It was about 6 months back when I first spoke to OJ about possible projects. OJ runs the environmental branch of the Canadian business and would be my direct report for the entirety of my secondment in Montreal. During our call, he mentioned the chance to do some drilling in Nunavut or Nunavik. During this call, I’m sitting in my pajama pants at my ‘home office’ in Madison WI. I scribble down the names of these place I’d never heard of, and we continue our conversation. After the call I check google maps and am immediately blown away by how far north I had to scroll. I once incorrectly answered a trivial pursuit question that asked “Which country has the longest shoreline?” The correct answer is Canada. And, after learning this, I said “Oh, yeah, there are all those fucking little islands way up north covered in ice”. Well, those islands are inhabited much to my surprise. A large portion of those islands in eastern portion of Canada are part of the Canadian Territory (slightly different from a Canadian Provence) of Nunavut. The capital of Nunavut is Iqaliut. And, the second largest “city” in Nunavut is Rankin Inlet. I would come to learn that Iqaliut has about 5-6 thousand inhabitants while Rankin Inlet is home to about 2500. While the population numbers of my home town were never staggering, to compare the two places based on just these numbers would be a huge oversimplification of the different worlds that they are. Shortly after arriving in Montreal in August, I’m provided opportunities to work on a few of their projects. One is a local golf course/landfill owned by some savvy businessman named Glen. He’s a native of the Mohawk nation and has made a dickload of money by taking advantage of his non taxed, non regulated properties and by taking truck load after truck load of “potentially” contaminated materials and using them as “fill” for his golf-course-to-be. This crash course in Canadian vs native politics and relations was just what I needed in order to get that first bit of culture shock. The only way to shock myself quicker would have been to fly to Nunavut directly from Madison. Nearly a month has gone by. In the first week of September, I’m prepping for a 3 day trip to Boston which will include various meetings of the minds followed by nights loaded with alcohol and overpriced crustaceans. Just a day before departing for Boston, Oscar calls from his cell, emails me and my office mate to notify me about an eminent need to get boots on the ground in Nunavut. I tell him that I’m happy to go. On this Monday afternoon, I tell him that I will be in Boston from Wednesday until Saturday afternoon. We come to the conclusion that the following Monday I will fly to Nunavut. The prep can mostly be handled w/o me. All I would need to do is read some reports on the plane and figure out how to use survey equipment. View from the office in Montreal Three days in Boston:
Mike and I get started the first night and eat sushi and watch the Sox game. We meet up with Josh and drink lots of beers at various pubs south of the Seaport. The trains from NY were all fucked up and nobody got in on time. We used this as an excuse to drink. I had gone to the GB BJJ in the Back Bay earlier in the day to burn off some jetlag from my 40 min flight and choke out some girls. The next few days are filled with meetings and buzzwords. Synergies were found and wheels were put into motion. We drank lots to celebrate on Friday night for Andrew’s birthday and were even granted the opportunity to watch a very un-athletic group of trashy Boston kids beat up one of their peers who had started a fight by taking of his sneaker and whipping another guy in the face. I return to Montreal on Saturday and sleep it off. Elizabeth and I hit the market on Sunday and on Monday morning I pick up equipment from the office (bumping into the CEO in the elevator) and head to the airport. I came loaded with the warmest clothes that I own, plus a 4 liter box of wine for a guy named Matthew who would be my host in Iqaluit for a few days. Upon learning that Nunavut was an option, I told everyone that I know. A girl that I work with in Boston happened to have been born in Nunavut, and her brother (Matthew) was currently living in Iqaluit. She offered me his couch; he confirmed that I was indeed welcome to stay at his place. Due to its remote location, getting any sort of goods is both difficult and very expensive. I ask Matthew what I could bring. He asks for a 4L box of sharaz. Although it is against provincial law to transport this much alcohol across territorial lines, Matthew says it shouldn’t be a big deal.
