Vision vs. Reality
The prolific exploration of the Canadian Arctic by Europeans in the 18th to 19th centuries often painted the north as a frozen wasteland. At its best, the anecdotes of the time implied a featureless wilderness where men could prove their strength and vigor in one of the last great-unexplored parts of the divided world. This European vision encouraged naval exploration like the Franklin Expedition and inspired social commentary from authors like Mary Shelly and Charlotte Bronte.
This stigma of the frozen wilderness blurred the image of the real arctic – the beauty and diversity of the geography and vibrant, interconnected life.
What many visitors have noted about their experience of Nunavut is the way being on the land made them feel alive in a way they had not experienced elsewhere; the way the stunning landscapes and changing perception of time lends a sense of freedom, rarely accessible even in the greenest of cities. It is a place where you can go from canoeing down river, to dog sledding across the flat sea ice, to kayaking underneath snow covered mountains.
It is a place one can truly escape, where miles stretch between camp grounds, and the communities can be explored from end to end in a single morning. Nunavut offers a range of experiences, all unique and varying widely with the seasons. The differences can be extreme, changing from season to season in a single location: from the dark, crisp beauty of a star-filled winter sky, dazzling with the aurora, to the unending daylight painted in watercolours across the horizon during the bright summer months. Nunavut is a place where one cannot help but be consumed by the sense of interconnectivity with the spirit of the Arctic.
Master Navigators of the Arctic
Patience and Humble Awareness
Patience and humble awareness of human fragility has made Inuit master navigators in Canada’s Arctic. Though the Inuksuk has lost much of its practical relevance in our age of GPS, satellites, precision mapping techniques, and permanent settlements, it remains an international symbol of the Arctic and an important representation of cultural characteristics that have shaped Inuit into the modern and unique people they are today.
Inuksuit -the plural of inuksuk- have a history that goes beyond the popular idea that they were used as landmarks. They were indeed used as landmarks to help Inuit find their way across the vast expanses of seemingly unending and treeless tundra. But the subtlety and versatility of inuksuk building has a deeper history.
One of the other recognizable characteristics of Inuit people across the globe is incredible resilience; the ability to survive in one of the world’s harshest environments for 15,000 years is indeed something to be proud of. Inuksuit were an integral part of their ability to survive in a place where food scarcity and inclement weather were regular concerns in everyday life. Inuit used specific building patterns to indicate the meaning of each kind of inuksuk. Hunters would build rows of Inuksuit to corral caribou herds into prime hunting areas. Other arrangements signaled dangerous locations to avoid for future travelers’, animal migration routes, and ideal fishing spots.
Inuksuit were more than just piles of rocks, they were detailed, three-dimensional maps, with directional meaning and specific instructions for those who could read them. The importance of that information required skilled and knowledgeable builders, and such was their skill that it was believed to be a bad omen of a short life for the builder if their inuksuk ever fell apart.
One of the most important uses was as a marker of food caches for use when hunting was not possible or animals were scarce. This aspect of inuksuk history is what expresses a fundamental feature of Inuit. Even today - it is representative of the generosity and inclusive spirit of Inuit culture. Not only were Inuksuit markers for a camps own food cache, but they also served as important signs for other nearby families to use in cases of life threatening famine.
Inuit, at their core, have an innate sense of welcoming and sharing because right from their early origins it was painfully clear that was the only way to survive.
Inuit have a different sense of ‘seasons’ than most of their southern counterparts. This perception has much to do with the very different environment in which they live. Unlike the more temperate biomes of North America, the arctic does not conform to four seasons.
In Nunavut, it is the return of the sun in the months of March, April and May, the sign of spring that is the most important. The sun brings back warmth and light that glimmers on the snow swept hills and mountains well into the evenings and allows for warmer weather activities such dog sledding, kiting, floe edge exploration, snow mobile trips and back country skiing.
Seasons were traditionally named in great detail, based on important environmental factors such as the time when ice starts to form on the sea - known as ukiaksaaq, or upirngaaq the period when the sun doesn’t set. Seasons are also named to recognize the life cycle of animals such as the beginning of caribou calving season, the shedding or thickening of animal hair that makes for ideal clothing. The specificity of these seasonal changes also made for variations specific to Inuit groups living in the different regions of Nunavut.