Our relocation from Refuge Bay to Refuge Islet speaks to a theme developing in our expedition, a theme we plan to alter as soon as we can. Our ordeal heading into Refuge Islet – or Bear Island as the local Inuvialuit call it – would have been a little less stressful had we had an anchor on board the Arctic Joule but as readers know, we lost that in our Refuge Bay ice incident a few days earlier.

Refuge Islet is ringed with precipitous cliffs, save for the tiny steep beach we ran up on, and eliminated our moorage options. Had we had an anchor we could have positioned ourselves in the lee of the island and kept ourselves safely out of the storm without issue.

The storm, in the end, lasts for two days unabated. It pushes well into gale force category as it’s a far more powerful display than the gale that raked us just outside of Tuktoyaktuk some weeks back.

In the early morning hours of day three the winds finally subside. We’ve been patiently waiting this moment and quickly break camp and ready the boat. It’s only a five kilometre hop to the far shore from our island but these five kilometres might have been five thousand in recent days, the impassable morass of wave and wind it represented.

We’re all a little anxious upon departure, our nerves ragged after the previous days, but the rhythm of the rowing eases the mind and before long we’re skimming along the east bank of the Parry Peninsula with Refuge Islet in the mist.

Before long we spot a small cabin on the rocky shore, the first manmade shelter – other than DEW line stations – that we’ve seen since leaving Tuk almost a month ago. We swing in for a closer look.
There are three boats moored adjacent and several people on the beach. One of them gives us a big wave and our eagerness to meet other humans draws us in.
Joe Illisiak at Brown's Camp small (1)
Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak are on the beach waiting for us introducing themselves and welcoming us to their camp. “There’s hot coffee inside”, says Steve, pointing to the cabin, a single storey grey plywood box with a large radio antenna in front. “We glassed you guys from way out. We wondered if you were coming in.”
Hot coffee to weary rowers is like creamed honey to bears and we stumble over one another heading in.
The cabin is dark and bare with an old couch, table and chairs, several cots and a small kitchen counter rounding out the furnishings. Five men are inside and all are quick to welcome us. There’s a purity in the genuine hospitality of people in the north, something I’ve experienced in Alaska and the Yukon, and that sense of generousness washes over me here too. We are told this is Brown’s Camp, a beluga hunting station, and that everyone present is a resident of the hamlet Paulatuk to the South.

“Please, there’s coffee here, noodles and soup over there, take what you want, make yourself at home”

Joe explains to me that the crescent bay we’re situated on is a perfect hunting station for belugas. “When we we see them surface at the point out there we head out and coral them into this dead end bay.”
Polar bear bones small (1)
The belugas are then forced into shallower water until they need to come up for air at which point they are harpooned and shot. There’s no sugar coating it, it’s a brutal process, but an essential one for these people.

We joke about craving a can of Coke and how we’d like to buy a case when we get to Paulatuk. “Pop costs you over $4.50 a can in Paulatuk.” says one of the men. “A jar of peanut butter is $19.00″, says another.

Harvesting food from the land and sea is what the people of the north have always done and will continue to do. The grotesquely overpriced ‘western’ food found in the remote villages of the north are more an aberration than a diet reality. Who could afford such prices and for what? The ‘country’ food in the north is proven to be far healthier for the people and is there for the harvesting.

I speak to this from an interesting perspective. I’ve been a vegetarian for over three decades now and eschew eating meat in my daily life. When I undertake adventures I eat anything that is offered me and in this case it would be raw beluga. Beluga can be eaten raw, cooked or fermented. Fermented beluga, or muktuk, would appear to be the hands down favourite among my hosts (it tastes like hazelnut evidently) but that option isn’t on the table here. For me it is raw meat and blubber with dash of salt. The consistency of the blubber is like butter, the meat tough like sinew. The flavour reminds me of ham, there’s no hint of fish at all.
Beluga meat small (1)
Walking around camp I notice bones clearly from a what clearly was once a very large animal. “Polar bear” says Joe, “Ten and a half footer. I shot him in the spring.” I try to imagine this animal standing on its hind quarters. A typical ceiling in a home is 8ft. I picture this monster two and a half feet taller and my heart moves into my throat. “Are there many around now?” I ask with feigned nonchalance. “They’re probably all out on the ice” says one of the younger men, “but you never know.”

The wind is strangely quite, a sign for us to keep moving. Good travel is proving as rare as vegetation for us up here. We bid adieu to our new friends and begin rowing south.