Rankin Inlet: The first flight out of Montreal stops in Kuujjuaq which is (I think) part of northern Quebec called Nunavik. From this point, half of the passengers stay on the plane, and half get off. Then, 30 minutes later, half of those who exited get back on. This is weird. I tell the crew that I want to get off and check out Kuujjuaq, but I only make it a few steps past the last step of the stairs before the freezing rain and wind force me to immediately regret the decision to get off the plane. After I snap a few pictures of the pine trees that surround the airport, I get back on and we fly to Iqaluit. This is the next layover and the place where I will return in 2 days to stay with Matthew. But, first, I need to get to Rankin Inlet to do some work. I arrive in Rankin to meet 2 of my colleagues from Toronto. We have never met. I am introduced to Arash and Lindsay. They are both working on an expansion of the Rankin airport and making sure that the structural integrity is sound while blacktop is being laid down. We awkwardly chat in the airport while waiting for my 6 pieces of luggage. We load everything into the rented 1997 Dodge Durango and head to the “bed and breakfast”. The place is pretty much a hotel. But, it lacks a few of the items that I most recently remember from the Seaport Hilton in Boston. There is no elevator, but the place is only 3 floors. There are probably 30-40 rooms in the hotel. There is a restaurant area, a conference room, a gym, and a “bar”. We are told that the kitchen has closed (at 7:30 pm) but that the “bar” will open at 9. Arash and I decide to meet at the bar at 9, and we go our separate ways until then. I take this time to drive around and take some pictures. While the town is only about 3 square miles, I get lost. All of the roads are dirt. And all of the street signs are in Inuit language (Inuktitut). I am on the phone with Elizabeth, tooling around in this broke ass Durango for a half hour before I finally find my hotel. I only remember that this non descriptive building is mine because of the glowing clock that stands across the street between the hotel and the Inuksuk up on the hill.
I drove past loads of school age kids playing soccer and football on their new outdoor field turf across from the large man-made lake that would soon be frozen. The dirt roads are full of holes. Many of the buildings are painted bright colors to make up for the lack of natural beauty on the glacier beaten land. We are well above the tree line here. Just below the arctic circle near the 63rd parallel. The sun sets at about 7 at this time of year, but due to the position of the axis, sunset lasts about an hour unlike the 15 minute display that I’m used to. I make it back to the hotel just before dark. I sit in the lobby and try to upload pictures to instagram. The hotel has wifi, but it is only 2-3 gigs. In Montreal at the time we had 29-30 gigs. I don’t know much about communications, but I know a slow connection. This was quite slow compared to dial-up, but still amazing because we are in a town that can only be reached by air or by boat. After submitting to defeat, I sit and look around at the pictures in the lobby until 9. At that time, Arash arrives and we follow the bellman with the greasiest hair I had ever seen to the “bar” in the back. An old Inuit man follows us. We purchase some cans of Canadian beer for $8.50 a pop. There are strict rules here about when booze can be sold, and which types are available. I don’t ever get a good grasp of these rules. But, it is apparent that beer along with every other thing is quite expensive relative to the quality. Arash and I trade work stories and learn a bit about each other and how we’ve come to meet here in Rankin Inlet. We will have to get a lot of work done in the next 48 hours. And, we will also need to keep good contact with our local clients who are part of the Nunavut government. So, we hope for some luck, we finish a few beers, and we plan to meet early in the morning. I arrive at breakfast just before 7. I walk in and make a plate from the buffet. There was a poor excuse for scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and bacon. After loading up my plate and sitting down, an old Inuit woman walks out of the kitchen and asks me directly, “you with construction?”