Navigating in the High Arctic

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The lack of roads and sidewalks in Canada’s northern communities is similar to sailing on open water for someone without sight.  To the blind, sidewalks are like rivers.  It’s only when they open up at their mouths to become the lakes, otherwise known as intersections or parking lots, that blind people find themselves having to navigate without the reassuring river banks made up of a sidewalk’s edges.  So how do people without sight move around in the north.  Read on to hear first hand about my own adventures in northern Inuit communities. 

I arrived in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut in Canada’s Eastern Arctic, at the beginning of March.  Nunavut is located on the south-east coast of Baffin Island, at the end of Frobisher Bay. 

IN the 1950’s the U.S. government built an exceedingly long air strip in Iqaluit, which is still listed as an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle program.  The Canadian government bought the airstrip and out-buildings in the late 70s, and turned over governance to the Inuit when the Nunavut territory was founded in the late 90’s. 

Town of Iqaluit

The Hudson Bay Company took advantage of the construction and operation of the airstrip and the local people this attracted to the area, and floated over on barges several small warehouses and a store from a near-by community.  The buildings still stand to this day – one of which is now the Red boat Gallery featuring soap stone carvings that start at $3,000.

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I was in Iqaluit to represent my department at a series of meetings to determine how governments can more effectively implement programs in remote northern communities.  Limited available resources within such communities in terms of people skilled in completing government paperwork has meant that governments have had to find ways to reduce the paperwork burden so the local administrators can focus on delivering programs as oppose to filling forms. 

It’s been a while since I was in the north and I forgot how roads and sidewalks don’t really exist up here.  Sure, there are general tracks that people follow on their snowmobiles and in their trucks and SUVs, but they are sort of organic as is the planning of the town itself.  No sidewalks at all, one just follows the same general direction that the motor vehicles take, which means following directions or exploring for someone without sight can be a challenge as none of these paths are straight.  It’s just one big snowy landscape with the snow packed down harder in some areas than in others.  When the snow melts it’s replaced with a similar landscape, only instead of snow there’s gravel. 

Road to no where

In the late 1980s I lived for a summer in Canada’s North West Territories (NWT) conducting research in places like Tuktiuktuk, also situated on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.  I went to Tuktiuktuk to  interview an elderly Inuit who was also without sight.  Sam still owned a sled dog and lived in a snug modern home augmented with recycled building materials scrounged up at the local dump operated by the oil exploration companies. 

Sam told me that white canes were useless in the north as they bent and broke in the snow.  He personally used the shaft of a hockey stick.  At one point Sam offered to take me over to visit the Hudson Bay store.  Sam and I left his home arm-in-arm.  About 15 minutes after we left his house a van pulled up beside us and the driver asked, “Sam, where are you going”?  Sam replied that we were headed for the   Hudson Bay store.  The driver then responded, “Sam, you better get in the van, you guys are heading out of town”.  The experience made me question what could be done to make travel in the north more accessible to people with limited or no sight. 

On this trip I’m staying in a newly built bed and breakfast called the Nunattaq, which is Inuktitut for “lake where the water is taken”.  Julie, my host picked me up at the airport and immediately upon our return to the B&B, a local police officer dropped over to learn if anyone had heard anything the night before concerning a particularly sad looking snowmobile resting out front of the building.  It would seem the machine had been dragged over this way from a nearby residence and then pretty much destroyed.  One of the programs we are funding in a local hamlet (nearby town) is crime prevention through education.  It involves a small engine repair course – how ironic.

Photo of Nunattaq

I took a cab into town the next morning prior to my meeting to do a little exploring.  My original intention was to walk with Maestro using my talking GPS, but Julie suggested I go by taxi as she had just recently sighted a pack of wild dogs on the edge of town and she was concerned over the safety of Maestro.

I had a couple hours to kill so I went into a local department store.  I purchased several Ulu’s as gifts.  An Ulu is a traditional knife shaped in a half circle with the handle centred on the knife’s back edge.  Used traditionally by Inuit for skinning animals, but can now be used by anyone for tasks like chopping vegetables too. 

I left the store in the company of the cashier who offered to show me to the near-by restaurant.  Bobby, a middle-aged man from Asia, said he had been living in Iqaluit for 15 years and liked it O.K.  The food in the restaurant was not bad, but served almost exclusively on Styrofoam dishware, which made me wonder, is fresh water in that much demand that washing dishes is prohibitive? 

Now that I was more in the centre of town, I set off from the restaurant on foot to find the federal building.  Maestro, not sure where to walk, tried at first to pass in front of the buildings – it was either there or on the road – he was searching hard for a sidewalk.  I hadn’t got 10 feet before someone in a truck stopped to tell me where I was in relation to the road.  I said I was fine, as Maestro had already figured out that the only choice was to walk on the road. 

And then there are the Ravens.  I had completely forgotten about Ravens and how they hate dogs.  Ravens do however love northern towns as they are full of garbage cans and other sources of easy food.  These prehistoric birds usually travel in flocks of three or more so they can assign one to be the look-out while the others figure out how to open the garbage cans.  Their main rivals are the dogs and they deal with these by dive-bombing them until they retreat.  No problem for Maestro though since my 6.4 height offered him plenty of cover.  Man, I hate Ravens, but I do have to admit that their ability to voice thousands of distinct calls is more than just a little engaging. 

