TD Book Week — My adventures in Arviat, Nunavut

I’m in Arviat right now, waiting to hear if the one flight out of here is cancelled or not, due to the snow storm that suddenly blew in this morning. At an hour before my flight, I’ve arrived much too early at the airport (the pilot hasn’t even arrived yet), but much of life in the north is learning to go with the flow. I’m also trying to ignore the various alarms that go off at ear splitting volumes as they tinker with the alarm system. There’s no security at this airport, no one even asking to see ID. The day I arrived I had two strangers offer me a ride from the airport.

Later in my stay, as I walk around town with the local librarian, around every corner is an aunt, a cousin, an old friend. I visit the elder center where her grandmother lives and as my guide walks in she warmly embraces and rubs noses with the seven residents we see.

My school visits here are largely unorganized, but the kids are enthusiastic and sweet. In one class I have to eventually stand up because the kids have scooted so close that I can’t turn around to click on my computer presentation. Most of the younger kids only speak Inuktitut but they respond to the stories anyway, as the teachers translate some of the work and have me read some of the work in English only. The upper grades (from grade 3 on) have a good grasp of English and are eager to help me learn some Inuktitut. They laugh good-naturedly as I say “I want to eat a window” rather than “I want to eat a cookie”. I envy their easy communication and the switch back and forth between the fluid and beautiful Inuktitut and English. At some points Inuktitut sounds like French, but there are still some sounds in the back of the throat that I can’t quite seem to manage. It makes for a good laugh anyway.

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There isn’t much in the way of restaurants in this small community of approximately 2,000. There’s a KFC down the road, but the locals explain to me that it doesn’t sell chicken. Rather it’s stocked with things like popcorn chicken and other unidentifiable chicken parts. I think they’re right to say that KFC doesn’t sell chicken. Instead of trying to find a restaurant, I go to the local grocery stores, the Co-op and the Northern. Both of them have a surprising selection of pricey fruits and vegetables (a watermelon goes for $20 here) as well as the other groceries items you would expect to see. At these prices it’s a good thing that most people have a skilled hunter or fisher in their families.

You can see some of the products of the local hunting culture at the Northern. Just past the cheese fridge there’s a glass case where you can buy red and white fox furs, as well as an assortment of rabbit fur and other furs I couldn’t identify. A whole fox fur costs around $150. Most people though, hunt their own, and you can see the skins drying outside their homes, or the evidence of a successful caribou hunt by the head or hoofs scattered on the front lawn where the rest of the butchering took place.

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I was lucky enough to befriend the librarian whose brother has been a successful hunter for over 20 years. She tells me that he has just come back from a hunt where he caught 5 caribou and a trout the length of a kitchen table. I tell her longingly that I have never eaten caribou….
A few hours later I am her brother John’s house, a thin soft spoken man who invites me into his home. It’s a small house and all the kids are gathered in the main room, chatting quietly, laughing over a book, and playing on the floor. John shows me some videos from the last snowmobile race that they had on Hudson’s Bay that weekend. I could see the snowmobiles zooming around from my hotel room. They set up tires and marked the snow blue to mark the course. Apparently there were some sled dog races as well but I somehow managed to miss seeing those.

After watching the videos John asks if I want to see his fish (the whole town has been talking about this fish. More than a few people have asked me that day if I’ve seen it yet). I don’t know how I missed seeing it when I walked into the door. In the middle of the kitchen floor the huge fish is thawing out on a piece of cardboard. It is the largest trout I have ever seen and I’m amazed that anyone could fight that monster and haul it out of the icy water. It’s clear that John possesses a wiry strength from years on the land. On the counter is a long piece of half frozen caribou from yesterday’s hunt. Angela asks me if I would like it raw or cooked. I opt for both and John brings the caribou over on a piece of carton. We sit down and he slices up the meat and we all reach out and take chunks of the meat, letting it melt on our tongues. It’s good, but still so cold that it’s hard to get all the flavor. The meat is incredible tender and mellow. I had assumed it would be a bit more gamey than beef, but if anything it tastes sweeter and lighter.

Angela takes the remaining meat and gives it a quick fry in butter and onions. Now that the meat is warm you can really taste it, and it’s incredible. Tender and balanced it has both savory and sweet notes. John tells me that the Caribou haven’ t been as plentiful this year and that when you managed to land one these days it’s sometimes best not to brag around town or else you’ll find yourself with quite a few dinner guests. I can see why.

By the time I walk home it’s already 10:30pm and the sun is much lower in the sky. The evening light is seductive, it has a quality that I’ve never seen anywhere else which makes it impossible not to want to stay out. Most everyone is out when I walk home, the ATV’s and snowmobiles buzzing. During the morning you can walk out and not see a soul, but in the evening the whole community is out. I was warned that a lot of the children might not show up at school and I can’t say that I blame them. They strap on skates and have a pick up game of hockey in the streets, bathed in the blue light of the midnight sun.

As I’m approaching the hotel I see that Brittany, a young dental hygienist working up north for the first time, is outside fiddling with her camera. We decide to go for a late night walk together, to see the kids playing and the snowmobiles zooming through all the streets. We decide to walk to the end of the road and then back along the frozen Hudson’s Bay where the sled dogs are tied up on the ice. I’ve walked the Hudson Bay alone the day before so I know we have nothing to fear from the dogs that are tied together, and staked to the ice. They mostly stay curled up, tails tucked over their noses, barely lifting their heads to look at me carefully muddling my way across the slippery ice.

I’m taken totally aback then, when two dogs come barreling down the road, snapping and growling. Now, I should say here that these dogs weren’t the typical dogs you see in Arviat. It was a miniature poodle and a small white dog around the same size. Both thought they were wolves. Every time I tried to turn my back to walk way the dogs would rush at me, trying to get my ankles. I had to walk backwards down half the street as they followed, growling, and immensely proud of their wolf-like prowess. It’s the first time I’ve ever been cowed by a miniature poodle. Nunavut is full of surprises!

Here’s the good news: our flight wasn’t cancelled so I’m now in Rankin, waiting for my flight to Cape Dorset. More news to come!

P.S. I have a lot of great photos to come when I can find a speedier internet connection. 🙂

The view from my hotel room (there's a tiny snowmobile in the distance if you look carefully)

The view from my hotel room (there’s a tiny snowmobile in the distance if you look carefully)


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3 Comments on “TD Book Week — My adventures in Arviat, Nunavut”

  1. Louise Tsiang May 9, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    How interesting! Looking forward to reading more of your adventures in the Great North!

  2. Fay Li, FHASS July 2, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    That was interesting! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your north adventure story. Congratulations with your great creation of novels and poems. All the best!


  1. FHASS Author Sarah Tsiang Reads in Nunavut | Alchemy - June 12, 2013

    […] Read Sarah’s own account of her time up North on her blog: […]

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