I have a friend whose interests and career embraced Inuit art, especially the renowned prints made in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Over the years, I have listened in wonder to her stories of travelling to Cape Dorset and admired her collection of prints - and Inuit sculptures - in her charming home. "What was your hotel there like?" I innocently enquired. "Oh there's no hotel," was her reply. "I stayed in a room above the print gallery!" Together we once consulted the atlas, and I can remember staring at that tiny dot on Dorset Island, off Baffin Island, and wondering what it was like. It never crossed my mind that one day I may visit it myself.
The opportunity came about via an invitation. A colleague from the Canadian Tourism Commission had been assigned to travel to Iqaluit and Cape Dorset to look into the new tourism initiatives that have been introduced there. It was suggested that two journalists accompany her, to spread their stories to a wider audience. Thus it was that three women (I was by far the oldest) found themselves in Nunavut as winter turned to spring.
Our flight to Cape Dorset was delayed a bit and it was dark by the time we arrived, which added to our sense of adventure, but we were relieved to find our host for the next few days, Kristiina Alariaq, awaiting us in her big pick-up at the air strip. What lay ahead of us as winter turned to spring in this isolated town (pop. 1,200) on an Arctic island?
First, a building called Dorset Suites, circular in design to echo a qammaq, the traditional homes of the ancient Dorset and Thule people. There, each of us was assigned a two-roomed suite with fully-equipped kitchenette, two flat-screen televisions, Scandinavian-style furniture, large bathroom, enormous duvets and fluffy bath robes and Inuit art on the walls! Also, two lovely lounge areas with Cape Dorset prints, a sauna, and laundry room with a large fridge! The three of us were the only guests in the seven-suite building so we felt as though we'd arrived in a large empty villa where we could rattle around calling to each other and exclaiming how wonderful everything was! What a superb surprise and what a difference from the days when my art curator friend was assigned a small room above the print shop!
Later we had the opportunity to browse the guest book here. It revealed visitors had come from all over Canada, from Dorset in England (what a contrast!), from the U.S. and there were signatures of a group from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. There were engineering consultants, art students and dealers, the 'travelling ultrasound' group and others. Among the comments was "thank you for great hospitality in the finest accommodation in the north." We were to eat some meals with the Alariaq family, but cooked for ourselves on a couple of occasions, finding everything we needed: chicken, pasta, salad, fruit, etc. at the big local store.
Kristiina had left lots of breakfast 'fixings' in the communal fridge and breakfast area for us, so we were well prepared for our first adventure the next morning. Snow was still thick on the ground, but the sun was shining brightly as Kristiina and her husband Timmum led us out onto the ice fronting the small town where their dog team was restless and excited for the activities to start. We were shown how to harness the dogs with the sealskin ropes and ivory toggles and how to keep the sleds firmly on the ice until we were ready to jump on. There was some eye rolling between us three city gals, but sure enough we were soon off, each of us clinging onto our 'driver' - Kristiina, Timmun or one of their grown children who had come to join us. As soon as we were able to relax, we realized we were part of a magical experience. We were travelling on dog sleds on sea ice with the hills of Cape Dorset Island and the Baffin coast rising on each side. Although it was a fine day, blowing snow occasionally created white-out conditions, obscuring the sun and everything around us. It was magical! We travelled 20 km that morning, alighting near the towering chunks of ice thrown up along the shore, where Timmum cautioned us not to venture too far as the ice was melting.
Our other big outdoor adventure was a snowmobile ride across the island to the ice floe on the Oceanside of the island, where ocean currents keep the sea from freezing but where vast floes build up all winter. April is the ideal month for this excursion as warmer weather creates the first rifts in the sea ice and large floes drift away and animals may be seen. As we took our places behind our hosts on the snowmobiles I innocently enquired why we were towing a sled with a boat thereon. Kristiina smiled as she explained: "Well, because we'll be on the sea ice in springtime, and if it should break away …". Of course. Silly me.
Again we were blessed with a glorious day. The sparkling scenery was spectacular. It was one of those days when I almost felt I should be pinching myself to make sure it was real. We saw tracks in the snow but no animals, but we didn't mind. We stopped often, alighting from our snowmobiles to take photos or walk to floe edge or pop behind a boulder to answer nature's little calls! We found a sheltered spot in the sun to enjoy the lunch Kristiina had packed for us all: smoked arctic char and char dip, cream cheese, light crisp bannock, fruit and yummy home-made cookies, tea or hot chocolate. It was all heavenly.
