The best mechanics in the world

by Andy Turnbull

Canada’s Inuit have many talents, but one of the most impressive is their mechanical ability. With or without training, they have a reputation as the world’s best natural mechanics.

According to one story, white men first learned of the Inuit’s mechanical ability when a team of U.S. Army engineers, working on the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations, abandoned two outboard motors that were broken and not worth the cost of repair. Within a few weeks, the Americans found that local hunters were using the motors, with replacement parts made of whalebone.

My personal experience dates back to 1969, when I had the first snowmobile in the north with a reverse gear. I know it was the first because it was a preproduction model that Outboard Marine had sent up for me to photograph. It broke down near the village of Fort McPherson, in the Northwest Territories. This was an Indian village, but there was one Inuk in town, named Simon, who worked as caretaker at the local school. People suggested that I see him.

It was dark by the time I found Simon at the school, but by the light of a flashlight he opened the transmission housing and looked at it. In a few seconds, he found a bolt that had sheared off. The missing head of the bolt had to fit into a slide, and it had to fit well.

No problem. Simon used pliers to pull the bolt, then took it into the school shop where he used a welding torch to build up a blob of metal in place of the shorn-off head. Then, without taking any measurements, he hand-filed the metal to fit the slide.

Outside again, still working by flashlight and with bare hands in freezing winter weather, he installed the bolt and reassembled the transmission. It worked perfectly, for as long as I kept the snowmobile.

How do they do it? I’ve never heard any theories advanced by “qualified” people, but I have heard some guesses that sound pretty good. Rick Riewe, professor of geology at the University of Manitoba and an experienced Arctic traveler, suggests that lifelong training to travel and hunt in the Arctic is one factor. The Arctic tundra is mostly flat and almost featureless, but to the Inuit who travel there tiny features that the average person would never notice are obvious landmarks.

Near-fanatic attention to detail, willingness to improvise and willingness to take infinite pains may be other factors. Jill Oakes, professor of native studies at Manitoba, reports that when an ice storm decimated the caribou herd on Belcher Island in Hudson Bay, local Inuit made winter parkas of duck-skin — complete with the feathers and down.

When they can’t find driftwood to make sleds, fishermen in the Pelly Bay areas sometimes make sleds out of frozen fish, welded together with ice. In the supercold Arctic winter, the sleds last for months and when they finally break up, the fish are still edible.