In Canada’s Inuit Territory of Nunavut: Nanook of the North on the Looney Front – Part 1
As the last blogs were on Greenland in the depths of winter, here is a series on the Inuit territory of Nunavut, northern Canada in the depths of early April from a trip I took a couple of years back.
The 1,303-mile flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, is almost due north as the Canada goose – and the little 75-seat CRJ 705 twin-jet – flies.
There are even individual video screens in the seat backs with subtitles in the squiggly Inuit syllabary script looking just like some advanced geometrical equation.
But alas and alack, I have the Queen of Flatulence sitting right in front of me and she’s just let fly a monster. And now a little Inuit child, the most beautiful little girl you could imagine, with large almond eyes and glorious lank hair, turns out to have some form of autism, and is vigorously banging on the window and knock-knock-knocking on the seat in front of her.
We’re flying over a crazy quilt of gleaming white frozen lakes and ponds when fair Lady Wind Tunnel in front launches a silent but most deadly scud, and the lovely little girl to the left starts screaming and moaning.
The crazy quilt gives way to wall-to-wall blinding whiteness, the pilot tells us we are now passing over the North Quebec hydro-power plant, and fair Lady Wind Tunnel, not to be outdone, lets slip the mother of all winds.
By the time we pass over the top of Hudson Bay, the little girl is ferociously cleaning the windows with thousands of tissues and Daddy and Mummy are purring ‘Good girl, what a good job!’
At last we approach Baffin Island, the world’s fifth largest at nearly 196,000 square miles, the wind maker has gone dormant, the little girl is quiescent, and the snowy plains and valleys and straggling bluff-topping crescents of Iqaluit’s little houses soar upwards to meet us.
The Vikings apparently got to Baffin 1,000 years before me and called it Helluland, but the first thing I find out in Iqaluit is what a difference a ‘U’ makes. In the Inuit language, Inuktitut, it means ‘place of many fish,’ but avoid at all costs the English custom of putting a ‘U’ after the ‘Q.’ That way it means ‘dirty arsehole.’
The town, which started out life as an American air base called Frobisher Bay in 1942, is now home to over 6,600 people, about a sixth of the population of the vast 808,185-square-mile Nunavut territory, taking up two thirds of Arctic Canada.
It is basically without charm, sights or much else. There are lines of low wooden buildings, a black-panelled four-storey territorial parliament building that’s meant to recall the traditional Inuit igloo and kayak – though where, how etc. escapes me – and a visitors’ centre and little museum showing Inuit traditions, history, art and implements.
This includes an exhibition called ‘We were so far away’ about the Inuit children who were taken away and put into residential schools where they had their language and traditions literally beaten out of them.
Forget all the tourist book crap about ‘our beautiful capital,’ but then you don’t come to Nunavut to see towns and cities, but the wilds that exist beyond them.
The roads and streets are covered with ice and snow in varying degrees of white, off-white, brown and deep doodoo colour. Everything is very expensive – a small soup and midget chicken sandwich with a cup of tea comes to $20 with tip. You can get caribou or muskox burgers, and a full meal can set you back $60 or more.
It’s about -18 Celsius (0 Fahrenheit), with a wind chill factor making it feel like -30 C (-22 F), so regular underwear, thermal long-johns, long sleeve vest, shirt, jeans, sweater, fleece, parka, gloves and hat are in order for a little walkabouts to the blinding whiteness of the corrugated ridges and humps of frozen Frobisher Bay.
There’s total, all-pervasive silence but for the crunchy-crunch of your own frozen footsteps – until the angry roar of snowmobiles drowns them out.
I’m trying to find Sylvia Grinnell state park and I seem to have got on the wrong side of the airport. Retracing my steps and finding nothing on the other side of the airport, I’m told I was right all along. So I toddle back again. By now it’s gone 5 p.m., it’s getting appreciably colder and I’m wrapping up even more.
I’ve added a neck warmer, a balaclava and my parka’s hood to my top regions, closing up the balaclava so that only my eyes are visible – at last in full terrorist mode, Onan bin Laden himself.
Now disaster strikes. I have this desire to pee that I can’t refuse. How the hell do you get it out through long-johns and all those layers? I eventually succeed, and now a flock of dirty black viciously-beaked ravens are circling like vultures. Ugggh, a pecker pecked!
I resume my walk, but now minuscule icicles have formed on my eyelashes and they’re sparkling in the blinding rays of the setting sun, totally dazzling me. I come to the end of the road, and I’m still lost – no Sylvia Grinnell park, even if there are magnificent views of frozen Frobisher Bay.
Sylvia, by the way, was the daughter of a friend of American explorer Charles Hall who journeyed here with Inuit assistance in 1861 and was the first non-Inuit to realize that Frobisher’s Strait was actually a bay, and not the Northwest Passage to China. I think I must have reached China by now.
To cap it all, the pièce de résistance of a wonderful afternoon, I’m seized by a violent fit of sneezing, can’t remove my balaclava in time and have turned myself into a walking IED, a personified improvised explosive device as I beat a retreat back to town, leaving Sylvia for another day.
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.
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