NUNAVUT — Toong-a-su-git (welcome). Ha-lu (hello). Those Inuktitut words were said with meaning and always with a smile by the people who embraced us in the various communities we visited in Nunavut, which quietly sits on top of the world in the Canada’s Arctic.
Friendly smiles and shy laughter were soon followed by endless questions by the village children, who were there to greet us at the shoreline and then escorted us to the village's main hall for festivals and celebrations.
Life in Canada’s North is not an easy one. It has evolved over centuries of adaptation, not only with the land, but in harmony with the land and its creatures. It is a lifestyle to be admired.
Continuously inhabited with Indigenous populations for approximately 4,000 years, Nunavut is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world with approximately 36,000 souls, mostly Inuit, who are in scattered in pockets of a vast, untamed area. If it were a country, Nunavut , which is approximately 1,750,000km2 in size, would be ranked the 15th largest in the world.
Above: Nunavut is a land of proud people like Rosie Katsak who looks regal wearing a traditional parka.
With an average temperature of around -10C, Nunavut stretches up to the top of Ellesmere Island, enveloping a major portion of Northern Canada and most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The landscape and tundra are derived from eons of exposure to the freeze and thaw whims of the elements, with beautifully sculpted lands, plains, mountains, glacial moraines, valleys and sedimentary runoffs, all sweeping down onto the ice-bound shorelines.
I was visiting Nunavut as part of an expedition with Adventure Canada on the ship Ocean Endeavour. Our intentions to head boldly into the Northwest Passage proved to be an elusive goal, with the ever shifting sea ice and weather conditions blocking our way.
So, our initial itinerary changed from day-to-day, and in some cases hour-to-hour — it was a continuous journey of fresh discovery for the passengers and crew. In the end, the journey exceeded all expectations.
The perpetual presence of floating ice did have the benefit of calming the seas, however. That allowed us to see polar bears, seals and walruses floating on the ice and beluga and humpback whales gliding through the calm waters.
Above: A husky lounges on a Arctic Cat, left, while a polar bear watches her young in Sirmilik National Park.
Zodiac tours and beach landings were a daily occurrence on the ice flows and icebergs that dominate the horizon here. They would lead to ongoing wildlife encounters — lots of polar bear activity and a never ending kaleidoscope of beautiful ice formations with their colourful reflections framed in the calm inlet waters.
Ever vigilant of polar bears, advance teams would set out from the ship to scout the shoreline and our desired landing site so as to ensure a comfortable perimeter zone was established between the ship’s explorers and the magnificent bears. If a bear was sighted, we would move elsewhere.
Once ashore, safety perimeters would be established with experienced armed guides and then expanded seemingly as far as the eye could see. Only then could we safely enjoy the full spectacle of the Arctic surroundings, including a polar bear far off on a distant hillside.
Scattered amongst the frozen landscape would be pocket villages, long established for their proximity to the best hunting and sea life. In some cases, as part of government programs meant to assert northern dominance by occupation, the villages would be moved but the relocation did not always serve the best interests of the residents.
Our immersion into Inuit culture started with the official lighting of the qulliq, pathe traditional greeting ceremony.
Above: The postcard-perfect landscape is what people remember mist about a visit to Nunavut.
After opening speeches, we were also able to experience traditional activities — song, drum dancing, throat singing and an impressive display of athletic agility and strength.
Stories from the village elders about their sacred land, sometimes told in song or instrumentation, was another highlight of the gathering. We all came away cherishing the genuine sense of warmth shown to us and the importance of family that was shared with us.
We could not have been happier with our Adventure Canada cruise.
Above: The Ocean Endeavour takes passengers to places in Nunavut to experience local traditions.
Their guests do more than seeing exciting places from afar. Passengers interact directly with the communities they visit, learn hands-on about Indigenous cultures and past lifestyles.
Cruises such as ours further advance Adventure Canada’s supportive objectives to both high-profile and grassroots ventures — they established their Discovery Fund in 1996, allowing passengers to take an active role in assisting local and national organizations in social and economic community development, in addition to environmental and wildlife preservation.
At the end of each day, with the weather closing in, we would be escorted back to our Zodiacs by villagers who would send us on our way with a hearty tavvauvutit (goodbye).
John Houston, an Inuit culturalist with Adventure Canada, beautifully describes how the Inuit address farewells: “Tavvauvusit is the plural use of goodbye, and literally means ‘there you all are.’ It is said with a bow to the brevity of life.” Words of a beautiful land and its kind-hearted people.