Arctic Communities: Understanding Their Connection to The Remote North

May 30, 2019 Daven Hafey

A walk through a small community in the High Arctic reveals a different daily rhythm

The Arctic beckons to people for different reasons.  Iconic wildlife and endless wildernesses.  The midnight sun in summertime, the northern lights as the polar night returns.  Retracing the steps of historic expeditions.  Visiting communities and appreciating unique and enduring ways of life. But what I love most about the Arctic is the people.  The communities.  When we travel the Northwest Passage and pass through Arctic Canada and West Greenland, we are entering a world so familiar to us, but which is beautiful, real, and authentic.  We are privileged to experience such a way of life, if only just for a day – a way of life that has simultaneously held onto ancient traditions yet has embraced 21st century realities.

A beach in Baffin Island.

Quark Expedition guests walk along a Baffin Island beach. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

Robust in Arctic Colors

On this particular day, the Arctic, famous for its long dark nights and frozen landscapes, offers us a warmer, softer side.  A thin carpet of seasonal Arctic green blankets the hillsides.  Patches of wildflowers are scattered in small clusters.  Fiery magentas, Persian blues, eggshell whites, and pale yellows.  A polychromatic array of flora, dotting the otherwise snowy tundra for a handful of weeks each summer.  Wispy white clouds stretch out into the distance, set against a soft blue backdrop of endless Arctic sky. 

We are sailing west on a polar expedition ship, intent on navigating the infamous Northwest Passage.  A week ago we were in West Greenland, but today we are in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada, a combination of North American landmass and an ice-choked archipelago of islands that make up the Northwest Passage.  There are twenty-five small communities throughout Nunavut, each with a heartbeat of its own, each with a unique relationship with the surrounding lands and seas. Purple flowers accent the hilltop of houses in an arctic community. Photo by Nicky Souness.

Purple flowers accent the hilltop of houses in an arctic community. Photo by Nicky Souness.

Northern Exposure: Daily Life in an Arctic Community

Like many communities across the Arctic, a network of gravel roads connects the various corners of this town where we’ve stopped for the day.  This community is one of several we’ll visit during our expedition through the Northwest Passage, a wonderful combination of absolute wilderness and communities of inhabitants who have called these wild lands home for centuries.  Although quiet, there is much activity.  Three or four kids are walking down one of these gravel roads together, laughing.  They’re somewhere between eight and ten years old, I’m guessing.  I hear no traffic, no airplanes, save for the sound of one small engine in the distance, getting closer.  An ATV speeds by, pulling a small aluminum trailer with knobby off-road tires.  The trailer is stocked with a curious cargo: two five-gallon water canisters, a set of tools and a shovel, a cooler and a basketball.

Children sitting on a stoop in an arctic community enjoy the sun.

A pair of Arctic community members sit on a stoop, basking in the sun. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

I walk through town, and another ATV passes me.  It’s ten or so degrees above freezing, and the female driver is dressed only in blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.  Her eyes smile at me as she drives by.  Her young daughter rides on the back rack, a small blanket for a seat.  Driving to work?  To see their family?  A few minutes later, the first ATV returns from where it came, pulling an empty trailer, and parks near the general store next to a half-dozen others.

A few houses down, there is a beautiful musk ox hide stretched over the railings of a household deck, curing.  The deep chocolate browns of the haunch and flanks fade seamlessly into the tans and taupes of the legs’ underfurs.  Two snowmobiles are parked next to the house, awaiting the return of the autumn snow and winter sea ice.  Adjacent to them are a couple of qamutiiks, wooden sleds pulled over the sea ice by snowmobiles or teams of sled dogs, similar in design to those used for thousands of years across the Arctic.  They, too, have retired for a summer rest after a long winter service.

Down at the beach, I see three aluminum skiffs, their bows high and dry and their sterns still in the water.  Coolers and jerry jugs pack each boat, with a few rifles and provisions for an extended stay out on the land.  Men, young and old, walk back and forth from the boats, loading last minute items for their outing.  I spot the man from the ATV joining eight or so others, smiling and laughing.  They are hunters, the most ancient of professions in the North, preparing to head out and catch food for the community, a never-ending job, regardless of the season.  It is summertime now, the narrow window during which travel by boat is fairly safe, and the most efficient method of covering miles quickly to reach bountiful hunting grounds.

An older man offers meat tidbits as a snack on a bed of furs.

An older member of the community offers snacks, presented on a bed of furs. Photo by Sam Crimmin.

It's just after 6 pm, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the angle of the sun.  It’s “summertime,” with more than twenty hours of bright skies overhead each day.  But fall is approaching, and with it, the polar night of winter.  As the calendar marches on into October and November, these latitudes will lose up to ten minutes of daylight each day.  More than an hour of daylight lost each week until, finally, winter sets in and the infamous polar night dominates.  Pure and near constant darkness, from early December to late January.  A jet-black canvas for the seemingly millions of twinkling stars, the ethereal northern lights flowing like spirits across the night sky.

Man in a yellow jacket looks up at the streaks of Northern Lights.

