From 10,000 metres above the frozen surface of Barrow Strait—on a flight from, say, Beijing to New York City—you’d need binoculars to spy the figure on a qamatiq, skittering his way east over the frozen sea with 15 sled dogs straining in a fan hitch. But if that is indeed what you might have seen, chances are it would be 21-year-old Inuk Devon Stephen Manik, doing what makes his heart sing, as the only young musher in the community of Resolute Bay, Nunavut, reanimating an Inuit tradition that nearly died in the process of colonization.
At ground level, on this April day, the wind-patterned snow squeaks under the plastic runners of Devon’s sled. Hand-tied crossbar lashings flex with every tug of the traces, allowing the qamatiq to follow the team over the contours in the snow. Occasionally, he pops off the sled, lopes up beside the dogs and snaps his sealskin whip over their heads to keep them on track, to remind them of who’s boss, and that this is not a recreational run. Message received, the young hunter allows the dogs to move ahead, casually flinging himself back on top of the load, and scanning—always scanning—the shimmering white ice that stretches to the blue horizon in every direction.
Although Devon heard stories about dog sledding in the old days from his grandparents, Tony and Tagga Manik, it was his mom, Mavis Manik, who had a big German Shepherd house dog called Axel and encouraged Devon to experiment with the dog on outdoor forays in and around the community. Devon would take a little homemade sled and make his way beyond the lights of town, then ask Axel to pull him home. Somewhere in that process, especially when a bigger malemute called Skully came into the family, Devon fell in love with dogs and the idea that one day he would have his own team.
In the meantime, following the family traditions, Devon would tag along on hunting trips with his mom and grans, particularly in the spring when High Arctic temperatures were warming, and the days were getting long. He learned to stalk and hunt seals and other marine mammals who happened by—bears, walrus, whales. He got his first polar bear at 13, experiencing first-hand the pride of his kin but also the gratitude of community members who celebrated and shared in the bounty of the hunt. Yet these hunts were always on snowmachines, never with dogs—at least not for propulsion.
Later, when he started to hunt on his own, with his own team—which grew from one to two and eventually 15 Inuit sled dogs and a steady stream of puppies on the way—he would say, “On a skidoo you’re all alone, but you’re alone with a piece of metal. That’s fine, but a snowmachine is a machine. It’s not sharing in the hunt. Mostly I love being with dogs because you’re never alone. They can feel what you feel. They can see what you can see.”
By the time Devon was 17 in grade 10 at Resolute’s Qarmartalik School, his musher’s curriculum had his full attention. His team was up to a dozen dogs by then. He had sought out and found online traditional Inuit hunters in Alaska and Greenland who, through the power of YouTube, taught him some of the nuances of dog husbandry and many of the other things the autodidact needs to know to get a team up and running.
Having harvested four bears by then on hunting forays with family and friends, Devon is by himself, his team picking its way through rough ice along the coast of Griffith Island, south of Resolute across Barrow Strait. Scanning—always scanning—the 17-year-old spies white-on-white movement a couple of kilometres away. As he weaves to pick up the trail of footprints, the lone female bear catches wind of the dogs and takes off to the west. It takes them three hours to catch up to her, as she dekes and often disappears into the pressure ridges. By now he has seen that she is a big, fat, healthy bear. She is alone, without cubs. Fair game.
Although he can’t see the bear, the tracks tell him she is close. So, he lets one dog loose to find the prey. The dog finds the bear or, more accurately, the bear finds the dog. One way or another, the next time Devon sees the two of them, the big sow is chasing the dog. At that point he releases the rest of the team, who surround the bear in the manner of age-old tradition—in the story told in the Inuit night sky, of Nanurjuk, the bear-spirited one (Aldebaran in the Hyades within the constellation Taurus in the western sky story), and qimmiit, the sled dogs around her. Devon closes the circle on the hunt.
The dispatched bear falls and slides into a crevasse in the ice, so he must lasso her hind feet and use the dogs to drag her out onto the ice where she can be skinned, butchered, and lashed to the sled for the journey back to town. But by the time all this has transpired, darkness has come and Devon and the dogs are spent. So he calls home on his satphone: “I got a bear!” He sleeps for a few hours on the sled before heading home through the tumble of rough ice.
