Travel Story Stories from an Arctic outpost

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

A visit to Canada's frozen north provides an insight into the Inuit way of life.

It can happen to the best of us at the most unfortunate moments. And it happened last week to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at the official celebrations for Canada’s 150th anniversary ... they got the giggles.

In fact, they got the giggles during a traditional Inuit welcome in Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s most northern territory. 

An Inuit welcome

Aboard an expedition ship as we leave their home of Kugluktuk, Lois Suluk and Edna Elias perform an Inuit welcome ceremony. Lois lights a flame that would have been lit in an igloo, which was kept about 0C.

“The igloo has to be able to breathe or it ices up,” explains Edna. 

Keeping a low flame alight, traditionally using a kind of natural cotton and seal oil but today improvised with bought oil and make-up remover cotton pads, was an important part of a woman’s skills. Edna explains: “Kugluktuk is the most westerly community in Nunavut. The name means ‘the place of the rapids, the moving waters — the traditional name for the Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River’.”

Edna was named Haattuliarmiuaq by her grandfather for his favourite dog, who led his team for many years.

When she was born, he retired the dog. She is very proud of the name, and hopes she is living up to it, she says. She is trying to be a great leader for her Inuit people.

The Inuit heartland is Nunavut, but the name sits over many peoples of the Arctic, from Nunavut to northern Quebec to Labrador, and in the Northwest Territories and coastal Yukon Canada to Greenland, Russia and Alaska. For “Inuit” simply means “people” in the Inuktitut language.

They are descendants of the Thule culture, which spread across the Arctic about AD1000, displacing the Dorset culture.

Lucky in Kugluktuk

The colourful little huts and houses of Kugluktuk look thrown down like dice, as if tenuously scattered rather than rooted on an Arctic tundra turned gold by autumn.

The cold snow has just stopped and the sun has come out in a white light glare. But as I passed down the slushy grey roads that grid this remote township of 1600 mainly Inuinnaqtun Inuit people in Canada’s north, it was falling, frigid, and warning of winter. Winter in Kugluktuk is very cold. Can I even imagine a not uncommon -28C? I cannot imagine a not unheard of -50C.

Like other parts of this remote northern territory of Nunavut, Kugluktuk’s subsoil is permafrost and the lichens, mosses and heath spend months under snow. Even summers here are so cool trees don’t grow but Inuit collect cranberries and blueberries, and there are colourful little tundra flowers among the dwarfed trees.

Despite the bright sky in the waning summer, a sudden icy breath gives me a tangible warning of the hazard of bitter cold. A local woman, who describes herself as a seamstress, throat singer and butcher, is having none of it. She tells me in her slow, treacly accent, with the eye-to-eye connection people here like and expect “... this is tannin’ weather”.

Kugluktuk is on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. The township used to be called Coppermine, and when Samuel Hearne explored through here in 1771, indigenous Chipewyan and Dene tribal men led by Hearne’s Chipewyan companion Matonabbee killed about 20 Inuit men, women and children at what became known as Bloody Falls Massacre. 

Hearne was horrified. It was more than 200 years, in 1996, that Inuit and Dene came together for a healing ceremony at the site. A darkness between then lifted.

I have stood on the little town jetty in rain that felt like standing under a slowly dripping slushy drink, and taken a dinghy out to a ship, sitting in water so that my backside is wet and cold, and now I am standing on the deck of that expedition ship, watching the anchor chain feeding its locker, a man with a firehose blasting it clean as it goes in.

Locals pass the ship, driving their aluminium boats fast in the falling light, big parka hoods leaving only eyes and noses showing, their fur trimming rippling and pinned back by wind.

And then Kugluktuk starts spinning past the bow, as the expedition ship Ocean Endeavour peels away from the hamlet and towards Cambridge Bay, towards the Northwest Passage, which we hope to pass through.

There is very little wake behind the ship as it plugs away from Kugluktuk but, when I look up, there is suddenly a big patch of blue sky, high. Sun bursts through and turns the water behind the ship a glittering sliver.

But either side of this stream of light is the ominous steel grey of cold water and all around is a matte sky the colour of charcoal.

Relationships and the sea

These seas are full of life. “Beautiful mussels!” says chef Francis Itoumbou, from Montpellier, France. “But they are deep-water mussels, so the Inuit don’t eat them.” Yet if you ask about them, the next day they will come with some. “It’s not about money for the Inuit; it’s about relationship,” he says.

“They will be sitting in front of their television with their family, with food, and you say ‘I need fish and I will pay you’ and they aren’t interested in money. 

“If I say ‘my friend, I have a problem and I need fish’, in half an hour they will bring you more than you need. Then the Inuit might say ‘I don’t want money but I need flour for my wife’. It’s about relationships.” 

Sometimes it can very bountiful. Francis says: “I was watching them opening fish. They were full of roe and they were throwing them away. Caviar!” He exclaimed how extraordinary this was. 

“The next day they turned up with a big box ... with 200kg of it. What do you do? It has to be salted and treated, not too salty, and just right to make the caviar the right texture, and coloured with squid ink to give it the dark colour. It took me a week to turn it into 80kg of caviar and then I put on a caviar buffet on the ship. 

“People were saying ‘what do I pay for this’ and I was saying ‘it is free’.” He shrugs with delight. It was a gift from the cold of the Arctic Ocean and Inuit warmth.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Adventure Canada and Canada Tourism.

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