Swimming for Eggs

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

From the waist up, I am wearing a number of t-shirts, a tight white tank top, a turtleneck, one cardigan and two sweaters—one cotton, one wool,  one hooded—two scarves, one hat and two mitts. From the waist down, I am naked, wading deeper into an Arctic pond at the northernmost tip of the Canadian mainland. It’s early July but snow still piles at the bases of the tundra bluffs and a sheet of unbroken ice still spans the northern bowl of Foxe Basin, along the south coast of Baffin Island. I am outnumbered by the birds several flocks to one. Twenty feet ahead, there is an unguarded nest of seagull eggs on top of a boulder at roughly eye level; in between, a drop in the pond floor of two to three feet. If I want those eggs, I am going to have to swim for them.

I have not eaten an animal product in 16 years.

I want those eggs.

I am a vegan who came to Nunavut with the intention to kill and eat as much and as many different species of meat as humanly digestible. I trained for it. In the months leading up to my trip, I rented a screening room in the NFB Mediatheque in downtown Toronto, and watched hours of near-silent, vintage carnage on faded pink film stock. Generations of fur-clad Inuit with names like Tuktu, Nanook and Ukpik butchered bright red caribou on white, white snow, while carmine cubes of Arctic char dried on whalebone racks in the background. In Land of the Long Day, I watched a Baffin Island Inuk turn a fat seal into a pair of kammiit (boots), a week of fuel for the family oil lamp, several meals of Inuit macaroni (boiled intestines) and a 50-foot rope that will hold under four tons of pressure. I fell in love with the rough precision of the hunters’ hands, their whispered words, spoken only for each other, and the instant, direct connection between a dying animal and the life it provides for the people who kill it. Eventually, I would get to experience the intimacy of many Inuit hunts firsthand. But the hunt I loved first required no tools, no bloodshed and I found portrayed in no films: the Nunavut spring egg hunt.

“Where are you going?”

This must be an existential question.

It’s the middle of the night and I’ve just crawled out of a canvas tent into a landscape that looks and feels a bit like the ocean floor. A beach of white cobblestones stretches to the left and right, rising to an inland tundra in tidal steppes. There is no night or day in mid-summer at 70 degrees latitude and I have no way of knowing how long it’s been since I knew where I was. I know I’m hunting on Melville Peninsula. I know we crossed the ocean on snowmobile to get here. A little girl stands in front of me, waiting for an answer to her question. Can a cobble be a destination? Another camper in the distance?

I put it to her: “Where are you going?”

She holds her cupped hands in front of her, as if to transfer something delicate. She’s wild-haired and soggy under the nose. “You want to see something?”

I take off my mitts and hold out my hands. What plops into my palm is heavy, round, warm and unmistakeably alive. We hold our faces close to my hands and I open them. Inside is an egg unlike any egg I’ve ever seen in the south. It’s much smaller than a chicken egg; its wide, teal end is more bulbous and its pointy, brown end more pointy. If chicken eggs are beautifully pure, then this egg is beautifully pied.

“We’re going egg-hunting,” she says. I take the “we” to include me and follow her carefully in rubber boots as she runs up the beach in black running shoes.

When I reach the top, she is already hunting, with three other girls. They hang their heads and walk in slow, widening circles. I walk beside her, still cupping the egg. She says her name is Lydia.

“What kind of egg is this, Lydia?”

Tuituek,” she answers, without looking up.

Tuituek?

Tuituek! Tuituek!  A sandpiper bobs out from behind a small hummock. The girls rush over and begin circling these new co-ordinates, but we are already misled. The sandpiper zigzags through the hummocks calling tuituek! Tuituek! taking us further and further from her nest.

Throughout the night, we follow ptarmigans, Lapland longspurs, snowgeese, Canada geese, swans, sandhill cranes and eider duck after eider duck through the dry lands and marshes, searching for their low-lying nests. Large, pond-side duck nests are easiest to find, but the foxes are faster than us, and most of the baby blue eggs are already predated by the time we reach them. We fill my scarf with sandpiper eggs and the tan-coloured ones of the longspur, which are easy to find but so small that the yolk and the white don’t separate. They break easily, so we suck what spills out through the thin fabric of my scarf.

Sometimes a flock of geese flies overhead and the girls interrupt their searches to throw back their heads and cry “Kaaaa”—to mimic the kangu, the Canada goose. They laugh as the whole flock changes course in mid-air and flies toward us instead.

Each time I find a new nest I ask, “Do you eat these?”

The answer, always: “Yes, we eat them.”

Sometime in the early morning, a four-wheeler bounces across the tundra with a basket in front. The driver is a woman with a baby in her hood. She says something to the girls in Inuktitut and they log-pile onto the hood and fall immediately asleep. I open my scarf and unload my egg haul into the basket, but hold one back as we bound back to camp. I crawl back into my tent sometime in late morning, still cupping that first pied tuituek egg to my chest, and sleep.

A few hours later, I witness my first real hunt—two boys from my camp shoot an eider duck on an outcrop far down the beach—and I am disappointed to discover, despite my home training, I still see more sadness than beauty in it.

