Travel blog – Nunavut

My trip to Nunavut was a nice bookend to my NWT trip (the last portion of which is detailed here, this is effectively a continuation and the story picks up in my last morning in Yellowknife).   This entry was written in Iqaluit and is being posted a few weeks after the fact.

Monday morning (bright and early), I got up and headed for the Yellowknife Airport for my flight to Iqaluit.  I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare – even though First Air says you need to arrive 2 hours in advance, you really only need half an hour. YZF is a really small airport.  It also has no security for flights that stay North of 60.  So after returning the rental car, it was just a matter of dropping my luggage at the counter with no queue, and waiting in the departure lounge.

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I had a couple of small scares, though.  First, shortly after I arrived, the power went out in the entire airport.  It came back within ten minutes or so, and thankfully there was no impact on my flight.  Then, shortly before we started boarding, they asked everyone who was flying to Iqaluit to come up to the counter so they could stamp our boarding cards.  Which seemed an odd request, but I’ve had that happen for other flights before, so it didn’t stand out.  Until I read the stamp they put on it: “LANDING SUBJECT TO WEATHER. FIRST AIR regulations provide that no hotel, meals, or transportation will be supplied when over or under carried from your destination.”  At first I thought: if the weather’s bad, do we just keep flying until we run out of fuel? I decided not to think about what would actually happen.  When we got to Rankin Inlet (there are no direct flights from Yellowknife to Iqaluit), they allowed us to deplane and hang out in the terminal (which is tiny… I was just happy to have a clean washroom to use), and while I waited they made an announcement with similar content to the stamp… plus clarification that if we couldn’t land in Iqaluit that we would be diverted to Kuujjuaq, Quebec, and returned to Rankin Inlet on the next flight.  With, once again, no provision for anywhere to stay or any compensation for associated costs.

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Thankfully, the flight was very smooth and when the clouds cleared I got a good view of Northern Hudson Bay, which is still frozen for the most part and simply beautiful.  We did, ultimately, land in Iqaluit in mildly foggy conditions. Oh, and snow.  Lots of snow on the ground, and still more falling from the sky. A perfect ski destination, if there had been mountains.  And a very Canadian way to experience the moment I arrived in my 3rd Canadian territory, and final on the list of 13 provinces/territories.  I’m here – I made it!  All 13 provinces and territories.  I shared a cab with a couple others from my flight (which was full; though the first 9 rows were segregated for carrying goods) to my hotel – the Frobisher Inn.

I had expected very little of the Frobisher (or “the Frobe” as the locals call it) – it was the only one I really found any information about online, and their booking system was less than ideal… though it did work. Having stayed in towns with populations similar to Iqaluit’s (or smaller) before, I expected it to be the major hotel which was relatively old, but had sufficient services and clean rooms.  When we pulled up I realised immediately it would exceed these expectations. The hotel is part of a much bigger complex, which includes the local CBC station, a number of offices, a restaurant/bar (with rather creepy bouncers), a café, and a movie theatre.  I felt like I was entering a casino complex (of the Niagara variety, not so much the Las Vegas variety) rather than a hotel in Iqaluit.  The room was, indeed, sufficient – and actually rather nice… and there is free, though terribly slow, Wi-Fi.  After grabbing dinner at the bar & grill (the muskox burger was surprisingly good), I spent the evening just unwinding in the hotel room resting for the next day.  The view didn’t hurt either – I have an amazing view of the bay from my window.  Snow was still falling when I arrived – on June 3rd!  I really am in the Arctic.

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The next day (Tuesday), in -3°C weather, I headed straight for the tourist information centre.  See, unlike the NWT where there was very little information available anywhere, Iqaluit has virtually no information available anywhere. There were a few paragraphs about it in the AAA/CAA Western Canada book, and that’s about it.  I had a rough idea of what the main attractions were, by virtue of a tourism website, but my requests for further information were never responded to. I made my way to the info centre slowly, wandering here and there en route, just to explore the town.

