Flying over Nunavut’s whitewashed barrens is akin to skimming a succession of panels in a graphic novel. Ridgetops, stripped of snow by the wind, pop like the dark outlines framing characters, and plotlines are etched by snowmobiles across the vast landscape. It’s minimal and maximal at the same time. Shift your gaze to ice level, though, and the close-up reveals its own contrasts and contradictions.
Frozen seawater is resilient yet impermanent, powerful yet fragile. The mostly smooth landfast ice, unlike pack ice, is neither bullied nor carried by winds and currents. However, the 24-hour solar radiation melts its surface, forming rivulets that will eventually carve through the ice and create new leads. When such a crack reaches open water at both ends, huge pans break off and drift away, exposing a fresh floe edge closer to land. “That’s why our base camp is always two leads away from the sinaaq — no need to worry about floating away to Greenland,” says Françoise Gervais, a diver with a background in conservation and deep-sea research off Vancouver Island and Arctic Kingdom’s expedition leader. Karnasak adds that’s also why hunters will try to stay on the land-side of a lead, as a sort of insurance. The camp is set up pretty much the way Inuit have done for centuries, except here the ice is trip-wired; if it breaks off, an alarm sounds and the tents and yurts can be moved before the pan is lost to the pack ice.
Alarms aside, this is a place that for the most part gives you the silent treatment — which is not to say it’s a void that needs to be filled with chatter. “A blabbering hunter is a hungry hunter,” guide Bryan Simonee says with a blunt laugh. The silence is a medium that carries important messages. Omik, for one, begins each morning by assessing the weather, including sounds, to determine if it’s safe to travel to the floe edge. He checks the wind speed and direction (offshore winds are preferred since they push pack ice out to sea, leaving the floe edge undisturbed) and cloud formations to forecast precipitation or storms. Sometimes the conditions warrant a physical inspection of the ice, and he disappears on his snowmobile. After one such reconnaissance run, he comes back telling guests he heard creaking noises at the sinaaq. “The ice told me we need to wait, so we wait,” he says, explaining that it could shift and leave the group stranded an hour away from camp.