Inside the Tuktoyaktuk community ice house

Carved deep into the permafrost, the 19-room underground freezer preserves food and tradition in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region

  • Published Aug 22, 2022
  • Updated Sep 22
  • 654 words
  • 3 minutes
Pokiak's daughter, Launa Paul, in a corridor to one of the rooms in their ice house. (Photo: Myrna Pokiak)
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“Let’s go to the ice house.” That is one of my favourite things to hear, since it means a successful harvest from fishing, whaling or sealing. Growing up in Tuktoyaktuk, in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories, we regarded the community ice house as a cultural gift from our ancestors. Built in the early ’60s to preserve and store food, it ensured the community’s survival through the darkest and coldest months of the year.

Once families began living year-round in Tuktoyaktuk, extended families built their own ice houses. These ice houses were built into the permafrost in a similar fashion to how settlers built root cellars on the Prairies. As Tuktoyaktuk became more of a permanent settlement, a communal underground freezer became a necessity. One of my five uncles, Uncle Frank (Pokiak), shared with me that he and several young men worked on the construction of the ice house with my Daduck (grandfather), Bertram Pokiak, the foreman on the project, in 1963.

A bird's-eye view of Tuktoyaktuk on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. (Photo: Myrna Pokiak)
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The community ice house is by a road, but on higher ground next to the beach in the harbour. There is a boat launch right below the bank, about 25 metres from the entrance to the ice house, allowing families to bring their harvest by boat directly to it for immediate preservation. 

Map: Chris Brackley
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Digging into the permafrost to construct the underground freezer was done using pickaxes, shovels and chisels. To enter it today, a hatch in the floor of a small shed leads to a one-metre-by-one-metre shaft deep into the ground. A ladder descends nine metres down into the permafrost to the ice house, comprising three corridors and 19 rooms. One corridor runs east, another south and the third west, all dug away from the harbour into the higher ground. Each room is assigned to an individual and their extended family, and is accessed through a numbered door and a narrow passageway. Rooms measure about three-by-three metres, ranging from 1.5 to two metres high.

Entering the ice house activates all the senses to a level rarely experienced by people living in the rest of the world: the underground food storage room has a scent of its own; the immediate darkness intensifies our emotions; the crunch of walking on fallen frost is a distinct sound to our ears; and when we point our flashlights to the ceiling, we can only be astounded by the striking beauty of the shimmering and twinkling ice crystals formed by the temperature
fluctuations. Beneath the crystals are the ancient walls of permafrost, inlaid with layers of sand, freshwater ice and frozen earth.

Kara Paul, Launa Paul and Mya Paul check a fishing net. The fish will be stored in the ice house for the winter, and dried. (Photo: Myrna Pokiak)
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My family spends spring to fall hunting, gathering and fishing to harvest enough food to last the winter for our meals and my father’s dog team. For our own consumption, we may store geese, caribou and muskox, while for the dogs, we store fish and scraps from beluga whales and seals. Age-old traditions of survival are passed on to me and my siblings from my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and many generations before. This knowledge and these traditions continue to be an integral part of life for family, friends and our community of Tuktoyaktuk.

Permafrost is the bedrock on which our community — and so many other communities across the Arctic — is built. And to go beyond the needs of people, permafrost is the underlying geographic structure across the entire western Arctic. Permafrost is unlike anything found anywhere else in the world. Protected by an over-burden of shrubs and grasses, this unique foundation is both precious and fragile.

I believe the very survival of the Arctic depends on keeping the environmental footprint of humans in balance with the Earth. The Tuktoyaktuk community ice house offers more than majestic beauty; it offers hope, survival and the preservation of the future of the Arctic.


A deeper look inside the Tuktoyaktuk community ice house


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This story is from the September/October 2022 Issue

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