North to Nunavut
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, April 1999

On April Fools Day, Canada will create a territory much larger than any existing province. Nunavut is no more a joke than the human rights issues and land claims that provoked the splitting off of a vast region to be controlled by its Inuit majority. In the netherworld of Canada's northeast, where the continent splatters into islands before dropping off the edge of the earth into the Arctic Ocean, the Inuit will regain control of their ancestral lands and future uses of them, such as tourism.

Nunavut means "our land" in the Inuktitut language. As one Inuit leader explains, "We live off the land, while white people live off money. That's why we worry about our land and they about their money." Yet the new territory's 22,000 Inuit drove a hard bargain for a settlement of 1.148 billion Canadian dollars and extensive mineral rights, plus outright ownership of 136,000 square miles.

After April 1, all Nunavut businesses must be at least 51 percent Inuit owned. Knowing the sad history of other native communities, the Inuit are not about to let rivers of tourist dollars run freely southward. To photograph around the northern tip of Baffin Island, I worked through Nunavut Tourism, a new organization of operators (www.nunatour.nt.ca), who set me up with Tahoonik Sahoonik Outfitters in the subsistence village of Pond Inlet.

When my son, Tony, and I arrived by scheduled flight, our jaws dropped when we were taken to our next form of transport„an open boat no longer than my Suburban, which isn't very seaworthy. We helped our 61-year-old guide, Ham Kadloo, and our deckhand, his 7-year-old great-grandson, Hosia, load 125 gallons of fuel plus a week's food and camping gear aboard. With little room left, we stayed surprisingly comfortable on near-freezing seas in one-piece inflatable survival suits. Hosia proved to be amazingly mature, helping on board and playing quietly around our campsites without need for discipline. His focused attention seemed inbred by the unforgiving environment.

At ten one evening, I coaxed Ham to cross twenty open miles of Eclipse Sound to Bylot Island. Beyond a wild Arctic Yosemite of a fjord, a tiny yellow spotlight appeared over a peak. The scene was so otherworldly that it took us long moments to recognize the tip of the moon rising sideways into the twilight. For two hours it moved across the horizon, never higher than its own diameter above snowy peaks in a kaleidoscope of changing sky colors. I felt as if I was on another planet, but I couldn't make the necessary half-second exposures from our moving boat.

Tony spotted something break the glassy surface "like the Loch Ness monster," and mythical creatures began rising up all around us. Groups of two, three, and four narwhals were surfacing at a distance. Tony and I had come to the tip of Baffin based on reports of thousands of these strange, single-tusked whales being forced south by an unseasonal August freeze. Though we never got close enough to get a good photo in the twilight, as soon as we landed I set up my 500m with a 2X converter to shoot the setting moon. The twilight was too dark for a matching landscape exposure, but when I got my film back, one frame of the huge orange orb had a green flare on the edge. I'd caught an extremely rare green flash on the moon instead of the sun. All the conditions that favor its solar counterpart were present.

For five days, we had a great time searching the seas, camping on beaches, and exploring trackless tundra. Once, as we trolled the base of Bylot's sheer cliffs, I spotted a polar bear with twin cubs sprinting into a cul de sac with vertical walls. I'd seen lots of P bears on ice before, but never one climbing rock. The mother would scramble well up onto the sheer wall, only to fall back, roar with rage, and try again. Finally, she led her two large cubs back toward us into an alcove, where she hovered right above us and glowered down.

A typical tour guide would have said, "Time to move on. That's all folks." Ham covered Tony and I with his shotgun while we jumped off the bow in heavy swells onto a wave-swept rock with our tripods and telephotos. In between pounding heart beats, we squeezed off rare photographs.

Contrary to the myth that polar bears have no fear, this mother clearly wanted to flee. Her rage spoke legions about Nunavut's growing conflict between ecotourism, sport hunting, and subsistence hunting involving the same wild creatures. Wildlife viewing always suffers in areas where animals are regularly hunted. The Inuit hold broad traditional hunting rights (though visiting hunters can only hunt bears by non-motorized means). To a mother bear all humans smell the same.

Like ourselves, Ham's ancestors were lured to the Canadian High Arctic by the profusion of marine mammals, including polar bears. For tourists, seeing large creatures is exciting, but for traditional Inuit traveling across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, these animals were the very embodiment of life and survival. To start out the long winter night of Arctic darkness without enough stored meat meant slow death by starvation. Whales„bowhead, beluga, narwhal„made the difference for survival in the most extreme inhabited environment on Earth.

Modern Inuit have a continued economic, social, and artistic dependence on Arctic large mammals. Their paintings and soapstone carvings convey the abstract shapes of creatures that have long been the focus of their lives and have long captured the fancy of more southerly cultures. The Inuit weren't consulted in the 19th century when the huge Hudson's Bay Company sold off its assumed holdings to the government, nor did they ever sign a treaty giving up ancestral lands they had inhabited for thousands of years before Europeans "discovered" them. After the Greenland Inuit gained home rule from the Danish in 1979 and the Alaskan Inuit settled their native claims in 1980, the Canadian Inuit stepped up pressure to create a territory to be ruled by the majority. Before a national commission in 1993 many Inuit testified that the government had forced them to relocate farther north to further sovereignty over uninhabited regions.

Despite some contested statements of government abuse, the Inuit made it all too clear that they had been treated as second-class citizens on lands that morally and legally deserved to be their own. As their devastating assertions of hardship and starvation echoed around the world, parliament rushed to validate their long-disputed land claims.

Though Nunavut has been there all along, its new political identity begs comparison to an Alaska that can no longer truthfully promote itself as "The Last Frontier." Nunavut is larger with ten times fewer people, far more polar bears, and just 12 miles of roads outside its few scattered towns.

Thus Nunavut is unlikely to become just another one of those overmature ecotourism destinations where travelers face each other in suspiciously comfortable lodgings owned by absentee landlords and surrounded by seemingly traditional people who worship the dollar. With GPS and satellite phones, however, life on any frontier ain't what it used to be. Nunavut's jet-serviced, English-language, easy-sleeping North American time zones may allow you to see alot in a week, but don't fall into the trap of living by the clock. If you come in summer with expectations of great photography, sleep by day with eye blinders and ear plugs. Stay up all night to see spectacular Arctic light shows and far more wildlife.

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