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Caribou and polar bears

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Hannah is flustered and nervous today. Twelve people are coming for dinner and she needs to begin cooking. Maybe you go out soon?

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Last night she fretted about a number of new guests arriving and proposed we sleep outside: “I don’t charge you for sleeping. Only for food.” I’ve heard the dogs whine and the ATVs rumble past and I don’t know how we’d sleep in the all-night sunshine but I tell her no problem. Liliana looks at me, says nothing.

Hannah's ulu stash

Hannah’s ulu stash

But this morning the worry about rooms seems to have passed and now she just wants us out of the house so she can cook for the crowd. She sits at the kitchen table, slicing up a caribou haunch with her ulu. Her daughter Julia pulls a pan of bannock from the oven, then finishes slicing up the Arctic char.

It will be a party, I smile to Hannah.

No! Not a party! I hate parties! I don’t like that at all.

I wonder what unhappy memory the word ‘party’ evokes for her and I wonder if it has anything to do with the banning of alcohol in Pangnirtung.

Diorama from the parks office. Cute and cuddly,  not like the orientation video...

Diorama from the parks office. Cute and cuddly, not like the orientation video…

As we intend to hike in the Auyuittuq park tomorrow, we go to the national parks office to register and have a compulsory one-hour orientation which includes a rather frightening video on what to do when confronted by a polar bear. My little chicken is sufficiently disturbed that the guide offers us a hazing gun – essentially a pistol with a charge that emits a sound similar to a screaming woman (yep, that’s what he said. “It really scares the bears.”).

Pang garbage dump with photobombing fly! (look in the very centre)

Pang garbage dump with photobombing fly! (look in the very centre)

After a wander through the abandoned Hudson Bay Blubber Station (ground it up and shipped it back to England to light their lamps, I hear) and the more contemporary turbot and Arctic char fish processing plant, we traipse a couple of kilometres east of the hamlet, down a dusty road to what’s referred to here as the Canadian Tire of the North. In fact, it’s the Pangnirtung garbage dump and we’ve been told that if enterprising enough one can find a piece or a part to fix, repair, replace or build anything. It’s all there. In fact, it’s a sad testament to the isolation of this northern community. Goods come in, they don’t go out. Cargo ships are in the business of transporting and they’d rather carry air than transport items without recompense. For who will pay to ship garbage? No doubt the answer to that question will be placed on a future generation but in the meantime cans, paper, glass, refrigerators, kitchen chairs, plastic bags and pocketbooks decay, rust and blow about the dump.

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Stew Caribou

Tuesday Day 5 117

Arctic char en four

Hannah greets us with a smile on our return. “I tired. I cook all day. You like caribou?”

Simmering in a large aluminum pot are chunks of carrot, potato, turnip and caribou. She dips in a spoon and lifts out a meaty cube. “You try.”

Have I mentioned that I’ve eaten more animal protein this week than I have in the last thirty years?

As I chew Hannah whispers to me about the young woman who has just taken a room for the night. “Not good. She vegetarian. She not eat my dinner.”

And Hannah is very proud of the meal she has prepared for the guests who are to arrive any minute. A pot of caribou stew, a baking pan of Arctic char, rice, salad, steamed vegetables, blueberry pie – all laid out with love and care by this rather elderly great grandmother.

I swallow the caribou and I tell her it is wonderful.

Her beautiful brown eyes crinkle with a grin. “You sure? You no vegetarian?”

For this week, Hannah, just for your sweet smiling self, I no vegetarian.

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Dodging the ice floes

Ice blown into the fjord from Cumberland Sound

Fog and ice blown into the fjord

Monday arrives, cold enough that we see our breath, and a white blanket of fog settles on the hamlet. Overnight the wind has shifted, coming from the northwest, pushing giant plates of ice into the fjord from Cumberland Sound.

The phone rings and our guide Peter Kilabuk tells us the ice floes and fog have made it too treacherous to go out on the water. We’d planned to go seal hunting but the weather has changed our plans, just as it has for many other members of the community.

A few days ago we met with Peter in a small building behind his house. Peter is a former Nunavut MLA and patiently answers our questions about lifestyle, food security, hunting and living on the land.

In particular he wants Liliana to see the stack of prepared sealskins, and jackets, pants and kamiks (boots) his wife has made from the skins they’ve tanned.

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The ringed seal skin is spotted and grey, shiny and smooth-haired. Until the seal hunt was banned in Europe, there was a profitable overseas market for this by-product of the traditional diet. The ringed seal is the tastiest seal meat, according to Peter, better than harp, bearded or elephant seal. The skins are softer and superior for clothing. The bearded seal, by contrast, does not taste as good (“like comparing elephant to cow,” says Peter) but has a thicker skin well suited to the soles of the kamiks.

