canouan

Nunavut

Calls from the Wild

Any passionate traveler reading this is likely to be familiar with the serendipity of daydreaming about your “big trip,” whether it be an African safari, adventure trek across the Andes, or even a world cruise. What never seems to be on this agenda for Canadians is exploring our own northern landscapes, like Nunavut.

While the magnetic pull so often sewn into the best of vacation fantasies seems to take place beyond our own borders, we might stop to reconsider supporting a Canadian adventure as a multi-sided benefit.

Authentic discovery remains illusive in our hyper savvy world, so I seriously began researching how I might best experience the mysteries of my first stay “North of 60” here in Canada. Considering our planet is increasingly mapped, measured, photographed, and visited by legions of travelers, I am thrilled to be looking at an immense area of my own country boasting the slogan “Untamed, unspoiled, undiscovered.”

Newest Territory

Nunavut is our newest and largest territory (1999). Over two million square kilometers of tundra, ancient rock formations, pristine oceanways, colossal icebergs, Northern Lights, and stunning wildlife favorites such as musk oxen, wolverine, beluga, white wolf and polar bear. If the spark of Arctic curiosity ignites your mind when reading passages by Knud Rasmussen, James Houston, or Robert McGhee, or even if you find yourself groaning in appreciation while watching BBC’s Arctic film footage of baby polar bears at play, then a visit to our northern land of wonders is likely overdue.

As global warming increases, and the ice pack melts more each year, the industrial push to capitalize on the ever-available natural resources hidden in this fragile environment is frenzied. This is where tourism holds a critical role, and where your precious travel dollars may have supreme impact.

First-Ever Conference

Nunavut held their first-ever tourism conference in March of 2012, and along with this groundbreaking event officially opened their doors to global consumer travel. Of course getting here is half the fun, but much easier now than even a decade ago, when infrequent flights, astronomical ticket prices, and the lack of accommodations simply made it impossible for most travelers to even consider. Things have changed since then…somewhat.

These days, according to Nunavut Tourism Executive Director Colleen Dupuis, “There are daily flights to virtually every major community across Nunavut.” What Colleen and most travel agents shy away from mentioning, is exactly how far Nunavut destinations are from where most of us live in Canada.

A good example is the distance from Ottawa to Kugluktuk (a.k.a.Coppermine) on Coronation Bay, a whopping 4000 kilometers one-way. That’s equal to the distance from Vancouver to La Paz, Mexico, but certainly not as far as an African safari, and the Canadian trek requires no malaria pills.

Bathurst Inlet Lodge

So how do we change the mind set about traveling north to Nunavut, rather than south to Mexico? In my mind’s eye, the North has always meant stories by Jack London, and scenes of dog teams pulling sleds against howling winds, peppering travelers with snow in all 50 forms. Suffering comes to mind as well, as northern history serves us a long menu of horror tales of being stranded, hungry, or lost in the barrens.

My rather jaded view of this totally mysterious landscape is typical of most “southerners” and I am determined to change this bias. They have summer in the North, right? So, what is it like in Nunavut without the stress of blizzards, etc? I had to find out for myself. I made arrangements to experience a week at the legendary Bathurst Inlet Lodge north of the Arctic Circle.

A former Hudson Bay Post on the Burnside River, this is the legendary hunting realm for Inuit following the massive Bathurst caribou herd of over 300,000 animals, and is filled with archeological treasures like stone tent rings, seasonal campsites, and sacred graves. Wild and powerful land peppered with grizzly bears, Artic fox, millions of birds, and ablaze in over 89 flower species blooming at the same time, anyone is immediately humbled.

British explorer Sir John Franklin landed here in 1821 during his years of trying to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin and his crew eventually got lost somewhere in this immense wilderness, and became the subject of numerous books, articles, and debate in the ensuing years.

