The storm has passed, leaving Hudson Bay—at least that portion surrounding the little town of Rankin Inlet—as flat and gray as milled slate. Into the dreamy calm slides a broad-beamed, 22-foot Moosehead canoe that easily holds its five passengers and a spare 55-gallon gas drum. Stolid and sleek, with a 55-horsepower engine, it is a canoe on steroids. The engine sputters to life, and as the craft weaves past dozens of rock islands, it leaves a perfect white wake through the leaden bay, startling flocks of eider ducks into skittering takeoffs. The lingering clouds hover low over the water like smoke.
The canoe's occupants are standing and watchful. In the bow, wearing yellow slicker pants smeared with bloodstains, is 20-year-old Jordin Tootoo. Rifle in hand, he looks every bit the predator—or is it Predator? A fourth-round choice by the Nashville Predators in the 2001 NHL entry draft, the 5'9", 190-pound Tootoo, whose hard-nosed, fearless play at forward for Team Canada in last year's World Junior tournament elevated his standing in the hockey world, signed this summer with Nashville. If he sticks with the big club after training camp, Tootoo, already the most famous citizen in Rankin Inlet (pop. 2,300), will become the first Inuk and first resident of Nunavut to play in the NHL.
On this day, however, Tootoo has other things on his mind, like hunting seals, beluga whales, caribou and geese. "Anything that swims or moves is fair game," he says from his perch in the bow. "I'm a predator looking for prey."
"Eleven o'clock," Jordin's father, Barney, calls from the stern. Seventy yards ahead, above the glassy surface of the bay, the black head of a bearded seal is bobbing. It looks the size and shape of a football helmet. Barney cuts back on the throttle, and as the canoe glides smoothly ahead, Jordin shoulders his .22 Magnum rifle and fires twice. The first shot skips a few yards short of the target. The second splashes beyond the seal's head. With a gurgling rush, the seal sounds.
Barney eases the canoe to where the seal went under, and they wait. A full-blooded Inuk, Barney's skin is the color of saddle leather, darker than Jordin's. (Barney's wife, Rose, is of Ukrainian descent.) Father and son are broad-chested and short, with bright, dark eyes and high cheekbones. There is no tension in the boat. It is more in the nature of the Inuit to laugh at a missed opportunity to kill than curse it, and the Tootoos are here to have fun. No one will starve if the seal escapes. Of greater concern is the retrieval of the carcass if Jordin shoots one, because seals have little blubber in the summer and sink. "You have to get to them quickly and stick them with a harpoon," Jordin says. "Seals are one of the hardest animals to shoot because everything's moving—the waves, the boat and the seal."
It is several minutes before the seal comes up for air. "There," Barney starts to point, but Jordin, who's been hunting with his father since he was six, has already seen it surface, some 60 yards away. Quickly, he shoots twice, and misses. The seal resubmerges. The men wait, patiently scanning the flat gray surface, as Barney makes slow circles with the canoe. After some minutes they decide to move on. The seal has escaped.
It is difficult to grasp the isolation of Rankin Inlet. It is 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg and 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Beyond those numbers, it is an inland island, cut off from the rest of Canada by seemingly endless tundra. No roads lead into town. The only way to get there is by plane or boat.
Nunavut is one of the least populated expanses of North America, a 770,000-square-mile expanse that was carved out of the central and eastern parts of the Northwest Territories in 1999. Just 28,000 people live in an area three times the size of Texas, or about one person per 28 square miles. Eighty-five percent of those residents are Inuit—Eskimos to Barney's generation-people who have traditionally lived off the land by fishing for cod and arctic char, and hunting caribou, seals, whales, geese, ducks and even polar bears. No trees grow on the tundra, so until gas and electricity arrived in the 1950s and '60s, the Inuit rarely were able to cook their food. They dried fish in the breeze after dipping it in salt water, or ate it raw, as they did with their meat. "To us, fast food is when you shoot an animal and eat it right there," Tootoo jokes.
The traditional ways are still practiced to some degree in Rankin Inlet. Caribou is dried into jerky, seal is eaten raw and the skin of the beluga whale—muktuk—is chewed as a delicacy. "The meat of the beluga is too rich for us, so we cut it up and give it to the dogs," Tootoo says. "We only eat the skin, dipped in soy sauce."
Until recently muktuk was the primary source of vitamin C in an Eskimo diet. But now Rankin Inlet has a stocked grocery store offering everything from iceberg lettuce ($3.43 per head) to fresh corn ($1.35 an ear) to orange juice ($7.59 per half gallon). Most of the residents live in ranch-style single-family homes with electricity, telephones and gas or electric ovens. Many, like the Tootoos, have satellite TVs and Internet access. There's a pizza shop, a store that rents DVDs and a 65-room hotel. All the comforts of a rural Canadian town.