Home to only 32,000 people, Nunavut (meaning “Our Land” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language) covers almost two million square kilometres – a fifth of Canada’s land surface and an area five times the size of California, stretching west from Hudson Bay then north through the great “Barrenlands” of the interior to the Arctic islands in the north. From its western edge to the tip of Baffin Island in the east is 2000km (the distance from Washington DC to Denver). From north to south it’s even more of a span – 2500km, the distance from London to Moscow.

Long an amorphous political entity administered by the federal government, the Northwest Territories was formally divided on April 1, 1999, by a land treaty which split the old territories in two and created a new central and eastern Arctic territory termed Nunavut. The signing followed fifteen years of low-profile but effective negotiating and campaigning and produced the largest land deal in Canadian history, in which the Inuit regained possession of their homeland (valued at $1.15 billion) in return for renouncing all their claims to the remainder of the NWT. One practical effect has been the renaming of most of its 28 settlements with Inuit names, though in many cases English-language names have continued to stick.

Nunavut is the land of musk ox, polar bears, vast caribou migrations, millions upon millions of migrating songbirds and endless horizons of fish-filled lakes and rivers. The region is also home to ten-thousand-year-old glaciers, deep fjords, impressive mountain ranges and endless kilometres of open tundra. Besides the wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, there are a host of activities, including fishing and high-adventure outdoor pursuits. Add to these the wide spectrum of living cultural treasures, from Inuit printmakers and carvers to traditional drummers and “throat” singers.

Most of the region’s communities are formed of indigenous Inuit and lie in the Kivallliq region on the arc of Hudson Bay’s western coast, and encompassing Baker Lake, Nunavut’s only inland community. In these settlements you will find that the Nunavummiut, or Inuit of Nunavut, continue to honour their traditional lifestyle, culture and ancestors. The remainder of Nunavut’s population live even further north in the scattered communities dotting Baffin Island and its surrounding archipelago. The capital, at Iqaluit on Baffin Island, is home to nearly one-fifth of the territory’s population.

Although you’ll find an old way of life and stunning Arctic landscapes, don’t be alarmed by the physical appearance of most villages; housing here is at a premium and many buildings and infrastructure suffer the effects of the Arctic’s harsh and changing environment. Houses are built on stilts and sit high above the permafrost layer, while some are even cabled down to prevent them from blowing away during the fierce arctic winds. All building supplies, canned grocery goods and supplies must be shipped in by sealift, which arrives once or twice a year during the brief ice-free months between July and early October. Despite the rundown appearance of these places, it is the warmth and generosity of the Inuit who live there that make staying here an unforgettable experience.

Auyuittuq National Park

Straddling the Arctic Circle on the northeast coast of Baffin Island, Auyuittuq National Park is one of the most spectacular destinations in the Canadian North. The heart of the park is the massive Penny Ice Cap, a remnant of the ice sheet that extended over most of Canada east of the Rockies about eighteen thousand years ago, and the 110km Pangnirtung/Akshayuk Pass, a major hiking route which cuts through the mountains between Cumberland Sound and the Davis Strait. Auyuittuq is Inuktitut for “the land that never melts” but despite the unrelenting cold in summer the sparse tundra plants do bloom and chance encounters with arctic hares and foxes, polar bears, Canada geese, snowy owls and gyrfalcons are a possibility. Just offshore you may spot narwhal, walrus, bowhead and beluga whale, as well as harp, ringed and bearded seals. Yet the main attraction is not necessarily the random, rare wildlife sightings, but the sheer rugged beauty and raw power of the dramatic landscape.

Services within the park are extremely limited and the weather is highly unpredictable. Snowstorms, high wind and rain occur frequently, and deaths from hypothermia have been known even in summer. All-weather hiking gear is essential, as is a walking stick to assist you with the ice-cold stream crossings which occur every 200–300m and can be waist-high in July. There is no wood for fuel, so a camping stove is essential.

The Inuit

Distinct from all other Canadian Aboriginal peoples by virtue of their culture, language and Asiatic physical features, the Inuit are the dominant people of a territory extending from northern Alaska to Greenland. They once led a nomadic existence in one of the most hostile environments on earth, dwelling in igloos during the winter and skin tents in the summer, moving around using kayaks (qajaq) or dog sleds (qamutik). The latter were examples of typical Inuit adaptability – the runners were sometimes made from frozen fish wrapped in sealskin and caribou bones were used for crossbars.

Animals from the land and sea – caribou, musk ox, seal, walrus, narwhal, beluga whales, polar bears, birds and fish – provided everything: oil for heating and cooking, hides for clothing and tents, harpoon lines and dog harnesses and food.