Seventeen years old. The fifth bear of his life.
The first time I heard this story was when Devon joined a 2019 expedition organized by the Ottawa-based Students on Ice Foundation. Having worked with this organization dedicated to building capacity in youth—particularly Northern youth—for nearly two decades, I had met a welter of bright and talented young people, but never anyone quite like Devon. Aboard a ship called the Ocean Endeavour, the plan was to sail from Iqaluit to Devon’s hometown of Resolute Bay. The idea? To form an incubator in which participants could learn about climate change, about themselves, about their surroundings and, in the process, formulate values and friendships that would journey with them for the rest of their lives.
Throughout the trip, Devon fully participated in every activity Students on Ice had to offer. He seemed more comfortable engaging with new surroundings than many of the other students—partly because his dad, who had met his mom when working as a flight service officer in Resolute back in the day, now lived in the south where he invited Devon during summers and school holidays. Very much a Northern youth, Devon mixed with the other participants but more as a reflective listener than a discussion leader or storyteller in his own right (though history has shown he had plenty of stories to tell by then).
Geoff Green, the founder of Students on Ice and leader of the 2019 Arctic Expedition, knew more than the rest of us about Devon’s background and his extensive on-the-land knowledge, particularly the ice and waters within a few hundred kilometres of his home. As the expedition was coming to an end, Geoff remembers the ship’s captain reviewing the ice charts for Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait, both of them wondering if there would be a way to navigate the ship through heavy ice to its planned end point at Resolute.
That night, knowing he was getting close to home, Devon couldn’t sleep. So, contrary to ship rules, knowing his chaperones were themselves fast asleep, he got up in the wee hours and somehow ended up on the bridge, where the captain and expedition leader were pondering which route might be the best to get them to an anchorage near Resolute.
“I got a polar bear right there earlier this year,” Devon told a semi-astonished captain, pointing to a build-up of ice off the southeast corner of Cornwallis Island. With the captain’s full attention now focused on this teenage passenger on his ship, referencing land features along the south coast of his home island, Devon talked about the habits of the ice, as he had come to know them, and essentially guided the ship through the ice on a route that would not have been possible without the local knowledge the young hunter was able to provide.
My most poignant memory of Devon on this expedition arose from a talent show that traditionally happens on the last night of the journey. He had struck a special friendship with a young Sámi woman, Martina Fjallberg, from a reindeer herding family in Jämtland, Sweden. In the rare free moments they had, Devon and Martina shared stories of growing up in families still very much connected to the land. Martina even decided to teach Devon an old Sámi dance.
When it came their turn at the talent show, recorded music started playing and, like contestants on Dancing with the Stars, Martina and Devon started whirling on the ship’s polished dance floor as if they had been doing this for the entirety of their young lives. Part waltz, part tango, part samba and tap, this performance had entrancing freedom and fury—Sámi and Inuit traditions blended seamlessly in an expression of friendship and joy. Both flushed and thoroughly winded as they stood at the end of the performance, the audience erupted in applause.
Returning home from Students on Ice, Devon decided against further schooling. While he most certainly could have had full scholarship support to enter a program at Nunavut Arctic College, the die was cast. He would build a life at home in Resolute, with his dogs, as a hunter, outfitter, guide, son, brother and grandson. And, at 21, that is exactly what he has done, and he hopes to continue to do for the foreseeable future. And I know that because of his almost-daily social media stream that shares the ongoing events of his remarkable life. Unabashedly, Devon is out there with images and stories of hunting seals, walrus, muskoxen, and, yes, bears. “The confidence to do that comes from my mom,” he says.
This past spring in Resolute Bay, Devon offers to take me hunting with him for a couple of days, heading east from town out on the ice of Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound.
He introduces me to the dogs as he harnesses them one by one: “This is Simic, my lead, named after my friend and dog mentor Jovan Simic in Iqaluit. This is Aske ‘Qulikiqtaaq’ Walker, after baseball player Alan Walker. This is Tuugaaq, meaning narwhal tusk. This is Asgard, big guy named after the Norse god. I loaned another sister, Mamarut, as a bear deterrent to a couple of guys who are skiing over on Devon Island,” he says, explaining that we’ll only have 14 dogs this run.
