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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Weeks before arriving at the camp in Omalik, Uncle
Martin and Aunt Maggie talked at the dinner table about squirrel
hunting. I immediately assumed they spoke of guns — maybe BB guns. “You
pick them up by the scruff of the neck and reach in and pull their
hearts out,” he said while raising both hands in the air, one hand
holding the neck of an imaginary squirrel, the other pinching and
pulling. I thought he was kidding me, trying to gross out the “white
girl” until I realized he spoke not in jest. “Why don’t you just shoot
them,” I asked thinking shooting would be less cruel to the helpless. He
explained shooting would leave a hole in the pelt and the pelts are
used for making parkas.

The appalled reaction I had that evening
over discussion of pulling hearts out of squirrels was presently not in
my consciousness when, on the first day at Omalik, Maggie and I set some
25 traps at the entrance of ground squirrel burrows. Today, at writing
this, I would be reluctant to pry open and set a small (size 00) trap (I
refuse to even set a mouse trap), but I was a trooper back then and set
them as per Maggie’s instructions. “Don’t you need bait or something?” I
asked. “No, this is the entrance to their den and they will just run
over it.”

Each morning we traversed up a large hill setting traps
while Maggie commented on each one: the bush, the rock, anything to
mentally mark their placements. At the top of the hill we would stop and
have tea from a thermos and dried fish and pilot bread. Maggie would
point out the hills where Belinda and Kathy were hunting. “I wonder how
they’re doing.” she would say. One day a fox sauntered up our hill but
noticing us skirted around a safe distance away. We wondered if he
hadn’t raided our traps but saw no evidence of it in his mouth.

After
lunch we worked our way back down the mountain. The first day I stayed
with Maggie to watch her expertly kill and remove the trap from the
first couple of squirrels. As per the Eskimo way, her explanation as to
how one reaches into the squirrel cavity, feels for the heart and
quickly pulls it was brief and without elaboration. She then told me to
check other traps on my own. I secretly hoped mine would be empty.

The
first trap on my own and there it was, a trapped squirrel running in
circles as I approached. I put on my gloves. The traps were anchored by a
rope to a branch so the squirrel couldn’t run away with it down his
hole. I grabbed the panicked creature by the back of the neck.
Surprisingly it went lifeless — I suppose like a cat or dog carrying
it’s young. But when I began feeling, groping, pressing, pinching its
chest cavity it began scratching wildly at my right wrist. I let go of
him in my own panic. My heart began to race and the sweat began pouring
around my brow. The squirrel ran in circles crying. I felt sick. I
picked it up again and tried to reach for the heart. My own heart was
pounding in my ears. Even though the squirrel struggled I stayed firm. I
couldn’t let it suffer more.

Finally under the rib cage I found
the wild rapid beat then slid my finger tips up to the top of the heart
and quickly pinched and pulled. I would like to say I finally ended his
suffering, but it “died” for just a moment before coming back to life. I
put it down, trying to gain some composure, courage and will power. One
last time I managed to make a quick end to it. Poor thing. I felt even
sicker over what I had done to that squirrel.

The next trap with a
squirrel, I gave it an expert end to its life — I had to be an expert,
no more learning curve, as I refused to torture another one. When I met
up again with Maggie, she laughed and laughed having heard the cries of
the first squirrel breaking the wilderness’ absolute silence. Her
squirrels and my consequent squirrels made nary a peep. I realized,
after I had acquired a deft touch, it was a rather humane way to kill
them — minus the trap.

By week’s end we had trapped 140
squirrels. The meat would be used for food and the fur for clothing.
Trapping and packing them back to camp, however, was not the end of the
day. At day’s end every squirrel needed to be cleaned. In the morning
they would be skinned.

(To be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Omalik

Top of the hill back towards camp. It's steeper than it looks.

Omalik

Top of the hill where we had lunch.

squirrel hunting

A day's catch for Maggie and I

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Martin flew the four of us women and Belinda’s dog
in two trips. We had sleeping bags, food, cook stuff, traps, skinning
supplies, fuel (wood and kerosene) and a spare change of clothes and
gear for possible cold. September brought sudden heat or chill. The camp
at Omalik consisted of one room with a heat/cook stove, a bench like
dining table and four cots.

Once unpacked, I was sent to the stream for water. “Watch out for bears,” I was told. Damned bears again.
Like most people, I love the romance of bears, but these are not
Yellowstone bears scouting campsites for scraps and giving city and
suburban folk vaca photo ops. These were wild take no prisoners type
bears roaming the tundra. They had to work harder for food than those
fluff park bears. These were the bears that stalked my dreams most of my
childhood into adulthood bears. I grabbed a  metal dipping cup to
accompany my water pail before leaving the cabin.

It seemed I walked a good 1/2 mile before I found the stream. With Belinda watching
my every move, ready to criticize, I feared I went the wrong direction
from where I was told. I was beginning to doubt my ability to simply go
in the direction of Maggie’s point. An Eskimo point, however, is not
with outstretched arm and index finger — a gesture hard to misinterpret
— an Eskimo point involved the raising of the chin pointed toward the
intended target with puckered lips and raised eyebrows. Maybe I had
missed a subtle motion of the eyebrows . . . or a tilt of the chin . . .
I forgot about bears and focused on what “excuse” I might come up with
to prove to Belinda I went that way (the wrong way) on purpose as I was,
perhaps, also gathering wood . . . She wanted nothing better than for
me to prove my incompetence and unworthiness at being there instead of
precious Koke. Her Kokey. But I did stumble upon the stream and filled
the bucket as high as I could without dredging up rock and sand along
with water. I was glad I had brought the dipper cup.

When I got back, I filled a kettle with water for tea and placed it on the already
sizzling hot cast iron stove. Meanwhile Belinda spoke enthusiastically
about Koke — in Inupiaq — telling old stories of past squirrel hunting
trips.  Standing near to me, watching my every move in between
reminiscences, she proceeded to move the kettle some 6″ to the right and
gave me a sideways “I dare you”. I have an ability to blank out my face
erasing it of emotion. With that face I moved the kettle back where I
originally placed it. Actually, anywhere on that stove would have
produced a boiling kettle of water.

In my family a fight was a fight among sisters, drug out way longer than necessary, but someone was
determined to win. I was prepared to move that kettle back and forth
into the night if necessary. In a moment of heightened preparation for
battle, I imagined Maggie and Kathy behind our backs holding Belinda’s
and my elbows back into our waist, trying to keep us from knocking each
other down with a hot tea kettle . . . but, just like that, the conflict
was over. Belinda backed down and sauntered over to the table next to
Maggie as if nothing had been instigated. That’s it? That’s all she
had?

For the rest of the week, we simply stayed out of each
other’s way. By week’s end she would respect me for my squirrel
trapping and skinning skills though we would never have a conversation
even though she spoke fluent English.

(To be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Omalik mountain

Outside the cabin at Omalik. I did a painting from this picture for Maggie. Wish I had a slide of the painting.

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