Our final day in Cape Dorset was our much anticipated 'art day!' The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, or the Print Shop as it is known, was established in 1959. The stories of its beginning, complete with some wonderful illustrations can be discovered in the pages of Cape Dorset Prints, A Retrospective: Fifty Years of Printmaking at the Kinngait Studios by Leslie Boyd Ryan (C$ 75 from your bookstores, or $47.25 from amazon.ca), a volume I highly recommend. Today, much goes on in the rambling Print Shop building: drawing, print making, keeping of archives, buying of sculptures from locals and packing this art for transportation south. Gallery buyers come from all over and it's a popular stop for cruise ship passengers. Visitors are given a warm welcome by Jimmy Manning, the print shop manager, and Chris Pudlat, the co-op buyer. Chris gave me a broad grin when I showed him the print I had chosen - Quiet Island, by Aoudla Pudlat. "That's one of my father's," he said. I also purchased a beautiful foot-long polar bear carving by Tim Pee and, a couple of months later, in Quebec City, saw a similar piece of work by the same artist at over three times the price I paid.
During our days in Cape Dorset we had often been warmly welcomed visitors in Kristiina and Timmum's lovely art-filled house. There we'd been served an arctic char lunch and a delicious dinner of tender roast caribou followed by a gateau garnished with blackberries and blueberries gathered in the region the previous summer. We'd admired their art collection of prints and carvings (some for sale), browsed through their extensive collection of Arctic books, poured over maps, petted the new puppies and talked of life in the north and of ancestors and artists. Kenojuak Ashevak - our most acclaimed Inuit artist whose print, The Enchanted Owl, once graced our postage stamps and which now hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa - was Timmum's aunt. (A print of this work was sold in 2002 for $58,000.)
Kristiina was born in Finland and grew up in northern Ontario. A year-long teaching assignment brought her to Cape Dorset when she graduated, where she met and married Timmum Alariaq. That was over 30 years ago and today the Alariaqs own and run the Dorset Suites and the local company Huit Huit ("go, go" as called to the sled dogs) Tours which specializes in revealing to visitors all that the region has to offer. If you don't fancy dog sledding or standing at the floe edge, you can visit in summer when the flowers are blooming, when you can hike or take boat trips to archaeological sites, when you can paint or take photographs of the wonderful scenery and try to capture the spirit of the ancient inuksuks. Unless there's a cruise ship in the harbour, the Print Shop is closed in summer, but Kristiina can make arrangements for a special visit and many people will assist you with your print or carving purchases.
We had a wonderful time, but it's no use pretending there isn't a dark side to Cape Dorset (and, indeed, most Arctic communities). It's such an isolated community it makes Iqaluit seem like the hub of the universe, and although the setting is spectacular, I'd be lying if I said it were a pretty town. Unemployment is rife, youth have few prospects and little to do (many were hanging around the only big store in town), substance abuse abounds and, we heard, there is some family abuse and violence. But in spite of all this, there's a special atmosphere there. A short hike takes one to some awe-inspiring scenery and families like the Alariaqs and all the artists and people involved with the Print Shop are bringing focus and hope to the people. Polite young people offer their carvings in the street and today Cape Dorset has more people involved in art, per capita, than any other community in Canada, perhaps the world. It's known as the hub of the Inuit art world and it's truly worth celebrating.
Travellers to the north have always been adventurous souls, returning with tales of unique outdoor sports and activities. Travel to the north isn't cheap, but it's becoming increasingly comfortable, and glimpses into the lives of our Inuit neighbours should be considered by all Canadians. And you won't regret the cost of your trip when you compare the price you paid for your Inuit carving in the north with the prices charged "down south." Take an extra suitcase and you'll have unique and valuable gifts to give for a long time. The outdoor adventures I enjoyed were some of my life's highlights and I loved showing my family my photos. But what amused them most was the fact that, apparently, I went all the way to Cape Dorset to shop!
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.
If you go
First Air flies to Cape Dorset daily from Iqaluit: www.firstair.ca (tel: 1 800 267 1247).
Kristiina and Timmum own Huit Huit Tours, Dorset Suites and a couple of rental beach houses. They offer visitors itineraries in and around Cape Dorset in all seasons and to suit many interests: cabin and tent stays, boating, hiking, art tours, archaeological and ancient inuksuk tours, bird watching and flower lovers' excursions, cultural evenings and the activities I described above. They have been the agent for Adventure Canada's Arctic tours for many years.
www.dorsetsuites.com (tel: 867 897 8806).
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