I land here on Canada Day in a twin-engine Otter, feeling completely ignorant of the land, the Inuit people, the Inuktitut language, etc. My wife opted out when she hears about long days on a pontoon boat with no toilet. She ends up being wrong about the toilet, but so correct in not joining me. This is not the Ritz-Carlton, and travelers thinking there is luxury available here like any other travel destination, should be aware of the “rustic” ambiance of the accommodations and amenities, like the use of “honey buckets,” and bug jackets, etc.

Founding Father

Glenn Warner, the RCMP officer in charge of the entire Canadian North in the 1960s, first visited Bathurst Inlet in 1964, and together with his wife Trish, became enamored of this unique perch on the Burnside River Delta, along with the kind and generous Inuit residents living here. The couple would return and purchase the property from Hudson Bay Company, and it remains one of the few private land holdings anywhere in Nunavut.

They organized their business gameplan and opened as the first ecotourism resort in 1969, before the word “ecotourism” had even been coined. The Warners also set it up as a 50/50 partnership with the local Inuit, unheard of in the corporate world generally, but reflecting the long and trusting relationship between the Inuit and non-Inuit families here.

Secret Ingredient

I arrive to a full Bathurst Inlet community welcome, all twenty people or so, replete with every mosquito on the planet. Of course my research told me to expect these little pollinators, but the reality is always a sobering shock. First item of business by the lodge team is issuing everyone a personal bug jacket. I decide to employ some of my best Zen principles to temper the mosquitoes constant presence during my stay.

The Warner family continues to operate the lodge during the summer only, with son Boyd and his family now taking over the legacy of operations. I meet Page Burt, the onsite biologist, who proves to be the secret ingredient for our entourage’s enjoyable stay. Page allows the surrounding landscape to come alive in a multitude of dimensions, sharing stories with us in the field about the Inuit, flora and fauna species, and history of the ancient rock formations speckling the endless and raw landscape.

Safari North

If you’ve ever entertained the notion of an African safari, you might consider coming here first as an opportunity to train in your own Canadian backyard. It’s considerably closer than Kenya for example, and although the wildlife is admittedly more sparse in sheer numbers (except for the birds), the overall experience is similarly dramatic, poetic, and unforgettable.

You will not find the level of peace and tranquility found here anywhere in Africa, that is a guarantee. The spectacle of being able to gaze at the 360-degree beauty of this place from the privacy of the “Blu Loo” pontoon boat each day, has an effect on travelers which defies words. It often seems like we are floating through a pristine dream.

We follow the graceful visual flight of huge white swans, red-throated loons, eider ducks, and Canada geese each day, not to mention spying on bald eagles and peregrine falcons in their natural habitats, plus sightings of seals, caribou, and white Artic wolf. This is simply a privilege of the highest order to be in Nunavut. But the peak of my visit comes on Cultural Night, when our main Inuit guide, Sam Kapolak, shares with us the intriguing insights into the traditions of his nomadic ancestors.

Inside the main lodge, the walls are covered with Inuit tools, photographs and memorabilia, which Sam carefully explains to an audience hushed by the rarity of the lifestyle he describes. Following his extensive tour through the habits of the Inuit, there is a mini fashion show of handmade clothing, and then throat singing by Sam’s daughter Bernice and friend Brandi.

Finale

Canadians have a glorious opportunity with the opening of Nunavut to tourism, and no better place exists across the North to begin than at Bathurst Inlet Lodge in summertime. But your window for travel is tiny, only a few weeks each July, and the costs are significant, so you may want to start saving now.

A rare weave of experiences feels exclusively yours after you land; from wildlife viewing to pontoon island tours, birdwatching, archeological hunts, photo-shoots, mountain hikes, Arctic Ocean swims, char and trout fishing, kayaking, and the cultural exposure to our Inuit neighbors.

As my group watches a white wolf hunting seagull eggs on the sand dunes in front of the lodge, eventually catching a huge adult gull for dinner, I think to myself how incredible to be able to travel to such a remarkably wild place, where time seems to have been left to others, and dreams have room to prosper and grow.