This summer I embarked on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic, in the remote northern regions of Baffin Island. I went in search of Arctic wildlife, namely Narwhals, Polar Bears and Bowhead Whales. While I was there I experienced Inuit culture, the beautiful yet harsh arctic environment, and photographed wildlife in their natural settings. In the following posts, I share some photographs and stories from my journey.
Flying from Toronto to Pond Inlet with Canadian North.
The flight path up to the Arctic was supposed to be Toronto – Ottawa – Iqaluit – Igloolik – Pond Inlet. The weather in the Arctic is very unpredictable however, so as we approached Igloolik we were told that they had to cancel the landing and go straight to Pond Inlet since there was zero visibility due to fog. I had expected to be flying on small twin-prop planes but was pleasantly surprised when I saw that we had fairly proper planes taking us up to the Arctic. The reason they used the large planes is that the flights between the Arctic communities also carry supplies up to the communities. So, half the plane was dedicated to passengers and the other half for additional cargo.
The Arctic is filled with glacier covered mountain ranges, making the flights spectacular. While I had hoped to use internal flights as an opportunity to recover from my midnight sun sleep deprivation, I often found myself staring out of the plane windows in awe – and then passing out with my camera in hand.
Getting off the plane in Iqaluit, I went into a bright yellow building which looked more suited for a moon-base than an airport. All of the buildings throughout Nunavut were elevated off the ground, brightly coloured and oddly designed. Obviously these buildings have to be built for the harsh winter conditions when temperatures drop way down as the sun disappears under the horizon for months at a time.
Minister of Health:
As I trudged through the airport with my camera bags and suitcases, I paused for a second as I noticed a familiar face. How could I know anyone from the Arctic? And then the memories of my health policy course came back to me and it clicked – it was the Canadian Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq. Having studied and read about her for the past months in this course, I was a little star-struck meeting her in person. We chatted for a couple of minutes and her assistant took this photo of us together. She suggested that I should come up to Nunavut to do some of my medical residency training. After my great experiences in the Arctic, I would certainly love to come back at some point and get involved in the fly-in medical teams which provide healthcare to remote communities in the territory.
Pond Inlet, Nunavut:
Immediately upon arriving in Pond Inlet in the remote north of Baffin Island, I understood why it is known as one of the “Jewels of the Arctic.” It was just such a colourful town beneath the mountains and glaciers of Sirmilik National Park. The large mountains together with a simple yet colourful Arctic village reminded me of my time in the Svalbard Archipelago in Arctic Norway.
There are no roads in and out of the territory of Nunavut. The only option is to fly from community to community. Once you’re inside the towns, people pile up on ATVs to get around. It was actually funny to see how many people would get shoved together all on one ATV. On one of the days, I rented an ATV to drive around town. Being a foreigner, all of the locals my age swarmed me and wanted to come along for rides in the Hamlet and the surrounding area. At one point I think I had 7 people on a little ATV!
Hanging with Inuits:
On my first full day up in Pond, I just walked around the town to get a feel for the beautiful scenery and town. As I walked around, the local Inuits would stop to chat with me, tell me about their lives up in Pond Inlet and many people just tagged along with me to show me around. I have never felt so welcomed by a group of complete strangers – it was really shocking to see. Coming from a big city where everyone more or less keeps to themselves, up in a small tight-knit community like Pond Inlet, everyone was so warm and receptive to a tourist like myself.
As I was wandering around the town, I passed three young children who were just playing around in the streets. They walked up to me and just told me, “We’re going to follow you”. So, as I went through the streets of Pond Inlet, I had these kids running behind me and asking me a whole bunch of questions about life outside of the Arctic. At first, I was a little taken aback wondering why these little kids were just roaming around the streets without their parents. But soon after one of the children’s parents walked by us, told me that he hoped his kids weren’t too much of a trouble and just walked on by. I quickly realized that all of the kids in Pond are simply allowed to roam free in the town whenever and however they please. When I stopped to grab some lunch, I met a local artist, Josie, and a group of kids around a basketball court who were around my age. They invited me to come along with them to Salmon Creek, about an hour walk outside of town. We hung out on the hilltops outside of the town for a while and then ventured out onto the sea ice. The ice goes over the ocean for hundreds of kilometers . We ran off towards an iceberg in the distance, jumping across the cracks and pools in the ice.
I had heard before my trip that food was expensive up in the Arctic. I wanted to see for myself, so I went to the local co-op to buy a can of coke. It cost $5 for a Coca Cola! As the locals confirmed, the prices for food bought in the grocery stores were incredibly high. It was to the point that prices were prohibitive for people to be able to purchase and afford nutritious food for themselves. Not only was the food expensive, but many of the products on the shelves were expired. While down South these products would be thrown away, these people are being overcharged for stale and outdated foods. There have recently been protests and demonstrations in the territory over the high food costs and food insecurity. The exorbitant costs of food very quickly makes one understand the hunting practices of the Inuits. Although as a wildlife photographer I want to preserve the magnificent Arctic wildlife, one has to understand that hunting and eating so called “country foods” are an essential and necessary aspect of Inuit culture.
Polar Bear Hunting:
The signs of hunting were littered about the town. Rifles, animal bones, antlers and seal skins could be found at almost every home. Yet, the most powerful sight for me was a Polar Bear skin being stretched. Each community is given a quota of bears that they can hunt each season. The meat is eaten by the locals while the pelt is often sold. A hunter told me that this bear skin would probably cost around $10,000.