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Dress Like An Astronaut

Dress Like An Astronaut

Remembering mom's advice for winter layering.
By Peter Autut
Apr 26
From the April/May 2019 Issue

In winter, ice would creep along the edges of a narrow window at my home in Chesterfield Inlet. From here at 5 a.m. on most Saturday mornings, I would look outside to check the temperature. If it was just past -40 C, I knew I’d need several minutes of pulling to start the snowmobile.

I was raised to go if the weather is good. My dad Louis Autut raised me to go out and get the tuktu (caribou) and get the char. My mom Evelyn Autut would make clothes from the caribou. Even in -45 C, I’d have to pace myself when I started the snowmobile or got the sled ready because I couldn’t sweat too much.

When I was younger, my mom taught me the right way to dress in layers: like an astronaut. In some sense we were really going where no others would be going. In -43 C with strong wind, we’d drive at least three hours to put out fishing nets. We had to chisel through 12 feet of ice and we didn’t have the auger in those days. It’d be too cold anyway for such a small engine, but I’ve seen them wrapped in caribou and used in extreme conditions.

As I got older mom did her best not to help me with the layers, but I remember in my early 20s she’d still get up and fluff this or that. The stitching and ways to keep the wind out are passed on from generation to generation. We used to have many caribou skins in the back cold porch and when I needed new wind pants, I’d get out the wood sander and run it over a couple skins to soften them so mom could sew. She’d work with the pattern of the skin—most tuktu are white and brown, some are mostly white.

She used a woman’s knife to cut the caribou skins in strips to put on the lower part of a pullover parka. They dangled like wind chimes and danced when you walked. These strips of caribou kept the blowing snow from going in your parka. If you press your hands together, that’s about what they look like, but even thinner.

I always wore a summer jacket underneath so I could take off the parka in the iglu. I used my parka as a pillow. My caribou boots were warm, but I wore socks mom made from thick material. She’d put a little deco on them, like flowers, that I hated. The fur on the bottom was often sheepskin. Mom preferred that as it was non-slippery, but I still managed to slip and fall at times.

My caribou mitts were very warm, but I’d need to take them off and work without them, like when we were taking fish off the gill nets. The beaver hat made great work of keeping my head warm, and the parka’s caribou skin hood helped on long drives going against the wind with no windshield on a sled being pulled by a snowmobile. The caribou wind pants had one pocket and surprisingly this pocket was never warm. I kept my bullets there and maybe a tin of tobacco.

We’d never cover our faces. We’d expose that area so we could be ice-free when we’d work. I didn’t, or can’t, have too much facial hair so the ice wouldn’t really build up on my face. That’s not to say I didn’t get frostbite on my cheeks. I grew up with quite a bit of frostbite on my cheeks. Of course, you’d try to limit that to not go deep. 

My brother-in-law preferred the sealskin outfit. I thought they were never as warm. Pop’s parka had the fur side inside and a fabric outside, with wolf fur around the hood. He often had a little knitted hat and caribou boots and mitts, and wind pants from the Co-op store. He’d use his caribou wind pants, but he thought they got too warm.

My caribou parka went down just past the hips so I always had a belt, usually made from fabric mom put together. Every now and then I forgot this and boy, it’s a little cooler without the belt, out in the cold wind.

I loved the equipment my Annana (mother) made for me. I still have my parka and wind pants that she made. I’d like to use that as a pattern and recreate a tuktu parka. She’s been gone now for over 15 years. It was years after she left when I realized just how cold the Arctic really is.