It’s a messy kill. The first boy, Josh, grazes a bright yellow and green male as it rests on a grass island in the centre of a mid-sized pond. The boys want to wring its neck, since shooting off-target again might spoil the meat. They wade into the pond at a number of different angles, but when water starts to spill over the tops of their boots, they pull back. After a few minutes, the duck enters the water on its own, but it’s got a broken wing and swims in narrow circles. Finally, Jayko shoots it in the heart with his father’s Enfield rifle. The duck arches its throat toward the sky, then heaves and drops its head in the water. The wind blows its body softly to shore.

As we walk back to camp, I ask Jayko what he feels when he kills an animal.

“Gratitude,” he answers. “I feel nothing but gratitude.” Then he ducks and a seagull nearly dive bombs his head. “Nauyait,” he says. “They will slam right into you.” He turns onto a marshy spit leading into a nearby pond. “But,” he adds, “it means we’re close.” The spit leads to a high boulder not far from the edge of the pond. On top of the boulder is a large, sloppy nest and inside the nest are four of the biggest, most beautiful eggs I have ever seen. They are soft green, almost grey, with even brown mottles that look like patterned rice paper when you hold them up to the sky. We test them and they sink in the water. We take off our mitts and store them in the fingers lobe, where they seem to warm up on their own.

In some stories of the North, the seagull represents the White man and is the natural enemy of the raven, which represents Inuit. The seagull’s a scavenger and a vermin. But just like in some high end restaurants in the south, in the North, the seagull egg is a delicacy.

As we strap our meat to the snowmobile and drive back to camp, I pull my mitts tighter on my hands. I am planning my own hunt.

“They will slam right into you.” That’s what I’m thinking as I dog-paddle screaming toward my embryonic kill. Or rather, I’m thinking, “they will impale you” and of my vulnerable ass that won’t sink below the surface of the pond under a growing gyre of possessive seagulls. I feel my hair shift from one side to the other with a quickening regularity. I am truly afraid that my Inuit hosts will return to the pond to find me bloated, face down, an egg in my hand and a bird thrust out of my body like a sword.

On the last day of our camping trip, I am hunting with two elders, Palluk and Kunuk, who quickly stalk and kill a swan with one shot to its plush chest. While we walk, I scan the ponds for the perfect size and shape of boulder and the right formation of shaggy nesting grasses on top.

After his kill, Palluk straps his swan to his back with a length of polyethylene rope and I worry I’m running out of time. Our trek back to the snowmobiles is faster; more purposeful. I start to lag, staring mournfully behind me at several uninvestigated ponds.

Kunuk notices. He nods to a wide pond at the base of the next hill. It has two boulders with two grass toupees, and a female seagull squatting fatly atop the far one. “We’re parked just over that hill,” says Kunuk. “We’ll make some coffee and wait for you there.”

The first nest is empty so I wade deeper into the water toward the second rock. Birds flock in from the far ponds at the cry of a mother in distress. They take practice swoops before descending so low to the surface that I have to dunk my head in the near-freezing water to the rhythm of their multi-angle attack. At the nest, I wrap my arms and legs around its supporting boulder and crouch low, exposing only my eyes and the top of my head. I count the swoops—one, two, three—and I’m up. There are three dappled beauties inside, each as big as the mother’s own chest cavity. I grab only one. I sink back down as a belly grazes my head and test the egg in the water. It sinks. I stand up again, but I’ve hastily timed it because on the first boulder, a bird that I’m pretty sure is the mother has spread her wings for flight. We lock eyes and she hops into the air, sinks a little, and soars on a downward course for my face. I fumble with the last egg and carry it football-style down into the water. The mother re-ascends. I can hear the joints in her wing bones squeaking as they shift in their sockets. The gyre loosens and dissipates and only the mother remains on the pond, guarding her last egg.

When I arrive at the snowmobiles, Kunuk and Palluk are finished their coffee and a lunch of fermented walrus meat. We drop the two eggs into a tin kettle and boil them over the Coleman stove. I tell them the story of my hunt; how the seagulls banded together to stop me from stealing their eggs; how they swooped and pecked, but how I was determined to bring back an egg for our lunch.

Kunuk nods without looking up. “Inuit don’t steal,” he says. “We harvest.” He dumps the kettle out onto the ground and rolls the eggs around in the snow. I take the first in my mitt. It’s delicious—a two-course meal in a natural lunchbox. The second egg—the one I forgot to test—contains a baby bird. I wretch.

“Look,” says Kunuk. “We don’t waste.” He peels off the shell in a few large pieces and shows me the inside: transparent wings are growing. We eat the white, which is stiff and chewy, and pull out the little bird with a pocket knife. Kunuk points out its oversized beak and claws and its wet down, then we move the joints back and forth to see how they work. “That’s how we learn to hunt,” he says. Then he laughs and pulls on a stick of my frozen hair. “But Inuit don’t swim.”

He pauses. “Cool.”

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