A Quark Expeditions Guest stares up at the Northern Lights from the bow of a ship. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

The Wonders of Winter: Family and Community Time

With winter comes the sea ice.  Hopefully.  But navigating across these icy landscapes in winter is dangerous.  Any number of things can catch you and carry you on to the other side.  Extreme cold, windstorms and ground blizzards, unstable ice and unforeseen storms that break up the ice into packs of drifting floes.  Floes that could drift closer to town, or drift further out into the dark unknown, with you riding as a relatively helpless passenger.  Disorientation, accidents with knives, guns, cooking stoves, snowmobiles.  Polar bears.

But despite these dangers, winter is just as important as summer, if not more so.  Winter brings the sea ice, the hunting platform that provides hunters with access to essential seasonal food sources. 

A man holds a painting of two whales.

A painter shows off his latest work of two whales below the sea. Photo by Nicky Souness.

The extended polar night and winter storms are perfect for family gatherings and community events. Stories are told, food is shared, kinship strengthened and maintained.  The lengthy darkness of winter is no easy thing to endure, let alone navigate while maintaining full control of your wits.  Months of darkness have the power to play tricks on the mind, and it is imperative to occupy those days, weeks, and months with meaningful activities, meaningful people.  To be sure, winter can whittle you down.  But with family, with community, with stories and tasks, jobs and duties, and general downtime with friends and family, winter can also, paradoxically, lift you up.
 

The Return of the Sun

By late January or early February, the sun begins its slow return from the South.  Day by day, the twilight lingers longer, until the hours of sunlight begin to add up.  By March and April, nearly ten minutes of sunlight are added to each day.  More than an hour of new daylight every week.  But the deep freeze still has its icy grip on the land and sea, and the world is still cold.  By spring, the sea ice is just as solid as it was in the winter, but with the added bonus of twelve, fifteen, eighteen hours of daylight to navigate safely, to read the land’s clues and spot prey in the distance, to hunt and bring food home to the community.

Early summer arrives, and with it the first signs of break-up.  The sea ice begins to soften under the midnight sun.  Cracks and leads open up between massive ice floes, increasing in size and quantity as summer carries on.  Navigating by snowmobile across the sea ice becomes unsafe, and hunters and local residents now have to wait until July and August, when the sea ice has dispersed enough to allow for safe passage by boat.  The seasonal clock ticks on.A puppy sits beneath the antlers of a muskox.

A puppy sits beneath antlers.  Photo by Nicky Souness.

Attuned to the Tides and the Passage of Time

I look back at the hunters, now pushing their skiffs out into the water.  They are in tune with the land and with the sea, with the sun and the seasons.  Their internal clocks aren’t set to the 9 am’s and 5 pm’s familiar in more southerly latitudes and Western communities.  Yes, there are plenty of twenty-four-hour clocks throughout the community, and certain hours require certain activities, particularly at school, the airport, the workplace, etc.  But in general, the internal clocks of the North are set to the seasons.  To the tides.  To the clues offered annually by the landscape – the presence of specific birds indicating a transition of the seasons, Arctic cotton grass going to seed a sign of wildlife migrations. The land and its wild natural ways help tell the time.  For those living in the North, this is time.  This is reality.  This is home.

Watching the hunters motor out of the bay and into the inlet, I have a deep appreciation for life here.  Although I spend as much time on the land in the North as I can, this community is not my community.  It belongs to the hunters, the children, the woman and her daughter on the ATV.  I am a visitor, and I am ever grateful to be so warmly welcomed onto their land to glimpse a world different from my own.  A world that has its dangers and its challenges, its subtleties and priorities, its beautiful intimacies and rhythms.  Its heartbeat, its soul.  I feel privileged to be here, in this beautiful landscape, home to strong people with a propensity for sharing and laughter.A woman in white holds her baby.

A member of the community holds her daughter before a ceremony. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

Back on the ship, the mechanical clank of the anchor chain lets me know that we will soon be on our way.  I wish the hunters good weather and lots of luck, and I smile at the thought of them returning with a literal boat load of food, happy to share with their friends, family, and neighbors.  For those of us on the ship, we will leave tonight, waking up tomorrow somewhere 100 miles from here.  In a week we will be aboard an airplane, en route to our respective homes, with photos, memories, and nostalgic mementoes from our voyage across the Arctic.  But for the people of this community, they will remain, dancing with summer, autumn, winter, and spring and everything that comes with those natural transitions.  These wild lands are their lands.  This seasonal clock is their clock.  The Arctic is their home.
 
Silhouette of a woman looking across the bow of the ship towards a sunset horizon.

Silhouette of a guest looking across the bow of the ship towards the sunset. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

And wherever your home may be, you’d be as welcome among the communities in the Arctic as I’ve been. These encounters give meaning to travel beyond simply fulfilling the need for a vacation. Travel here, learn about and experience the Arctic through candid encounters with the communities, wildlife, and landscapes on an authentic expedition through the Northwest Passage.

About the Author

Daven Hafey

Daven is a professional guide, writer, and freelance film maker who feels most at home in wild places. He has guided on more than 40 polar expeditions in the Antarctic, Greenland, Arctic Canada, and Alaska, and has a strong admiration for the people who call these wild lands home. Daven studied political science and ecology in university, and he believes in the power of a good story. He’s worked six amazing seasons for Quark Expeditions and always carries a deep excitement and reverence for the wild lands we explore.

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