We’d been hopeful to hunt a seal, participate in the butchering, and observe the whole process of sharing the kill, probably something we’d understand better seeing than hearing it described. But just as the weather is keeping the people from heading out to their summer camps, it’s keeping us on shore as well.

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We head out instead to the Arctic Co-Op and the Northern Store, to do some grocery store price comparisons. Liliana has created a week’s menu for a family of four, assembling a long list of ingredients, and wants to record prices, with the intent of comparing prices from the stores in the south. At the store we see Peter, Stevie the note-writer from church, Abraham the minister, and a couple of ladies from the elders’ centre. No doubt others recognize our pale faces, but these are the ones who smile and greet us.

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The food prices continue to astound and naïve as it sounds, we begin to have an appreciation for some of the challenges of life in the north.

We head back to Hannah’s for lunch. Hot dogs and French fries. I know she’s being kind, thinking generously of what southerners might want to eat. Liliana’s glance asks me how much longer we are going to keep this up. I add as much relish as the bun will hold.

After lunch Peter calls – the fog has lifted sufficiently that he feels safe taking out his boat amidst the ice floes.

We meet him at the dock, don orange windsuits, jump into his aluminum boat and are away. My girl has a smile I’ve not seen before. We are on the water, navigating the fjord, hunting for seals. Life is good.

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We do see a seal bob its head up and down in the water and learn a few things about hunting: The seal comes up for a breath, once, twice, maybe three times, and before the final breath will arch out as it dives down to swim. Once that little behaviour is recognized it’s easy to see. Secondly, an experienced hunter will know how far a seal can travel on a held breath and, having watched the direction of that final arc downwards, will have a fairly accurate mark of where the seal will re-emerge.

We didn’t. All the better for the seal.

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On the fjord banks we see some summer tents set up with small smoky fires and orange lines of arctic char drying in the sun. The collection of “country food” is an important summertime activity and given the prices of food in the co-op, a critical means of decreasing the monthly grocery bill.

Weaving between the ice floes we travel toward the mouth of the fjord until Peter says any deeper and we risk getting locked in the ice. Later Hannah remarks her brother got stuck in the ice once and could not come home til the wind shifted, two days later.

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As we ease out of the ice Peter pulls the boat to shore so we can scramble up the rocks for a better view of the sound. At the top of the crest an Inukshuk points rocky arms east and west and we see just how jammed with ice the sound is. It’s unlikely the ice will be break up anytime soon, says Peter, delaying the sea lift – loaded with dry goods and supplies – even further.

We head back, heady and thrilled by the ice and the blue. The Nunavut flag – white and yellow with an Inukshuk in the centre is so apt now.

We leave Peter at the dock, arranging for one more trip on the water later this week, and hike back up the shore to Hannah’s. The little puppy we befriended earlier bounds up to greet us. We have spaghetti for dinner.

A happy happy day.

Putting on our Sunday best

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Sunday morning. I promise Liliana she can have a lazy day with books and her movie-making-program, but first we have to go to church. It’s Anglican, there’s an English service at 9.30 a.m. It’s another cultural experience. It should be fun.

Toast and eggs with Hannah. She says she’s going to church too but at 11 and when it’ll be spoken in Inuktitut. We head off, on quiet gravelly roads. No one else is up and the sky is beautiful and clear.

Because we’re walking quickly we mistakenly take the upper rather than lower fork in the road and find ourselves at the airstrip (this is not a big place). A bit of backtracking and we’re at the church. The door is unlocked, we wander in, but it’s 10 minutes past 9.30 so we figure with no English speakers around, the minister didn’t bother to preach to an empty house.

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But it’s quiet and pretty inside so we sit and contemplate life for a while. At the front, behind the altar, is a cross made of two narwhal tusks. At the communion rail are sealskin cushions for kneeling. On the right side are four electric guitars and a couple of amps. On the left side is a set of drums. All in all, pretty traditional.

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My back is sore so when Liliana suggests we leave I ask for a few more minutes to sit. She agrees. And then the people start to come in. A lot of people, people in choir robes, people in their Sunday best, a man in a Roman collar. We stand up, preparing to leave. A man in a white robe and a beatific smile brings us an English bible and a book of psalms.

Oh, but we’re just preparing to leave.

Oh, but you should stay, he smiles, in perfect English.

We stay. We return to our seats at the front of the church. Then the priest files in with 18 (!) choir members. The organist follows. The church is now full, except for the front row, where we are sitting.
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The service begins. We are welcomed in English and Inuktitut. We are thanked for staying. We are thanked for sitting in the front row. We are told on which page to look for the hymns which we can’t read.

