unbekannter Gast

A trip to Nunavut, 2007#

by

Elisabeth Ernst-McNeil

All photos in this story were taken by the author in 2007 and made available to Global-Geography.org

Nunavut is Canada’s newest, largest, and most sparsely populated province. It was officially separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999, and its provincial capital and administrative centre is Iqaluit, on Baffin Island.

We were on our way to Iqaluit and from there to a small island off the north coast of Baffin Island where we hoped to be able to photograph and film polar bears. The island may be small, but the name is not – Qikiqtarjuag, formerly Broughton Island. I had to practice for several days before I could pronounce it properly. Since there are no regular flights to Qik, as it’s often fondly called, to get there you have to take a transport machine from Iqaluit and hope that conditions will enable it to land. This is not always the case! The good news is that, however often you make the attempt in vain, you only pay once.

We left Iqaluit (in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, this means “Place of many fish”) in bright weather. The passengers at the airport were a motley crew, some in shorts and T-shirts, others obviously dressed for outdoor work in polar conditions. The transport planes have movable partitions, so more cargo means fewer passengers and vice versa. The flight is divided into two legs, with a refuelling stop at Pangnirtung (“Pang” for short.) Apparently every opportunity for a refuelling stop is taken – after all, nobody knows when and where it might next be possible.

At Pang the number of passengers dwindled and the amount of cargo duly increased. The sky was almost cloudless when we took off again to cross the lower reaches of the Penny Ice Cap before the descent to Qik. There was some sort of announcement about the weather – it didn’t seem particularly relevant in view of the clear skies, and anyway I was concentrating on the Inuktitut that followed the English. To our European ears it sounded rather a monotonous, expressionless language, and we were still remarking on this when the plane suddenly interrupted its steady descent as the pilot pulled it up and away from the airport, veering off in the direction we’d come from. A few minutes later he apologized, saying there’d been a white-out which reduced visibility to zero, “and this plane doesn’t have the technology for landing in conditions like that.” He went on, ”Many of you know the procedure now – back to Iqaluit and after we land I’ll let you know what time we leave tomorrow.”

To cut a long story short, we reached our goal on the second attempt, having learned just how quickly the weather in the Arctic can change. Later we were told that the Inuit on the islands have the ability to foresee weather change. To us it seems almost uncanny, but of course for them it’s the consequence of always having been aware of minute changes in winds, clouds, and waves (or ice) and in animal behaviour. And if an Inuit tells you, “We have to go now,” he really does mean “now” and not just in a few minutes or when you’ve finished what you happen to be doing. He has noticed something that you have been totally unaware of and which may be potentially life-threatening, hence the urgency.

And incidentally, we saw only one bear, far off and from a boat that was bucking on 8-foot waves – hardly ideal conditions for photography!

Maps of the area#

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The eastern part of Baffin Island, including Iqaluit and Qikiqtarjuag
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A detailed map of the area between Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuag

Iqaluit#

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Coming in over the tundra to land on Baffin Island
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Descent to Iqaluit
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Descent to Iqaluit
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Street scene in Iqaluit
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Bilingual road-sign in English and Inuktitut
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Houses built on stilts – permafrost makes this a necessity. A red light lit outside the house shows that its water-tank is not yet empty.
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Households are provided with trucked water which is pumped directly into each water-tank. This is done on a fixed schedule nowadays, instead of rather haphazardly as used to be the case.
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Nunavut vehicle number-plates are surely unique!

Pangnirtung (the airport)#

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Part of the runway – pure ice!
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What a back-drop!
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What a back-drop!
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The Inuit seem to favour colourful buildings at their airports.
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The Inuit seem to favour colourful buildings at their airports.

Qikiqtarjuag#

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The settlement – about 400 people live here permanently
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Seal-skins for export
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An inuksuk, traditionally made of unhewn stone. They can be seen in many places inside the Arctic Circle and, in a landscape largely devoid of natural landmarks, they sometimes served as navigational aids or to communicate messages of some sort. They vary greatly in size and shape.
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The port, with and without iceberg. The icebergs here come down directly from the Greenland ice shelf.
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Seal skins drying outside an Inuit house
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Polar bear skins drying outside an Inuit house
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Excursion boats come in two different sizes
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Excursion boats come in two different sizes

Huskies#

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Inuit huskies are half wild and their working life as sled-dogs starts when they are still puppies and are teamed with older, more experienced animals.
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They are mostly kept at a distance from settlements, in some cases even on small uninhabited islands. Huskies are not necessarily grey!
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By boat trip along part of the coast of Baffin Island#

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Twilight on the water
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The amazing colours of ice in dull weather
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A bright spot in the dark clouds
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Almost unreal colours of ice
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Holding the camera becomes a problem – despite several layers of gloves I soon had no feeling left in my fingers.
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Dramatic coastline
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The Inuit know when it is safe to take a boat near icebergs, which may become very unstable.
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The sea beginning to freeze over
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Relatively well-worn icebergs