He continues: “This is Carlos, named after a cab driver in Mexico. And this is Grillis, named after British Adventurer Bear Grylls—I used to have a dog called ‘Bear’ but a bear came into town and ate that dog. Happily, someone in town shot that bear and gave me the meat to feed the other dogs. Seems only fair. This is Bear’s replacement in the team.”
With that, he pulls the line on a remote release carabiner that is holding us to an anchor in the ice and we’re off.
Heading east, with basking seals in every direction near and far, we chat about this life Devon has created with the help of his family and community. His mom is still in town and he now lives with his grandparents. Looking after his team is what he considers his fulltime occupation, but he still has to make money to make ends meet. He guides visitors in town on dog excursions when he can. He’s working his way up in the hierarchy of helpers on commercial trophy hunts.
But his main way of making money is as one of two designated hunters hired by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association to bring country food into the community. “The main idea is to tackle food insecurity in the community, which is an issue for almost every family in town. They pay me. They also provide the gear, which is usually the hardest thing for a hunter. Gasoline and stuff like that. But I usually hunt with the dogs. It’s really a great job. I feed a lot of people.”
When we camp for the night in his little canvas tent, Devon tells me that his grandpa Tony showed him once how to build an iglu but he’s forgotten, so he either beds down under a tarp on the sled in his five-star sleeping bag or sets up his 5x7’ tent with one side anchored on the sled to get out of the wind and weather. We share meals of freeze-dried rations from a recent trip with adventurers from England. Devon lies back on his bed to text his mom on his InReach. He checks the SIKU (ice) app on his phone for recent satellite imagery and news of other hunters having success in the area. And he scrolls through photos on his fancy iPhone. There’s lots to talk about, lots to laugh about and, for both of us, lots to ponder about the world we share.
“Are you worried about the future?” I ask.
“I think in Resolute, we’ll be okay for a while,” he replies. “But I think in the future, what’s happening in lower latitudes with disappearing seals and bears, maybe in fifty years, it’ll be like that here, which I’m not really used to. I can adapt. I’m already seeing changes in my short span of life with only five years of hunting, dogs, and stuff. The weather’s gotten really crazy—changing all the time, so sporadic. The temperature fluctuations: January last year we had -14 C and that’s supposed to be the second-coldest month. That was so weird. We had open water. I’ve never seen open water that close to town and past town ever before. I checked the satellite imagery from years past and it’s never been that far up.”
But then he smiles. “Instead of sulking about it, I took advantage of it. I got a little qayaq and went to the floe edge to hunt walrus. I got four walrus in June last year where we usually hunt polar bear. I was alone with the first one. Even though it was a young walrus, it still weighed 1,500 pounds. I spent all night with the dogs trying to pull it out of the water. But I couldn’t. So, after a little sleep on the sled, I had to call back to the community and lots of people came out to help. It’s all on my Instagram feed.”
Still, he’s seen how posting on Instagram invites online trolls to comment on his hunting lifestyle. “They try to label us as part of the problem,” he says. “I want them to know that we’re not part of the problem. The problem is the big system, burning fossil fuels, and mining, destroying the environment. That’s the real problem. That’s also affecting us. We want to protect these animals just as much as you do, because we rely on them. We know if we overhunt them, they’ll die. There will be no more food, no more animals. We need them. If they’re gone, we’ll be gone too.”
Such wisdom. Such clarity. Such grace and determination. Nunavut Deputy Minister of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs, Jimi Onalik, said recently in a 2020 CBC documentary called Arctic Blue: “There are challenges ahead as 10,000 young people in Nunavut come of age in the next 10 years. That represents about a 25% increase in Nunavut’s adult population. What are these people going to do—for food, for shelter, for employment?” Devon Stephen Manik has at least some of the answers.
Simic, his lead dog, pulls to the left, which is not the direction we want to go as we make our way west to Resolute. Devon—in his kamiks and homemade polar bear pants—hops off the moving sled and strides up effortlessly beside the running dogs and, in a choreographed flurry of arms, legs, dog tails and sealskin lines, he cracks the whip in the air above and to the left of the hitch, which helps convince Simic to veer to the right and lead his team on a more direct line home. The white contrail of a polar jet arcs overhead. I hope somebody is watching the track of this remarkable young man’s new age Northern life.