Sunlight caught the metal trigger of the gun, blinding me for a second. “Don’t worry,” said the pilot, as he saw me eye the firearm, “I’d fly away before I’d use it.”
I looked around at the remote shingle beach on which we were standing. Here we were, high in the Canadian Arctic, on an island inhabited by at least 50 polar bears, 70km from the nearest landmass, and the pilot of the only chartered plane hereabouts had just said that he’d desert us if the bears got too close. I gulped, hard.
“We’d definitely come back for you though,” he shouted as I followed my guide Allen Gordon along the shore of Akpatok Island. Thankfully we weren’t on land for long. A waiting Zodiac took us out to a small catamaran, from which we began our – safer – search for bears.
The sea was so still that our wake felt like an intrusion. Icebergs rose from the turquoise water like frozen turrets and, above, black guillemots called out into the sky. We trained our binoculars on the island’s fort-like limestone cliffs, scanning for anything white. Excitement bubbled a few times when someone spotted a buoy or a large rock, but soon the salty air became too much and we left the deck to have lunch and commiserate with each other on our lack of wildlife sightings.
Not that I could complain. In the past few days I’d enjoyed not one but three close encounters, any one of which you’d count yourself lucky to see in a lifetime.
The far, far north
Look at a map of Québec and at first it seems fairly digestible: there’s Montréal, with its French liberalism and high-rises; the wide St Lawrence River, which snakes through the province and out to sea via a string of pretty villages; the cliff-side cobbles of quaint Québec City. But look north and you’ll see that’s only a fraction of the story.
The top third of the province, roughly twice the size of Britain, surrounded by water on three sides and stretching beyond the Arctic Circle, is Nunavik (not to be confused with the more well-known Nunavut to the north). It comprises just 14 villages, none of them connected by roads. Getting there is a challenge: if you drive north from Montréal, the road ends at Caniapiscau Reservoir – still hundreds of kilometres shy of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik’s southernmost administrative centre and unofficial capital.
Kuujjuaq is where I’d begun my journey days earlier, courtesy of the one daily flight from Montréal. It was July, and with the ice temporarily melted, a barge had also just arrived, bringing fuel for the giant generators that provide power for the entire community.
“We’re reliant on bulk delivery now,” explained Allen, as he drove me around Kuujjuaq, the town where he was born and raised, as were his parents, grandparents and even greatgrandparents. Evidence of human habitation in this area dates back 7,000 years but a European community, known as Fort Chimo, was first established in the 1830s by the Hudson Bay Company. In 1942 the US established an air base where Kuujjuaq airport sits now, and the town as it is today began to develop.
“I remember, in the '50s, people lived in houses made from shipping crates. In the '70s the ATV or snowmobile was the family car. Now it’s all pick-up trucks,” said Allen. In 1945 the US left the area but the community continued to develop, first with a church, then a hospital and finally a school. Allen was one of the first three students to graduate in Kuujjuaq.
“When I was a kid, the outdoors was our playground,” he recalled. “We’d ride our bikes outside the courthouse – that was the only smooth place in town. I used to know everyone but things have changed, now I only know about half.”
Things are still changing. We passed the Kuujjuaq Inn – the town’s second hotel, which was in the process of being extended due to demand. The most recent census puts the population at around 2,300, but due to the transient community of oil and mine workers – Kuujjuaq is rich in iron ore and minerals – and the odd tourist from ‘down south’ (aka the rest of Québec), Allen reckons it’s closer to 3,000.
“The landscape is changing all the time too,” said Allen. “Winter is much greener, spring comes earlier, winter is often delayed. Migrating caribou used to pass through town every year, but now you rarely see them. But times change – it’s a fact of life. Still, we don’t forget how things used to be.”
Caught in the throat
In Kuujjuaq, teaching children where they come from is important. Pupils learn the native Inuktitut language first and then in Grade 2 (age 7) they choose either French or English – the former being the most popular. In addition, Inuit traditions are kept alive. That night two local teenagers came to Kuujjuaq’s only restaurant to demonstrate throat singing, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the town’s youth.
Dressed in traditional arnautik tunics and classic kamik boots made from caribou fur (for warmth) and seal skin (for waterproofness), the two girls explained their ancestors’ art: “Women used to do it to pass the time in igloos when crafting, cooking or settling the baby,” they explained. “It was a game; you’d sing facing a partner for rhythm and the first to stop would lose.”
The songs might be about everyday life, or composed to encourage sleddog teams, they explained: “Now we try to do more modern twists – one of us might sing in rap, the other may do beat-boxing.”
The girls turned to each other. One began with a guttural bass; the other added a higher pitched chirp. The sounds mimic those in the natural world – streams spluttering, birds calling. I was instantly lost in the tune, imagining Kuujjuaq without its modern trappings, just endless tundra covered in black spruce and larch. It was beautiful.
I didn’t have to use my imagination the next day. An early flight saw me transported even further north to Kangiqsujuaq. In 1884 the Hudson Bay Company set up a trading post here, as in Kuujjuaq, and once more the village began to develop. Now it has a population of just over 600. Sitting on mussel-rich Wakeham Bay and surrounded by hulking mountains, it’s home to one hotel and a general store; many buildings are decorated with murals of village elders, whales and caribou, painted in bright, primary colours.
