Since the passing of Louie Kamookak on March 22 at age 58, I have been revisiting old photos in which he features. Here is one of the two of us that stems from August 1999. Louie made me laugh when he dubbed this “the Boat Place.” We were slogging south along the west coast of Boothia Peninsula, making our way back to camp. The previous day, we had found the ruins of the cairn John Rae built in 1854 to mark his discovery of Rae Strait.
Earlier in the afternoon, we had erected a memorial plaque beside it. We had toasted Rae and the two men who made the trek with him—the Inuk William Ouligbuck Jr. and the Ojibway Thomas Mistegan. I had suggested that we stop for a rest and Louie, with a twinkle in his eye, said let’s rest at the Boat Place. We had passed this overturned rowboat travelling north, so I knew where he meant. Like many people reading this, however, I also understood that he was alluding to the famous Boat Place on the west coast of King William Island—the location where, in 1859, searchers found a clothed skeleton from the lost Franklin Expedition sitting frozen at one end of a boat.
Louie Kamookak is well-known now as the foremost twenty-first-century champion of Inuit oral history—that history which, in 2014, led searchers to discover John Franklin’s long-lost flagship, HMS Erebus. For decades, Louie dedicated time and energy to collecting oral history, traditional place names, and the history of Inuit groups before Europeans arrived in the Arctic. For his contributions, he was made an honorary vice-president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which awarded him the Erebus Medal. He also received the Lawrence J. Burpee Medal, the Canadian Governor General’s Polar Medal, the Order of Canada, and the Order of Nunavut.
In recent months, Louie made no secret of the fact that he was back and forth from Gjøa Haven to Edmonton, in and out of hospital, and receiving chemotherapy. But he was not yet sixty years old and I was in denial. I honestly believe he would remain with us for years. A couple of months ago, Louie agreed to become Gjøa Haven Consultant on the Arctic Return Expedition slated for 2019. Together, he and I intended to set out from Gjøa Haven and meet the four-person expedition at its culminating point, the John Rae Memorial Plaque and Cairn overlooking Rae Strait. By so doing, we would not only honor John Rae, but also mark the twentieth anniversary of when, together with antiquarian Cameron Treleaven, we located that site. I wrote about that adventure in Fatal Passage and Dead Reckoning.
After drinking cold coffee at the Boat Place, we reached our campsite and began packing up our gear. Louie said that, before recrossing Rae Strait to Gjøa Haven, he wanted to investigate a spot where sometimes he found good hunting. Louie had a passionate interest in Arctic exploration, but he was also a proud Inuk who lived, and so helped to preserve, a traditional way of life. In summer, he went hunting in his twenty-foot boat. In winter, he used a dog-team or a Skidoo. The water, the ice—they belonged to his world, and to the way his Inuit ancestors had lived for generations.
We piled into the boat and, with Louie at the wheel, away we went, south down the coast of Boothia. After about twenty minutes, we entered a nondescript bay, hauled the boat onto a sandy beach, and climbed a ridge to scan the horizon. I saw nothing. There was nothing to see. But Louie pointed and whispered: “Caribou!” A huge-antlered animal, all but invisible against the brown tundra, stood in profile more than one hundred metres away. Way too far, in my opinion. But Louie fell to one knee, brought his gun to his shoulder, and fired. Nothing happened. I thought he had missed completely.
But no! That caribou dropped down dead where it stood. I could hardly believe it. We all three went charging across the tundra. Louie was jubilant. When he reached the caribou, he cried: “Straight through the heart!” Treleaven and I watched as he said a few words over the dead animal. Then he skinned that creature, hoisted the heavy carcass up onto his shoulders, and staggered back to the boat. Heaving it into the stern, he said: “Meat will last all winter.”
We hauled the boat into deep water and set out for Gjøa Haven, returning from what had evolved into a successful caribou hunt. Louie Kamookak was feeling good. All three of us were on top of the world. And as we pounded across Rae Strait in the wind, I knew that I would remember these past few days forever.
Over the years, Louie and I kept in touch. We talked on the phone, traded emails. I saw him once in Calgary, once in Ottawa, and couple of times in Gjøa Haven when, with Adventure Canada, I called in there. Louie gave me a wonderful quote for the back cover of Dead Reckoning. As I say, we were planning to revisit the John Rae memorial plaque next spring. But my fondest memories remain those we created together in 1999, when we found a cairn, erected a plaque, went hunting for caribou, and located our own Boat Place.
Photos by Cameron Treleaven. For more of Ken’s thoughts on Louie, visit his website.