The Insider's Guide to the North - May
1) The view at the floe edge
Billy Merkosak is a hunter, carver, and wilderness guide in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. For the past three years, he’s helped lead tourists to the floe edge, where sea ice meets open water, about 60 kilometres from town. In the late spring and early summer, the floe edge is where marine life gathers: algae and plankton draw in fish, which bring in seals, which attract polar bears. Bowhead whales and narwhals often pass by to join in the action, and walruses might make an appearance too. Kittiwakes crowd the cliffs nearby, and eider ducks float nonchalantly past.
“Mostly, [the clients] are quiet and watch birds go by, bears go by, marine mammals go by,” says Merkosak. “This is the entertainment for them … they’re overwhelmed by what they see.”
For visitors, it’s a cultural lesson as much as an environmental one. Nearby, hunters might be at work, and the group stays a respectful distance away. And most of the time, for even the most adamantly anti-hunting tourist, watching the Arctic marine food web in action brings the concept of hunting for survival into clear focus. – SM
2) Watch the breakup
Kari Hergott grew up in Fort Providence, NWT, where her parents’ home was perched right above the river on the community’s main drag. She moved to Yellowknife four years ago, but still manages to catch the river breaking up during spring visits home.
“You can’t figure it out. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. It just happens. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night and you wake up and things have changed, and sometimes it’s moving midday.
“It’s always a big community thing. When the ice starts moving people just gravitate to the riverbank. Everybody. Vehicles stop. I remember being in school and [someone would yell] ‘the ice is moving!’ and we would just all run outside and sit on the bank and watch it. Sometimes it would move for five minutes and sometimes for half an hour. It just depended on where it was jammed.
“To see it moving so quickly, and to see the ice coming up from the water and dropping. The noise. The river is so powerful and flows so fast without ice in it, to see these big boulders of ice moving, it’s almost surreal.” — DC
3) Sunbathe and relax on the ice in Ulukhaktok
Richard McKinnon, principal and teacher at Helen Kalvak School in Ulukhaktok, NWT, is a Cape Bretoner who’s lived in the community for the past seven years. Late April to early June, he says, is the season for spending hours out on the ice—and with the midnight sun beaming down, it’s the most relaxing thing you’ll do all year.
“Duck hunting, that’s late evenings out on the ice, sitting around drinking coffee and hot chocolate, and the elders, and the kids, and the adults, different age groups are coming together to do that.
“It’s not only a time of hunting, it’s also socializing. We fish and we have a fire, cook some food out there, relax. Sometimes you don’t realize it: you intended to be home by 11 at night, and before you know it it’s 2:30 in the morning.
“There are a lot of laughs, a lot of jokes and telling stories, and laughing—until you see the ducks in the distance and everyone’s quiet. It’s like a switch that shuts off. ‘Oh, ducks!’ Everyone just quiets right down; no one moves. When [the ducks are] gone, it starts right back again and everyone’s talking, joking around, laughing. Some of the kids have competitions to see who does a better goose call. Some of them have just the most amazing goose calls with their voice. You can watch the geese in the sky turn towards them because they can hear the calls.
“I don’t hunt ducks, but I’ll be out with my friends when they’re hunting ducks, and I’m just lounging on a Ski-Doo, not far from the edge of the ice in the ocean with snow everywhere, my parka undone, and feeling the heat of the sun. You can just drift off and fall asleep out there. There’s a peace that comes with the land.”– SM