The freighter canoe pushed hard against
Wind and current on the Koksoak River.
As we approached shores of Ungava Bay.
A desolate land where polar bears roam
The meandering treeline,
Evergreens struggling to infiltrate,
Barren stretches of gneiss rock.

We had arrived at northern limits of
Arctic Nunavik-Quebec.
Under a cloud-streaked sky,
Three of us made this solemn passage,
An Inuit holy man, Jacopee, myself,
And a local man, with rifle and canoe,
Served as our able guide.

The low sun, an opalescent lens,
Cast dim light and meager warmth
As it over-watched our pilgrimage
Across the ancient plateau,
Where, for an Ice Age,
Glaciers crept a hundred meters thick,
A geologic cataclysm that
Fractured boulders and
Razed deep grooves in granite bedrock.

Overlooking Ungava’s dark waters,
A dozen body-length rock graves
Reposed in wind-swept silence,
Evidence of life’s frailty
In the harsh, unforgiving north.

“This is a holy place,” said Jacopee,
His voice weak from our hike.
“Graves of our ancestors lay here,
The People from Beyond,
Caribou hunters that migrated
Across this land
Amongst the mountains
And their streams.”

Disturbed by polar bears,
A makeshift child’s coffin,
Once buried by stones, lay broken,
Delicate bones exposed.
Long bones and a bleached mandible
Scattered on the rock bluff,
Lay exfoliated by wind, rain, and ice.

Bearing names of the dead,
Christian crosses marked some graves.
Other cairns bore no crosses
Void of names or remembrances.
Placed lovingly by a mourner’s hand,
A few dried flower stems remained,
Desiccated petals wind-whipped away.

“What happened?” I asked.
“Scientists from the south
Say a virus took them,” he answered.
His face pained, he peered onto
White-capped Ungava bay.
“My faith says something else.”
They turned their back on nature,
The Holy Breather of Life.”

As he explained to me,
When the caribou died,
So did the people.
Gripped by starvation and disease,
Children, the old succumbed first,
Then the strong hunters fell
To fatal infections
Deep within their chests.
With his eyes fixed on mine, he said,
“Even today, their souls have no peace.
Restless, they linger here as we speak,
As spirits where bones abound.”

Arctic Nunavik-Quebec at the northern edge of the treeline.
Arctic Nunavik-Quebec at the northern edge of the treeline.

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