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Land and sea

How I learned to love the unexpected (and fishing) in Nunavut

  • Feb 28, 2013
  • 2,359 words
  • 10 minutes
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Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Mid-July. Midnight. I’m a threehour freighter canoe trip east of town, on a shoreline of rocks and rolling hills, walking along a river that leads to the sea. There are fresh polar bear tracks in the mud flats on the edge of the valley, where a flock of seagulls took flight a few minutes ago. Gaping at the polar bear’s wide pads and claw slits, trying to come up with something not too naive to say to the young man I’m with — someone who has lived year-round on the land — I think about my own feet, wet and cold from a barefoot crossing. Niviaqsi Alariaq and I had reached the river where it was broad and braided, and after attempting to hop stone-tostone to the far shore, snaking atop a system of ancient weirs, we found ourselves marooned mid-stream on a flat lichencovered hunk of granite, fishing rods idling in our hands with the Arctic char running.

“Want to take off our boots and cross?” Niviaqsi asks me.

“How deep is it?”

“I’m not sure,” he says. “But I know it’s cold.”

Niviaqsi is perched on a rock, looking down the river toward our fishing hole, and in the grey light, I can’t tell whether he’s grinning.

It doesn’t matter. Convincing me to take off my boots and wade into water is easy. Especially if I’m heading somewhere on foot. Especially, I tell myself, submerging knee-deep into the icy stream and stumbling on the first slippery stone, if I’m stepping toward the unknown.

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(Maps: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

The best thing to do when travelling in Canada’s North, I have been advised by northern residents and regular visitors, is to cede control. To expect (and roll with) the unexpected. For instance, if you land in Iqaluit expecting to catch a connecting flight to Cape Dorset and are informed by a friendly First Air ticket agent that your layover has become an overnight stay. “It should go tomorrow,” she says, “unless the plane hasn’t been fixed … or it’s too foggy.” With less than a week to wring as much wilderness as possible out of my first trip to Nunavut, my tendency would be to deal with this delay like a spoiled southerner. Instead, I accept vouchers for cabs, a hotel and meals, squeeze into a taxi with a trio of strangers, check into the Frobisher Inn and head out for a run/walk/scramble along the waterfront to the adjacent community of Apex, where a windswept headland provides a perfect view of the ice-free bay and treeless landscape beyond. Say “Arctic” and I picture snow and ice; standing on this promontory, I see how much this place is defined by the sea.

Iqaluit, population 7,000, is a fascinating city to explore — ideally in summer, when the sun sets well after midnight, and ideally when there’s a breeze keeping the mosquitoes away. There are rocky outcrops to climb, brazen ravens to watch, brazen kids on bicycles to talk to, and if the bustle of trucks and taxis gets to you, the waterfalls and wildflowers of Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park are just a one-kilometre walk west of town. The next morning, we fly. Kristiina Alariaq, the outfitter who’ll be hosting me for the next four days, meets me in the one-room airport, tells me which pickup to throw my backpack into and drives to the Dorset Suites, which she and her husband Timmun — an Inuk who was born and raised on the land — completed construction on three years ago. The hotel, situated on a rise overlooking the harbour, is stunning, all gleaming white wood and minimalist modern furnishings, a nod to Kristiina’s Scandinavian heritage. It stands out in a town that’s full of weather-beaten buildings, I remark to my fellow guests, British Columbians Diane and Michael Lookman, over a lunch of Caesar salad with char that Kristiina caught, brined in seawater and brown sugar and smoked over Arctic heather. But the Lookmans, who have just returned from a camping trip with the Alariaqs, wisely remind me of Northern Travel Rule No. 1: expect the unexpected.

After lunch, we three qallunaats (the Inuktitut word for non- Inuit, or, literally, “people with bushy eyebrows”) are joined by Niviaqsi, Timmun’s nephew, and Niviaqsi’s 10-year-old son, Jutani, for a walk across the tidal flats to Mallikjuaq Territorial Park. Our first stop on Mallikjuaq Island, which is accessible on foot only at low tide, is at the rocky remains of a Thule winter camp, where rafters made from bowhead whale jaw and rib bones and a roof made of seal skins covered with sod and moss provided shelter between 300 years and 800 years ago. Five to eight Thule, ancestors of today’s Inuit, would live in each house, sewing clothing and making weapons around a soapstone lamp, waiting for the darkness to pass.