. I say “Yes”, and she leaves me to my meal. They have no coffee. Arash arrives a few minutes later and we eat. He tells me that “construction” consists of a French Canadian company who are re-building the airport. They have a negotiated an agreement with the hotel as well as other businesses to provide their guys with food while they are there working. We just got a free meal. We head to the site and I begin to conduct my survey. I don’t know what I’m doing and my equipment only has 1 bar of battery life. It’s not a great start to the day. Arash is directing a white guy to dig holes down to the top of the permafrost (1-2M) so he can check the soil. He describes this guy as a “proper Nufie” from Newfoundland. I don’t get a chance to speak with him too much. But, I hear that their accent is a hilarious mix of Irish and Canadian dialects. Arash gets the chance to have lunch with a number of the Nufies that live and work here, but his impression of it did not live up to his description which included the word hilarious. After recharging my equipment, a quick meeting with our contact with the Nunavut government office, and a trip back to the airport to attempt to locate my missing survey stakes work presses on until dark. I surveyed about 400 locations and took 20 or so pictures. I was constantly distracted by the rocky outcrops on site and the locals who passed by and asked questions. Also, with Hudson bay just a few hundred meters from where I stood, the view from the outcrops on site were unlike any that I’d ever seen. The geology of this area is part of the Canadian shield. Some of the oldest rocks on earth poured for thousands of years out onto the surface of the earth long before the first life would begin. These were the first rocks to float and become the crust. All prior volcanic rock had been recycled back into the mantle. But, these rocks have seen every type of climate from global warming (#noah) to miles and miles of traveling sheets of ice which grinded, scarred, and distorted them from their original form. The land is beaten and with no trees, you don’t have to be a geologist to see that this ground has seen some hard times. At the end of the day, the work is as done as it is going to get. We are out of daylight and getting hungry. But, first, Lindsay (who has been in Rankin for the past 2 weeks) offers to drive us to a cool area outside of town. There is a national park only a few kilometers west of the town where many of the locals will go to “get away”. We reach our first stop along a small lake. There are a dozen or more cottages and a wooden tipi. Inside of the tipi (which we were granted access) was a fire ring with a grate for cooking, and surrounding benches covered in giant white pelts. We pick up one of the pelts (which are from arctic foxes) and discover a small mouse living in the folds. It pops its little head out a number of times and then scurries away. We take pictures with the fox pelts and continue down the road.
We reach the park just around sunset. The first hill that we drive up is capped with an Inuksuk. The Inuksuk are statues which were traditionally used to guide home fishermen. Now, they are a symbol of Nunavut. We take some pictures of the Inuksuk which stands only 2 feet high but is backlit by a full moon. The scene overlooks lakes and estuaries that connect the Hudson bay from the myriad of interior waterways. We can see the bright lights of Rankin Inlet in the distance. After a few minutes, the whipping wind drives us back into our truck and we drive on. Around the next bend there is another Inuksuk. But upon closer inspection, we see that a large white bird is perched on top. We stop and the bird turns to us. We all gasp in excitement as Lindsay points out the obvious. We are looking at an arctic owl. It is huge and impressive. As it looks at us, we stop the truck and turn off the engine. I try and zoom in using my iphone as Lindsay attempts to lower the window. But, as I’m taking the picture, it flies away. We were able to admire it for a few seconds, but then it was gone down over the hill. Arash ran up the hill to see if it may have landed nearby, but was not that lucky. To see an arctic owl is quite rare. Many people live in the north and never come across one. It made our night. We drove around for another half hour or so. We took pictures of the sunset and visited an old traditional sod house. The arctic sunset was unlike any that I’ve ever seen. As the sun dips slowly at such a low angle across the horizon, the sunset tends to envelop you. It is setting all around you. No pictures can do it justice even as we attempt to steadily swing around collecting panoramas of the area on our phones and cameras.
