This is the first chapter of a book I am writing. Let me know what you think.
The winter storm had fallen upon the land as a ravening white wolf and had so far savaged the Labrador coast of Canada for two days and nights without a break, dimming the sun and settling a perpetual twilight upon the day.
The Labrador Current that controls the flow of the ice off the coast of Labrador and which travels all the way down the Canadian coastline from the Arctic, had carried this behemoth all the way from the far North upon its turgid waters. The storm had then moved southward along the fringe of the Labrador Coast towards Martin Bay where Nanuk and Nanulak were hunting on the ice, and then settled in darkness over the land. The storm within hours had mantled everything in its path beneath a caul of snow and ice, and was now raging out of control.
It had begun as a low pressure front in the deep Arctic then swiftly transformed itself from a sea squall off the coast of Canada into a wild whiteout that had dumped almost twenty centimetres of snow upon the land in the last forty eight hours, forcing even the most hardy Inuit hunter and polar bears to seek shelter from its elemental fury.
Neither sun nor moon could be seen shining through the immense white walls of the blizzard, both celestial giants having been transformed into fragile glimmering orbs of wan light glimpsed forlornly for a moment or two between the shifting veils of snow.
Anyone who dared to step forth into the midst of this monster would not survive. To take even a few steps forward into the midst of the storm would be to lose ones location forever, for absolutely nothing could be discerned of the landscape around oneself except a primal whiteness that began an inch in front of one face and stretched into infinite nothingness.
The wind perpetually screamed across the ice as if it were an wounded animal caught in the jaws of a trap, and at night when the darkness became an impenetrable void of blackness devoid of both stars and moonshine, it seemed as if the very gates of hell had been opened and a myriad demonic creatures stalked the world. Only a slow certain death awaited any Inuit who stepped forth beyond the caribou skin walls of their simple huts, and this was the same fate that would befall both Nanuk and Nanulak if they also dared venture forth from their den of compacted snow. As the angry wind tore at the roofs of the Inuit huts and the husky dogs howled with fear in their kennels, sleep for both men and bears was fitful and plagued with nightmares.
Nothing, neither man nor beast, could withstand a storm such as this. Anything caught out in the open either during the day or night would have succumbed, for within a few minutes of being exposed to the shrieking winds a slow and painful death from hypothermia and frostbite would inevitably follow. The herds of caribou huddled close to each other sharing the warmth of the herd, the ones on the outside of the herd changing place with other caribou deeper within the cluster as they began to feel the effects of the cold. Co-operation was required in order to survive.
The ambient air temperature outside the huts of the Inuit hovered around - 50 degrees below zero, which was now well below the Arctic average of -34°C (-29°F) in winter. The village was empty of any movement except for the drifting snow which roamed at will amidst the hills and huts.
It was not just Nanuk and Nanulak who were forced to go to ground. Even the male polar bears that had been busy hunting for seals on the ice floes only a few hours before had now dug winter deep dens into the snow on the southern sides of the hills, the Tananas as they are known, and were patiently waiting out the storm.
Though most polar bears do not ordinarily hibernate in winter – especially the males – during periods of extreme weather such as this, or when the pack ice is too fragile too hunt upon, then in order to preserve their vital fat reserves the bears will go to ground and sleep away time in a den. This resting period during adverse weather events enabled them to conserve their fat reserves in readiness for the conditions to improve so that they could return to hunting with enough energy reserves to enable them to hunt out on the ice without fear of immediate starvation.
Nanuk had also built her den on the south-facing slope of a tanana just off the coast of Martin Bay where the northerly prevailing winds had formed the highest snow drifts, thereby creating a simple sanctuary where the wind-chill effect was lowest and the insulation was greatest. This meant that she and her cub, Nanulak did not have to burn any precious extra fat reserves to enable them to maintain the required inner core temperature that allowed them to survive such harsh conditions.
Snug in the cell of compacted snow she had dug out of the drifts Nanuk and Nanulak slept as the storm raged outside. Their respiration rates had slowed as they slept and their internal bodily functions had also begun to change in order to protect them as they spelt.
