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the north

View of the Anna from the Iqaluit shore.Peter Worden/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

In Canada's northernmost community of Grise Fiord, another sealift season has ended. The hamlet is now locked in by thousands of square kilometres of sea ice. Luckily for the people of Ellesmere Island's only community (pop. 130) – once again cut off from the mainland another year – their ship, the M/V Anna Degagnés, has already come in.

It's one of the most important events of the year. In a single haul Anna delivered some 17,800 tonnes of cargo to northern communities, restocking stores of supplies that will carry people and businesses through the year. In Grise Fiord, the crew off-loaded prefabricated mine housing, new boats, ATVs, a yurt for a youth and elders drop-in centre and sundry items such as dog food, flour and toilet paper.

The small Inuit hamlet – in Inuktitut, called Aujuittuq, meaning "place that never thaws" – has the shortest window of opportunity when passage isn't choked by sea ice. It is among about 50 seaside communities in Canada's million-and-a-half square kilometre Arctic archipelago that has some of the highest tides in the country – and next to no marine infrastructure.

Instead, the remote hamlets in Nunavut, Nunavik and northern Labrador rely on crane-bearing cargo ships known commonly to northerners as the sealift. As sea ice retreats in the Eastern Arctic between June and October, this vital lifeline of ice-class tankers, tugs and barges sets sail with a year's worth of northbound freight.

For at least 50,000 people living in these seaside communities, the sealift's arrival is vital. In a few short days it replenishes people's household pantries (built extra-large to accommodate a year's worth of non-perishables), restocks stores of retail supplies, and delivers much-needed mechanical equipment and bulk commercial items such as runway deicer. It is a boom period in the hamlets that can go now forward with construction projects and it means summer, however short, has officially arrived.

For those new to the North, the sealift marks a rite of passage, far from the conveniences of Saturday afternoon binge shopping and overnight delivery services available in most other parts of Canada. And for companies such as Degagnés Transarctik, sealifts such as the Anna and her crew, who cater to the North, these annual journeys represent a healthy business opportunity with widespread economic spinoffs. As resource development in the North fuels demand for ever-growing resupplies of fuel and cargo, the sealift business is steadily gaining steam.

"You can appreciate it's our supply for the year. It becomes very important," said Marty Kuluguqtuq, the hamlet's senior administrative officer. As in other communities, the only other means of receiving cargo is by air. "It's our lifeline in an affordable way. It might be expensive initially, but over a year you're saving quite a bundle."

It's the sign of a true Northerner and a true learning experience for people like Ed Maruyama, an Iqaluit photographer from Toronto, who, after living in Nunavut 10 years, placed his first order.

"When you look at what the other experienced sealifters got, you feel like you could have been a bit more organized. You have to think really hard about what you need," he said. "In Toronto, you don't have to do this at all since everything you need is a few steps away. You learn to appreciate what you have and it's true, it's really like Christmas."

Fully laden, the M/V Anna Degagnés peacefully plies the St. Lawrence, but once she reaches the North it's a different picture – it's all-out war. The mass-scale co-ordination of a flotilla with everything from toilet paper to excavators, from port in Ste-Catherine, Qué., to dozens of inlets along an iceberg-strewn Arctic coast, is remarkably navy-like. (Indeed, "sealift" is a military term.) Luckily, the ship is built for both war and peace.

While not the company's newest sealift, the ship known simply as Anna is the largest, most versatile vessel in the North and, in this way, the 18-strong fleet's flagship. Built in an East German shipyard shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, Anna came with many Soviet battle-ready precautions to support military operations.

Her quarter stern ramp – the envy of sealifts everywhere – could launch amphibious vehicles in the event of war; a small recreational pool in the aft was at one time intended for nuclear decontamination; the huge front hold could carry missiles, and her four generators are powerful enough to supply electricity to a 700-person camp.

"She's built solid like a tank," said Patrique Roch-Beaumount, captain of the Anna and a 22-year veteran aboard different ships. In nautical parlance, Anna is a ro/ro-lo/lo ship, with roll-on, roll-off and lift-on, lift-off capabilities. "She's very versatile. This ship can carry just about anything."

Most of Anna's cargo is offloaded in the Nunavut capital Iqaluit, on the shore of Koojesse Inlet in Frobisher Bay, where high and low tide ranges more than 30 feet. The crew compensates for the lack of marine infrastructure in the North by bringing its own barges, custom-built shallow water tugs and heavy lift cranes, which can hoist up to135 tonnes.

Upon arrival, a brigade of front-end Volvo loaders will drive into the saltwater to greet the barges and take crates directly to people's doorsteps. For four days and nights, they'll storm the beach during high tide, providing a service so complicated that, until Nunavut became a territory in 1999, the Canadian Coast Guard was tasked with co-ordinating it in the high Arctic.

"You can't put a stamp on an excavator," said Degagnés Transarctik general manager Waguih Rayes. "You can't fly a school bus in on a jet. In most Northern communities you can't land a jet. You need a ship. You need cargo services. It's vital."

The two dozen men and two women who do this half-hectic, half-monotonous job aboard the Anna work against time – there are 16 distinct ice zones in the Arctic, each with its own tiny window of opportunity – tides and each others' temperaments. Blackout blinds help the crew cope with 24-hour daylight in the high Arctic, but the weather can be taxing and the crew won't see home for five straight months.

"The hardest part is to be away from family," said Captain Roch-Beaumont, who has two young daughters and two sons. "I'm not the only one – it's the same for everyone."

But the crew has done the math and found that overtime plus a five-months-on, seven-months-off schedule is worth the hard work. It's the same at Degagnés Transarctik's Sainte-Catherine office, a few kilometres south of Montreal, where staff is in overdrive, busily co-ordinating dockside logistics, building orders, packing cargo and setting routes for the next ship.

At his desk full of nautical paraphernalia, Mr. Rayes unfolds a large map reflecting Nunavut's mining potential – coal, iron, lithium, uranium, gold, gemstones and other rare earth elements – and active mine sites. Resources that are taboo to talk about exploiting today, he says, won't be in five to 10 years. Given the mining potential and the prospect of longer summer ice-free shipping lanes, the sealift business is poised to grow.

"We're not going to see any more villages [in Nunavut]. What we are going to see are more economic projects in the mining sector," said Mr. Rayes, adding mines demand huge resupplies of fuel and cargo and their economic spinoff will be felt in neighbouring communities.

Already, more vehicles are being shipped every year; on this sailing alone, a record 95 cars and trucks will be off-loaded in Iqaluit. And Degagnés Transarctic has added five new ships over the last five years and tripled its tonnage in the past eight. "More mining, more jobs, more prosperity, more demand, more cargo," he said. "The future of the sealift is nothing but more demand."

The future of the sealift in Canada's Arctic is a far cry from its origins with the Canadian Coast Guard delivering yearly goods to residents living in igloos and sod huts.

"Back in the day you did with what you had, but when the sealift came there was so much more you could do with what's on board," said Malaya Qaunirq-Chapman, a lifelong resident of Nunavut. Last year a friend of hers in Pangnirtung started a small snack shack selling pop, chips and chocolate bars stocked entirely with goods aboard the sealift.

"The sealift is really important because you're taking control," she said. "You can get what you want. And that means more business which may lead to more opportunity for Nunavut residents."

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