The Inuit diet was almost entirely meat based, and every part of the animal was consumed, usually raw, from the eyeballs to the heart. Delicacies included the plaited and dried intestines of seals and whole sealskins stuffed with small birds and left to age until the contents had turned to the consistency of cheese. All food was shared among the community and the successful hunter had to watch his catch being distributed among other families in the group, in accordance with specific relationships, before his own kin were allowed the smallest portion. Starvation was common – it was not unusual for whole villages to perish in the winter – and consequently infanticide, particularly of females, was employed to keep population sizes down. Elders who could not keep up with the travelling group were abandoned, a fate that also befell some offenders of the social code – though the usual way of resolving conflict was the song-duel, whereby the aggrieved would publicly ridicule the behaviour of the offender, who was expected to accept the insults with good grace.

It was a woman who often served as the shaman, or angakok, maintaining the group’s communion with the supernatural. The deity who features most regularly in Inuit myth is a goddess called Sedna, who was mutilated by her father. Her severed fingers became seals and walruses and her hands became whales, but Sedna lived on as the mother and protector of all sea life, capable of withholding her bounty if strict taboos were not adhered to, including keeping land and sea products separate.

Sporadic European contact dates back to the Norse settlement of Greenland, and early missionaries did visit some Inuit. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the two cultures met in earnest. By 1860 commercial whalers had begun wintering around the north of Hudson Bay, employing Inuit as crew and food hunters in return for European goods. The impact on the Inuit was not really deleterious until the arrival of American and European whalers in 1890, when the liberal dispensing of alcohol and spread of diseases (smallpox and tuberculosis) led to a drastic decline in population.

By the early 1900s fur traders were encouraging the Inuit to stop hunting off the coast and turn inland, using firearms and traps. The accompanying missionaries brought welcome medical help and schools, but put an end to multiple marriages, shamanism and other traditional practices. More changes came when Inuit were employed to build roads, airfields and other military facilities during World War II, and to construct the line of radar installations known as Distant Early Warning system (DEW) in the Cold War era. As well as bringing new jobs, this also focused government attention on the plight of the Inuit.

The consequent largesse was not wholly beneficial: subsidized housing and welfare payments led many Inuit to abandon their hunting camps and settle in permanent communities. Without knowledge of English and French, these Inuit were left out of all decision-making and often lived in separate parts of towns administered by outsiders, and high levels of depression, alcoholism and violence became the norm. A 1982 ban on European imports of sealskins created mass unemployment, and although hunting still provides the basics of subsistence, the high cost of ammunition and fuel makes commercial-scale hunting uneconomical.

And yet it’s not all gloom. Inuit co-operatives are increasingly successful and the production of soapstone carvings – admittedly a commercial adulteration of traditional Inuit ivory art – is very profitable. Having organized themselves into politically active groups and secured land claims such as Nunavut, the Inuit are now slowly rebuilding an ancient culture that was shattered in under half a century.

The Northwest Passage

The fabled Northwest Passage across the top of Canada’s Arctic continues to exert a romantic allure – and, in the wake of oil discoveries in the far North, an increasingly economic one. The world’s most severe maritime challenge, it involves a 1500km journey from north of Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea above Alaska. Some fifty thousand icebergs line the eastern approaches and thick pack ice covers the route for nine months of the year, with temperatures rising above freezing only in July and August. Perpetual darkness reigns for four months of the year and thick fog and blizzards can obscure visibility for the remaining eight. Even with modern technology navigation is extremely difficult: little is known of Arctic tides and currents; sonar is confused by submerged ice; and the featureless tundra of the Arctic islands provides the only few points of visual or radar reference.

John Cabot can hardly have been happy with Henry VII’s 1497 order to blaze the northwest trail, the first recorded instance of such an attempt. The passage subsequently excited the imagination of the world’s greatest adventurers, men such as Sir Francis Drake, Jacques Cartier, Sir Martin Frobisher, James Cook and Henry Hudson – cast adrift by his mutinous crew in 1611 when Hudson Bay turned out to be an ice-bound trap rather than the actual passage.

Details of a possible route were pieced together over the centuries, though many paid with their lives in the process, most famously Sir John Franklin, who vanished into the ice with 129 men in 1845. Many rescue parties set out to find Franklin’s vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and it was one searcher, Robert McClure, who – in the broadest sense – first transited the route in 1854. Entering from the west, he was trapped for two winters before sledging to meet a rescue boat coming from the east. Norwegian Roald Amundsen made the first sea crossing in 1906, but only after a three-year voyage. The first single-season traverse was made by a Canadian Mountie, Henry Larsen, in 1944 – his schooner, the St Roch, is now enshrined in Vancouver’s Maritime Museum.

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updated 26.04.2021

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