Spirit of the Brown Bear
(Torar Angiyok Aklark)
The man kept walking, even though his legs seemed
to be made of ice and the bearskin covering had stiffened. He kept on walking.
His hands and feet felt numb, along with his brain. He couldn’t think of anything other than why he was here.
What had happened back there that had torn the world apart?
He kept walking until his legs gave out.
Then, when he hit the ground, he felt the pain from his knees
jerking his senses back to his dilemma.
The cold ground made him shiver even more violently.
He tried to get up, but wasn’t able to make his limbs work.
He couldn’t make his frozen hands release the bearskin. He wanted to cry, but was unable to. It would have been useless anyway, the man thought.
Tears would have frozen and made him even more uncomfortable.
Then he thought of the flare gun he had used on the bear. Maybe, just maybe he could make it work. His stiff fingers fumbled under the furry bear hide for the pistol. He couldn’t find it. He dug under the tattered parka. There was no pistol. Finally with an almost inaudible moan of despair, he gave up. He huddled under the skin wondering again how he had come to this point. Even as he fell asleep, he was still wondering.
Utaq watched the stranger through narrowed eyes.
He had seen the crash of the airplane and noted the death of one of
the men. He had really wanted
nothing to do with the white men, even in death, but then he became
fascinated by the actions of the second man. A hibernating ‘aklark’ or grizzly bear, one that
had lost the right to eat the dead man, had attacked the survivor.
It must have been older to be so unsuccessful in hunting to eat a
man, dead or otherwise.
The man had not run from aklark. Indeed, he had ingeniously shoved a weapon down its gullet
and fired. And then when the
bear had died, the white man had skinned it for protection against the
cold, wisely wrapping himself fur-side in.
When the man had walked away from the crash site and into the
forest, Utaq had continued to follow him.
The Eskimo had paused in his surveillance of Nanurark, or
bearskin, as he was calling the white man, only long enough to go and cut
several large chunks of bear meat to share with his dogs.
The winter had been harsh on those still following traditional ways
and meat like this, even though it was rangy and overly lean, should not
be wasted. This was the only foolish thing the white man had done.
A warm meal would have been of great use in the walk that Nanurark
Popping a small piece of the still steaming liver
in his mouth, Utaq turned back to the white man’s trail. He would follow as long as the man was traveling in the
general direction he wanted to go and as long as the weather held up.
He urged his quietly straining dogs on the path made by Nanurark,
pondering what he would do when the white man’s stamina waned.
While he could care less for what he considered foreigners, still
he didn’t think he could leave one out in the wilderness to die.
Nanurark continued onward, though, plodding through the old snow
with what appeared to be some kind of fierce inner determination.
It was halfway through the long night before the man’s strength
finally gave out. In the
meantime Utaq had seen evidence of caribou on the fringes of the forest,
much more than he had seen for many days.
Perhaps this strange Gus'k'ikwáan, or white man was
Utaq noticed the slight difference in the feel and
sound of the wind and knew that the weather was changing for the worst.
He gazed at the huddled man on the snow-covered ground.
The man was one of those his tribe had turned their backs on, but
the idea that this unorthodox intruder could bring good luck intrigued
him. Utaq decided to make a
shelter and rest here during the storm.
Staking his dogs just inside a thicker stand of trees, the Inuit
temporarily ignored the stranger and searched for materials for his
shelter. While he was casting
about, the wind continued to pick up and snow began falling, a precursor
to a blizzard. He cut pine
boughs and brought them back to his sledge.
He pulled a hide and canvas tent from the sledge and set it up with
the surety of one who had done this many times.
The dogs barked a chorus, anticipating their breakfast and then
they quieted down anticipating the storm.
Utaq latticed the boughs over the tent to insulate it and then he
checked out the man. To his
surprise, the bearskin-clad man was awake, huddled at the base of a nearby
tree, watching him. Obviously
he was cold, only his eyes were showing.
Even in the dark glow of the Arctic pre-dawn, the blue of the
man’s eyes was evident. They
seemed almost luminous in their appraisal.
Utaq motioned for the man to get in his tent even
as the snow began falling harder. Stumbling
to his feet, the white man did just that, never relinquishing his tight
hold on the bloody bearskin. Cutting
some of the bear meat for his dogs, Utaq gathered the rest of his supplies
into the shelter with him. Without
saying a word, he pulled out an old camp stove and filled the reservoir
with seal oil. Pumping
several times, he struck a match under the pilot and watched with
satisfaction as the small flame flashed brightly.
He turned the knob in front and the flame flared around the
circular burner. A pot went on it to heat while Utaq went outside and gathered
some of the fresh snow. It
was continuing to snow more heavily and he was able to gather several
armfuls rather quickly. Each
time he slipped back into the shelter, the man watched him with
inquisitive eyes. He didn’t
say anything, didn’t move, only watched.