With some assistance from another pedestrian I met along the way, I found the federal building but it was still closed.  So I hitched a ride with some nice Nunavut government workers over to see Guy at  Qairrulik Outfitting to talk about doing some ice fishing.  Guy promised me that if the weather held, we would try for some Arctic Char.  It turned out to be still a bit early in the season though – too much ice and cold (12-feet thick on the rivers and -40C). 

Generally, the locals don’t start ice fishing until April.  Well, that’s not completely accurate.  They still fish for Char with nets in the heart of winter on the in-land lakes.  They drill two holes in the ice and stretch a net out under the ice between the holes (don’t ask me how they manage this, but I’m told it’s quite effective). 

Arctic Char swim up the rivers in mid to late August and go into semi dormancy over the winter months in the in-land lakes.  They pretty much stop feeding altogether.  They start up again in April and that’s when they begin moving down the rivers towards the Sea. 

In April the Ice fishers drill holes in the frozen rivers and lay on the ice covering the hole using the hoods of their parkas to block the light.  They watch for Char  and either spear or hook the Char with a jig.  As in the original meaning of the word, jig, they pretty much snag the fish. 

Many Inuit also still hunt wale during the open water season from small boats using Speers.  They sneak up on a wale in their boats and once harpooned, the spear tip releases from the shaft, but remains fastened to the hunter by rope.  The rope is tied off on the boat, which is then dragged around by the wale until it expires leaving it up to the Inuit hunters to tow the wale back to the shore or ice pack where it’s then dressed.  Wale blubber or Muktuk is still highly prized to this day, and Canada’s department of health  still considers the traditional Inuit diet to be optimal for the Inuit to maintain their health. 

Photo of Lawrence, Maestro and a traditional wale hunting boat

Along with a knife, an Inuit used three traditional tools to feed their families.  A 3-prong fish spear was used to spear fish through the ice or in the shallows during spawning season.  A single-pointed spear was used for hunting seal, wale and any other animal a hunter could sneak up on, and a gaff for hauling the day’s catch into the boat or through the whole in the ice.  Bows and arrows were not traditionally part of the Inuit’s tool set due to the lack of any near-by trees from which arrows could be fashioned, but came later and were then replaced by the rifle.  Nets also came into use much later. 

Thankfully, Maestro and I never did come across the pack of loose or wild dogs that my host Julie had seen earlier in the week.  An official with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was also staying at Nunattaq and attending the same meetings as myself, which meant I had a walking partner to and from the meetings facility each day.  Having a cop for a buddy is also kind of fun when you go out in the evening for dinner at the local haunts, not that I ever felt in any way at personal risk, the Inuit must be some of the friendliest people around. 

Unfortunately, my GPS system was of limited use as it only gave me “dead-reckoning (straight line) directional information, which works fine on the water where obstacles like buildings getting in the way aren’t an issue.  The absence of a digital set of street maps for Iqaluit further limited my use of the unit.  Track creation, which Sendero’s GPS offers and which HumanWare is scheduled to release by the end of 2008, would have been quite helpful as there always seemed to be sufficient satellites in range.  My talking compass also allowed me to maintain my orientation which is always a nice thing. 

I did manage to come home with an 8lb Arctic Char.  My host acquired several from an Inuit who was in town for snowmobile parts and fuel, and needed cash.  He lives in one of the last remaining outposts left on Baffin Island.  Not in an Igloo, but a wood shack with a generator and kerosene lamps.  Inuit’s living in out-post communities Still live off of what they hunt or catch, and without government support or employment.  The sale of furs generates the necessary cash to purchase and maintain the things they can’t make or find, and then there’s always bartering with others over the exchange of crafts, traditional food and furs, soap-stone or ivory carvings, etc. 

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One last thing, all buildings in the arctic are built about 6’-8’ off the ground using stilts.  This allows the permanently frozen ground   to stay frozen without the heat of the building causing the ground to melt and the building to shift.  For pedestrians this means every building has an outdoor staircase leading up to the entrance, with the exception of the federal building in Iqaluit.  This building has a long snaking ramp on one side for people using wheel chairs, which to the best of my examination skills, revealed no wheel marks in the snow leading up to the ramp.  I guess wheelchair users are also just as scarce in the north as people without sight.

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It was a good trip and it reminded me just how tough it is to live in the north as a person without sight.  I use to think a well trained guide dog that could fight well and had a thick fur coat would be sufficient, but I now wonder if maybe some of the devices I’m experimenting with on my boat might be of use.  Most Inuit and native People who take on a disability end up leaving their communities and moving south because of the lack of readily available accommodations that could allow them to continue to live among their people.  Quite tragic to have to leave home because of your disability, been there, done that. 

2 Comments

  1. Neal Hightower says:

    Hi Lawrence,

    It seems any hopes of biking on Baffin Island is dashed. Are you aware of commercial/fishing/non-commercial boat passage from the Canadian mainland to Baffin Island, then from Baffin Island to Greenland with locals? Not interested in cruise/tourist tours but experiencing the indigenous people as much as allowed, while traveling from Canda to Wales.

    Loved your writeup

    Thanks,

    Neal Hightower

  2. Lawrence says:

    Hi Neal,

    Sorry but I don’t know anyone who is offering such personalized services. YOu could always hire a local guide but it wouldn’t be cheep.

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