We head back to the hotel for steaks and poutine. But, no beer is served with dinner. For that we will have to wait until 9 when the bar opens for an hour and a half. We eat and then unload our equipment from the Durango. At this time, we discover that I left the lights on. The battery was now dead. While there is a plug hanging from the side view mirror of all of the vehicles up here; that plug is used to keep the engine from freezing up in the winter. That would do us no good. We call the haka rental company to come and give us a jump. They don’t pick up. We decide that it will have to wait until the morning. We sit at the bar with a couple of the French Canadian construction workers and down a couple of beers. We watch some awful reality show about bartering before calling it a night. The next morning, we jump the Durango and head to the site. I finish the last of my survey points before heading to another meeting with the Client. While I finish, the battery dies again. In the final lap, I rely on Arash and Lindsay to pick me up in Lindsay’s truck. We barrel through another drawn out meeting and then separate again. I drop Arash and Lindsay at their next meeting and begin preparing for my flight. I pack up my equipment and check in at the airport. Since this is such a small place, it is very easy to show back up at the airport right before the flight and just get on the plane. The people who live here even know the flight patterns. This is obvious by the artists selling their carvings in the airport that show up just as flights come in and tourists or newcomers gather around the works of art on display throughout the airport. I pack up my equipment and take a few last minute pictures of the site. I feel like the job is not done because Arash is going to be staying for another day to complete the geotech study, and Lindsay is likely on board for another week in Rankin. I however, have completed what was asked of me, and I am keeping my itinerary intact as planned. I stop at the local co-op for a $10 sandwich which tastes awful. I drive Lindsay’s truck onto the runway of the airport. My Durango is still dead. Arash will have to take it from here. I walk into the airport from the runway. Their staff asks me how I got there. I told them that I was with “construction”. They don’t give a fuck. I get directly on the plane to Iqaluit. Iqaluit Airport My coworker Jamie had arranged for me to stay with her brother Matthew in Iqaluit for about 2 days. I had only spoken to Jamie 3 times, and I’d never met her brother. However, the arrangement would be amicable. Matthew was to pick me up this Wednesday at just after 4pm. Since I wouldn’t be driving, I took advantage of First Air’s policy to provide free food and wine on all flights. The food sucks up north for the most part. I noticed this on my first flight. They had those little cheese wiz packages of 4 crackers and the little red stick that you got in elementary school. There were little packages of cheese wiz in the hotel, but the only crackers that came with them were saltines. For the most part, the food was bullshit. But, I can dig it. It’s so far north that any food that comes up fresh would cost an arm and a leg to rush. So, I arrive in Iqaluit which is the capital of Nunavut. I only assume that I know what to expect when I meet Matthew. He said that there is “always lots to do in Iqaluit”. But, from what I gathered, Matthew had only ever lived in Nunavut. So, if now he was in the capital city, of course this would be a place where there is always lots to do. But, I didn’t presume too much. Matthew met me at my gate (which is the only gate in this airport) and we gather my pile of checked luggage which included a cooler, my huge bag, and a number of boxes and cases that housed survey equipment. Matthew must have walked over or taken a cab because he only owns a 4 wheeler. So, we take a $6 cab back to his place. I’m still in work mode at this point and scramble to download the final bits of data from my survey onto my computer. I can’t get any emails to send out that have more than one attachment, so I have to verbally ensure my office mates back in Montreal that I’ve got everything taken care of, and that I’d sort it all out once I got back to civilization. During this time, Matthew and I exchange some stories about how we’ve come to meet. He is a very nice guy who works as a writer for the Nunavut government. And, even though it is only 3 days before the election, Matthew will sacrifice hours of sleep to ensure that I enjoy all that is Iqaluit. Matthew is a huge fan of art. He plays interesting music while we chat. He tells me that it’s one of his favorite bands, but that he just downloaded their newest album and hasn’t yet decided how he feels about it. He shows me the pieces of art that cover the walls and tables in his modest apartment. Later in the evening he showed