“Women face the land. Men face the water. Children face east, where the sun touches the land.”—Kristiina Alariaq, on traditional Inuit dwelling structures
I’m jogging, and all I see is white. Well, almost. I can make out the polar-bear-fur-lined qamutiq on my left, a traditional Inuit sled pulled by dogs. When we first started out from the Alariaq household two hours back, the nine Qimmiq (eastern Arctic sled dogs), pent up for the past week, took off at a dead run. “When the dogs get going fast,” said 13-year-old Ama Alariaq, my host’s daughter, “it looks like they’re dancing.”
And dance they did, at least at first. But the dogs’ energy is now waning, which is why I’m taking my turn jogging alongside to ease their load, just as Inuit have done for thousands of years. Perhaps the only difference is the petroleum in the picture; while Timmun Alariaq, 54, mans the dogsled—from time to time cracking a long sealskin whip he cut in one continuous strip, like peeling an orange—his wife, Kristiina, 54, paces us about 100 m to the south on a snowmobile. She’s towing a sled with a makeshift wooden box carrying a rifle and backpack laden with ammunition—our polar-bear insurance policy. Should we bump into ursus maritimus, we’ll pile into the box, abandon the dogs and hightail it outta here.
But with no sign of Mr. Big White, I’m still running. And it’s exhausting. My Baffin boots sink 10 cm (4 in) into the snow with each stride. At one point, I bust through to my knees. I’m a long way from the mulch forest trails of my west-coast island turf. The team starts pulling away. I begin to sweat under my layers of fleece, wool and four jackets. When I inch my balaclava down from sunglasses to just under my nose, the cold rewards me with a blazing hot poker delivered to my brain via sinus cavities. It’s -17 degrees C (1.5 degrees F)—“warm,” spring time.
“You,” says Timmun Alariaq simply, pointing at me, “good runner.” Then he grabs my jacket and holds me running in place, laughing, to test my resolve.
It’s no faint praise. If you think you’re tough, you haven’t met the Inuit of Canada’s Arctic. I used to think, yeah, I’m pretty bad-ass. I’ve clocked a marathon, bagged a few peaks, raced cross-country in the sleet and mud, trekked with a 23-kg (50-lb) pack in the tropics while three months pregnant. Then I went to Nunavut. And I quickly realized how pathetic I was.
First lesson: the land is enormous. It encompasses fully one-fifth of Canada—which is, in turn, the second-largest country in the world after Russia. As far as the eye can see, Nunavut (pronounced noon-uh-VOOT) is a repeating series of ridges pushed up by the tides of the Baffin Sea, crystalline snow, ice in a hundred shades of white, gray and blue, and rocky, humped mountains. We’re hundreds of kilometres above the treeline. The emptiness is simply overwhelming; and speeding across it on dogsled, thrilling.
In winter, it’s mostly dark for three months round the clock. Though it looks monotonous to me, the almost 30,000 people who call this frozen place home know every landmark, every nuance of the land by heart. Traditionally, they constructed stacked rock formations called inuksuit—some served as hunter’s trail markers, reference points or messages; others “material forms of the oral tradition”-1 or spiritual communication. “A celebration of ‘I am here,’” is how Kristiina Alariaq thinks of them. “Or, you have lots of spare time,” says her husband, smiling.
Huit Huit Tours
Kristiina and Timmun Alariaq operate Huit Huit Tours in Cape Dorset, NU. The couple owns five guest properties in town; the largest is the sleek, new Dorset Suites Hotel, a handsome Arctic-design/Scandinavian-style (Kristiina hails from Finland), two-story building with seven sunny, spacious, one-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and oodles of local artwork. The hotel opened in January 2007. The couple will customize spring, summer and winter trips on request: dogsledding and snowmobile tours, trips to historic sites, summer camping and fishing, arts and culture tours. We enjoyed our time at the Alariaq household, an airy home filled with local art, plants and many of their five kids coming and going. The Alariaqs provide meals for all-inclusive tours. They are extremely knowledgeable, personable and love to tell stories about history and lore.
Nunavut means “our land.” Formerly part of Canada’s Northwest Territories, it became the newest Canadian Territory in 1999, governed by the Inuit. Nunavut Territory celebrates its 10th anniversary on April 1, 2009. There are 32,000 residents, mostly Inuit; caribou number 500,000.
27% of the population is involved in the production of Inuit art.