The white, glossy pelage of Nanuk and her cub Nanulak were thick, coarse and long and specially adapted to the cold and ice. The outside layer of hair, the guard hairs of both Nanuk and Nanulak were oily and waterproof and shone with a lustrous sheen, the hollow shafts of each hair able to trap all their body heat body heat, to retain it and keep out the pernicious cold. Polar bears have adapted to their climate and have a thick layer of sub-cutaneous fat, covered by very dense under fur with several layers of thick glossy guard hair on the outside of the coat which is waterproof and impervious to the waters in which they hunt. Water is thereby shed easily from the oily waterproof fur once they leave the water itself thereby minimising heat loss. Theirs pelt also grew much thicker in winter and provide excellent insulation during the months when winter imposes its will upon the landscape. These thick layers of sub-cutaneous fat also add additional buoyancy to the bears when they are hunting in the water. The ears of polar bears are also very small and covered with very fine fur which also has a network of highly efficient blood vessels beneath the skin to enable keep them warm and conserve heat, thereby protecting them from frostbite.
The coat of Nanuk was now pure white and in its full winter glory. She was in the prime of her life and at the optimum breeding age, seven years old, when Nanulak her first cub was born. He was born the December before and was now nearly a year old. Nanulak though was not at all like his mother in colouration for his fur was strangely dark. Though primarily white his pelt was patched with rough brown hairs that formed mottled markings across his pelage. Though Nanulak was nearly a year old he still sought to suckle from his mother in between feeding on the bloody blubber of dead seals that Nanuk had dragged back from the pack ice to the den. Nanuk would allow him to suckle from her until his sharp tiny teeth would draw blood from her tender teats, then she would push him away and he would sleep laying next to her, his belly full. The pale white coat of Nanuk allowed her to blend into the landscape when hunting seals, which were their primary prey when out on the ice floes. Her hair was hollow and colourless and reflected the light and shade of its surroundings thereby camouflaging her as she stalked her prey upon the ice.
For the seals that sought to snatch a gulp of air from one of the leads, a precious open waterhole amidst the frozen meniscus of the ice floes, the first they would know of the presence of Nanuk upon the ice above them would be when her viciously hooked claws swing forth and sliced into their facial tissue and dragged them from the ice. Though stunned and badly wounded by the initial impact of the attack, most of the seals she dragged from the reddening waters were still alive as they were devoured by her and Nanulak. All that would remain of the seals would be long red ribbons of blood smeared upon the white snow, a trail of gore leading back to a discarded pile of gnawed meat and bone left upon the ice.
Inside the den Nanulak mewled in his sleep and curled up closer to his mother, and buried his face deep into her warm fur. Nanuk grasped him and pulled him closer to her side. She opened one eye and looked down at the cub who lay on her left side. Nanulak groaned again in his sleep and Nanuk winced as he dug his long black talons into her flesh fighting some unknown phantom in his dreams.
For a moment she remembered Nanulaks father and the rape that had brought Nanulak into being, yet the image of that mighty bear, his deep black eyes shining with desire, pinioning her to the ground and his immense bulk holding her immobile as he impregnated her was replaced instantly by love for the cub she had borne and given birth too. She closed her eye and went back to sleep listening to the wind screeching outside screeching as a banshee across the blighted hills.
Nanuk had been pregnant with Nanulak for 225 days, including a period of delayed implantation where she had stored the fertilised egg of Nanulak inside her in. This was done in order for her to give birth to her cubs at the most opportune moment when seal cubs were plenty as food available for her to use as milk. She had retreated to her maternity den in early December the year before in order to give birth, and yet of the three cubs she had given birth too only Nanulak survived. The others had died within hours of being born.
The newborns were all small (30 cm long), born blind and almost naked and each weighed less than 1 kg each. When they were born Nanuk had instinctively licked them clean of blood and warmed them with her breath and then positioned herself so that they could clamp themselves upon her ripe nipples. Yet for some reason Nanulaks other two brothers had died before they had even had a chance to suckle upon her swollen and lactating nipples. Their bodies had frozen solid in the cold, then turned white as though ice sculptures abandoned in the corner of the birthing den. Only Nanulak had survived and as he had sole access to her milk he had grown quickly by gorging on the milk she had produced in excess.
His eyes had opened at 6 weeks, blinking in the light of the sunlight snow glare that shone through the entrance to the maternity den. By two months he had weighed about 5 kg and was already beginning to move about the maternity den she dug in preparation for her imminent giving birth. His eyes were the colour of pack ice blue and shone with inquisitiveness and intelligence.