me the book that he recently had published about his grandmother’s escape from Poland at the beginning of WWII. He is a student of history and knows so much about it that I struggle to keep track when he drops references that one should have memorized in order to support the event that he is explaining. He spent some of his childhood years in Cambridge Bay, which is above the Arctic Circle. He explained how the ground is constantly frozen and covered with snow and ice in Cambridge Bay (unlike the subarctic tropical tundra of Rankin Inlet or Iqaluit where permafrost exists 3-6 feet bgs). After a few minutes of chatting, Matthew tells me that we have dinner plans and that we need to go meet with some of his friends and acquaintances at the best restaurant in town. We hike up a very steep dirt trail through the downtown past the new Igloo shaped church and icecube shaped school. This hill is going to be a headache if we eat and drink a lot. It’s getting dark, and I’m wishing I brought my headlamp. We arrive at dinner in the largest of the three connected buildings on top of the hill. This megalopolis of square architecture is home to Iqaluit’s premium hotel the Frobisher Inn which goes for $250 per night, a very popular bar (which we don’t make it into because the line was tremendous) and the “best restaurant in town”. The group is sat at a long table and we are the last to arrive. We make our introductions and sit. The people at our table are from all corners of Canada. There is one other American at the table who moved to Yellowknife a few years back. He was an architect in his past life. He lived in Brooklyn and did work at small firms in midtown. We get along pretty well. He’s the first American that I’ve met in Canada. The crowd at our dinner is more cosmopolitan than I expected. There are professionals who work in the heathcare industry, lawyers, and anthropologists. There are young hipsters and young mothers and teachers. But, the group is very friendly. The conversation is interesting. And, the arctic char was delicious. This is the best thing I’ve eaten since Boston. Unfortunately, they were out of the caribou and the musk ox. But, arctic char was just right. And, I would get my fill of “country food” tomorrow. We leave dinner and split from our group in pairs. Matthew and I pick up the other American guy and head to the other bar inside of the large building. The line is long, but we stop and have a chat with a few Quebecers outside for 15 minutes. Matthew seems to know everyone in Iqaluit and people greet us with nothing but smiles. He introduces me as his friend Steven who is visiting for a few days. Most people are surprised that I’m American, and I struggle to answer the question “Where are you from?”. We finally make our way back down the hill. It is completely dark out, and I can only picture sitting in the waiting room at the Iqaluit hospital to get my noggin stitched up if I slip. As we hit solid ground we pick up speed and crash into another hotel bar. There are 5 or more people standing on the steel steps out front smoking cigs. We enter past the front desk and into the bar. It’s fairly crowded and we take a table in the back next to the large fireplace with the caribou mount above. We drink some Rickards red beer from Newfoundland. It sucks, but we knock back 4 or 5. At this bar, along with the last, and just like in the airport, locals are selling their artwork. It is beautiful stuff. But, I can’t justify buying a walrus carved out of stone with ivory or caribou horn tusks for $75. Matthew buys a drum and tells me that if I don’t find anything that I could buy it from him for the same price ($30) which he says is a steal. The coolest items were the stone carvings or the antler carvings. I even saw a snow owl necklace carved into baline from a blue whale. I don’t buy anything this night, and we leave. When Matthew and I get back to his place, we mix up some rum and cokes and talk shit about politics, music, art and travel. We had a good night. Matthew provides some linens for the tiny couch. I slept okay considering that I was much too tall for this couch. Matthew got up and went to work and I slept in and ate his cereal when I got up. He left me with some suggested places to visit and keys to his 4 wheeler. I told Matthew that I’d pick up some food for dinner. He told me the place to go, and said that if they had any caribou or musk ox that I must get some. The place was called Iqaluit Enterprise. The shop was tiny. It was one small room with a counter and three deep freezers. The guy who worked there was named John. John could talk for hours, but I only picked his brain for about 45 minutes. He was from BC but lived and worked all through the north. He knew where every piece of meat in his freezers was killed, when it was frozen, and who did what from the time that shit was swimming until he sold it.
