The drum dancers of Mittimatalik prance, stoop and leap their way across the wooden stage outside the Nattinnak Centre in knee-high sealskin boots, joyously swinging and beating oversized hand drums as locals excitedly whisper that beluga whales have been spotted just offshore.
Two agile men contort their lean bodies and perform a handful of high kicks and other manoeuvres that are revered events in the Arctic Winter Games. Women, competing in pairs, clasp arms and face each other to perform short bursts of throat singing, making guttural but melodic imitations of nature and wildlife until one falters and both dissolve in fits of laughter.
This is how the Inuit of Mittimatalik welcome visitors to the Nunavut hamlet, also known as Pond Inlet, on the northeastern shore of Baffin Island. Once outlawed by the church, these performances are now treasured art forms.
It’s a Sunday in August and only a few more artists have come to the Nattinnak Centre – a community centre and library designed to resemble the long and low type of iceberg that it’s named for – to greet the 198 guests and staff of Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour. The community hasn’t had cruise ship visitors since 2019 and we are the fourth of 22 ships slated to spend a few precious hours here this summer.
Watched over by armed Inuit guides and a guard dog, we slept in yurts at a base camp erected on the sea ice about 20 kilometres from the floe edge.— Jennifer Bain, travel writer
Working with power and hand tools, a carver hunches over a pair of Inuit snow goggles in progress, while Envy Pewatoalook presides over a table laden with completed crocheted animals, including a narwhal (the unicorn of the sea) named Wilbert.
“We could check out the Northern store where we have Tim Hortons, if you want something different,” says Georgina Pewatooalook, one of the local tour guides who walks small groups of people from an old sod house to the cultural centre, then to a high point of land with views of Bylot Island and finally to the two grocery stores that serve this hamlet of 1,800.
Back on the Ocean Endeavour a few hours later during a recap of the day, Inuit cultural educator Alex Anaviapik, who is originally from Mittimatalik, shares the Inuktitut word for home.
“Anirqak – a-nir-kuk,” she says. “Welcome to my home.”
Nunavut was created on April 1, 1999, through Canada’s largest land claim when it separated from the Northwest Territories. About 85 per cent of its 40,000 people are Inuit. Its 26 communities are spread over three regions.
With no roads linking Nunavut to southern Canada, and virtually no roads connecting the communities, the territory is a mystery to most. You can only get here by air or by cruise ship, and most people choose the latter.
From Ottawa, I have flown to Iqaluit and Pangnirtung with Canadian North, an Inuit-owned airline, which is testing new seasonal flights between Toronto and Iqaluit until Sept. 30. I’ve also taken two expedition cruises through Nunavut, visiting communities and learning about Inuit culture. I have 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 marvel at polar bears, whales, seals and seabirds. I’ve learned as well about the history of how settlers tried to extinguish Inuit culture and how losing family, language, culture, land and home has an intergenerational impact. I’ve seen the revival of traditions, listened in the spirit of reconciliation, and pledged to share my love of the territory and its extraordinary experiences.
With Arctic Kingdom Adventures and Tours one June, I visited the floe edge, which draws migrating narwhals, marine mammals and seabirds to the place where melting sea ice meets 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. Watched over by armed Inuit guides and a guard dog, we slept in yurts at a base camp erected on the sea ice about 20 kilometres from the floe edge. Each day, we travelled an hour to the floe edge to watch for wildlife and kayak when the sea was calm.
Inuit bear monitors kept me safe from polar bears, and polar bears safe from me and other southern visitors. Hours after wandering around the tundra of Croker Bay near Mittimatalik during August’s expedition cruise, I was called to the ship’s top deck to watch a mother bear and her two cubs scramble over the land near the foot of a tidewater glacier.
Nunavut – which means “our land” in Inuktitut – does have one urban experience: Iqaluit, known as the gateway to the Arctic, where trilingual stop signs come in Inuktitut, English and French. Once a U.S. airbase and formerly named Frobisher Bay, Canada’s smallest capital city is home to 8,000 people.
My favourites guides are Martine Dupont and Louis-Philip Pothier who run Inukpak Outfitting and have taken me dogsledding on the sea ice, on city tours that included the iconic Road to Nowhere, and even aurora hunting one December night when the sky exploded with neon green streaks. Their custom trips can also include snowmobiling, snow sailing, snowshoeing, hiking, canoeing, sea kayaking and ice fishing.
Jovan Simic of Kool Runnings has taken me on “dog-powered adventures” across the rocky tundra when it wasn’t safe to dogsled on the sea ice. Hailing one of Iqaluit’s flat-rate taxis is its own adventure since the drivers stop to fill empty seats.
St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral is Iqaluit’s famous igloo-shaped church. The Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of Inuit art. The Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre has cultural exhibits and wildlife displays and the Legislative Building of Nunavut houses a fascinating Inuit doll collection and offers free tours that explain how the territory’s consensus-style government works. Twice before the pandemic, I visited the Makigiarvik Correctional Centre on a Friday to buy soapstone sculptures made by the incarcerated men who take part in a carving program.
Iqaluit is big enough for a suburb of sorts called Apex. It’s home to a municipal cemetery with an iconic bowhead whale-bone arch gateway. There are historic Hudson’s Bay Company buildings at its beach near an abandoned red lifeboat that the White Stripes immortalized in the 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 while I have yet to fish for Arctic char here, I have bought smoked and candied char from Nunavut Country Food. And it has nothing to do with fish, but my favourite place in Canada for Lebanese food – Yummy Shawarma – being based here speaks to the city’s unexpected diversity.
No matter where or what you eat, an artist will likely wander in with something for sale. That’s how I wind up with a thumb-size sealskin owl ornament that hangs on my Christmas tree each year, silently willing me to find my way back to Nunavut.
If you like that, you’ll love this
Adventurers are drawn to windy Pang – “Switzerland of the Arctic” – on Baffin Island to explore Auyuittuq National Park, knowing it from the iconic opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me. At the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts, master weavers/printmakers crochet the distinctive wool hats with tassels that are found across Nunavut.
Nestled between stunning cliffs at the mouth of a fjord on Ellesmere Island, Aujuittuq (“the place that never thaws out”) is Canada’s northernmost civilian community. The hamlet’s granite monument of a distraught mother and daughter symbolizes the Inuit who were sent here in the 1950s by the federal government under false promises of better lives.
This King William Island hamlet calls itself “Land of the Franklin Expedition” because it’s 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 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who wintered here with his ship the Gjøa and was the first European explorer to transit the fabled Northwest Passage.
Nunavut’s most westerly community is on the Canadian mainland near the border with the Northwest Territories. It inspired Miranda de Pencier’s 2018 Canadian sports drama The Grizzlies, which was based on the true story of Inuit students plagued by youth suicide whose lives were transformed when a teacher turned them on to lacrosse.
Kinngait (Cape Dorset)
The top of my Arctic bucket list is the world-renowned cruise ship favourite. The printmaking studio here – Kinngait Studios – has released a catalogued collection of up to 60 images every year since 1959. The art-minded community is on Dorset Island near the southwestern tip of Baffin Island.