Why I Left NYC in Springtime for 10° Days on the Arctic Ocean
Yes it was cold and yes it was remote. But the beauty of both the land and its people in Nunavut is one of the world’s most magical experiences.
At a balmy 10°F, spring had sprung in the Arctic.
The sun was shining, the ravens were cawing, and the capital of Nunavut was buzzing with its nearly eight thousand residents. I’d been in Iqaluit, Canada for only a few hours and it seemed everyone was commenting on the relatively nice weather.
It may be Canada’s newest and largest territory, but Nunavut and its terrain is objectively beautiful.
There is a seemingly endless landscape of bright white snow contrasting with flecks of slate rock. Perched on the jagged and slick frozen beach of the Arctic Ocean, the candy-colored buildings of Iqaluit are a welcome and playful sight.
I was in Nunavut, 2,000 miles away from my cozy Brooklyn apartment, because the team at Destination Nunavut wanted to showcase to journalists and travel bloggers the remote beauty and Inuit culture this region of Canada has to offer.
The primary allure of the region for both tourists and residents is the untouched land: Dog sledding, ice fishing, and snowmobiling are all readily available as excursions from local guides if frozen exploration is on your bucket list. Iqaluit is the most populated part of Nunavut, but still offers an experience that, especially coming from New York, is alluring and calming in its isolation.
Nunavut is only a twenty-year-old territory, but the Inuit history of Canada’s arctic is deeply rooted in the land. Hunting along the floe edge or ice fishing in the Arctic Ocean are skills that Inuit people have mastered over generations, and are recently becoming more accessible to tourists as excursions from Nunavut’s dwellers. This makes it a ripe choice for The Daily Beast’s bimonthly series on underrated travel destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
I've arrived ahead of Toonik Tyme, an annual community celebration of Inuit traditions and the return of Spring. Toonik Tyme is named after “Toonik,” a word meaning one of the Tuniit people, the ancestors preceding the Canadian Arctic Inuits.
At the community curling rink, hundreds of residents filed into neat rows of folding chairs facing a stage, while a handful of children, some in pajamas, played on the floor. An organizer wheeled a 103-year-old Inuit woman to the front row. A chorus of chatty conversations—both in English and the native Inuktitut—quickly quieted as the opening ceremony festivities began.
After an introduction and announcing the years’ honorary “Tooniks”—Cooking show dynamo Rebecca Veevee and sculptor Lew Phillip—the celebration was underway.
There was a performance of traditional throat singing, an Inuit art where a duo performs vocal sounds similar to a low, growling beatboxing.
The performers face each other and exchange breathy percussive vocals. Initially a form of entertainment for Inuit women whose husbands were on hunting trips, throat singing is less of a musical number and more of a playful contest to see who can last the longest without running out of breath or laughing.
Yet the highlight of the opening festivities was undoubtedly the fashion show. Men, women, and children strutted across the stage in their exquisite handmade parkas, pausing midway to pull up their hoods and pose. Crafting these intricate garments is a skill provided to the members of the Inuit community through the elders and the Nunavut Literacy Council.
These were no drab gray North Face puffer jackets: Some parkas were made of spotted seal skin, others sported western fringe and metallic embellishments. There were teens with embroidered floral detail on their sleeves and brightly dyed fur hoods, and doughy toddlers waddling across the stage in warm onesies. The audience was delighted, cheering and clapping throughout the mostly-Inuit runway show.
It was frankly more fun, and far less pretentious, than any Fashion Week event.
Toonik Tyme is a festival that spans 10 days and has evolved since 1965 to a hybrid of showcasing traditional Inuit skills (seal skinning, igloo building) and more contemporary ones (snowmobile racing, bingo night).
A new retrospective exhibit of the late Inuk graphic artist Alootook Ipellie debuted during Toonik Tyme, an impressive breadth of work including satirical and editorial cartoons, graphic posters, and detailed line work. At its best, Ipellie critiques the media, the Canadian government, and the residual problems of colonization in the area.
Down the street from the exhibit, a line of people snaked around the curling rink holding large cardboard boxes filled with produce. It was IqualuEAT, a large farmers market that had attracted much of the town with a cost-effective alternative to shopping at the local grocery store. In an arctic climate with zero produce production, fresh food prices are astronomical. (Peaches at the farmers market were $1 each, whereas two pounds of nectarines cost $60 at the supermarket.)
Rebecca Veevee, who has been attending Toonik Tyme for 52 years, says she’s seen the high cost of living affect Toonik Tyme. “It used to be $47 dollars [to fly to nearby Pangnirtung] from here, now it’s $500,” she said. “A lot of people like to come [to Nunavut], but everything is too expensive.”
Obstacles aside from cost are plentiful living in Nunavut: a housing crisis, an abnormally high suicide rate and alcoholism all weigh heavier on the community than the bitter cold.
It’s clear why Toonik Tyme is worth celebrating: The end of Winter means the more daylight after months of darkness, and more time outdoors.
If extreme temperatures make you weary, Theresie Tungilik, Nunavut’s Advisor of Arts & Travel Economy, offers the bright side.
“It’s cold, but the thing is, the people are warm.”