Life On The Arctic Sea
When the calls started coming in that the Avataq was sinking, Leo Karetak was waiting on the dock in Arviat. His bags packed and beside him, he was ready to board. Karetak was 14 years old. He had spent many summers on the Avataq, helping his grandfather, ship captain Louis Pilakapsi, make deliveries from Arviat to Whale Cove and Rankin Inlet. Pilakapsi and his crew would travel down the coast of Hudson Bay to Churchill, Manitoba to pick up supplies, and bring them back to communities in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. It was a resupply service that took place between the major sealift deliveries.
The first time Karetak was on board his grandfather’s 12-metre-long boat, he was three years old. It was a family camping trip, just outside Rankin Inlet and they visited Marble Island, where Inuit legend warns not to walk on the first few steps of pure white rock or bad luck will follow you. You have to crawl, and they did.
He would travel on the Avataq many times after that. Pilakapsi taught his grandson to navigate using GPS on 10-hour journeys from Arviat to Whale Cove, or six-hour stretches from Whale Cove to Rankin Inlet. They’d move snowmobiles, ATVs, televisions and “a lot of soda pops,” says Karetak, laughing. “Inuit sure do love their pops.”
In 2000, as he waited for the Avataq to come in, Karetak noticed the sky over Hudson Bay getting darker. As the storm clouds moved toward the western shore, they brought the wind along with them. On the public radio channel, Pilakapsi said the Avataq was taking on water at its bow and its stern. It was going down. “I was just hoping it wasn’t true,” he says. “But reality kicked in.” Community members tried to help the men on board, they drove quads down the shore, hoping to spot the Avataq and its crew, only about 16 kilometres away. A few people tried rescuing them by boat, says Karetak, but the wind was too strong. The Avataq sank, taking its captain and crew with it.
At his older brothers’ encouragement, Karetak took a seamanship course and was hired as a seaman deckhand by Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS). His first job was on board the MV Avataq—coincidentally sharing the name with his grandfather’s vessel. After hearing of the original Avataq, NEAS hosted a ceremony and erected a plaque in honour of Pilikapsi and his crew during its first shipping season in the region, in 2008. Karetak was on board two years later.
NEAS is one of two companies, along with Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc., contracted by the Government of Nunavut to deliver everything from food and drink to heavy equipment and construction materials to its highwayless communities.
As a deckhand, Karetak checked the ship every morning, ensuring everything was tied down properly and nothing had been damaged. “As Inuit, they were saying we were really good with ropes and that, so they’d always have us fix up ropes and splice them up for them,” he says. “And then they’d always bring us up to the wheelhouse and we’d have a couple hours of learning to drive the ship in case of an emergency.”
When they came to shore, the crew worked eight hours a day, seven days a week. In some areas, their schedule was dictated by the tide: loading up the barge to head in to shore when it was high. In the High Arctic, they worked non-stop until the barge was unloaded.
“It always depended on the weather. If it was nice to us on those trips, it would probably take us less than 24 hours. Maybe 15 hours. We’d keep going until we took everything out,” he says. While they worked, community members would stay out on the beach watching until every last thing was unloaded.
He saw a lot in four seasons on MV Avataq: 40-foot-waves off the coast of Labrador that kept the ship at one knot until the captain steered into a bay for shelter; the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Resolute Bay, loaded into crates to return south; and better memories, like the people, waiting on the beach for their resupply. “You’d see a lot of smiling faces, happy knowing their stores will be all filled up.”
His was one of those faces when he was young. And now, after leaving NEAS to work as a millwright mechanic apprentice at Meadowbank mine, he still goes out to meet the MV Avataq as it steers toward Arviat’s shore. Familiar faces and fond memories are on board.
It was a good experience, says Karetak. It was in his blood.