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Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers

And the things you wish you never found
By Elaine Anselmi
Dec 30
From the January 2017 Issue

“We see those a lot,” a young girl in a black ski jacket tells me. Mid-squat, I stop short of picking up the piece of bone that’s about 10 centimetres long and bent at one end. I'm determined to bring back a treasure, a rare commodity from these Arctic waters. I didn’t grow up near the ocean. Finding bone fragments, washed smooth and clean by the salty water seems like something to be excited about. Apparently, it’s not.

Trinkets carried in from the Arctic Ocean cover the shore in Ulukhaktok. (It’s the shore, not the beach, another local youngster tells me with the classic pre-teen eye-roll. The beach is on the other side of town.) Small grey and brown stones have been weathered thin and clatter against each other as I walk over them. Crrrick. Crrrick. Crrrick. The kids move quickly, picking the flattest stones with the perfect weights to skip three, four, five times over the calm surface of the water. I’m more careful—you never know what could be underfoot.

We’re on the western, NWT side of Victoria Island, a large land mass in the Arctic archipelago that was split in two when Nunavut separated from the NWT before the turn of the millennium. On the far eastern end of the island is Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Here, looking out at the Amundsen Gulf reflecting the dark-grey sky, what started as three young girls trailing me along the beach has escalated quickly. There’s five of us now—three girls and two boys—and then six, as one of their younger sisters joins in. “We’re all wearing black skinnies,” the youngest stares down at my legs through thick black-rimmed glasses, and then her own and then the two other girls. We have to take a

I haven't found my treasure yet, but the group is certainly entertained. Skipping rocks—and expertly, at that—engrosses them. Particularly my inability to do so. “I have done this before,” I say with a self-conscious laugh and take off my backpack to demonstrate that my throw was hindered by the cumbersome shoulder straps. “I’m just a little rusty.” 

The girls tell me it’s all about how you swing your arm. The rock should be clutched between your thumb and pointer finger and it has to be as flat as possible. The youngest boy takes pity on me. He shows me how to step my front leg forward while I toss the rock. He does it with his own—his stride couldn’t be more than a quarter of a metre—and tosses the rock: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven skips. Seven! My turn: swing, step—one, two, three. Three. I’ll take it. His pudgy red cheeks pinch upward. He laughs.

Two more girls wander toward us and join the group. They're also on a search—a little more specific than my own. They've lost a doll in a white dress with a bow around its neck, the one girl tells me, drawing the outline of a bow in the air with her pointer fingers. I offer to help look—maybe they’ll validate my enthusiasm for beachcombing. I try again: “There’s so many bones here!” They shrug. Still no doll.

“Seaglass!” one of the girls picks up the shiney, square treasure with rounded-off edges. It’s smooth on all sides because the water and sand washes it down. A pretty good find, but I’m still net-zero.

Another piece of bone catches my eye as I scan the rocks for the doll in her white dress and bow. It’s one side of a jawbone, with a sharp fang-like tooth at the end and small ornate molars in a row leading toward it. This has got to pique their interest. The girls shrug again and say it probably came from a seagull. Seagulls don’t have teeth, I think.

I bring the jawbone back to my B&B  where my housemate takes one look at it and clarifies the girls' explanation—the bone was dropped there by a seagull. And it's nothing exotic to share with my friends back home: The delicate bone, resting in the palm of my windburnt hand, is from a puppy. The curves and curls of the molars, the pointed fang—its origins are obvious, now that I think about it. I imagine the fuzzy little creature it came from, something like the ones I go for walks with along with my dog-owner friends. I drop it, letting out a gasp of horror that leaves my housemate laughing. At least someone was entertained by my find.