Utaq pondered, but continued to do what needed to
be done. There would be time
for talk later. Aklark.
Aklark—the brown bear. That’s
what the man reminded him of. There
was something a bit fierce about this man, despite his weak and
half-frozen condition. Of course, he would have to be, Utaq reminded himself,
considering that the grizzly bear had attacked him and the Gus'k'ikwáan
had killed him with only a flare pistol.
He went back out of the tent and pulled a second
rifle from the sledge. Then
he paused as he heard a sound above the noise of the wind and rustling
tree limbs. It was a cautious
sound, perhaps indicating a prey animal rather than a predator.
Utaq heard whining from the dogs and silenced them with a motion of
his hand. He prided himself
that he had trained them to respond that way as well as by voice. He did not possess a whip; he had never needed one.
Quietly, Utaq crept toward the sound.
He was now beyond sight of the campground, though the swirling
thick snow had made that a fact almost before he had walked ten paces from
the entrance. Quietly, he
continued his stealthy search. The
noise stopped and he stopped. His
eyes surveyed the area. Even
his plumed breath was muted. Then
he saw it—a large male caribou stepped to the edge of the thicket.
The pre-dawn twilight made it hard to see, but there was a
blood-encrusted tear on one flank, as well as dried blood on his antlers.
It was quickly apparent that the creature had been targeted by a
pack of wolves and had fled into the forest to escape.
Utaq listened. There
was no evidence that the predators had followed.
The reasons why the animal had taken refuge here was immaterial; it
was only important that he had. The
Eskimo had been greatly blessed by this good fortune.
Even as he was thinking these thoughts, Utaq drew his rifle to his
shoulder, sighted and fired.
The caribou had seen him move and turned to bolt
just as Utaq had thought he would. The
bullet was true and the animal dropped in its tracks.
Behind him, he heard the dogs begin a cacophony of barks and howls.
Ignoring them, Utaq walked to the dead caribou and gazed at it.
He frowned. Either he
would have to cut the carcass here and make several trips back to the
tent, or harness the dogs again, or . . . or ask the Gus'k'ikwáan
to help him. He doubted that
the man had a great deal of strength, but even a little would allow him to
haul the caribou back to the camp and hang it from one of the trees there.
Turning, he made his way quickly back to his camp and saw the
stranger standing at the entrance of the shelter, Utaq’s other rifle in
his hands. For a moment the
Eskimo wondered if the man was going to use it on him, but the rifle was
at his side, his gaze not aggressive.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” the
blue-eyed man said when Utaq stared at the rifle.
The bearskin had been left behind and the torn parka revealed some
injury from the encounter with the bear.
The voice was mellow, low as though coming from deep within.
The man didn’t need to speak loudly in order to be heard even
over the increasing wind.
“I was hunting and shot a caribou,” Utaq said
“I don’t know what I could do to help, but I
am willing to try . . . if you need any,” the man offered.
“It looks like a blizzard’s coming.”
“Get the knife from inside.”
The man said nothing, but ducked inside.
He was quickly back, handing the knife to Utaq, who had collected a
stout leather rope. The white
man followed Utaq to the caribou. With deftness and acquired skill, the hunter prepared
to dress the carcass. He
directed his companion to help him drag the caribou back to camp and a
nearby tree, where the two of them pulled the carcass off the ground to
hang head down from a stout limb. It
was the only such available tree in the vicinity of his camp.
Near the tundra, the forest growth was usually scraggly and stunted
with only pockets of larger growth.
Again Utaq directed a glance at the man straining
beside him. The sheen of
sweat beaded his brow and as he pulled on the rope, he could see the
grimace of pain pass across his face.
The wounds from the bear would have to be tended soon.
Some would say that all that had happened this night was
coincidence, but now no one would be able to convince Utaq that this man
wasn’t good luck. Two food supplies in one day was more than coincidence.
The Eskimo would gladly take care of this man as long as he needed
Again with deft skill, Utaq finished dressing the
caribou. He directed the man
to get a pot from inside the tent. When
Utaq slit the animal’s throat, he did two things that seemed to interest
the white man. He intoned a
prayer to the animal’s spirit and caught the blood in the pot.
It would make a fine soup. He
handed the pot back to his new companion and conversed with him as he
worked on the carcass. “The
plane you were in. Where did
it come from?”
that’s what all that wreckage was?”
Utaq continued to work, but his mind was busy.
The stranger either had already been on the ground, but no, that
couldn’t be. Utaq had been
hunting this region for some time and there had been no other incursions.
The man just couldn’t remember or he didn’t want to say.
