Monday, October 15, 2012

an Arctic trip to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

I am not dressed properly for the Arctic, I realized.  Inventory: Knee high leather boots with platform heels. Black leather gloves.  A Coach designer purse. Business suit. Peacoat. No hat.  I’m dressed like a New York banker getting ready to dartfrom his front door to the next subway entrance, not like an Arctic adventurer that’s going to be hopping on an ATV to ride down a dirt road in the snow. Let this be a lesson to everyone: don’t leave the packing for after you’ve been drinking all day at Oktoberfest and are facing an early morning flight.

I shoved my bags into the shuttle van to the Edmonton Airport. It was before dawn and still dark outside. The other passengers were big burley white men who couldn’t remember what airline they were taking.  Did you know there are multiple airlines in Canada that fly in the north? First Air, Canadian North, Northwestern Air….I had no idea. And all of them seem to only fly big burly confused white men.

The staff at First Air informed me as I checked my bags that in the event that the plane can’t land due to bad weather, the airline has a policy of not reimbursing meals or hotels. I guess this happens pretty often.  Flying in the north is not for the thin-skinned.  There was quite a bit of turbulence during the whole flight, but the unperturbed First Air flight attendants kept right on serving breakfast.  That’s right, First Air still serves hot breakfasts, even during their hour long flights. Which makes it one more airline that is better than Air Canada.

I looked out the window and realized that I could not tell apart the sea from the sky, or the clouds from the land.   I saw trees, so many trees in the Northwest Territories landscape, with long lakes that stretched over the land like fingers caressing skin, and nestled in a pocket in the middle of the trees and lakes was the city of Yellowknife.

the view from the Yellowknife airport

The Inuit woman sitting next to me asks me why turbulence doesn’t bother me.  The truth is nothing can bother me right now. I am so madly in love with Canada. I don’t want to visit the North. I want to live here.

I’d like to have a chance to visit the Yellowknife at some point, but for this journey it was just a stop over on my way to Nunavut.  I loaded on to my next plane, which was one of the smallest commercial airplane I’d ever seen, seating about 20 people. With no one in front, behind, or beside me, it was also the most space I’d ever had on an airplane. I almost felt like I had a private jet.

Eventually we pulled into Cambridge Bay. The water shined a deep green-blue, as though trying to deceive me into believing that I was in the Caribbean staring at the oean, but here I was, in the Arctic.  The plane landed on a gravel runway.

One of my hosts met me on the runway.  She looked at my ensemble, my suit pants and leather boots spattered with mud from the dirt road.

“Did you bring jeans?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I replied defensively.
“Did you bring long johns?”
“…I brought jeggings?”

Again, I tell you: make sure you check the weather channel before you pack for a trip.

Here is Cambridge Bay in a map of Canada.

Cambridge Bay is located in the Arctic Circle, above the treeline and 850 kilometres north of Yellowknife. It has a population of about 1500 people. The air is dry here. I haven’t felt such a dry environment since I was in the sub-Saharan desert, which I guess makes sense.  A lot of the neighbourhood reminds me of the townships in Namibia, with the mud roads, the compact houses, the howling dogs, and the construction debris.   People leave their trucks and ATVs running when they go inside stores. I’m staying at one of the two hotels in town. My travel agent’s itinerary lists it as the Arctic Islands Lodge, but the sign outside the building says Inns North.

the gas station

The inn has the only restaurant in town, other than the KFC/Pizza Hut down the street. The restaurant closes at 6PM.   Feeling jet lagged, I ate my dinner at 4PM. It was a muskox burger.  Even though I was eating dinner at a time normally reserved for seniors, the muskox was delicious, and I was happy to add one more mammal to my list of Animals I Have Eaten.

muskox burger

KFC and Pizza Hut

The restaurant is playing the local community radio station.  I generally don’t like local radio stations, and this one isn’t a huge exception, although the variety astounds me. They play the Beatles, followed by a Christian rock song, followed by Radiohead, followed by Paul McCartney.

I saw the premier of Nunavut, eating at the table next to me.

the church

the local golf course

I set out to find the heritage society, which is located at the local high school, but for some reason I had trouble finding it, even though there weren’t that many streets here.  It was snowing, my first time seeing snow in almost two years. I continued to wander, wondering if I’ll find the gym instead, by chance.  I ended up at the grocery store.

