The Best of Nunavut

Nunavut is a land of breathtaking scenery with a promise of adventure, says Margo Pfeiff in this essential primer to Canada's newest Territory.

BY MARGO PFEIFF, text and photographs courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission

Nunavut, Canadian Far North

It was a pitch black mid-winter evening in Cape Dorset when a knock came at my hotel room door. Outside stood a young Inuit man in a voluminous parka. “Wanna buy a carving?” he asked quietly, reaching into a pocket and pulling out a Specksteinsoapstone kayak complete with a miniature hunter holding an ivory harpoon. I handed over the $80 he asked for and was given a shy toothless smile before he vanished into the Arctic night.

Before I landed on Iqaluit's icy runway when I first went north in 1990 I had already lost my heart to this stark landscape. From 2,000 metres up, icebergs littered an inky Arctic Ocean and the tundra was gepunktet, getupftpolka dotted with pothole lakes shimmering in blues from turquoise to indigo. And once I'd spent time with the Inuit I was überwältigtsmitten by their unpretentiousness, sense of humour and their generosity with the shank of caribou that squats on every home's kitchen counter.

Nunavut – “our land” in Inuktitut – was born on April 1, 1999. It was the first time since 1949 when Newfoundland joined Confederation Canadian that map makers had been sent back to the drawing board to change the boundaries of our country. Nunavut covers one-fifth of Canada's land area, 1.99 million square kilometres, a vast area where lives are often still lived according to time-tables thousands of years old.

Iqaluit, with a population of 6,000, has been booming since it became Nunavut's capital. By far the biggest community, it is a dusty frontier town with the territory's only hospital, law courts, banks, jail, licensed restaurants and movie theatre. The 28 “settlements” scattered throughout the territory are accessible only by boat, plane, snowmobile or dogsled. Outnumbered nearly 30 to 1 by caribou, Nunavut's total population of 28,000 could easily fit into an average sized sports stadium, a statistically solitary 0.01 persons per square kilometre.

Iqaluit, Nunavut

The waterfront Unikkaarvik Visitors Centre shares a building with the town library, a good source of polar books. The Centre has maps and knowledgeable staff who can plan anything from a walking tour of Iqaluit to a North Pole expedition. Nearby, the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum is housed in a renovated Hudson's Bay Company trading post building. It has an excellent collection of artifacts including a sealskin kayak and displays of Inuit artwork from various communities. Inuit art from throughout the north – including carvings from internationally renowned Cape Dorset and prints and tapestries from Pangnirtung – can be purchased at galleries and shops around town.

Just walking around Iqaluit is a cultural experience. In summer, carvers work soapstone outside and in winter women still dress in traditional amoutiq jackets with babies tucked into the gaping hoods. Everyone is free to attend service at the igloo-shaped Anglican church which features an altar cross made of two narwhal tusks. Hymns are sung in Inuktitut. The Northern Store, formerly the Hudson's Bay Company, looks like any modern grocery except for the frozen goods section with its chunks of narwhal muktuk, Arctic Char sausages, musk ox and caribou.

Most of Nunavut's far-flung settlements are no bigger than a couple of hundred people. Life here is quieter and more traditional than in Iqaluit. Most folks hunt and fish to supplement their food supply and it's common for entire families to head out “on the land” to camp for the summer. But even here pick-up trucks, snowmobiles, ATV's and Außenborderoutboards have replaced dog sleds and kayaks.

Inuit people, Nunavut

I rarely linger in the settlements. For me they are jumping off points for the wilderness, Nunavut's main attraction. The territory has three national parks and several Territorial parks, but even in the Dörferhamlets the wilderness is never far away and it's easy to head out for a stroll. Kayaking is popular in Pond Inlet near Nunavut's newest national park, Sirmilik. One summer I spent a week poking along the coast near Pond, paddling around icebergs drifting through Lancaster Sound, listening to the dripping of water echoing in their wave-sculpted caves.

