Remembering Louie Kamookak (1959-2018)

The official
obituaries I will leave to others. I feel driven to remember Louie Kamookak as my
friend. Louie is well-known now as the foremost 21st-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 to Edmonton, in and out of hospital, and receiving chemotherapy.
But he was not yet sixty years old and I was in denial. I felt he would remain
with us for years. A couple of months ago, Louie agreed to become Gjoa Haven
Consultant on the Arctic Return Expedition slated for 2019.

Together, he and I would 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 this in
Fatal Passage and Dead Reckoning.

After camping out on Boothia and erecting the plaque beside the ruined cairn, we broke camp to return to Gjoa Haven. Louie said that,
before recrossing Rae Strait, he wanted to investigate a spot
where sometimes he found good hunting. So, yes, Louie had a keen interest in
Arctic discovery. But he was also an Inuk living, and so helping to preserve, a
traditional way of life.

Louie Kamookak was an Inuit hunter at home in
this High Arctic world. 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. With Louie at the wheel, away we went, south
down the coast of Boothia.

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 tund
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! The 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 skinned that dead
animal, 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 Gjoa 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
vowed that, some day, I would put that moment on

[Photos: Louie at the ruined cairn in 1999. Three adventurers toast John Rae, William Ouligbuck Jr. and Thomas Mistegan. Both pix shot by tripod. Louie and me in Gjoa Haven. I asked him if he was an elder yet. He insisted that he was still too young. Photo by Sheena Fraser McGoogan.]


  1. hdh607 on February 1, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Very sorry to hear this news. I never met Louie, but I know a lot of people who have and it's clear he made a big difference in people's lives. His contributions to Arctic History will be missed. I was truly looking forward to meeting him through Arctic Return. His contributions have no doubt shaped what Arctic Return has become, and I will always be thankful for that. Hugh

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