Two hours later, when the service ends, we are thanked for our contribution to the collection plate. The man in the white robe hands me a tiny piece of paper with his name and number and a note to call him, Stevie, if we should need anything during our stay in Pang. Later we see both him and the minister Abraham at the Northern store.

For some reason the three hours spent at St. Luke’s Anglican Church pass quite quickly. Hannah was there, telling the people we were her guests from Vancouver.

I would like to think Hannah suspected something because our post-church lunch consisted of grilled cheese and tomato soup. I was never so happy to see a slice of processed cheese.

But after the promised lazy afternoon of reading and video-making, Liliana and I rouse ourselves to the smell of caramelized tomato sauce. It smelled delicious but similarly gave an air of foreboding.

“Loa-esh? Loa-esh? Time to eat.”

Coming, Hannah.

Sunday dinner. Roast chicken. How could I not know? An entire leg and thigh, waiting on my plate.

The last time… 1979….

Liliana thinks we should ‘fess up on the last day. We already know how to get to the airport.

 

 

Above the hamlet

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For some reason it’s hard to get out of bed today. Our little room at the end of the house is cool, and at night we leave the window open.

Because it doesn’t get dark the children have no natural inclination to head indoors and the sounds of their squealing and laughter are as bright and happy at 10 in the evening as they are at two in the afternoon. And the occasional yip yip of a dog or the skid of ATV tires on gravel are not governed by any particular schedule.

And the brightness does manage to seep in under the eyeshades early in the morning, so small wonder that Hannah’s schedule is one of rising very early, working in the kitchen, then napping for a few hours before rising again.

After breakfast (eggs and toast) we take the sandwiches Hannah has prepared (Arctic char, ham and cheese) and head up the mountain behind her house.

If you think of Heidi in her grandfather’s house, surrounded entirely by mountains, then cut the circle in half and drive a fjord up the middle, you’d have Pangnirtung. The hamlet hugs the shore of the fjord, and is completely ringed by mountains. No roads leading in or out. Northeast of here is the Akshayuk Pass, a 100-mile trail that will take you over the Arctic Circle and out to Davis Strait. But otherwise if you’re here you stay here.

Historically Pangnirtung was one of many coastal sites the Inuit visited, following the flow of food – seal, walrus, beluga, narwhale and char. As such small now-permanent communities dot the edges of Cumberland Sound, showing the traditional hunting and gathering sites.

Heading up the mountain behind Hannah’s house shows the fjord in all its spectacular springtime beauty. Pink, purple and white flowers find purchase on the sand and gravel. The Duval River pours into the fjord while underground springs spill water from cracks deep in the mountains. The moss and blueberry bushes make a spongy layer that’s like walking on an innerspring mattress. And the fjord’s immensity suddenly makes sense as the waterway that gives and takes.

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Liliana discovers a dead creature

Right now the mouth of the fjord is jammed with ice and the people here can’t leave for their traditional summer camping sites. Usually they’d be on their way out, in their fishing boats, several generations of the same family, living on the land for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, hunting and gathering their ‘country food’ of blueberries, Eider duck and eggs, fish, seal and if lucky, a beluga or narwhale.

But the ice jam has prevented all of that this year and there’s a general air of “what can we do.” An anticipated tourist ship has rerouted, outfitters can’t take visitors hunting or whale watching, the Inuit can’t get to their summer campsites, and the sea lift, carrying provisions plus perhaps a car, a new snowmobile or ATV, furniture, a new stove, plywood, drywall, lumber, diesel fuel…. already a month overdue and while promised dates are frequently posted, the reality is the ice is not moving.

But up high on the mountain the scenery is stunning and on this sunny warm day there isn’t anywhere we’d rather be.

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We eat our char sandwiches, throwing a few crusts to the sweet puppy that has wandered along for the hike, and then drop down the mountain until we are back at the water’s edge. We collect sunbleached shells and tiny seal finger bones and then come upon a giant set of vertebrae. Judging from the fur and claws nearby it was a substantial furry mammal but any guess and I’d be bluffing.

We wander back to Hannah’s and it’s suppertime.

Nearly four decades have passed since I regularly consumed meat and I remind myself to buck up. It’s only for a week. I remark how good the meat is. What is it? Pork, she says, wondering what kind of southern person doesn’t recognize pork.

Two bones rest at the side of Liliana’s plate.

“You want more?”

“No thank you,” says the girl who has just eaten pork ribs for the first time in her life. She’s been game, she’s been stoic. She knows there’s only one answer.

“You vegetarian?”

