Ootah and the Igloos


The airplane’s engine made a final sputtering sound, and then there was nothing but a dreadful silence. Andrew sat stiffly, pale and frightened. While his father worked frantically to restart the engine, the plane glided earthward in ever-descending circles. Suddenly the engine roared back to life, and Andrew’s father quickly nosed the plane up to gain altitude. But again the engine stopped, and nothing his father could do would make it start.

“Are we going to crash?” Andrew asked.

“No, son, don’t worry. This little plane can practically fly itself, even without power,” his father answered. “Look ahead there; we can glide far enough to land in that snowfield.”

Through the haze Andrew could see the mainland snow and ice at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. And as they glided closer and lower he could see the mouth of a large river.

“That must be the Mackenzie River,” his father said. Then motioning behind them he added, “We have plenty of emergency food back in the cabin—enough to last until someone comes looking for us.”

Andrew’s father had intended to land in the Canadian town of Inuvik within the Arctic Circle, but he had taken a detour and flown the oil company’s plane over the Arctic Ocean so that his son could see it.

Soon they were gliding low over the snow and ice. “Look!” Andrew cried. “There are two igloos and some Eskimos down there!”

“Some dogs too,” his father added. “I hope they have a sled. I’m going to land this ‘bird’ close to the igloos.”

Under his father’s steady hand, the plane landed about fifty feet from the Eskimo homes. Immediately its passengers were greeted by the smiling faces of two women, two men, and a boy about Andrew’s age.

“Kabluna,” the older man said.

“That means ‘men with bushy eyebrows,’ and that’s how they think of all white men,” Andrew’s father explained. “Before knowing about our race, they believed that they were the only people in the world and called themselves Inuit, meaning The People.”

The Eskimo boy said, “Akshunai, pikatigikpugut,” and then he translated for Andrew. “I said, ‘Hello, we are friends.’”

Nakorami (Thank you),” Andrew’s father answered, and then he turned to examine the plane’s faulty engine.

“Where did you learn to speak English?” Andrew asked the boy.

“At the government school in Inuvik. My name is Ootah.”

While the boys talked, Andrew’s father made arrangements with one of the men for transportation to the closest settlement. A sled with a walrus-hide harness was soon pulled around in front of one of the igloos and the dogs hustled into place.

“I’ll have to get a mechanic, son. This young man is going to drive me into Inuvik; it’s about seventy miles from here,” Andrew’s father explained. “You stay with the plane, and I’ll be back in six days.”

Andrew was a little apprehensive, but he smiled. “OK, Dad,” he said. “I’ll be all right. But I’ll miss you.” Feeling lonely and a little hungry, he waved good-bye as his father left on the sled.

“Come to my father’s igloo,” Ootah invited Andrew. “My mother will give us something to eat.”

When the boys were close to Ootah’s home, Andrew saw an old man and Ootah’s mother crawl out of the low entrance and struggle over a bag of flour. The old man won and marched to his igloo with the flour, muttering to himself.

Ootah was deeply upset. His face flushed and he looked down at his feet. “My grandfather is taking charge of all the food,” he explained. “We’ve had a bad hunting and trapping season and we haven’t had much to exchange at the trading post. We’re short of food.”

“That’s OK,” Andrew said. “I have some food and I can eat in the plane.”

Andrew turned back and climbed into the airplane’s small cabin. Although his father had taken some of the food on the sled, there was still a lot of canned goods left—much more than he would need. As he ate, Andrew thought of taking some food to the Eskimos, but he decided against it. If his father were delayed for some reason, the boy would need the food for himself.

When he left the plane, Andrew found Ootah waiting for him. “Come and see what my grandfather has,” Ootah said.

Ootah led him into his grandfather’s igloo. The old man grunted at the boys, and the old lady smiled. The first thing Andrew noticed was the smell of dried fish and meat and burned seal oil. Then he followed Ootah to a large box against the snow wall. In it were five Husky puppies, climbing all over each other.

Andrew fell in love with a little brown and white one. “Do you think your grandfather would sell it?” he asked. “Maybe my father will buy it for me when he gets back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ootah said. “My grandfather will never sell any of his dogs.”

The old man left the igloo. “He’s going to set snares for the Arctic hare,” Ootah told Andrew. “Do you want to go fishing?”

Andrew loved to fish, so Ootah got fishing lines and hooks for both of them, a hatchet, some bait, and a coil of rope.

As the boys walked toward the Mackenzie River, Ootah looked like a bear in his karlik, attigis, mukluks, and puelluks (fur trousers, parka, high boots, and mittens). Andrew was warm in his modern thermal underwear and outer clothes.

“What’s the rope for?” Andrew asked.

“Just in case,” was all Ootah would tell him.

Near the river the Eskimo boy chopped two holes through the ice. After fishing for several hours Ootah finally caught three small fish. He offered one to Andrew. “For your supper,” he said.

“Thank you, but I have food in the cabin of the plane,” Andrew reminded him.

On their way back to the igloos the boys’ talk was suddenly interrupted by the sound of muffled shouts, and they both began running toward the noise.

“Grandfather has fallen through a snowbridge into a crevasse!” Ootah shouted. “He can’t see too well.”

They found the old man floundering in soft snow at the bottom of a fairly deep hole in the ice, but he appeared to be unhurt. Ootah threw one end of the rope down to him, and together the boys pulled the old man out of the hole.

“Nakorami, Nakorami,” he kept repeating.

Andrew felt terribly lonely when he returned to the plane and fixed something to eat. Before eating he prayed for his father’s safety and quick return. And as he prayed he remembered that his father had taught him to treat others as he would like to be treated. Guiltily he thought of the kindness of the Eskimo who had offered to share his fish even though they were all short of food.

Andrew flung open the cabin door and shouted for Ootah. When he came running, Andrew began throwing cans of food down to him.

On the sixth day an airplane mechanic flew in with Andrew’s father. While the mechanic repaired the plane, Andrew said good-bye to his Eskimo friends. He and Ootah solemnly promised to keep in touch with each other.

As the plane soared above the igloos, Andrew felt something pushing against his leg. He reached down and with a rush of joy picked up the little brown and white Husky puppy Ootah and his grandfather had left in the plane for Andrew to take home.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Howard Post