The Tundra

            Sight of the endless acres of snow and ice always gave Nalai pause. Much as all children did, she’d read stories of fantastical far away places with unimaginable plants in fantastical colours and shapes. She couldn’t imagine a tree being a more lovely sight than the constantly shifting fields of snow. It was harsh and cold but the early morning sun made the snow glitter. She smiled, despite the wind whipping around her. She didn’t feel the cold but she knew it was there. Naktik clothing was designed to keep body heat in but it didn’t stop them from feeling the pressure of the ever present wind. It wasn’t as cold around Kuktaiqik as it was further north around the cities of Naiuqshuq and Taquiit.
           Nalai watched as Iquiuk barked happily, running around in circles. Her massive paws kicked up the loose, powdery snow that had fallen sometime during the night. In a way, she envied the dog. She’d never known Iquiuk to feel cold; overheated from being indoors for too long, perhaps, but certainly never cold. She waited patiently for the dog to finish playing. It was better to wait than to force the highly energetic dog to do something before she was good and ready for it.
I wish I could give her more exercise than I do, she thought with a twinge of guilt. If only I could afford to have more dogs I could train them to work in a team to pull a sled. With a sled, I could go further out to look for plants, ones we’d normally have to get from traders. That would save Kiuktuk a lot of money. She smiled dreamily. Maybe it would save him so much that he’d consider giving me a better position. Maybe one day I could have my own shop. Maybe I could even go to Pekapeokuit or Iaquishuk to learn more about herbs.
           She shook her head. I can dream all I want about being the most gifted herbalist in Nakuk all I want. It’s never going to happen. No one in Kuktaiqik would buy herbs from someone like me. I have no status. If it weren’t for my skills at finding useful plants and things on the tundra I would have no worth to anyone. No once will keep someone around who doesn’t have a purpose. I would have been cast out years ago if I hadn’t shown a skill.
           Iquiuk finished her cavorting and came walking up to Nalai, her shaggy whip-like tail wagging happily. Nalai scratched her head, smiling although the scarf covered her mouth. “Are you ready to go, girl?”
Nalai straightened and headed off towards the edge of the snow field and into the rockier part of the tundra. She knew from past experience that the best plants could be found there where the weather was a little warmer. The furred edge of her parka’s hood shielded her eyes from the rising sun as she walked. As long as she didn’t glance up too high or look to the east she was in no danger of snow blindness, a common affliction that was often temporary but had been known to be permanent in some cases.
           She stopped as soon as she heard the crunching noise beneath her feet that signified the end of the deep snow and the beginning of the tundra. She looked up, seeing the familiar rock formations. Iquiuk knew this place as well. None of the other dogs from Kuktaiqik ever went there so she regarded the area as her territory. Even so, she ran around sniffing everything just to make sure that no others had been there. She renewed the scent marks she’d left on previous visits while Nalai looked around for plants.
           Snow stars weren’t hard to find; they grew in clusters between rock formations that sheltered them from the harshest winds. She found several clusters of the four pointed white blossoms with their dull green leaves. Some of the clusters had been picked over but others had fresh blooms. She plucked the flowers from the stems and put them in her satchel. Then she knelt down and pulled off her mittens, digging up some of the plants by the root and moving them to another sufficiently sheltered spot. She arranged the rocks to shelter the plants and replanted them. It was cold work, but snow stars were vital to several important medicines. If she didn’t make sure there would be many sources of the plant a lot of people wouldn’t get the medicine they needed and that could mean death for some of them and unrelieved pain for others. This was the closest source of the plant so she took care to cultivate as much of it as possible.
           If only the entire gathering trip could be this easy, she sighed, putting her hands up to her mouth, blowing on them to warm them up before putting them back inside her fur lined mittens. I have no idea how much willow root I’m going to be able to find at this time of the year. Summer is almost over.
She whistled sharply at Iquiuk; the dog abandoned whatever it was she was sniffing at and bounded over to follow Nalai as she headed deeper into the tundra.
            It took her several hours of searching before she finally found some. Her heart sank. There was only a small handful left. Everything else had been picked clean by other local herb gatherers. As there was little other choice, she took what she could and stuffed it into her sack. Iquiuk was sitting nearby, her tongue hanging out of her mouth as she panted.
            “I guess we have to go back now,” she said to the dog even though Iquiuk wouldn’t understand. “There’s nothing else for us to do out here. By the time we get back it will be dark.” She reached out and ruffled the fur on the dog’s head. “If we’re lucky maybe we’ll get to go out again tomorrow. Should I tell Kiuktuk that I know of another place to get willow root? It’s risky. If I don’t come back with any tomorrow my fat will truly be in the fire. If I do come back with some, though, he’ll praise me for being clever. Hmm.” She looked down at Iquiuk. “Maybe I should tell him that I heard rumours of another prime spot for it. That way if I don’t bring any more back it won’t be my fault, exactly. I won’t get the high praise for being clever but at least I will have accomplished my chore. What do you think?”
           Iquiuk, being only a dog after all, had no real opinion but barked happily at Nalai. She smiled.
           “Alright then; let’s get going. I wonder what Geioq is making for supper tonight.”