She smiles. She is brave. This is our joke.

“Oh, no, Hannah. Not vegetarian.”

 

 

The hamlet of Pangnirtung

The hamlet of Pangnirtung

Friday

The sun shone all night. Oh, there may have been the occasional shaded hour between midnight and two in the morning, but overall the sky was bright and clear. In an uncharacteristic moment of foresight I’d brought along eye shades, collected along the last few years of train and airline trips. Thank goodness.

Eggs for breakfast, brown toast, peanut butter, jam and coffee.

“You like eggs?” asked Hannah.

“Yes please.”

“Okay. You make.”

Got it.

As we munched our toast and looked outside into the sun, Hannah asked what we’d like for lunch and for dinner.

Anything is fine.

Anything? You eat everything?

Oh, yes.

You no vegetarian? Because I hate vegetarian.

Definitely not vegetarian.

Hawaiian pizza for lunch and for dinner, arctic char, a great orange slab on our plates, along with rice and salad.

Liliana ate it all, bless her heart.

 


 

Following our breakfast we set out to explore the hamlet. Pangnirtung sits on the shore, almost literally, of the Pangnirtung fjord, a deep crack in the granite that makes up Baffin Island. To the west is Cumberland Sound, currently jammed with ice and thus stalling any passage of ships – tourist and supplies, more on that later – and to the east is Davis Strait, the body of water between Baffin Island and Greenland.

Every glance up and down the fjord fills one with a sense of wonder. At first the hamlet does not seem particularly attractive. Wooden houses, set on stilts, dotted along a maze of pitted and dusty gravel roads, snowmobiles set aside until the snow returns, four-wheeled ATVs, parked trucks, the occasional sleeping dog, secured by a long rope.

But after walking and a few hours of familiarity, the layout of the hamlet and its relationship to the water all begin to make sense.

The roads connecting the homes span out concentrically, as though a stone were thrown in the water and the rings reached back out to the land. That ease of formation gives everyone quicker access to the main roads that run near the water, connecting the government offices, the clinic, the library and the stores.

And so we set off, out Hannah’s kitchen door, down toward the water, turning at the cemetery, in search of the grocery stores, of which there are two: The Arctic Inuit Co-Op and The Northern Store.

The Co-Op is familiar to anyone who’s visited these stores in the Canada’s countryside – Beausejour, Langley, Halifax. The Northern Store is a similarly general-type store, and there’s probably a difference between the two, one not yet discerned by me.

Both stores carry groceries, fresh meat, milk, tires, paddles, soft drinks, chocolate bars, fabric, bullets and dog food.

The prices are exorbitant — $6 for a soft drink, $9 for a jug of milk, $17 for a box of cereal, $52 for a Costco-sized bundle of toilet paper.

Food arrives in one of two ways – the sea lift, which means containers (such as those carried on a train) stuffed with goods in Winnipeg, shipped to Montreal, loaded on to a ship, and a month in transit to the north, or by air – Montreal to Iqaluit to Pangnirtung. The sea lift is cheaper (one container of 24,000 kgs is $4000 to transport; the equivalent weight would cost $200,000 to transport by air) but the air lift is fresher. So generally groceries come in by air, as even crackers would be close to stale-dated by the time they arrived. More cost to the consumer, less waste by the stores.

No surprise, the cost of food comprises the bulk of living expenses in Pang.

One former Haligonian said that when Amazon offered free shipping, the plane would unload 150 boxes of goods every day. Ah the glory days.

Home for a supper of arctic char, salad, rice and boiled vegetables. The char is like a drier salmon, pretty and orange, and salty/savoury. Liliana puts it away like a trooper, but I see concern in her eyes.

Hannah has offered to make sandwiches from the leftover char for our hike tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrival to the far north

Pangnirtung fjord

Pangnirtung fjord

My sweet travelling companion and I caught last Thursday’s late night redeye from Vancouver to Ottawa, via Toronto, through Iqaluit to Pangnirtung, only a bit painful because we were on our way Somewhere Wonderful. A brief stop in each airport, just long enough to find our way to the appropriate check-in.

We didn’t know yet but several of the people on the flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit would become our flightmates all the way through to Pangnirtung, some would become our dining companions and one poor soul would voluntarily evacuate his room so that we’d have a place to stay.

On arrival to the flight strip in Pang, everyone and no one had arrived to meet us. Looking back, we could have asked any number of people for a lift to our lodging as I recognized one man by his voice, another from his picture. While not there specifically for us, both kindly offered to take us where we needed to go – Hannah’s Homestay. The story was that 78-year-old great grandmother Hannah Tautuajuk ran a warm and friendly boarding house from her home and when I’d called her a month earlier she assured me she had no boarders in July and that all I needed to do was show up.

