus, commonly known as the Arctic char and found only in northern waters. Specifically, this lady was of the anadromous, or sea-run, manifestation of the species. And while she was a shimmering beauty, the char was shy enough—and strong enough—to have sped 100 yards away in an instant on the six-pound-test, heading helter-skelter for the ice still out on the lake.
I found myself shaking with surprise. Not seconds ago, before the fish crashed my lure, those eight translucent feet of water that covered the dark boulders close to shore had seemed utterly empty. I estimated the char weighed around 12 pounds. That rosy flush on her sides, fading to orange on the belly, was the spawning color the fish had taken on when she entered the lake from the ocean. Yet she was no fragile beauty. As A.J. McClane, the doyen of American angling writers, says in Game Fish of North America, "This may be quite literally the strongest fish that swims."
It had looked for a while, though, as if I would have no chance to verify McClane's bold assessment. For nearly three days I had been socked in at Resolute Bay by freezing rain and fog. This bay is not capriciously named; it is an outpost of 130 indeed resolute individuals, 625 miles inside the Arctic Circle and about 262 miles short of the magnetic North Pole.
August 23, 1987
There at the Narwhal Hotel—a facility that had unmistakably started life as a couple of Quonset huts—others were also on hold. Among them: the crew of a Royal Canadian Air Force ice patrol; a group of tin miners waiting to fly into some unimaginable workings farther north; and one scholarly-looking, silent man assumed by all to be attached to a Canadian-U.S. Star Wars project rumored to exist nearby.
Once there had been a bar at the Narwhal; an upstairs room still bore the legend THE RESOLUTE BAY YACHT CLUB. But "the privilege was abused," said a member of the hotel staff primly, "and it was closed down." Thus the wildest moment of excitement during my stay at the Narwhal came when a tomato blossom was discovered on a plant that grew in a hydroponic tank. "Unreal! Unreal!" gasped a corporal in the Mounties, the law in these parts.
Meanwhile I pondered the prospect, should I ever get out of Resolute, of meeting both an extraordinary family of Inuit—or Eskimos—and an extraordinary species of fish. The two groups happened to coexist at Creswell Bay Outpost Camp, on Somerset Island, a spot so remote that it made Resolute seem like a Club Med. At Creswell Bay would be found, I was told, one of the last families of the Inuit to still live year-round in the wilderness. It was also classic Arctic char country. Five miles of wild river linked the bay with Stanwell-Fletcher Lake, a 30-mile-wide body of water. According to the map, extending from the far side of the lake was an unnamed stream where the char would mass for spawning.
It was noon, and outside the window of the Narwhal, the thermometer registered 29 degrees. Ten feet beyond, the world was lost in cotton candy. Unless the fog cleared soon, this expedition would be over before it had started. Just as all conversation threatened to die, a tin miner suddenly yelled, "They're talking about a clearance around 4 p.m.!" Three hours later I was loading rod cases, tackle boxes and boil-in-the-bag Chicken Kiev into the chartered Twin Otter. In another hour the Otter was squealing to a high-tailed halt 150 empty miles away at Creswell Bay.
Historians tell us that the first serious misunderstanding between a European and the Inuit happened in 1576 when an irascible English explorer named Martin Frobisher sailed into what is now Frobisher Bay, under the impression that he had discovered the fabled Northwest Passage. He encountered problems with the locals that culminated when one of them "hurte the Generall in the Buttocke with an arrow."
As we jumped down from the Otter, I determined to be somewhat more diplomatic than Frobisher. I had been thoroughly lectured on the subject of the local people while in Resolute. "The Inuit are great guides, born guides," I was told by an Arctic veteran. "They'll stay out all day and night with you until you get your char or your caribou because it is regarded as shameful to come home without the quarry. But sport fishing they just do not comprehend at all. If you need to own some fish, they reason, they would be happy to net some for you. And don't let them see you release fish. It actually makes them angry, though that's hard to tell because they never shout. They always speak in a flat monotone, which evolved out of the necessity of living harmoniously as part of a big family cooped up in the dark for half of every year in a kitchen-sized igloo made out of tundra sod."
