This article was published 6/1/2017 (1512 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At first glance, the Arctic can make you feel vulnerable.
It’s vast. The communities give new meaning to the definition of isolated. Everyone else seems to belong except you — at least, if you’re an outsider.
And then you find out there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut outlet at the Northern Store, and the world seems just a little smaller.
At least, those are the first impressions from a weeklong journey to the Nunavut communities of Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet, the former the only inland hamlet in all of the Arctic and the latter a larger regional town on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
In late September, I joined photographer John Woods for the trip to interview Inuit artists for two long features revolving around the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s plans to build an Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg. [Read the two-part series: Inuit HeArt]
But since it’s estimated that about only one per cent of Canadians ever set foot in the Arctic, we decided to offer at least a small glimpse of what life is like north of the 60th parallel. And, more important, through Woods’ camera lens.
The first people we met upon landing in Baker Lake, our first leg of the journey, were David Ford and his girlfriend, Cheryl Cook, who run the Jessie Oonark Centre, which serves as both a retail outlet and production facility for local Inuit artists.
Ford looks as though he’s been chosen from central casting, with long, greying hair and John Lennon glasses. Although we have a hotel room booked, Ford offers us room and board at the couple’s home.
But no sooner are we settled at the kitchen table, consuming our first meal of Arctic char, Ford tells us the community hall we passed on the way into town from the airport might be a good introduction to the community.
Dances are common at Baker Lake. In fact, one is held almost every weekend. They don’t need much of an excuse, either. The one we attended was to celebrate a water-board conference that included members of other communities.
It was Thursday night, just after 11 p.m., and the hall was jumping. Literally, jumping.
Square dancers in circles were twirling, stomping and do-si-do-ing. Young and old. The floor was dusted with dirt, which we later learned was to help footwork. Many were in their stocking feet.
Dozens of people were seated around the action, while the band — two guitar players, an accordion player and drummer — was playing a jig on a loop.
I waited for a break to maybe ask some of the dancers a few questions. But a strange thing happened.
The band didn’t stop playing. And the dancers didn’t stop dancing.
Fifteen minutes passed, then 20, then 30.
A few sat down, but the vast majority, many soaked in sweat, kept dancing. It seemed by any standards an endurance contest.
"Very good exercise," one elder on the sidelines told me. "Even little kids dance."
Up on the stage, the drummer was wiping off sweat from his brow with one arm, while pounding away with the other.
Eventually, only a handful of dancers were left on the floor. As the clock was about to strike midnight, the jig was up.
The band put down their instruments, finally.
How long were you playing?, I asked. "This long," said Nigel Tulurialik, showing the blue of the bass chords on his fingertips.
The band members — including Casey Tulurialik (on accordion) Joachim Elytook (drummer) and Robert Seeteenak (guitarist) — explained they must continue to play until all the square dancers have finished their sets. And that depends on how many are in each circle and which community they come from, since jigs vary from place to place.
Said Seeteenak: "You have to keep playing until the last jig is finished. That wasn’t even a marathon yet."
Since it was a school night, however, midnight was long enough.
"We can play right until four o’clock in the morning," Tulurialik said. "The kids will dance all night. They have the energy."
Baker Lake sits at the mouth of the Thelon River, in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. It is believed to be the closest community to the geographic centre of Canada.
The latest census lists the population at about 1,800, with 600 homes.
For decades, there were few employment opportunities outside of government jobs. Many families sustained themselves by creating traditional Inuit art — carvings, paintings, wall hangings. They hunted for their own fish and meat and still do.
Most days you can find someone skinning and butchering a caribou right outside their home.
"If you can kill it, we’ll eat it," said Cook. "We’ll make something out of it. We waste nothing."
But the opening of the Meadowbank gold mine, which began operation in 2010, changed the economic fortunes of many young residents of Baker Lake.
"Ten years ago, there was hardly any vehicles in town," Ford said. "Now there’s two in almost every driveway. People have money now. Before, it was a very poor community.
"A lot of young people that grew up in poor houses have big TVs and big Hondas (ATVs) and snow machines and big trucks."
The mine employs about 7,500, and locals can get jobs that pay $27 an hour. The result has been a decline in the number of Inuit carvers, who are mostly male, and who are now working at the mine.
For young women, it’s a different story. There are fewer jobs, and they do their best to sell whatever they can sew or create at the centre. For example, 26-year-old Shyanne Kinnowater makes wallets, hat pins and purses from seal skin and fur. She sells those for $10 or $20.
"Whatever inspires me," Kinnowater said. "It’s not about the money, I just want to show what I can do."
"These are her own creations," added Cook, who helps Ford run the centre. "You can’t duplicate this. When she comes in, I’m pretty much jumping for joy because she’s so young."
The mine, located about 110 kilometres north of Baker Lake, has added one immediate benefit: improved cell and Internet service.
Baker Lake may be a speck on the global map, but the kids here — and there are plenty of them — are just as likely to have their head buried in a mobile device as their counterparts to the south.
"One son had an iPad, another son had an iPod. I paid," Ford said.
Not everyone believes the mine is worth the temporary income or convenience, however. Cook said the caribou used to stand outside their homes.
"Every day people had to go chase the caribou off the runway so planes could land. Now we have to go farther," she said. "They’ve messed up everything. It’s like asking, ‘Let us come and blow up your backyard.’"
