Article

How We See the Land

In this personal essay, author and cultural historian David Pelly shares insightful stories from his northern travels that helped him better understand Inuit ways of perceiving the land. Seeing the landscape as a matrix of linear paths, rather than a broad area, helps Inuit hunters travel safely across the tundra.
Crossing sea ice Rae Strait Nunavut Arctic dogsled

© David Pelly

On the day of our departure from Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), crossing the sea ice in Rae Strait, from King William Island to the mainland

Thirty years ago, when I was a younger man, perhaps made of tougher stuff, I travelled by dog team with Inuit friends for twelve days from Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), across Rae Strait, up into the highlands and across the Boothia Peninsula, back down onto the sea ice, then southeast to the community known today as Kugaaruk (formerly Pelly Bay). It was a formidable and memorable journey for us all, in different ways.

Inukshuk de la Guiche Point Nunavut

© David Pelly

The inuksuk at De la Guiche Pointe, John Rae’s point of farthest advance in 1854, where we left the sea ice late on day two of our expedition to begin the crossing of Boothia Peninsula.

Along the way, there was a particular incident (among several, really) which has stayed with me. We were high in the hills of the Boothia: beautiful country, scoured by the glaciers, as wild and rugged as anywhere I’ve travelled. Our four sleds followed the valleys for the most part, crossing myriad frozen lakes along the way. But on one occasion, unexplained at the time, we trailed behind the lead team to climb slowly up a backslope onto a height of land.

There we stood, gazing out over something like 10,000 square kilometres of “empty” spectacular landscape. Our leader, aptly named Okpik (meaning “a snowy owl”), was seeing in his mind a landscape made up of lines, in this case the twisting valleys and ridges that defined our trail. Although he was briefly uncertain which of the sinuous curves to follow, he was equally unperturbed.

Crossing valleys and narrow lakes central Boothia Peninsula

© David Pelly

The expedition route followed sinuous valleys and crossed long narrow lakes in the central Boothia.

As it happened, I had not revealed previously that, stashed away in my pack, I had the detailed, government-survey topographic maps which covered our route. I chose this moment to offer the maps for his use. He dismissed the suggestion out of hand—they were of no interest to him in that context. I knew he was good at reading maps—we had spent some hours during the planning of this little expedition the year before poring over the maps in detail. Perhaps he was humouring me, but he certainly knew his way around a map.

More critical for Okpik during the planning phase was the visit we paid to his father-in-law, a respected elder in the community of Uqsuqtuuq at the time. The old man spoke; we listened. He described in compelling detail the 500-kilometre journey; every landmark along the way had a name and a story. That “story-line” became embedded in Okpik’s memory forever.

Peter Okpik expedition leader inside iglu

© David Pelly

Peter Okpik, leader of the expedition, relaxing in the iglu after a day’s travel

From atop that hill on the Boothia Peninsula, the most northerly piece of continental North America, at more or less the mid-point of our journey, Okpik was able to pick out the story-line from the maze of lines at his feet, and regain our way. Linear conceptualization of the territory provided a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic landscape. That night, we built our iglu exactly where he had expected. He knew the spot—it had a story.

It was while thinking about all this later, as we bumped along gently over the crusted snow, back on our intended trail, that I remembered another experience, and realized it was somehow related.

Climbing hills into Boothia Peninsula by dogsled

© David Pelly

Crossing a frozen lake high in the hills of the Boothia Peninsula

Ten years before this dog sled trip in the High Arctic, I was living in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) and had occasion to travel with a friend around his fox trapline. Normally, that would have been a pleasant two-day trip, with a single overnight in an iglu beside the Kazan River, less than a hundred kilometres, as the raven flies, south of Qamani’tuaq.

On that occasion, however, an unexpected blizzard blew in that first night, and kept us locked in our iglu for days. On day four of this, sensing that we’d both had enough, Tulurialik suggested that we “go outside for some fresh air.” The blizzard was still raging. At a distance of only three metres, I lost sight of my companion beside the iglu, before quickly retracing my steps downwind to find him again. He was calmly brushing accumulated snow from the snowmobile.