All this I recalled on the beach at Creswell Bay, where the Inuit patriarch, Timothy Idlout, and his wife, Nungat, their daughter Martha and son-in-law Nathaniel Kalluk awaited us, as did the characteristic detritus of an Arctic beach. There were the flayed carcasses of two beluga whales and enough empty 50-gallon diesel oil drums to have fueled D Day. The Arctic, it seems, is where fuel drums come to die.
Nathaniel, fluent in English, would be our guide, but first there had to be a ritual conversation with Timothy, translated by his daughter. "Of course the fish are here," Timothy said through Martha, surprised by our naivetè. "They come every year." He leaned forward and spoke again in Inuktitut. "He says," Martha translated, "you must cook the red ones, but try the gray fish raw." The gray fish are the yet-to-spawn char; the "red ones" are the males in scarlet spawning dress and the brilliant pink spawning females. Timothy continued: If we found it hard to catch char with the fishing rods we had brought, he said, he and his son-in-law could spear them in abundance in the river with the traditional kakivak, or gather them from the sea with the family net. Through Martha, we declined with thanks. Timothy giggled. "He thinks," said his daughter shyly, "that going after the fish with a rod is a little bit foolish."
Nathaniel rigged up living quarters on the beach for the six of us in the fishing party—three ancient, wood-framed tents. When we asked Nathaniel where we would be fishing, he pointed right in front of our camp. "High tide is the time," he said. "In a couple of hours from now. I'll be back." And off he roared on his three-wheel ATV to Creswell Bay Outpost Camp, about a quarter of a mile down the beach.
When Nathaniel returned, he had brought his boat, an aluminum craft with an outboard motor. "I thought we'd be fishing right here," I said.
"You are," said Nathaniel. "I need the boat to run my net out."
Remember Frobisher, I told myself. Carefully I explained that I thought perhaps a net would interfere with the rod fishing. Nathaniel looked at me. "You don't have to worry," he said. Then he leapt into his boat and began paying out the nylon net for 50 yards in a line from the beach, the white styrofoam floats bobbing on the gray surface. I began casting. Nothing hit my lures and it all seemed a little farcical, when, halfway along the net, the floats went into wild commotion. A patrol of char, working along the shoreline, had hit the entangling mesh in a silver explosion. We kept casting. Nothing. Then the net exploded again. And a third time.
At last I understood. "We're fishing on the wrong side of the net," I said, feeling stupid. "The fish are coming the other way." Nathaniel nodded in cheerful agreement.
Our group of five anglers moved a mere 50 yards to the east, and for the next two hours around the top of the tide, char hit our spoons. They ranged from 4 pounds to 16, and all fought like tigers, as advertised. They were all business, with none of the jumping or tail-walking of their trout and salmon relatives; instead they showed a steadfast refusal to give in to the pressure of the line—with sudden interruptions of powerful runs. The char were silver-gray, dappled with faintest pink and entirely beautiful. When we had landed them, we found they were stuffed, literally to the gills, with tiny, shrimplike creatures.
Nathaniel hauled in his net, so teeming with char that it took him an hour to clear it. I knew that gillnetting had already left some of the great char waters to the south barren and that the frontier of the species was being pushed relentlessly northward. But my immediate concerns were allayed when I was told this was not Nathaniel's regular practice. Today he was stocking up for the winter, and would cut a hole in the permafrost and freeze the fish. I think, too, that Nathaniel wanted to prove something. He had. We now knew that Creswell Bay was crammed with char.
Happily we kept proving that point over the next few days. But a further call beckoned: to set out for Stanwell-Fletcher Lake and that unnamed river on the map to try to find "the red ones" at the place where the char's spawning journey ended. Like the Pacific salmon's, the Arctic char's spawning livery is brilliant. But unlike Pacific salmon, the char does not die grotesquely misshapen and diseased at the end of the spawning run. The spawning char remain shapely, their color ranging from pink to vivid scarlet. These fish are a rare and spectacular trophy. Tomorrow, Nathaniel said, we would attempt to go upriver to seek them out.