One concept about life in the north is other than the horizon, almost everything is limited.
Want to order in booze by plane? Only one bottle of hard liquor at a time. Or a box of beer.
There’s no 7-Eleven run at 2 a.m.
The same goes with water. In Baker, every home has a water tank that’s filled up to three or four times a week, depending on the number of residents.
For Ford and Cook’s home, with four of their six children still living at home, that usually means three visits a week. Usually, the septic tank is emptied at the same time.
When we were guests, the water ran out twice in four days. During winter storms, families can be without water for days.
But there’s never a shortage of drinking water.
"Everybody drinks water directly from the lake," Ford said. "We just use the water that’s delivered for dishwashing or showering and laundry."
The tank water tastes like it came from a swimming pool, he noted. "Too chlorine-y."
In winter, people cut their own hole in the ice or use holes made by the hamlet for the general public. In December, the ice is usually two feet thick. Before it thaws, it will reach a thickness of six or seven feet.
There are other quirks of living in places like Baker that aren’t arduous at all, but distinct.
For example, there are a few radio stations that can be picked up in town. One is CBC North, of course, but another is a satellite radio station emanating from somewhere in Southern California that Ford says "plays music for the kids."
There is also a local station that serves a number of purposes. It plays music from Inuit artists. There’s lots of bingo.
If someone wants to borrow $20, they can call the station and ask on the air. Or residents will be notified if a cargo ship is arriving.
Ford explained the station had to ban calls from residents who would phone in to complain about family members.
Baker Lake also has a community Facebook page with posting such as, "I have cinnamon buns in the oven, they’ll be ready at 3:15. $2 each." Or someone will be offering cupcakes or cream pies.
None of which might be unique to Baker Lake. Except for the one that says, "Fresh meat with free pickup."
It’s a child’s first kill, Ford says, which can’t be eaten by the family only. So it’s shared with the community.
The famed Inuit artist from Baker Lake, Jessie Oonark, is buried on a place called Blueberry Hill, which overlooks the hamlet just past the airport. At 300 feet above sea level, it is the highest elevation near the town.
Most residents, however, are buried on a patch of tundra a few kilometres north of town.
Well, not "buried." Because of permafrost, the graves are above ground.
The dead are put into plywood or wooden boxes — "Not caskets," Ford said — and their bodies are covered with rocks.
Some gravesites have tombstones, but the majority are marked with a simple white cross provided and painted by the hamlet.
The Catholic and Anglican graves are separated.
The oldest graves date back to the 1920s, when the Anglican church first arrived in Baker Lake. Prior to then, the Inuit buried their dead on the land.
Even to this day, residents who were born on the land are often buried there, with their ancestors.
Many of the gravesites are adorned with plastic flowers, photos, stuffed animals and white shells. One grave, in particular, has a basketball and a pair of gym shoes resting on the rock pile of a young man who died a few years ago.
On an overcast day early in October, perhaps Ford described the cemetery best: "Calm, serene, kind of eerie, too, in some places," he said.
Perhaps that’s because the wooden boxes don’t last forever in the unforgiving environment. And there are graves where the rock piles can’t hide the skeletons of the dead.
Said Cheryl Cook: "I can see my mom."
David Ford’s grandfather, Henry Ford, built the first Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post in Baker Lake in 1915.
Henry was known as Harry to his friends and Uqalujujuq — "the one who could speak" — to the Inuit.
The first Ford in Baker was married to an Inuk and served as a translator on trading ships.
David Ford’s father, also named Henry, was born in that trading post but later moved to southern Ontario. David was born in St. Catherines and as a young man helped run an art gallery in Toronto with his father and brother, Lyle.
In 1988, David moved north to open the Ookpiktuyuq gallery in Baker Lake, which was a gallery and wholesale outlet that sold Inuit art and carvings across Canada. In 2008, he moved across the street to run the Jessie Oonark Centre.
He’s never felt the need to leave.
"I just fell in love with the place," he said. "Didn’t want to leave."
Along with Cheryl, they have a family that includes six children. So if you ask Ford if he ever suffers boredom in such an isolated community, his response is immediate.
"Never," he said. "There’s always something to do. There’s never enough hours in the day."
There’s snow machines or ATVs to fix. Fresh lake water to fetch. Shopping before the stores close. Tending to the children. Feeding his dogs, who eat only fish or wild meat.
"Although it is more tiring in the winter because you don’t have as much sunlight," he said. "You go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. (But) In the summertime you have all kinds of energy. Cheryl and I go right from work to the boat. We’ll go down to the end of the lake (fishing) and we could be out to 1 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and it’s just as bright as the afternoon.
“I like the land. I like the outdoors. I don’t like the air in the south. You can taste the air as soon as you go there." –David Ford
"And during the holidays, they have events every day. They have chiselling contests and dog races, traditional games. And there’s always square dancing, if you’re single, that’s the thing to do."
Besides, it’s not as though Baker Lake residents are stranded. Flights to Rankin Inlet or Winnipeg are subsidized (and free for doctor’s or dentist’s appointments in the south).
But for Ford, there will always be a return ticket.
"I like the land," he said. "I like the outdoors. I don’t like the air in the south. You can taste the air as soon as you go there. We eat the fish out of our backyard. It’s a beautiful place, summer and winter. The land is full of colours.
"It’s a totally different world."
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.