It took me two days to get here from Vancouver, BC, and in all, cost upwards of $9,000. Dorset, or Kingnait (KINNG-gate) in Inuktitut (ee-nook-tee-TOOT), is a 10-sq-km (four-sq-mi) island sometimes attached to the Foxe Peninsula (Sikusilaaq, meaning “not much ice”), though on maps you can’t tell it’s connected by land bridges to Baffin Island during summer. The mountains of Salisbury Island jut up steeply from the Hudson Strait. People stare at you when you pass; some speak only Inuktitut. Most Inuit are 60 years or older. There are a few roads on the snow, but most—granny to youngsters—tear by, coming from any direction on snowmobiles at perilous speed. Like most of Nunavut, there are many youngsters. In Nunavut Territory, the median age is 23, according to the 2006 census. Almost 10,000, or one-third, are under 15.
Few “southerners” will ever visit. Nunavut had about 9,000 tourists between June and October of 2006, according to Nunavut Tourism. www.nunavuttourism.com
My second lesson: the land provides—most of the time. For 4,000 years, Inuit have roamed this territory in small, nomadic bands, constructing winter igluit of packed snow, spring sealskin or caribou skin tupiit (tents) and summer qarmaq (sod houses) with caribou-skin roofs, sod walls, whale-rib rafters and moss insulation. Windows were the intestines of bearded seals soaked in salt water. They dug with whale-shoulder bones, tiled floors and built bed platforms with flat rocks. They lighted and heated with a qulliq, a shallow stone seal-oil lamp. They harpooned the world’s largest whales, ice fished, hunted polar bear, walrus, seal and caribou. They scaled cliffs to gather seagull eggs. The women chewed caribou and seal skins to soften them, making sturdy, warm clothes. They’d pull sinews from seagull throats for thread. Sometimes they’d travel on foot for hundreds of kilometres, jogging alongside the dogsled just as I have, but having eaten nothing but plants mixed with caribou fat for weeks. Many died of sickness or starved. Some defined hunger as “finishing the last siksik” (ground squirrel).
With the ground permanently frozen, the Inuit buried their dead under piles of rocks that remain visible today. “It was a better world after death,” Kristiina Alariaq says, “a place where there was always enough to eat.” She compares the prehistoric ruins to a smaller-scale of Mexico’s Chichén Itzá pyramids. “You’re just amazed how people could have moved these huge rocks; how they could dig the earth.”
But the biggest trial the Inuit have yet endured may well have been us. In the 1950s, in an effort to provide health care, education and social assistance, perhaps to establish sovereignty, the Canadian government began to resettle the Inuit in Western-style communities. When the people resisted, the government made school attendance mandatory. Officials took the Inuit children and placed them in residential schools. The parents soon followed.
Cape Dorset is one such fabricated community, a hamlet of 1,300 on the southwest tip of Baffin Island. Officially, unemployment here hovers at 21%, though many “go out on the land” hunting and camping fulltime from May to September. At Northern Store (formerly Hudson’s Bay Company), where teens loiter, the Nyquil is kept locked up. Despite the imposed civic structure—an Anglican and Full Gospel church, a few government buildings, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op of world-famous stone-cut prints, lithographs and carvings, started in the 1950s—it still feels like nature at its most raw and unforgiving. Ours is an insulated, manmade world of urban-scapes; theirs feels like a place testing how far the human spirit can reach to adapt.
* * *
On the last leg of our dogsled ride, pre-teen Ama Alariaq spells me off, jogging alongside the qamutik. She’s wearing a traditional-style, Inuit woman’s parka—the hood lined with black, downy fox fur moving in the wind like anenome tentacles—a toque and iPod earbuds. She beans me with snowballs when we stop and refuses to let me take her picture. She tells me about her family (three sisters, one brother), her favourite teacher, her views on the US presidential election, her dreams of “the south,” how she can’t wait to attend private boarding school in Ontario this fall. She confides: “I just want to hang out in the mall, go to Starbucks.”
Three days later, that’s exactly where I find myself, in Ottawa, ON, Canada’s capital. It’s shorts and T-shirt weather. Tulips wave in the breeze. I listen to a group of men in suits trade tales about their wives’ expensive shopping habits. Buses honk, taxis weave and crowds lurch across the street. I’m still heavily insulated in Baffin boots, which would’ve otherwise taken up half my suitcase. Sweat trickles down the back of my leg under the lightest fleece pants I’d packed. “Double tall decaff macchiato,” the barrista announces.
What is Ama Alariaq thinking, in Nunatsiaq, “the beautiful land”? What will she think when she gets here?
1-From Inuksuit—Silent Messengers of the Arctic, by Norman Hallendy (Douglas & McIntyre). The plural of inuksuk, inuksuit means “to act in the capacity of a human”; other such formations might look like inuksuit, but are human likenesses or “objects of veneration.” The singular is inuksuk, also inukshuk.