That night a wind sprang up from the north with freezing rain and snow flurries that drove through the manifold fissures and rents in my ancient tent. To my personal research dossier I could add that for sheer, quintessential, miserable cold, nothing compares with being wrapped in a soaking wet musk-ox robe at three o'clock of an Arctic morning. After my tent roof collapsed, I spent the rest of the night in the commissary tent, cuddled up to a mound of freeze-dried Salisbury steak.
In the morning we started upriver with Nathaniel's smaller boat, forced to haul it by rope through the turbulent waters of high tide. We trudged along shore and had made less than a mile when the boat's stern swung toward midstream, caught a heavy current and dragged us toward the river. It was an equal contest as to which would get us first, the boiling current or hypothermia. It was luck that swept the boat into a slack eddy instead of downriver.
But the old craft had taken some knocks and now was taking on water. Nathaniel announced he would have to take it back to the outpost for repair. "I'll be back for you in a short time," he said. "Stay and fish. There's plenty here." He demonstrated with his kakivak, spearing two char at once. I told Nathaniel I would accompany him while the others stayed to fish.
As we reached the outpost, two wild-eyed teenagers met us on the beach. They were Peter and David, Timothy's youngest sons, who lived alone on the far side of the river. Their shouted news—in Inuktitut—caused Nathaniel to run for his cabin. He emerged with an ancient brass spyglass and climbed to the roof, where he lay prone, focusing the glass out to sea. "Narwhal," he said. "The boys saw two narwhal in the bay."
Though I had never seen one, I knew that the male narwhal is that spectacular species of whale that, like a kind of marine unicorn, bears a single long twisted tusk projecting from its head. Before the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 forbade their import into the U.S., just two of those ivory spears would have fetched enough to keep Creswell Bay Outpost in snowmobile fuel for a decade. Even now a spear brings around $500—more than enough to secure the undivided attention of Nathaniel. Moreover, eight or so properly butchered narwhals would provide enough red meat to feed his dog team through the entire winter. (The hunting of narwhals is not forbidden in Canada to the Inuit.)
Nathaniel stayed on the roof for more than two hours. Then he came down and said, "Let's go look for them at sea." I reminded him that we'd left the others, hours earlier, up on the river. Nathaniel stared at me as if at an idiot child. "Narwhal in the bay," he said.
We motored out to sea. Nathaniel watched intently for two more hours until he decided that the whales had left. We returned to the outpost, and I presumed the day was now shot. Tomorrow we had to leave; the beautiful pink fish of the lake would not be ours. But I had not taken into consideration the obverse side of Inuit psychology, the side that keeps them going indefatigably when there is a serious hunting or fishing objective. "Let's go to the lake," said Nathaniel. "The tide will be better now. It will help us." We rejoined the others. The trek upriver with the boat was indeed easier now, with the high tide holding up the water, but even so the five-mile push upstream was long and arduous. It was 5 p.m. before Stanwell-Fletcher gleamed in front of us, lying among bleak hills.
We all climbed into the boat and set a course for the unnamed river, still 27 miles away on the far side of the lake. Soon we had the first intimation of further trouble—an odd tinkling music. The water became increasingly full of what looked like tiny crystal boats, broken ice fragments that, farther along, turned into an ice sheet. This year, we now saw with chagrin, there was no full melting of the ice on the lake. We would never reach the spawning grounds, and it seemed, we would have no shot at a char in its brilliant wedding regalia.
But Nathaniel brought the boat alongside a rocky point. "We could try along the shoreline," he said. We scrambled out, looked around at those frozen monochrome barrens and began casting. "Canada's gulag," I said to myself. And then, in that flash of color, I met the Pink Lady.
I'll never know whether it was by pure luck or by Nathaniel's brilliant guidance that we had hit on the chief freeway used by the char to migrate to the far side of the lake. Mostly we hooked the gray char, recently arrived from the sea, but occasionally there came a male in vivid scarlet livery. Oddly, though, there was just one Pink Lady and no more.
But, perhaps, with such an elusive prize, one is enough.