There’s been a lot of buzz about Nunavut food prices, and I was curious myself to find out what the food situation would be like. Here’s what I noted:

Cheese, 300 grams - $5
Loaf of bread - $5
A dozen eggs - $4
Peanut butter, 500 grams - $7
Can of corn - $3.50
TV dinner - $5
Pasta shells,  900 grams - $5
Kraft dinner - $3

Overall, I’d say it’s more expensive, but not that bad…but still, pretty expensive if you consider that a lot of folks here live in poverty. Still, I noted that a packet of Mr Noodles instant noodles was 79 cents, so if I lived here, I would probably live on that, just as I did in southern Africa, just as I did in Amsterdam, and just as I do in Ottawa.  A pint of Haagen Daas ice cream went for $12, which seems pretty expensive but to be honest, I’m not sure I’d crave much ice cream in the north anyway.  A bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo, however, was $15, which just seems crazy.  Also, the grocery stores sold kimchi ramen noodles.

I noticed with some amusement that the grocery sold guitars and electronic equipment that sat out in the open, but DVDs and chocolate bars were locked behind glass.  The grocery store also had a fabric section that sold fur.

public health campaign poster

That night, I wanted to see the Northern Lights outside, but I was so tired, I fell asleep, listening to the sounds of dogs outside my window howling at the moon, and a mysterious high pitched hum.

The next morning, I asked my hosts last night what the high pitched hum was that I had heard at night.  Apparently there is a curfew “bell” that goes off every night at ten PM.  There is also a fire alarm siren that goes off when there is a fire to alert all the volunteer firefighters.  The curfew bell and the fire alarm sound exactly alike. “What if there is a fire at 10PM?” I asked.

As it turns out, that’s what happened last night. There was a big house fire, and someone died.  Apparently fires are all too common up here, whether it’s due to shoddy wiring or human carelessness.  I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be chased out in the middle of the night into the freezing cold, watching your home burn in fiery heat.

the fire hall

I went for a tour around the town.  I was hoping to see sun dogs in the sky, but it was too cloudy – the same reason why I’d missed the Northern Lights the night before. Out by the harbor, there had been a pad of narwhals that had swum in a few days ago…and consequently, of course, a narwhal kill. There’d been spotted a few orcas as well, because apparently killer whales eat narhwals. That would be amazine to see. I saw one of the icebreaker ships that the government is sending out to search for the lost Franklin ships of 1845.  Already the ice was beginning to form at the edge of the water where the waves hit land, ice shards like broken glass piled on the shores. Away from the beach, there were icycles forming over the grass. I had never seen anything like that before.

I touched the Arctic Ocean. It was cold and I felt alive.

Afterwards I went to the meat packing plant.  When you eat at a fancy restaurant in Manhattan and see Arctic char on the menu, most of the time it comes from this plant here in Cambridge Bay. I bought a bunch of muskox meat to take home with me.

hanging out in a "traditional" qalgiq

I finally found the heritage society, located in the high school library.  Libraries always seem like a place of happiness for me, and here it also served as a playroom for kids, a business centre for adults, and museum for tourists.  Small Inuk children played happily in a fake igloo, while adults nearby used the public computers to check Facebook.  There was an exhibit of a giant kayak, explaining how kayak use has declined after the 20th century.  Inuit legends seem to be all about death.  For example, the cry of a loon is supposed to be the weeping of a mother whose blind son drifted away on a kayak.  The nearby Mount Pelly is supposed to be the body of a giant who starved to death.

We went for a drive outside of town.  The communities in Nunavut are far apart, and most of them can’t be reached by car, only by plane.  This means that the communities often have this roads that lead out of town into, eventually, nowhere. But these roads to nowhere are a pleasant drive.  A lot of the folks in town erect little cabins along the way, I guess as nature havens to escape to when you want to get away from “city life”, if you can ever refer to Cambridge Bay as a bustling urban life. 

My hosts told me that only certain kinds of people thrive in the Arctic environment like this.  Newfoundlanders tend to do well. You have to not be afraid of the wilderness, of huge empty spaces, of being alone.

The landscape out here is completely different from  back home, closer to Namibia’s deserts, than anything we see in Ottawa. No trees.  Barren lands that resemble a moonscape. Inukshuks set up everywhere. Shotgun shells scattered along the ground.  I saw an arctic fox, crossing the road, his pure white fur making him stand out from the dirt at this time of the year.  Off in the distant, I could see Mount Pelly, the dead giant, and Mama Pelly, the smaller esker next to it, and then Baby Pelly.  According to the legend, the death of these giants’ starvation introduced the origin of death.

is that a spaceship off in the distance?