For the next couple of hours, as he leads us around the island, Niviaqsi identifies the carpet of colourful plants underfoot, such as purple saxifrage and mountain avens, and encourages us to sample some of the roots and flowers. One taproot tastes like zucchini, only more bitter. It’s better, apparently, when battered, fried and sprinkled with salt and pepper. As we follow him, Niviaqsi also identifies clusters of rocks as ancient tent rings, food caches, kayak stands, inuksuit, a fox trap and a grave spanning nearly 4,000 years of history, from the Tunnit (who were in this area from about 1700 bc to 1000 ad) to the Thule to the modern Inuit, whose culture ascended about 150 years ago.

In the mid-1800s, the onset of a cold period limited the Thule’s ability to hunt whales, and the local diet shifted toward marine mammals such as walrus and seal. European explorers and whalers arrived around the same time, introducing new materials and tools, and change accelerated when the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a post in what is now Cape Dorset in 1913, trading tea, sugar, flour and tobacco for furs. Almost all Nunavummiut now live in communities with airports and internet, of course, but people still tent on Mallikjuaq Island in the summer to dig for clams and shoot geese. The same campsites have been drawing people for centuries.

Getting out onto the land. It’s a phrase I heard often before coming to Nunavut. It’s why I’m here — for a trip to the family cabin, Inuit style. Kristiina and Timmun lead busy lives in Cape Dorset. Between running their tour company and Timmun’s job doing community development work for the territorial government (“I teach politicians how to be politicians,” he says), and spending time with their five children and eight grandkids, they don’t have many chances to leave town. As in the south, a weekend away is an escape, a step toward simpler times. Except this cottage commute is an 80-kilometre boat trip across the tip of Hudson Strait. Even getting out onto the land can involve the sea.

I hop into a seven-metre freighter canoe with Niviaqsi. Kristiina and Timmun — who is small, strong, silent and, clearly, in charge — lead the way in a similar-sized aluminum skiff. They’ve got a load of gasoline, rifles, fishing rods and a small electric freezer. If we catch enough char, Kristiina explains, she’ll fire up the generator and freeze the fish. We motor past Andrew Gordon Bay, where a marble quarry draws Cape Dorset’s world-renowned carvers (see sidebar). “It’s good to see this place again,” says Niviaqsi, who lived in an outpost camp on this bay for four years as a teenager. The journey, choppy and cold, takes three hours, including a stop in the narrow, shallow channel between two islands for tea and fresh bannock that Lizzie, Niviaqsi’s wife, had packed. “Don’t leave home without it,” he quips.

The Alariaq camp, a sheltered anchorage surrounded by Tunnit, Thule and Inuit archaeological sites, consists of a five-byfour- metre cabin, a four-by-two-metre bunkie, a shed and an outhouse adorned with a Northwest Territories Government Office sign. Once onshore, everybody gets to work. (Not “government work,” mind you — my new favourite euphemism.) Kristiina starts dinner, Niviaqsi preps the fishing gear and Timmun oils his drill. He has brought a new bed for the bunkie and plans to assemble it this evening. It’s from IKEA.

That night, Niviaqsi and I hike to the nearby, nameless river across rocky tundra covered by red, orange and yellow lichen. We get wet and cold crossing mid-stream and cast for char at several spots without any luck. I’ve only fished a few times before this, but I’m pretty good at snagging my hook on the river bottom, it turns out. Niviaqsi shows me how to yank the line to free the hook; his nonchalant “watch and learn” teaching method is effective — and relaxing.