By April of the next year, when the maternity den had been opened and Nanulak allowed out, Nanulak was then four months old and weighed nearly 10 kg. He was already strong enough to gambol in the snow outside the den on his own and venture forth on short exploratory journeys, though his mother would watch from the corner of her eyes as she rested outside the den in case he ventured too far. As the long winter months passed Nanulak was growing ever stronger and ever more determined to escape the confines of his mothers care.
Often he would race down to the edge of the shore and seek to terrorise the seals who sunbathed in packs upon the waters edge. As he approached the sullen beasts would cast him a backwards glance of withering contempt, then slither swiftly along the ice on their soft bellies and plop into the waters out of harms way. Nanulak would then stop and look quizzically at the ripples upon the surface of the water wondering why the animals had not waited for him to attack them.
Once he got into a tussle with an whiskered walrus that lay as a blubbery leviathan upon the edge of the shoreline. Nanulak had crept down to the shore hugging the ground closely as he been shown by his mother when attempting a stalk. Step by step he drew closer to his prey until suddenly he arose from cover and throwing forth his fiercest roar, charged towards the slumbering giant. Yet instead of the usual bark of fear from the seals the walrus first stood his ground, rose up to his full chest height and charged straight at the young bear. Nanulak skidded with fright and tumbled like a snowball slipping on the ice, his talons seeking purchase upon the snow, then turned tail and fled yelping back to where his mother lay watching him, her eyes wide with amusement at her precocious son. These were lessons her son needed to learn if he was to survive alone on the ice without her.
Occasionally male polar bears would cross the territory of Nanuk and Nanulak on their way to their hunting grounds and both Nanuk and Nanulak would hide amidst the snowdrifts until the lumbering giants had passed. Nanuk was not ready for another mating yet as she still bore the scars of her first mating with Nanulaks father, and though she knew she would soon be in heat again and attracting the attention of any passing males in musk, she sought to avoid them and their cruel desires. Her neck was still tender where the fangs of Nanulaks father had grasped her and her back bore the lacerations and scars of his talons. Nanuk also knew her son was special for she had seen how the other female bears and their cubs they had encountered on their journeys had been fascinated by him.
They sensed that Nanulak was not like them, that he was somehow an alien. Yet this strangeness was dangerous to Nanulak for she knew that any males who claimed her womb for their own would also kill her cub. Therefore whenever Nanuk caught the scent of a passing male in her nostrils both she and Nanuk would run upwind from the roaming bear and hide until they had passed safely by.
Nanuk and Nanulak would walk the wilderness alone avoiding all and any bears that came upon their path until Nanulak was old enough to leave his mother and seek his own destiny in the world. Only then would she allow herself to be the victim of another mating.
Nanulak had now been suckled for nearly a year and was now occasionally eating scraps of tenderised seal meat chewed into a pulp by his mother. He had grown far larger than other cubs of his age and his coat was much darker than his mothers. Though Nanulak would require constant and tender care by Nanuk until he was at least two years old, during which time he would receive the survival training he required to enable him to survive alone out on the wild ice, he was fast becoming independent. The lessons his mother would teach him, which had been passed down to her from her mother for time immemorial, were the lessons that he must learn for when he walked the the world alone. He would learn how to hunt and fish, how to stalk and kill and all the lessons that would enable him to survive the winters and the enmity of other bears he would encounter. Without these lessons Nanulak would last not a week in the wilderness, and he would soon become merely another frozen corpse on the ice, food for wolves, foxes and crows.
It was when they were out together hunting on the ice on afternoon that Nanuk and Nanulak had been caught in the first stages of the storm that now gripped the Labrador coast. The change in wind direction and the start of the Arctic Northerly wind front blowing in from the sea, signalled to Nanuk that a terrible storm was on its way. She immediately stopped her hunting and headed for the shoreline and the low lying hills that surrounded Martin Bay, Nanulak following her puzzled by the obvious fear of his mother.
She was not the only one to abandon the ice that day and leave it to the fury of the storm.
Even the inuit who lived all year long upon the ice and who were used to the winter storms that frequently swept their lands had abandoned hunting and retreated inside their simple huts in order to escape the coming whiteout.
