ICE AND COSY

Sara Evans ven­tures to Canada’s new­est ter­ri­tory for a unique en­counter with Inuit cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.ad­ven­tures.ca

Pic­tures: Sara Evans

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

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