Timmun wants to try a different river the next day, and he pilots the skiff northwest to the mouth of Kangisurituq Inlet, edging in with the tide and dropping anchor in less than a metre of water. We all grab rods and begin to cast. Within five minutes, Timmun has landed a pair of char, reeling them into the boat and whacking them on the head with a piece of lumber. Kristiina and Niviaqsi soon pull in fish. I’m not catching anything, but I take solace in the fact that, despite the cramped confines, I’m not snagging any of my companions either. In a couple hours, we have 7½ char; Kristiina cuts bite-sized pieces off one with an ulu — soft and buttery, it’s the best sashimi I’ve ever had. Timmun is more talkative here, teasing me about my illegible shorthand, calling me “Lieutenant Dan” when I perch on the bow in an unsuccessful attempt to change my luck and pointing out, with a smile, that it’s now my turn to get a fish.

Back at the camp, we eat boiled char; when one of the eyeballs destined for Timmun’s bowl ends up in my portion, I chew it slowly, savouring the opportunity to boast about my luck and tease back. Then, in the hazy dusk-dawn, with loons and snow buntings flapping overhead, Niviaqsi and I walk back to the river. We return to the same spot we tried the night before, a set of rapids about a kilometre up from the coast, and on my first cast I hook a four-kilogram char. I let it run with my line, reel, let it run and then reel some more. Soon I’m steering it into the shallows, where Niviaqsi clubs it dead. Within 15 minutes, I land two more, and now I am the one who is hooked.

Niviaqsi and I stand 10 metres apart on rocks that jut out into the river, casting and reeling, casting and reeling. We’re both wearing army pants, green wind jackets and black toques. He’s got a .223 slung over his shoulder and has spent a lifetime on this land, I’m armed with a notepad and camera and am from Toronto, yet as we talk — about food, family and, mostly, about fishing — I get a brotherly feeling. And I finally understand fishing.

The wind picks up overnight and the cabin shudders. It’s too blustery to head back to Cape Dorset in the morning, which was the plan, since I’m due to fly home the next day. Getting stuck here doesn’t seem so bad, but the wind drops by mid-afternoon. Timmun surveys the ocean from a rise. “We leave tonight,” he declares.

While everybody starts packing, I head to the shore, strip off the clothes I’ve been wearing for three days and wade into the frigid water. After drying off in the sun, I proudly tell Timmun that I took a dip. “On purpose?” he asks.

Too soon, Niviaqsi and I are in the freighter canoe, bouncing past small icebergs and eider ducks, approaching Cape Dorset harbour. “I can’t wait to go back to the camp,” he says. “When I’m out on the land, all my worries are gone.”

Great (un)expectations

Getting there
Most visitors to Nunavut arrive on regularly scheduled flights from southern cities such as Montréal, Ottawa and Edmonton. First Air and Canadian North are the two main airlines. Round-trip airfares usually start at around $1,000, and you can get a deal if you book through a northern outfitter. Nunavut Tourism’s recently revamped website is the perfect place to start planning your trip.

Staying there
In Cape Dorset, the Dorset Suites hotel features whirlpool tubs and flatscreen televisions and the only full-service restaurant in town. Iqaluit has many more accommodation and restaurant options, including the comfortable Frobisher Inn, Nunavut’s largest hotel.

Playing there
Cape Dorset is best known for its incredible carvers and the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, a printmaking studio with an international clientele. Kristiina and Timmun Alariaq’s outfitting company, Huit Huit Tours, offers Inuit art and culture tours as well as an array of wilderness adventures. They can also arrange for a town tour with local guides like Pootoogook Elee, whose walkabout includes an intimate account of the community’s history and an introduction to every person you bump into.

Canadian Geographic’s former managing editor Dan Rubinstein travelled to Cape Dorset, Nunavut, in July. Here are his photographs of the adventure.

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Cape Dorset, Nunavut, was the starting point for writer Dan Rubinstein’s Arctic char fishing trip.
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Cape Dorset, Nunavut, is best known for its carvers.
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Outfitter Kriistina Alariaq’s husband, Timmun, gets a lift through the water from Niviaqsi Alariaq.
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Writer Dan Rubinstein stumbles upon fresh polar bear tracks in the mud flats of a river three hours east of Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
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Niviaqsi Alariaq prepares to fish near the Alariaq camp, three hours east of Cape Dorset by freighter canoe.
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The group casts for char.
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Timmun shows off his catch.
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Guide Niviaqsi Alariaq cleans an Arctic char.

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