Liliana and I piled our bags into the back of a dusty 4×4 and were driven by Jason, an east coaster who arrived in Pang a year ago and now works at the hamlet office, across the labyrinthine paths that make up the roads of Pang. No street names but every house has a number.

We arrived at Hannah’s, number 765, and knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked harder. “Maybe she’s sleeping,” said Jason. Knocked again. It was pretty clear to all that no one was home.

We piled ourselves and our bags back into the truck and drove around a bit. Perhaps her daughter Julia was at the clinic where she sometimes worked. She wasn’t. What about the GN office where she also occasionally worked? (GN? Government of Nunavut, informed Jason.) Not there either.

We returned to Jason’s room at the hamlet office. I could imagine he deeply regretted having offered us a ride. Where would this mother-daughter-duo stay? He offered, perhaps reluctantly, “You can always stay at our place,” referring to the home he shared with others.

There’s also a modest hotel in Pangnirtung, known as The Lodge, where the business and government folk stay, run by the colourful Quebecois Louis Robilliard. Jason called over to the Lodge and said he was bringing us over. Louis too was not terribly overjoyed to see the two of us as his establishment was already full. He too telephoned Hannah, Julia, their home, their cell phones. Nothing. He disappeared out his back door for a few minutes, then returned.

Come with me. We did. There was one of the guys from the plane, hastily packing up and moving in with his buddy in the adjoining room. They’d be sharing a room, it turned out, so that Liliana and I had somewhere to sleep.

The guys were pretty cool about it and as we had dinner in the upstairs dining hall a little while later they regaled us with stories about travelling in the north at the whim of the weather. Turns out as well that Louis the innkeeper was also Louis the cook, Louis the server and Louis the busboy. After our raisin pie we returned to our room, but were intercepted by Louis the innkeeper. He was obviously concerned that we might be his guests for more than one night and he clearly didn’t have room.

He began calling Hannah’s numbers again. Her daughter Julia answered and Louis passed the phone to me:

You came in?

Yes we did.

You’re here with your daughter?

Yes.

We had lots of cancellations this week.

Oh. I’m sorry.

I didn’t pick you up from the airport because I thought you were like all the rest.

Oh.

You want me to come and get you? Or do you want to stay at the hotel? It’s up to you.

I’ll still stay with you if that’s all right.

I don’t care. It’s your choice.

(Louis, overhearing both ends of the conversation, gestured that I should go go go to Hannah’s.)

We’ll stay with you.

Okay.

I returned the phone to Louis, paid for our dinner and we were out the door with Julia, on our way to Hannah’s.

We met Hannah – dark haired, crinkly eyed, all smiles and expressive face. She showed us our room, the shared bathroom, the coffee pot. “You need anything? You ask me.”

And we went for a walk in the bright-as-day evening sun. The wind was coming from the west, blowing over the ice-packed Cumberland Strait and I suddenly considered there was no way I’d brought enough clothes. Great ice floes rested on the beach, hung up there as the tide receded. Puppies and children ran about the dusty roads, little boys on bikes skidding on the gravel, the occasional adult making easy eye contact with the obvious visitors, each one calling out “Hi!” with a smile.

We returned to Hannah’s, ready for bed. It had been a long two days, broken up by the occasional nap.

Hannah met us at the door. “What time you eat breakfast? What you like eat for breakfast?”

I was prepared for this and had forewarned Liliana that we were going to respect local hospitality and eat what was in front of us. We would be guests after all.

You like bacon and eggs? I like bacon and eggs. You eat bacon and eggs tomorrow?

We’ll eat anything, said the vegetarians.

Into the white

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Sunday was snowday here on our little outcrop. Cars were ditched — figuratively by us and literally by others — in favour of snowboots and we enjoyed a day of slippery slidey fun.

Junior forgot that coastal snow is wetter than the prairie variety and complained about wet feet from his sodden runners. Our friendly neighbourhood United Church minister gave him a pair of socks collected from the Christmas ‘mitten tree.’

And then, in pursuance of procrastinated holiday homework, he trotted off to the mid-island meadow, sister in tow, to take some photos.

Pretty, isn’t it? Both of them were freezing but in testament to the lunacy of youth, they followed through with it. Hot baths and hot chocolate followed.

Nicholas is preparing a series of photographs for a year-long school project and Liliana has centred in each one. The photos are not portraits per se but her presence provides a continuity throughout.

This is not the first time the model has had to endure pain for beauty. There’s another of her standing in the ocean…

Time for her to get a manager and discuss some recompense. Perhaps he can clean her room.