“Who are you?” the Gus'k'ikwáan asked.
of his people would be hesitant to give their personal names to strangers,
but this man had proven himself to be of worth not only to Utaq, but to
the people of his village as well. Besides, the white man didn’t
understand the custom. “And
The man opened his mouth to speak, then close it
again. He looked confused and
then agitated. There was a
glimpse of fear in the blue eyes. “I
. . . I don’t know,” he finally stammered.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” Utaq admitted.
“But the snow is falling faster and we need to finish dressing
the caribou. We can talk more
in the tent. Right now, take
the pot in and put it on the stove.”
With a nod barely discernable in the twilight
morning, the man picked up the pot and took it into the tent. He returned a moment later and silently helped Utaq with the
carcass, doing exactly what the Eskimo asked him to do.
A few of the dogs whined in anticipation but otherwise lay quietly
and let the snow cover them.
By the time they had finished, the snow was
falling like a heavy curtain, making it difficult to see even the
caribou’s carcass hanging from the tree above them.
Utaq was quick.
The stranger wasn’t able to help a great deal anymore, but he
saved time by throwing scraps and bones to the dogs and helping him raise
the bundled meat higher; enough into the tree to keep other animals from
disturbing it until after the storm blew over. With
a look of satisfaction, Utaq motioned to the man and headed toward the
tent. He figured this storm
would blow out in two to three days.
More than enough time to eat, rest and try to find out more about
the mysterious white man.
“I almost warmed up out there,” the stranger
quipped as they both crouched and entered the shelter.
“Good,” Utaq grunted, feeling over-warm right
now. He smelled the broth and
smiled in satisfaction. He
cut up and tossed in a few chunks of bear meat, opened a small packet and
added some salt and pepper. Then
he pulled off his outer parka and sat against a rolled up fur.
He gazed intently at the man sitting a few feet across from him.
The portable cook stove’s fire lit the small enclosure to just a
little brighter than the morning twilight.
The man must have been feeling the cold again now that he was
inactive, because he reached for the bearskin.
“No,” Utaq said, tossing him his outer parka.
“The skin needs to be cleaned and preserved.
Then it will be a fitting tribute to your prowess as well as
keeping you warm.
“You sure you don’t need this?” the man
asked, indicating the proffered parka.
Utaq shook his head and then smiled.
“You are not from here or you wouldn’t feel the cold so deeply.
The man pulled the parka over his head and sighed
at the feeling of warmth it created.
He only wished he knew where he had come from, and most especially
he wished he knew who he was.
“You really don’t remember your name?” Utaq
asked as the wind outside began shrieking intermittently.
The sides of the shelter rattled ominously, but everything stayed
tight. Utaq checked the
center post as he waited for the white man’s answer.
“You don’t remember anything at all?”
“No,” he said softly, shaking his head.
“It’s a very frightening feeling,” he added after a long
pause. “As though you
are a cipher; nothing at all but a black spot under someone’s heel.”
The voice fell off, almost to a whisper.
“Then until you do remember, I will give you a
name,” Utaq pronounced decisively.
There was something drawing him to this man.
It was like this Gus'k'ikwáan was some kind of magnet,
drawing Utaq to him and enfolding him into his soul.
And yet it wasn’t a threatening feeling.
It was like breathing in the essence of a beloved uncle. The Eskimo man could only imagine what it might have been
like if the man did know who he was.
Or might that be the reason for this feeling now—that the man
didn’t have his memories to hide the inner soul?
Utaq shook himself mentally. The
spirits of the land might or might not reveal the answers to him.
The blue-eyed man just gazed at him in surprise
for a moment, then he frowned. “That
won’t give me back my memories and it certainly won’t tell me who I
“It will tell you who you are now, though.
And when the rest comes, it will all add together.”
“All right, what do you plan to call me?”
There was a hint of a smile, and Utaq thought that the white man
was secretly pleased with his concern.
“There are two choices that come to mind,”
Utaq began, relaxing more comfortably on a rolled up fur blanket. “Nanurark was my first choice, because of the way you
utilized the bear skin. But
the more I am around you, the more I am inclined to call you Aklark.”
“Why?” came the simple question.
“Because you not only looked like the brown bear
as you were walking, but I see some of the dead bear’s personality in
The man blinked in surprise and then began
It was Utaq’s turn to look surprised.
“I enjoy a good joke. Why
do you laugh?”
“You have said I have some of the dead bear’s
personality. Do you mean I am
nasty tempered and irascible?”
Utaq chuckled, and then he shook his head.
“Maybe, but I meant that you are courageous and I also see power
in you. There are very few
men who could kill a fully-grown aklark almost with his bare hands.
There are very few who would even have the courage to try.”
“I had a flare pistol,” the man pointed out.
“It takes more than the power of a pistol to kill a mighty bear
like that. You have some kind
of magic force that is helping you.”
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