Kangiqsujuaq is also the gateway to Pingualuit National Park, and home to the park’s interpretation centre, opened in 2007. This is where I met Pierre Philie, a French cultural geographer with a strong interest in anthropology, who reluctantly came to Nunavik on assignment 33 years ago, fell in love with the place – and a local woman – and never left.
He talked about the wildlife found in the park, such as snowy owl, gyrfalcon, Arctic fox and grey wolf. And he showed me pictures of the early Inuit community, explaining that they never wasted anything. They went ice-fishing in winter and used the leftover skin to make bags; if they hunted caribou they ate the meat, dried any excess for later, made clothes from the hide and tools from the antlers and bones.
We headed to the airport. In Nunavik terms the park is close to Kangiqsujuaq but the only way to access it is by plane. We were heading for a short, bumpy landing strip, over a hundred kilometres away from anywhere or anyone – but not anything: we would be staying near Pingualuit Crater.
“People thought that the crater was caused by a volcano,” explained Pierre as the perfectly circular lake appeared from the otherwise endless russet permafrost below. The small plane noticeably tipped as everyone leaned over to catch a glimpse of this mysterious watery hole that the Inuit call the Crystal Eye. “If it had been volcanic there would have been valuable mineral deposits,” said Pierre, “but one scientist quickly quelled the speculation – and now it’s known that it is a meteor crater. The meteor fell 1.4 million years ago. Its impact was 8,500 times stronger than the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
The giant crater disappeared as we came in to land. It was too late to walk up to it, so we spent the evening at the park’s cabins kayaking on nearby Lake Manarsulik, looking for rock ptarmigan and watching the sun flare scarlet as it sunk below the horizon.
The next morning we made our way over the tundra, an excited Pierre regaling us with tales of Pingualuit. He talked of the strange fish with unusually large heads that live in its lake (no one can decide how they got there); of the Second World War pilots who used it as a navigational tool; of the archaeological sites that remain undisturbed nearby. “The landscape is a living book – there is so much we can learn,” he exclaimed, picking up a rock that showed indentations made when the meteor crashed all that time ago.
The lake was huge; 3.4km in diameter, with a circumference of over 10km. Despite the sunshine, a thin layer of ice coated its surface like hardened treacle on a toffee apple; someone threw a rock on it and the silence exploded into a wind chime-like melody. On the way back, the ground started moving. “That’s not the ground,” Pierre corrected, “that’s caribou.” We stopped to watch as one became three, became five, became 20, became more than I could count. A migrating herd, nibbling at the lichen-coated rocks. One stopped and looked me right in the eye – I gasped, overwhelmed by our connection. Seconds later he was gone, but it took a while before I could move, reluctant to break the magic.
More wildlife beckoned at Quaqtaq. Smaller than Kangiqsujuaq, this hamlet houses around 315 people. It has an airport, hotel, school and hospital, but I headed straight for the harbour where a man called Bobby was waiting. He transported me to nearby Diana Island in what looked like a traditional Canadian canoe – but actually concealed two powerful engines.
The grassy atoll was deserted; I spotted a few clumps of brown wool strung amid the grass but otherwise it seemed we had the place to ourselves. Then Bobby stopped and gestured uphill. At first I thought they were cows but, as we got closer, I realised they were bigger. Musk-ox. With giant curled horns and scraggy light-brown and white coats, they resembled prehistoric bison. They eyed us warily as we moved past, the larger ones standing in front of their young. When they decided we’d got close enough, the ten-strong herd began to run, shaking the earth. It was like standing in the bottom of a bass drum.
Exhilarated, we left the musk-ox to their idyll and headed back to the village. As we tore through the water, bearded seal popped up to check out the commotion, then a minke whale emerged to accompany us home, giving the odd spurt from its blowhole. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.
Bear on board
Word of a polar bear sighting on the edge of town circulated at the hotel the next morning. Perhaps it was a good omen for my final trip, to Akpatok Island with the armed pilot. Akpatok is actually part of neighbouring territory, Nunavut, but has been under Nunavik protection since 2008. In winter, when ice connects this massive 903 sq km landmass to the mainland, polar bears cross over. When their route back melts in summer, many remain stranded. This makes it an ideal place to spot them.
So there we were, staring at Akpatok’s giant cliffs. These cliffs provide nesting sites for thick-billed murre, an important food source for polar bears. But the bears didn’t seem to be hunting today. Instead Kuujjuaq fireman David Mesher, who had stayed overnight on the boat, showed me photographs of polar bears swimming; he explained that he and the crew slept in shifts to ensure they didn’t take on any furry white stowaways...
Almost on cue we heard a commotion upstairs – a bear had been sighted. We ran to the deck and captain Johnny cut the engine. I was visibly shaking with anticipation. As we drifted, a large male polar bear emerged above a slither of snow. He raised his head to sniff the air – our scent had attracted him.
He looked at us and then at the drop beneath his feet as though contemplating the descent. Even from this distance I could tell he was huge but I wasn’t worried. The trip may have started with guns but the only shooting now was with cameras. I gazed at the bear, my nose fizzing as I tried to stop myself from crying, and mused how much like Nunavik he was: unexpected, wild, tear-inducingly beautiful and simply unforgettable.
Make it happen...
Arctic Québec is hard to traverse without prearranged transport or the services of a tour operator. Travel is by small twin otter planes. Tour operators offering Nunavik trips to see the Big Three (polar bear, musk-ox, caribou) include Audley Travel, Discover the World and Bridge & Wickers. For add-ons or to book local charter flights, contact Inuit Adventures.