The first thing I made sure to get was a map… Iqaluit is designed like a subdivision of a small suburb somewhere – while there is a “downtown” with two roads that intersect, there’s not much in the way of a grid or any discernible pattern.  There are plenty of cul-de-sacs.  Fortunately, it doesn’t cover a lot of area, so if you get lost it’s easy to find the way back to the main ring roads.  I asked for tips on what else there was to do – most of which I already knew about.  The person at the info centre suggested Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, walking to Apex along the waterfront, and the museum.  She also suggested the name of a local operator I could contact if I wanted to “get out on the land,” but I had no intention of going too far and the only enticing thing about the suggestion was the possibility (though nowhere near a certainty) of spotting a polar bear.  The info centre also has some exhibits on Iqaluit and Nunavut, as well as Inuit life, which was actually very interesting.  It is, effectively, the territorial museum – covering animal life, human history, and modern activity very briefly.

I wandered for a bit and grabbed lunch at the café in my hotel … there aren’t many places to eat out here – there is a restaurant, a bar, a convenience store, and a café in the Frobe, a North Mart (grocery store which includes a mini Tim Horton’s), a takeout-only Pizza Hut/KFC Express, and a shawarma place near the airport, as well as a second grocery store/other goods shop called Arctic Ventures.  I think one or two of the other hotels also have their own restaurants, and there was a deli near the four-way stop in the centre of town that never had its “Open” sign illuminated, though I did eventually visit it later in my trip and it had average food.

I had planned to visit the legislature for a tour, which is advertised as taking place daily at 1:30PM.  But when I arrived, I discovered that the legislature (only 14 years old, as it was opened two days before Nunavut became a territory) is under renovation and there are no tours.  Which I guess explains why the info centre didn’t mention it as something to do.  I did get a chance to look at the mace, but that was about it.  Having just freed up an extra hour or so of time, I wandered down to the (completely frozen, though starting to show cracks) bay and spent some time just looking at it.

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At this point in the day, the winds had changed and the sun had come out – it was mild (approaching 5°C).  Everywhere around me – the streets, the snowbanks, the parking lots, and the actual creeks – there was water flowing down towards the bay.  Even in the Tim Horton’s, where the snow on the roof was melting so fast it broke through a seal in the wall and was causing some minor flooding.  Spring had arrived!

From there I headed to my next destination, The Road to Nowhere.  I didn’t rent a car while in Iqaluit, as you can’t go very far from Iqaluit and virtually everything is walkable – despite the snow and mud.  And a taxi anywhere driveable is only $6 per person – taxis are effectively their public transit system. But I had The Road To Nowhere all to myself anyway, so walking was no trouble at all (despite the snow and mud).  The road literally leads nowhere – it meanders its way out of town and the scenery rapidly becomes tundra (again, Iqaluit is small). There is no development, no buildings, no people, nothing – save a small sign indicating a future graveyard site.  Within a ten minute walk, I was surrounded by rolling hills covered in snow which lay just on top of short grasses and some small ponds and lakes. I think it took a little over an hour to get to the end of it, including multiple photo stops.  And there’s no clear indication the road is over, other than the end of the tire tracks in the snow and a sign warning of a shooting range up ahead (so, I guess it’s a road to a shooting range, rather than to nowhere).

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At this point I was tired and my shoes were soaked through from the melting snow and mud, so I headed back to the hotel.  I chose to eat at the fancier restaurant this time, and had an “Arctic cassoulet,” which was basically a stew of assorted “country foods,” as wild game is called up here. Country foods are the foods the Inuit used to eat primarily when they lived off the land – and still eat today, but now in combination with other imported foods.  This particular dish had caribou, musk ox, game sausage, smoked bacon, duck confit, and great northern beans, and was pretty tasty.  And, of course, pricey – with a drink, my bill came to just over $60.  I retired to my room where the Internet (which was already incredibly slow to begin with) had stopped working altogether… so I watched TV.

Wednesday morning it was like Iqaluit was a completely different town. Whereas there was about 20-30cm of snow on the ground when I arrived, it was virtually gone by this morning.  The creeks and streams were flowing and washing away what little snow did remain in the town (though in the immediately-outlying areas there was still a lot).  All the paths I had walked the day before that overlooked snowy and icy ditches were now running beside (and often across) small creeks and larger rivers.  It seems every road and building had water flowing all around it – the whole town had meltwater runoff flowing through it.  It occurred to me later that every town would be like this if we hadn’t long ago forced our creeks and streams into underground pipes – an option not available in permafrost, or at least not without significant cost.

