TD Book Week — My Adventures in Cape Dorset, Nunavut

Cape Dorset is incredibly beautiful. There are massive hills everywhere in this community, all of them glinting and sparkling as the sun hits both the snow and the patches of ice over the rocks. People here are incredibly friendly too. On my first morning I am climbing the hill up to the local elementary school along with some science students, who are here to spread the gospel of science. As we huff and puff up the hill a pick up truck stops in the middle of the road and offers us all a ride in the  back.

Hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up truck

Hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up truck

On a walk just outside my hotel I meet a man who  asks me about myself and how I’m enjoying the north. We compare communities and talk for a bit and then he tells me “well, wherever you are, make it home”. It’s not too hard to imagine Cape Dorset as home, when everyone is so welcoming.

The school here is modern and bright, and the students are all smiles and open curiosity. Every time I turn around there’s a student asking “what is your name?” As I go from classroom to classroom, the students are excited and enthusiastic  about hearing the stories and playing the game I brought (one based on my book Warriors and Wailers).   They love to hear about another culture and are fascinated by things that resonate with their own. We talk about fishing, and they eagerly explain how they use a jig and orange peel as bait to catch the beautiful trout that are abundant in this area. When I describe how the Chinese trained cormorants to fish for them, the students are on the edges of their seats, filled with questions, fascinated by this foreign method. When I ask them what animal they think silk could possibly be made from, a few younger students think carefully and then guess “Maybe seal? Could it be lambs?” They are delighted to learn about the silk worm, and each one wants to see the illustrated picture in my book that shows the silk-making process.

There is a warmth in these classes that speaks very well of the relationship the teachers have with their students. As I am about to visit a grade 1 class, the principal winks at me and tells me that they’ll be very well behaved because it is “Mary’s class”. Mary is Inuk and her class is perfect. She runs a tight ship! As soon as it is time for me to read, Mary says a word in her soft-spoken way and the kids rush to gather in a perfect semi-circle. I let them look at my books (which are normally man-handled and mangled) and the kids look at the books seriously and then return them in a perfectly stacked pile. After the reading the children sing me a beautiful song in Inuktitut and then Mary shows me a picture of her class at Christmas. Every Christmas Mary knits a sweater for every one of her students, and they are all pictured here, resplendent in their one-of-a-kind sweaters, a wide smile on each child’s face.

In the evenings I am invited to the principal’s house, where he cooks up a feast both nights, including an enormous turkey on the second night. Thinking about the prices of food here I can’t even imagine how much he must have paid to get such an impressive bird. After the turkey, John offers me a bit of “country food”, in this case some raw seal that he assures me tastes awful. He keeps it for guests.

“Do you like clams?” he asks me as he cuts a chunk off with a sharp knife. I do love clams, and I so I’m feeling pretty confident about this seal meat. One bite, however, and I see how seal might be an acquired taste. It tastes like clam concentrate – the essence of about 1,000 clams crammed into a small mouthful of seal meat. It feels like it gets stronger as I swallow. One bite is enough for me; I think I’ll stick to caribou.

At the dinner party we don’t just stuff our faces. Here the teachers gather and trade stories about what it’s like to teach in the north. Firs thing in the year, parents sign a general permission form that allows the teachers to take the students anywhere in walking distance that doesn’t require a shotgun. Which means of course that you can’t walk your students to the dump, or out too far on the land. Just last week though, a 16 year student won the lottery system for a permit to shoot a polar bear. She landed the polar bear on the last day of her permit, and the school decided to take an impromptu  trip out to see it being skinned and butchered. On my walk back to the hotel I get to see the polar bear skin, displayed just outside her home on a stretching rack.

2013-05-08 11.38.29

The student, when I talk to her later, is shy and modest. I ask “Is it incredibly hard to shoot a polar bear? Were you scared?” she shrugs and replies “Is it hard to write a book?”. I assure her that books are less likely to maim and/or kill me.

The teachers also tell me about the strong superstitions about ghosts and little people here.  Apparently the school is haunted, and there are places (upstairs) where none of the students will venture. With this in mind I tell a story on literacy night about Kingston’s own skeleton park where 10,000 people are buried in our local playground. I think they were suitable horrified and entertained.

On the day that I fly out, I decide to go and take a look at Cape Dorset’s finest art. Cape Dorset is famous for its huge percentage of artists, many of which are nationally and internationally acclaimed. I go to the lithograph shop first. As I walk in and wander around I am immediately drawn to a beautiful drawing that is only half done. It is of a whale, and I can’t describe how amazing it is. It is the one piece of art I think I would have traded my liver for. The owner of the shop comes by as I’m trying to catch my breath over this drawing and explains that it is a piece by the famous artist Tim Pitsiulak, who has been shown in the Smithsonian and is in galleries all over the world. At that moment Tim walks in, and he shows me some of his pieces, all of which are sublime.  He shows me some pictures of his last walrus hunt as well, and explains that the best part of a walrus hunt is being able to eat the half-digested clams which are still in the walrus’ belly. I imagine it tastes something like ceviche.

After a tour of the lithograph shop, Tim has to go back to work, and I head over to where they sell work (the lithograph shop is more of a place where they store the original work and where artists go to work on their creations). The carvings here are expensive, but I haven’t met any street carvers yet, so I pick up a couple of pieces, worried that I’ll leave Nunavut without any of the amazing soapstone carvings that are done here. Of course, just outside the shop is where I bump into two carvers who are eager to sell their wares for 1/3 of the price of the shop. I clean out most of my remaining cash, but am happy to do so for their beautiful work.

I’m heading to Iqaluit next and sad to leave Cape Dorset. The natural  beauty of the land is certainly reflected in the people who live here.

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One Comment on “TD Book Week — My Adventures in Cape Dorset, Nunavut”

  1. Rob Towner June 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Wow! That polar bear skin!!! I don’t even…

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