In the winter the Inuit lived as the bears lived by digging a home out of the side of hills where they would use the rocks they had excavated as part of the home's exterior walls. Bowhead whale bones which had been left outside for the crows and dogs to pick clean after a communal feast were then used to formed the rafters of their houses, whilst squares of sod cut from the earth formed the roof.
As whale meat was the preferred diet of the Inuit whenever possible, this meant that the bones of the huge dead creatures once stripped of their meat, blubber and oil could be used for practical reasons related to their everyday existence. None of the animals remains were wasted. The animals provided the Inuit people with not only with the bulk of their precious meat, but also oil for their lamps and bones for building their hunting boats. Certain sections of the whale skeletons were used to form the frame work of Inuit boats like the kayak and the umiak, over which oiled and waterproofed caribou skin was stretched. The kayak was a single seater boat whilst the umiak could carry several hunters on a hunting party for whales and seals. It was the umiak that was used by the Inuit primarily for hunting whales whilst the kayak was used mainly for hunting seals and to hunting swimming caribou. In addition to hunting whales and seals, the Inuit would also hunt any prey that ventured within their territory from massive musk oxen, the wily walrus, foxes that raided their camps, to polar bears encountered on the ice and also fish caught in the open waters. Harpoons tipped with vicious barbs were used to hunt the bowhead whales during the hunting season whilst the bow and arrow, spear, and knife were used in all their other hunts.
Each Inuit was trained to be proficient in each hunting weapon. The children were taught from an early age how to hurl the harpoon and how to fire at a fleeing caribou so that the barbs would kill the animal from blood loss. Without these skills no Inuit could survive the long, harsh winters that swept their lands every year. The children were raised to be hard in a harsh landscape, where a simple mistake such as treading on the wrong sort of thin ice could instantly cost you your life.
The ocean temperatures in the waters of Martin bay outside the den of Nanulak and his mother Nanuk had now dropped to -2°C (28°F), and even the seawater itself had begun to freeze, forming great flows of thick icy phlegm that congested the leads, the water channels, that his mother used as a platform to hunt the seals that lived upon the Siku, the sea ice.
Nanuk would stand or lie still by a seal’s blowhole in the ice for hours on end, awaiting an opportunity to snatch a kill whilst Nanuk would watch for a while with interest then growing bored, would lay down on the ice and go to sleep in the sunshine. Other ways of hunting for Nanuk were more intensive. She would quietly enter the water on a hunt and swim carefully towards any seals resting in the sunshine, targeting any whose black whiskered noses were showing above the water line. She would then dive beneath the dark waters, and swim submerged right up to the ice edge and then rise from the waters and pounce upon the unsuspecting target. All the while whilst she swam underwater she would keep her eyes open so as to keep on target. Once she had the seal firmly gripped in her maw she would drag it from the waters and maul it to death on the ice.
Nanuk also had a keen sense of smell, which allowed her to crawl towards those seals that would sunbathe half asleep upon the ice. Using every piece of the landscape to conceal her approach she would move from each snow drift to snow drift with deliberate and practised ease. Though she may not have been able to see the unwary creatures she was hunting, she was still able to smell them from a distance thereby allowing her to concentrate on not being heard or being seen by the seals themselves. Once she was close enough she would launch herself forward and grip the tail of the seal as it sought to slip back into the water. She would then smash it onto the ice and crush its skull beneath her paws, then eviscerate its innards and strip the meat and blubber from its bones. Like all polar bears Nanuk also had superb eyesight. Her eyes had a set of inner eyelids that allowed her to keep the glare of the sun on the snow and ice from blinding her as she hunted across the landscape. She could hunt in both low light and when the glare of the sun would have blinded a human being. She was perfectly adapted to her environment, a killing machine in tune with every aspect of a landscape that would offer nothing but death to any who dared disrespect it.
Nanulak learnt the ways of the ice and grew wise with the ways of his ancestors.
Soon he would need to put in practice all the lessons he had learnt from his mother for tragedy awaited just around the corner. But for now Nanulak slept in his mothers embrace, whilst the storm blew itself into exhaustion outside the den. Though the winter storm would pass, the storm that would change his destiny forever was about to begin.