Following the directions given to me by the info centre, I headed to the path to Apex, a nearby suburb that was the original town site and contains some old buildings.  On the way, I passed by the breakwater and dock, so I took a walk out to the end. I’m glad I did – this gives an excellent vantage point to see the town skyline all at once, as well as a great view of the bay and harbour.

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The Iqaluit end of the path to Apex starts immediately beside the local cemetery, where the plots are actually set above the ground because of the permafrost – each grave has a little mound of dirt and grass in front of it.  I found the trailhead and began my walk, trying to convince myself that the bones strewn about where those of seals and other wild animals that had been brought inland by the ravens.  I never did fully convince myself.

The path, while generally marked clearly and fairly level, was difficult to navigate on account of the melting snow.  It meant hopping over puddles and trying to stick to the rocky bits.  I got about five or ten minutes down the still-mostly-snowy path and came to a viewing platform that looks out over the bay.  Unfortunately, the trail sort of ended here – the snow was still almost a metre deep after this, and since it was melting it was in no way stable to walk on top of.

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So, I headed back the way I came – there is a road that leads to Apex too, but it’s a less scenic route.  I got about three quarters of the way back to the road when I stepped on a patch of slushy snow and fell straight through… up to my knee!  And this wasn’t just slushy snow – it appears the snow was sitting on top of a small stream.  Becoming rapidly cold and wet, I got my right leg out no trouble, but my left leg was stuck in, as if by a vacuum (which I suppose is possible given that I fell straight in and slushy snow immediately caved in all around my leg.  After a terrifying minute or two I was able to dig myself out, but I was at this point drenched.  I only have one pair of shoes with me, and my pant legs were soaked up to the knee, so instead of continuing to Apex, I headed back to the hotel on the road.  I spent quite a bit of time wringing out my socks, gloves, and shoes – my left shoe actually had a puddle of water in it even after the walk back.

My plan had been to spend the morning walking to Apex and back, and then after lunch head to the museum for a bit. Since it was already so late I just grabbed lunch from the convenience store in my hotel and ate it in my room to give my shoes some time to dry. I decided to hit the museum next, then go to Apex in the evening (it never actually gets dark here, and there was nothing in Apex that required going during business hours).

I headed to the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, which is right next door to the information centre.  I had expected it to be a bit more comprehensive as a museum (I hadn’t yet realised the information centre served a large portion of what I thought was the purpose of this museum – history and culture).  But what was there was a treat.  This museum was primarily full of art, with a couple of other miscellaneous artifacts thrown in. The main room on the ground floor has a bunch of historical items, including some magnificent whale bone sculptures and various other crafts and practical items related to Inuit and Northern life.  There were a couple of side rooms with modern artworks, mostly paintings and drawings.

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But upstairs was a real delight.  Lining the walls in display cases was the most exquisite collection of Inuit carvings I’ve ever seen.  And not the kitschy tourist crap you can buy in stores across Canada, much of which is actually made in China.  These pieces were so beautiful – mostly from the last century or so, they had carvings of various types of stone, whale bone, and other materials that were so beautiful (the photos don’t really do any of it justice).  And as an added bonus, on a table in the middle of the room was a collection of very old photos in binders – I skimmed through a handful of these and they give such a personal glimpse into life in Nunavut over the last hundred years.  I do hope they scan these materials and make them available to everyone at some point, as they were so intriguing.

After buying a caribou antler keychain (carved and polished into an inuksuk shape) in the museum’s gift shop (which is overflowing with locally-produced art, both traditional and modern), I made attempt number two at heading to Apex. Fortunately this time I made it.  It’s a long walk along the road to get to Apex, past a couple of local schools and a gas station, as well as a bunch of private homes and some open hilly areas.

I opted against going into the town itself, which is mostly just private homes and a couple of churches, and headed instead for the collection of old HBC (Hudson’s Bay Company) buildings by the waterfront.  I walked along the sandy beach (which, up against a frozen ocean, was very strange to me) and took in the small collection of buildings, which still have original signage from when HBC set up its business in the 20th century.  You can’t go in any of them, unfortunately, but they’re nice to look at from the outside.  This is also a really good place to get a good look at the bay and the nearby islands (there are a few points in the walk to Apex that give great views as well).  I sat on a picnic table for a bit just taking it in before calling it a day and heading back to the hotel… with a brief pitstop at the shawarma place for a delicious falafel sandwich of course!

