Mittimatalik drummers prance, stoop, and leap in knee-high sealskin boots across the wooden stage in front of the Nattinnak Center, happily swinging and banging oversized hand drums while locals whisper excitedly that beluga whales have been sighted just offshore.
Two agile men contort their lean bodies and perform a handful of high kicks and other maneuvers highly regarded at the Arctic Winter Games. Competing in pairs, women fold their arms and face each other to chant brief bursts of throat singing, doing guttural but melodic imitations of nature and wildlife until one falters and both burst into fits of laughter.
This is how the Inuit of Mittimatalik greet visitors to the hamlet of Nunavut, also known as Pond Inlet, on the northeast coast of Baffin Island. Once banned by the church, these performances are now cherished art forms.
It’s a Sunday in August and just a few other artists have descended on the Nattinnak Center – a community center and library designed to resemble the long and low iceberg it is named after – around 198 guests and staff to be greeted by Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavor. The community has not had any cruise ship visitors since 2019 and we are the fourth of 22 ships that will be spending a precious few hours here this summer.
Guarded by armed Inuit guides and a guard dog, we slept in yurts at a base camp built on the sea ice about 20 kilometers from the edge of the floe.
— Jennifer Bain, travel writer
A carver who works with power and hand tools leans over a pair of Inuit snow goggles while Envy Pewatoalook watches over a table full of finished crocheted animals, including a narwhal (the unicorn of the sea) named Wilbert.
“We could check out the store up north where we have Tim Hortons if you want something different,” says Georgina Pewatooalook, one of the local tour guides, who leads small groups of people from an old turf house to the cultural center and then to a highlight of the Landes overlooking Bylot Island and finally to the two grocery stores that serve this hamlet of 1,800.
Back on the Ocean Endeavor a few hours later, during a recap of the day, Inuit cultural educator Alex Anaviapik, originally from Midtimatalik, shares the Inuktitut word for home.
“Anirqak – a-nir-kuk,” she says. “Welcome to my home.”
Nunavut was created by Canada’s largest land claim on April 1, 1999 when it separated from the Northwest Territories. About 85 percent of the 40,000 inhabitants are Inuit. Its 26 municipalities are spread over three regions.
With no roads connecting Nunavut to southern Canada and virtually no roads connecting communities, the area is a mystery to most. You can only get here by plane or by cruise ship, and most people choose the latter.
From Ottawa, I flew to Iqaluit and Pangnirtung on Canadian North, an Inuit-owned airline that is testing new seasonal flights between Toronto and Iqaluit through September 30th. I’ve also taken two expedition cruises around Nunavut, visiting communities and learning about Inuit culture. I explored the Northwest Passage and the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, learning about Sir John Franklin and other explorers, missionaries, whalers, traders and settlers, and making wilderness stops to see polar bears, whales, seals and more marvel at seabirds. I also learned about the history of how settlers tried to wipe out the Inuit culture and how the loss of family, language, culture, land and home has intergenerational effects. I have seen the revival of traditions, listened in a spirit of reconciliation and promised to share my love for the territory and its extraordinary experiences.
With Adventures and Tours in the Arctic Kingdom One June I visited the floe margin, which attracts migratory narwhals, marine mammals and seabirds to the place where melting sea ice meets the open ocean.
Along with 13 other guests, I took a charter flight from Ottawa to Arctic Bay on Baffin Island and then a qamutik (Inuit wooden sled) pulled by a snowmobile for three more hours. Guarded by armed Inuit guides and a guard dog, we slept in yurts at a base camp built on the sea ice about 20 kilometers from the edge of the floe. Every day we drove an hour to the floe edge to view wildlife and kayaks when the sea was calm.
Inuit bear guards protected me from polar bears and polar bears from me and other southern visitors. Hours after hiking the tundra of Croker Bay near Mittimatalik during the August expedition cruise, I was called to the top deck of the ship to watch a mother bear and her two cubs skim across land near the Climbing at the foot of a tidal glacier.
Nunavut – meaning “our country” in Inuktitut – has an urban experience: Iqaluit, known as the Gateway to the Arctic, where stop signs are trilingual in Inuktitut, English and French. Once a US Air Force base and formerly known as Frobisher Bay, it is home to Canada’s smallest capital city of 8,000 people.
My favorite leaders are Martine Dupont and Louis-Philip Pothier who run Inukpak equipment and I’ve taken myself dog sledding on the sea ice, city tours including the legendary Road to Nowhere, and even aurora hunting one December night when the sky exploded with streaks of neon green. Your customized trips may also include snowmobiling, snow sailing, snowshoeing, hiking, canoeing, sea kayaking and ice fishing.
Jovan Simic from Cool runs took me on “dog-driven adventures” through the rocky tundra when it wasn’t safe to dog sled on the sea ice. Hailing one of Iqaluit’s flat-rate taxis is an adventure in itself, as drivers stop to fill empty seats.
St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral is Iqaluit’s famous igloo-shaped church. That Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of Inuit art. The Unikkaarvik Visitor Center has cultural and animal exhibits, and the Nunavut Legislative Building houses a fascinating Inuit doll collection and offers free tours that explain how the territory’s consensus government works. Twice before the pandemic, I visited Makigiarvik Correctional Center on a Friday to buy soapstone sculptures made by incarcerated men participating in a carving program.
Iqaluit is big enough for a suburb of sorts called Apex. Here is a municipal cemetery with an iconic arched gate made of whale bones. There are historic Hudson’s Bay Company buildings on its beach near an abandoned red lifeboat immortalized by the White Stripes in 2007 Video for “You don’t know what love is (you just do as you’re told)”.
Iqaluit means ‘place of many fish’ in Inuktitut, and although I have yet to fish for char here, I bought smoked and candied char from Nunavut Country Food. And it has nothing to do with fish, but my favorite spot in Canada for Lebanese food – Yummy Shawarma – based here speaks to the city’s unexpected diversity.
No matter where or what you eat, an artist will likely walk in with something for sale. So I end up with a thumb-sized sealskin owl ornament that hangs on my Christmas tree every year, silently urging me to find my way back to Nunavut.
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Adventurers flock to windswept Pang – “Switzerland of the Arctic” – on Baffin Island to explore Auyuittuq National Parkknow it from the iconic opening scene of The spy who loved me. At the Uqqurmiut Center for Arts & Crafts, master weavers/printers crochet the distinctive woolen tasseled hats found throughout Nunavut.
Nestled between stunning cliffs at the mouth of a fjord on Ellesmere Island, Aujuittuq (“the place that never thaws”) is Canada’s northernmost civilian community. The granite monument of the hamlet of a distressed mother and daughter symbolizes the Inuit who were sent here by the federal government on false promises of a better life in the 1950s.
This hamlet on King William Island calls itself the “land of the Franklin Expedition” because it is close to the wrecks of British explorer Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (and now the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site). The colonial name comes from the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who wintered here with his ship Gjøa and was the first European explorer to cross the legendary Northwest Passage.
Nunavut’s westernmost community is on mainland Canada near the border with the Northwest Territories. It inspired Miranda de Pencier’s 2018 Canadian sports drama The Grizzliesbased on the true story of Inuit students plagued by teenage suicide whose lives were changed when a teacher introduced them to lacrosse.
Kinngait (Cape Dorset)
At the top of my bucket list in the Arctic is the world-renowned favorite among cruise ships. The print studio here – Kingait Studios – publishes a cataloged collection of up to 60 images every year since 1959. The arts community is on Dorset Island near the southwestern tip of Baffin Island.