The short summers, when snow disappears and temperatures nudge above freezing, are the time for whale watching out of Clyde River or hiking anywhere in the territory. One of Nunavut's most spectacular hikes through a landscape of fjords and jagged peaks in Auyuittuq National Park starts a short boat ride from Pangnirtung, a scenic Southern Baffin community. There is also canoeing down the Soper River through Katannalik Territorial Park near Iqaluit, which I did several years ago. Wildflowers carpeted valleys where caribou and Arctic hare grazed. We finished up our trip on the coast in the community of Kimmurut, known for its soapstone carvers.

Spring is lovely in the north when daylight approaches 24 hours and temperatures rise enough for comfortable dog-sledding; single and multi-day trips are possible right out of Iqaluit. It's also the season to head to the Eisschollefloe edge, particularly at the northern end of Baffin Island. When the frozen sea ice first breaks up narwhal and beluga whales arrive to feed in the open leads, which also attract millions of seabirds. A small group of us headed out of Arctic Bay on sleds pulled by snowmobiles to camp on the ice and view wildlife on this northern version of a safari.

For those who love a solitary landscape and a rich culture, the pull of Nunavut is strong and the memories linger. I remember setting off hiking through Ellesmere National Park – 700 kilometres from the North Pole - in July through knee deep wildflowers with butterflies fluttering all around. Then there was the nest I came across of baby snowy owls in the Belcher Islands, and the mid-winter night in Hall Beach when the Northern Lights shimmered red and green with such brilliance that I swore I could hear them crackle.

And I'll never forget a young Inuit girl I met in Resolute who pointed three inches above the top of the television screen that was broadcasting the weather report. “I live up here,” she proudly told me, “on a part of the map you can't see.” “Off the map” neatly sums up Nunavut, a land of breathtaking scenery with a promise of adventure.

Dogsledding, Nunavut

If You Go

For more information on this destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website www.travelcanada.ca.

Nunavut Tourism: Phone toll free: 1-866-686-2888 / 1-866-NUNAVUT Visit www.NunavutTourism.com or info@NunavutTourism.com

The Nunavut Handbook is an indispensable Arctic guide, the Bible of northern travel. It is available online at www.arctictravel.com

Accommodation

  • The Discovery Lodge Hotel is a business hotel with one of the best restaurants in Iqaluit on the premises. Box 387, Iqaluit, NU X0A 0H0, For current rates: Phone: 867-979-4433. Fax: 867-979-6591. email: disclodge@nunanet.com
  • Iqaluit hotels should be booked early as they quickly fill during the summer months. By the Sea is a casual and comfortable bed and breakfast (you make your own). Box 341, Iqaluit, NU X0A 0H0. Phone: 867-979-6074. email: jens@nunanet.com for current rates.
  • Homestays with Inuit families are possible. Contact the hamlet office of the community you wish to visit. Phone numbers are available through the Nunavut Handbook guide or their website. Homestays are not licensed, so quality and price will vary.

Outfitters

There are dozens of outfitters in Iqaluit and in the settlements that offer everything from a town walk to polar bear hunting.

  • NorthWinds Arctic Adventures is an experienced outfitting operation run out of Iqaluit by a pair of seasoned adventurers Paul Landry and Matty McNair. They do trips to the national parks as well as dog sledding in spring. Phone: 867-979-0551 / 1-800-549-0551. E-mail: plandry@nunanet.com or visit www.Northwinds-arctic.com
  • Black Feather Wilderness Adventures is an Ottawa-based outfitter that offers a range of hiking and kayaking trips to Nunavut. Phone: 613-722-9717 / 1-888-849-7668 or visit www.blackfeather.com
  • Wilderness Adventure Company is based in Parry Sound, Ontario. Phone: 705- 746-1372 / 1-888-849-7668. Fax: 705-746-7048 or e-mail info@wildernessadventure.com

Writer's Biography

Montreal-based freelance writer and photographer Margo Pfeiff has won first place for both photography and journalism at the Canadian Tourism Commission's Northern Lights Awards. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest's books and magazines, as well as in GEO, Better Homes and Gardens, Time Life books, Canadian Geographic and Imperial Oil Review, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Montréal Gazette, the National Post, the Globe & Mail, Outpost Magazine and Cathay Pacific's Discovery magazine. Pfeiff has taught travel writing at San Francisco's Book Passage Travel Writing Conference.