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Thursday was like Tuesday again – the winds had once again changed and everything was cold again.  The rivers and streams were still flowing, but now with much less volume.  I had only one thing planned – Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park.

Before I headed out, though, I firmed up plans with someone I met on Scruff (a gay dating/meetup app).  A related point on this – gay dating apps and sites are rather interesting up here (and in all remote places, but Iqaluit in particular).  Location can’t (easily) be faked on mobile apps like Grindr or Scruff, and smartphones are not compatible with the mobile network up here, so there are very few users.  Those that do exist are mostly using iPod touches on their home Wi-Fi networks.  I found only one other Grindr user in Iqaluit, the next nearest was at a US Air Force base in Greenland, followed by two Newfoundlanders and then a whole lot of people near the St. Lawrence River in Quebec (this last group was primarily under 25, which is atypical – I’d be curious to learn about the dynamic in that community!).  Scruff had more local users – seven or eight of them.  Of particular note is Manhunt, which does have a mobile app but is primarily web-based, and users set their own location.  It is apparently a very common thing to “park” one’s Manhunt account in Iqaluit (or Alert) as a way of keeping the account active without being findable in the area you’re actually in.  The first question anyone on Manhunt asked me was “are you actually in Iqaluit or are you just parking your profile?”  It is such a pervasive problem that this is more important than anything else you could ask on a dating or hookup site.  The lesson here: guys, don’t “park” your accounts in other places; you’re fucking with what little connection the queer communities up here have!

Anyways, back to Thursday.  The only information I had on Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park was that there were some easy / short walking trails and a river with some waterfalls.  Apparently the waterfalls depend on the tide – when it’s in they’re just rapids, when it’s out, they’re falls.

I took the long walk there, along a dirt road.  The road, which is well-travelled so each passing car blows dust in your face, goes past the airport and the dump and seemingly towards nowhere.  Fortunately, the park is well signposted, all the way from downtown. The road to each of the two parking lots was plowed, but of course the rest of the park was still covered in snow.  However, since it was colder out, and the snow was more heavily packed (and at a higher altitude), I had no repeats of falling through it.

I got to the observation lookout near the South trailhead for the main trail that goes along the river.  I was glad I made the trek – a beautiful blue river, still mostly icy but slowly breaking up, was laid out in front of me.  I wandered around this part of the trail for a bit, and climbed to the top of the (very small) peak to get a better view.  Eventually the cold and wind got to me, so I moved on.  I followed the road to the North trailhead (the trail itself was deeply buried in snow), and had another amazing perspective on the bright blue river.  Of course, there were no waterfalls – the river was too frozen for this.  But it was still beautiful.  I recommend going later in the summer when you can actually get a closer look at the river, as it was a lot of trekking for only a small peek.

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At this point I was very cold so I gave up on any more exploring (the wind was intense, and there wasn’t really much else to see) and I headed back to the hotel to defrost and grab a bite for lunch.  I rapidly realised I had nothing else to do in Iqaluit (except my evening plans with the guy from Scruff) and 24 hours remaining!  I hung out in the room while I ate lunch, and then went for another walk around town, stopping at the North Mart to discover that it was significantly cheaper than Arctic Ventures where I’d shopped earlier – oops.  I also stopped briefly at Nunavut Arctic College again, where I had stopped earlier in the week, to take a closer look at some of the sculptures and statues that surround their small building downtown – they have some really nice artwork on display outside the building and it’s worth checking out if you visit Iqaluit.  This particular work was outside their location near the post office, though the other locations have some works as well.

I had a quiet dinner in the hotel room, then met up for a drink with the local I met on Scruff, because… well, actually I have no idea why. Maybe because he asked nicely and I had nothing better to do.  He showed me around town (I had seen most of it but he had some local insight which was interesting) and we sat in the bar and chatted for awhile, which was nice.

My last day, I had a few hours to kill before my flight, so took a brief wander around town and ate at the aforementioned deli before catching my flight to Toronto, via Kuujjuaq and Montreal – a long day, but one which affords more beautiful views from the plane.  And that was it – my brief visit to Iqaluit complete.  I’m not sure what adventure awaits me next, but only time will tell!

More photos are, as always, on Flickr – the Nunavut set is here.

Trilingual stop sign #iqaluit

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