And, the best news was that he had caribou. He said that someone shot it on Monday. They butchered it and flash froze it on Tuesday, he received it on Wednesday, and I’m standing in his shop on Thursday buying one of the 20 or so pieces that he had left. He was sure that the meat would be gone by the weekend. I also picked up some smoked arctic char. He explained to me the whole “cold smoke” process and shared with me a few recipes. John was also a chef for about 14 years all over the north. Along with the char and the caribou steaks, I had to try some muktuk. Muktuk was a traditional Inuit food. But, it’s also one of the roots of the word Eskimo. Eskimo is a word that means people who eat raw meat. And, this muktuk is just that. It is the raw skin and blubber of a whale. This particular muktuk was harvested from a Narwal which was caught up the coast during its fall migration. John explained to me how to thaw, cut, and serve muktuk. He explained that the outer skin was the best part and that usually only Inuit eat the blubber and that they called it bubblegum. I would soon find out why. I took the meat and packed it into Matthew’s freezer and unloaded the mushrooms and onion that I picked up to help form some sort of accompaniment to our feast. I then set out to explore some of the coast on the 4 wheeler. I’d been driving in town, but now I was heading north out of the city toward the river. It wasn’t far past the airport when I reached an amazing lookout at the edge of a steep cliff. I took lots of pictures, but it didn’t take long for the wind to convince me that it was time to go. I rode back toward town stopping a few times to take pictures. First, I stopped when I saw owners feeding their sled dogs. There must have been 50 dogs all chained together feeding on piles of raw frozen fish. I took some pictures of the ones who didn’t appear to want to bite me. But, these dogs are too unpredictable to get within leash length. I kept my distance and used the optical zoom. I also stopped at the lagoon just south of town. I was quickly asked to leave because it is not for the public. It is a large water treatment area with no roads. The quickly changing tides are pretty dangerous to navigate along the rocky coast. So, I made no arguments to stay.
I rode back to town and started our dinner. Matthew got home and we drank some drinks and ate the muktuk and caribou. The caribou was one of the best pieces of meat that I’d ever tasted. The muktuk was subpar. But, the experience was well worth it. I’m bringing the remainder to Montreal to share with all who enter my apartment in 2013-14. After dinner a number of other residents from the Iqaluit House (Matt’s apt bldg.) came to join us for drinks. We planned to convince the crew to join us at the local legion for karaoke and beers, but were only successful in getting one of them to join. No worries. We had made friends with the whole bar by signing once we arrived.
After last call, we went back to Matthews and smoked copious amounts of ditch weed and listened to music while playing with some Inuit toy where you swing a thingie onto a stick. We went to bed around 3am. I don’t know how Matt got up and made it to work. But, I think it had something to do with the wrong number who called his place at 7am. Lucky for him. I fell back asleep and spent my last morning and lunch eating leftovers and wandering around Iqaluit wondering more about the place. I had some good chats with Matthew about the atrocities that were brought upon the people when the white Europeans came to the north. The missionaries seemed to have really done a number on the people, and public relations will forever suffer. The last few hours that I had before heading to the airport were spent walking around the town alone. I tried to understand fully that I was standing just a few miles from the Arctic Circle in a land that I may never see again. I walked down to the water to admire the bay and the boats sitting up on rocks, stuck until the next tide came in. I made my way back to the center of the town and walked through the artists’ garden near the local college. The decorations that adorn the town are all homemade by local artists. They include intricate metal works, and massive stone carvings. I took a few more pictures and then meet Matthew at his place. He borrowed a car from a friend, and drove me to the airport.
I got back to Montreal around 8pm. I took a cab home, and then jumped on my bike. When I met up with Caity and our friend Megan at some ironic hipster bar with a miniature bowling alley in it on the Plateau that we would later discover was a gay bar; I couldn’t stop thinking of Nunavut. The contrast between Montreal (which to me is foreign enough) and Nunavut are just massive. I will always remember it. And, if you enter my apt in 2013-2014 you will get to taste a bit of it.