ICE AND COSY
Sara Evans ventures to Canada’s newest territory for a unique encounter with Inuit culture
IN Kimmirut, one of the most hostile environments on earth, the ice melts noisily. Developed around a natural sea harbour and sheltered by imposing mountains, Kimmirut can be reached only by boat or plane. There are no proper roads here but there is ice in abundance. And today, under the heat of a spring sun, it’s melting fast.
Great chunks of the ice crust, which has covered the mountains throughout the winter, break off and drop heavily into the sea. Some pieces sink without trace while others float, like broken meringues, on the water’s surface. Defrosting ice formed over the sea shatters and crackles like a sheet of breaking glass. The only other sound is the slow dripping of icebergs becoming a watery oneness with the sea that surrounds them.
About 400 Inuit (once referred to as Eskimos) live in Kimmirut, a remote Arctic settlement on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada’s newest and northernmost territory. Dodging these slippery and sliding bergs comes a motorboat. At its wheel is Eliyah Padluq, an Inuit elder who, with other members of his family, is taking me out beyond Kimmirut to an isolated cabin built in the same frozen landscape roamed by his ancestors thousands of years ago.
Speeding out of the harbour and taking a last look at Kimmirut makes for something of a bizarre sight. Tradition and technology sit side by side in unexpected ways. Wiry pelts of white Arctic wolves can be seen nailed to sides of houses to dry out, while tangled piles of caribou antlers and skulls prop up wonky satellite dishes.
Homes, Eliyah tells me, are warmed with central heating; humming freezers keep seal, walrus and beluga whale perfectly chilled and ready to eat, and computers are online.
Arriving at the simple wooden cabin, however, there is none of these modern trappings. This is home until tomorrow, equipped with a couple of beds and cupboards full of seal fur and caribou hide blankets for winter nights.
‘‘ Not much else is kept here because of the nanook , the polar bears,’’ Jeanie, Eliyah’s wife, tells me. ‘‘ Polar bears like to look and sometimes come in, but if one tries today we can shoot it.’’
Jeanie is telling the truth; here Inuit can shoot and hunt freely. Created as a new territory in 1999, Nunavut is controlled by, and for, Inuit people. Hunting laws here are different from those of the rest of Canada but the killing of polar bears is still highly regulated and controlled by conservationists.
Such hunting freedoms enable Inuit to carry on age-old traditions, something the Padluqs enjoy taking advantage of. Aboard the boat, Eliyah, his son Tommy and family friend Loolie invite me to join them on a short hunting trip. Tommy is in charge of the rifles; traditional spears are rarely used these days. Not long into the ride, Eliyah spots a grey seal resting on some thick ice. He stops the boat and Tommy jumps out. Lying flat on his stomach, Tommy slides himself forward on the ice and moves towards the unsuspecting seal. Tommy fires. He misses. The seal dives into its ice hole and is gone.
Disappointed, Eliyah starts up the boat again and we head towards a large rocky outcrop. ‘‘ To look for eggs,’’ explains Loolie. Clambering over icy rocks, Tommy finds seabirds’ nests full of eggs: some are the colour of olives, others as blue as sunny-day skies. Just like taking biscuits from a tin, Loolie fills his hands with eggs. A large Canada goose flies overhead. Tommy reaches for his gun. This time he doesn’t miss. The bird falls silently from the sky. Tomorrow it will be lunch and the thought of food prompts us to return to the cabin.
Jeanie has a fire going and is cooking a large Arctic char, a fish related to salmon. Wrapped in foil, the char is covered in burning grasses. Aromatic and flavour-filled, the essence of these grasses seeps into the soft pink flesh of the fish. In 30 minutes this traditional Inuit dish is cooked. It is delicious.
While we have been at sea, Jeanie has been working on a seal skin. Using her ula — a special knife shaped like a half-moon — she has removed all traces of fat from the skin, washed it, then stretched it out to air. Once dry, Jeanie will transform the skin into trousers to keep Eliyah’s legs warm during the harsh winter months.
It is getting late (but not dark, for this is a place where the midnight sun shines persistently) and, feeling tired, we turn in for the night. In the morning, we pack up the boat and set off back to Kimmirut. As we go, I am stunned to see an iceberg the colour of twilight. Its turquoise glow gives the berg an ethereal aura, but it is history, not Inuit magic, that’s responsible. Only very old ice from a deep glacier (the result of hundreds of thousands of years of compression) reflects light as blue; younger icebergs are white. What I am seeing is an amazing part of an ancient glacier. ‘‘ Soon this blue berg will be gone,’’ Eliyah says. He sounds poignant as he continues: ‘‘ Ice seems to melt faster than it once did. Inuit culture can survive alongside iPods, MSN, TV and fast food, but not against climate change. Our culture depends on the land and the animals it supports. A changing landscape may affect the Inuit way of life more than the settlers ever did.’’
I look at Eliyah and see his sadness. As he looks at the melting blue iceberg, I can see that his heart is melting, too.
The Great Canadian Adventure Company organises native cultural homestays at Kimmirut with Inuit families. A one-night stay, including food and accommodation, is about $C175 ($192). Packages can include, at extra cost, guided community tours, traditional demonstrations by local elders, group dinners and boat trips.
Flights to Kimmirut are with First Air from Iqaluit, the capital of Baffin Island. First Air also provides flights from Ottawa to Kimmirut via Iqaluit. More: www.firstair.ca.
Cold comfort: Kimmirut Inuit Tommy Padluq returns to his family with the day’s kill, main picture; right from top, Jeanie prepares dinner; Kimmirut harbour; a local youngster