Prior to my journey to Cape Dorset, I spent three days in Nunavut's capital: ample time to enjoy the spring festivities known as Toonik Tyme, browse stores, visit the Legislature and explore the museum in depth.
It's a three-hour flight on Air Canada from Ottawa or Montreal to Iqaluit. In late April, you will fly over unpopulated lands still covered in snow and ice, a glorious sight on a clear day. Air Canada and First Air flights in the north aren't cheap, but the service and food are stellar in First Air (caribou shepherd's pie, salad and a delicious chocolate cake for lunch) and you can use or earn Aeroplan points.
Upon arrival, a shuttle took us the short distance to our Iqaluit hotel, the Discovery Lodge, where small, old-fashioned but comfortable en-suite rooms awaited us, and lunch was served in the dining room. Sitting over my dessert platter of fresh pineapple, water melon and mango, it was hard to believe I was in the Arctic.
Refreshed and fed, we set out to explore. It was like a cold winter's day in Toronto, snow still underfoot, but the sun was brilliant and there was no wind. Iqaluit was busy, everyone involved in some way or another with Toonik Tyme, a week-long community festival that marks the end of winter and welcomes spring. Visitors are welcome to join in the fun so over the next few days, our little group was destined to enjoy the ice sculpture contest, mustache competition, kids' sliding party, an igloo building competition, elders' outdoor games competition, a craft fair, visit to the Elders' Centre by 'Elvis,' throat singing and Inuit sports demonstrations, cross-country skiing, a round of ice golf on a frozen lake (the first time I'd ever held a golf club!) and a community feast.
The festival is named after 'Toonik,' a member of the ancient Tuniit people, known to archaeologists as the Dorsets. They lived in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic before the ancestors of today's Inuit (known as the Thule) arrived from Alaska about 1,000 years ago. Inuit history tells that the Tuniit were superb hunters who possessed almost superhuman strength and speed. Without bow and arrow or harpoon technology they hunted game up close with spears. The stories report they wore such long parkas that, while waiting for the seals, they could spread them out around themselves like tents and light little seal oil lamps beneath to keep them warm. Around 600 years ago, the Tuniit died out, but are remembered and commemorated through today's Inuit.
Although an anachronism in the festival that celebrates Inuit culture, the visit by the Elvis tribute artist, Stuart Macleod, to the Elders' Centre (arranged by the local Legion) was a highlight! How fascinating it was to watch the elderly Inuit ladies (there weren't many men in the party!) sing along to all those old favourites! We were given a warm welcome to join in, mugs of hot chocolate were pressed into our hands, and soon I was laughing, swaying and dancing with an elderly Inuit lady dressed in beaded boots, as 'Elvis' belted out "I can't help falling in love with you." What a great memory!
In town, there are many stores selling Inuit art and crafts, smoked Arctic char and other local foods for visitors, and the town's largest supermarket is fascinating, selling everything from fresh sushi and exotic fruits to ski-do's.
The Nunatta Sunakkutanglit Museum and adjacent Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre is a 'must' to learn something of Inuit culture and start your shopping in the gift store. Exhibits in the museum reveal the traditional Inuit way of life with fur clothes, tools such as snow knives, dolls, pipes, snow goggles, harpoons, beadwork and more. Upstairs, there are some wonderful carvings and the gift store contains a small selection of Cape Dorset prints, jewellery and a small selection of books.
In the Visitor Centre, allow time to view one or two of the 150 videos available on all aspects of the Arctic and Inuit life. We were fascinated by At the Autumn River Camp, an intimate look at an Inuit family's traditional way of life. As we relaxed on the carpeted steps of the screening room, we were witnesses to images of the Inuit family emerging from their sleeping bags and dressing, making fire and cooking, eating both raw and cooked food, preparing fish for winter storage, digging fishing holes, making clothes and a sled and so much more, including the toddler of the family playing with his puppy and digging his own fishing hole. Their adaptation to the harshest environment on the planet is quite awe-inspiring. The other movie we chose, knowing we were heading to Cape Dorset with art on our minds, was Songs in Stone. And in the Centre you won't miss the towering Drum Dancer sculpture in the entrance hall (carved by five artists, three of them from Cape Dorset) nor the Pangnirtang weaving on the wall, said to be the largest in the world.
The Legislature is another 'must' when in Iqaluit. Opened in 1999, it contains gifts from all provincial governments as well as an outstanding collection of Inuit art and crafts. The unique mace is fashioned completely from local materials: silver, diamonds, jade, quartz, amethyst and a rare, perfect narwhal tusk. The Queen is represented by the crown top and the piece is held aloft by Inuit carvings of a family led to wisdom by an elder. The provincial symbols of saxifrage, Inuit dog and rock ptarmigan are celebrated with works of art, Pangnirtang tapestries hang in the hall and a sand-cast glass wall from Saskatchewan celebrates Inuit legends and all Canadians. Don't miss the complete rack of carved caribou antlers above the reception desk. Call ahead for a tour (867 975 5156, Monday - Friday 8:30 - 5) so that you may enter the chamber and be shown all the details: the door-handles, the sealskin covered seats and ropes, the chairs for elders, the significance of the qulliq (oil bowl) and so much more.
Sooner or later three women on a trip, even if it's a 'research' trip, will find themselves shopping for clothes! We'd heard of
Rannva's Design in Iqaluit's 'suburb' Apex, so we decided to put our notebooks away for an hour and jumped into a taxi. All taxi rides in Iqaluit are $6 per person; most attractions are within walking distance of each other, but if you venture farther or catch a ride home from the bar on a chilly evening, a taxi is the answer - no need to rent a car as you can't go far anyway! Rannva's tiny store was open and soon my companions were trying on jackets, mittens and slippers and comparing the merits of several bags. But I'd noticed something else: the property adjoining Rannva's little shop was a B&B! Soon we were all slipping out of our boots and being shown Rannva's home and the two guest rooms. The house is, in fact, the renovated Old Nursing Station: spacious and light filled and with a true "at home" feel, with trendy modern furniture, a fine view over Frobisher Bay and a resident cat and two dogs!
Iqaluit is also home to the new Nova Hotel, near the Legislature. We paused there for a good bar lunch, the menu allowing choices from around the world: Thai curry, Mexican quesadillas, Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, Waldorf chicken wraps, fish 'n chips and caribou burgers. And for our evening entertainment one night, we joined what seemed like the whole population of Iqaluit in the Stonehouse Bar of the Frobisher Hotel where a bottle of Australian Cabernet cost us just $32 and enormous screens beamed the hockey game from Montreal.
By the time we set off for the airport for our flight to Cape Dorset, or Kinngait, its Inuit name, we felt that we had absorbed much of Iqaluit in a short time period.
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)
Discovery Lodge Hotel, Iqaluit: www.discoverylodge.com (tel: 867 979 4433.)
Rannva's B&B, Iqualuit: (via) Pillows and Pancakes B&B Guide (B&B tel: 867 979 3183.)
Two other attractive B&B's on the outskirts of Iqaluit are:
Nunattaq Suites (looks like a property in Cape Cod!) www.nunattaqsuites.com (tel: 867 975 2745)
Accommodations by the Sea: www.accommodationsbythesea.ca (tel: 867 979 6074.)
B&B rates in the area start around the $110 range and all hosts will help with local information, tours, etc.
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