Nunavut: visit ‘the place of the bull caribou’

The view from the tiny hamlet of Pangnirtung.
The view from the tiny hamlet of Pangnirtung.

One of the moments I remember vividly from my 2000 trip to Nunavut with assorted family members and friends is looking out of the window of the rickety 14-seater plane that was conveying us to the isolated hamlet of Pangnirtung, and realizing two things in quick succession.

One: parts of the wing were being held together with fraying duct tape.

Two: the plane was tilted almost 90 degrees to my left, I was looking straight down into the icy green waters of Pangnirtung’s fjord, and our transport was shaking in the gusting wind.

Oh, I thought. Is this going to be a problem? Fortunately, it wasn’t.

We were later told that Pangnirtung’s airport is one of the world’s most difficult places to land a plane, because of the strong winds that blow out of the fjord that darts further into Baffin Island and from the wide swath of Cumberland Sound. Weather inconsistencies are a major factor in life in Canada’s vast north.

Pangnirtung—which translates to “the place of the bull caribou”—has a population of only 1,275 souls, and is more commonly known as Pang. The hamlet sits on the inside of one of Baffin Island’s many coastal indentations, almost 300 kilometres by air from Iqaluit, the territory’s capital. The locale has both its joys and pains.

It’s amazingly beautiful, to be sure. The grey, rocky landscape stood out starkly for us against the blue of the vast summer sky, rising up from the clear and frigid waters.

The craggy hills were dotted with green mosses and lichens, as well as the occasional patch of stubborn ice, leaving the astonished tourist with the impression of vivid colours and the clean smell of the air.

But we were lucky enough to be there in summer—the middle of August, to be precise—when the weather was behaving itself, and when the ice on the fjord and the Sound had finally broken. Pang gets most of its essential supplies from semi-annual shipments that come in on huge tankers, and by the time we arrived, the ice had only just cleared enough for a ship to get through. It was supposed to have come in June or July.

The clearing of the ice allowed us to take a windily wonderful boat trip to Kekerten, a former whaling station. Joavee, our guide, told us all about the site’s history, while we boggled at the giant weathered whale skull lying on the shore, and at the spectacular open view that greeted us when we climbed to the top of the hill.

We did a lot of hiking during our week in Pang—the only thing we did more often than walking around was snapping photos.

We climbed Mount Duval, which is not so much a mountain as an extra-large hill, but it looms spectacularly behind Pang’s houses. We hiked into Auyuittuq National Park, a space at the end of the fjord bordered by massive craggy ranges that make a person feel like the tiniest insect.

We even spent one day fishing, mostly unsuccessfully, for the Arctic char native to the waters. In six hours of casting lines and calling “here, fishy fishy,” our 14-person group managed three real catches between us. We felt somewhat redeemed from our abject failure, however, when the cook at the basic but comfortable lodge where we were staying used our prizes to make dinner.

In the evenings, we took advantage of the late-setting sun by walking around the hamlet’s streets and learning tiny snippets of Inuit culture. One night, Joavee arranged a demonstration of several Inuit traditions for us in Pang’s well-maintained historical centre.

From those lessons, we learned that starting fires from moss is harder than it looks, and that a game involving jumping off one foot to kick a hanging target—and landing on the same foot—is exactly as ridiculously hard as it looks.

Life in Pang can be difficult, isolated and at the weather’s mercy. But for us, visiting the beautiful hamlet was an incredibly rewarding and instructive experience, one that I would repeat any time, given half the chance.

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