Patterns of uqalurait wind packed snow

© David Pelly

Patterns of uqalurait (sastrugi) on wind-packed snow, long used as an aid for direction finding

Of one thing I was certain: if he was going somewhere on that machine, I wanted to go with him. We tore away across the bumpy ridges of windswept snow. Without the clue of gravity, it would have been almost impossible to tell which way was up in the boil of wind and snow that surrounded us.

Tulurialik sped across the frozen river for at least ten minutes before stopping. We’d lost track of our iglu, which was forgivable in such limited visibility. Tulurialik, however, was unperturbed. He joked about "being lost," a state he understood in my terms, but which was completely unreal to him. He remained confident, driving on even farther in the same straight line.

After a few minutes, he stopped and pointed at a bare tip of rock protruding from the snow. "I remember that rock," he assured me.

Iglu where author and Tulurialik sheltered during blizzard

© David Pelly

After the storm subsided, Tulurialik and I emerged from this iglu after several days’ confinement.

Later, back in the iglu over hot tea, Tulurialik explained that he had kept going in a straight line even after we were "lost" because he knew he’d eventually encounter a familiar landmark to give him his bearings. Four days prior, he’d noticed that small protruding rock and he remembered it. If not the rock, there would have been something else.

Like most non-Inuit wilderness travellers, I carry a map and remain conscious of my location on that spatial surface. I view the surrounding land as my area, for the moment at least. An older Inuk travels differently. Rather than areal thinking, he sees the world around as linear.

Barnabus Pirjuaq left and David Pelly right near Qamanituaq 1984

© David Pelly

Barnabus Pirjuaq (left) and David Pelly, out on the land north of Qamani’tuaq, 1984. Over many years of travel with Inuit friends, primarily on extended hunting trips for the family’s food, David was able to observe many of the traditional skills and instincts which for centuries guided Inuit travel.

It was the same for Okpik on top of that hill in the Boothia. He was looking for a line. Later in the trip, I asked Okpik to draw me a map of our route. He took my blank sheet of paper and drew several large dots on it. It soon became apparent that each one represented a specific location along the trail for him, all of which had placenames.

Once all the dots were placed in what he deemed to be the correct relative positions, he connected them with a line and handed the completed map back to me. Landmarks off the route were, apparently, of little consequence. The path was seen as free-standing, not tied to the environment around it. Okpik's map reflected his view of space. It was very much route-oriented, drawn to illustrate our trail rather than all his geographical knowledge of the area.

Isaac Tavalok young hunter Uqsuqtuuq

© David Pelly

Isaac Tavalok, a young hunter from Uqsuqtuuq and one of the men on the Boothia expedition, reflects on the old ways of navigation as he looks for the line that will define his trail

Inuit are right, of course. If you could rise up above the barrenlands and look down, you would see a landscape filled with lines made by rivers, eskers, and caribou paths, all running with some regularity in a linear pattern across the tundra. For the areal thinker to get this linear view, we have to separate ourselves from the landscape. Inuit instinctively adopt this perspective at ground level, with themselves in it. It is an ancient skill that, for millennia, was key to their survival and today is all but supplanted by modern technologies like GPS.

For Inuit, traditional navigation included use of the stars, of course, a sensitivity to the prevailing wind, and the patterns of uqalurait (known as “sastrugi” in English, from the Russian) on the wind-packed snow. But more than anything, it was their instincts for the land as a matrix of lines which led them safely out for the hunt and back home to the iglu.

About the Author

David F. Pelly

David led his first Arctic expedition in 1977, beginning a northern career spanning the decades since. During that time he published ten books and countless articles about the north, the land, its history, and its people.

Much of David’s work has been rooted in the collection of oral-history and traditional knowledge from Inuit elders. In 2012 he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal "for dedication to the preservation of Inuit oral history and traditional knowledge [and for his] many works to help increase Canadians' understanding of the North."

In his latest book The Ancestors Are Happy: True Tales of the Arctic, he writes of the Arctic as a landscape of stories.

Currently, David spends much of his time managing the Ayalik Fund, which gives Inuit youth who would otherwise not have such opportunities a chance to build self-esteem and confidence through challenging outdoor adventure. For more information or to donate, please visit the Ayalik Fund website.

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