Escapism
Menu Search

Out in the cold: a weekend with the Inuit of Nunavik, Quebec

The vast plains of northernmost Quebec, Canada may feel relatively untouched, but influences from further south are creeping in. We travel to Nunavik to learn how the region’s Inuit people are striving for cultural survival

Siberian huskies pull a dogsled across the icy expanses on Nunavik

It's 7:15am on Sunday morning and I wake with a start. There's a dusting of ice on my sleeping bag and the tarpaulin above my head is whipping in the cold morning breeze. I blink and rub my eyes, a blinding white sky shining through gaps in the tarp's thread and forming a vivid turquoise glow between the wall of ice blocks below.

Getting there

Inuit Adventures offers four-day Ways of the Inuit tours from £2,928 including all meals, activities, return flights from Montreal to Puvirnituq and clothing for the extreme weather. aventuresinuit.ca; find out more about Nunavik at nunavik-tourism.com and quebecoriginal.com; Air Canada flies from London to Montreal from £458 return. aircanada.com

My fellow campers stir as the low thrum of a snowmobile gets louder and louder outside, my guide Peter Boy Itukalla yawning loudly, then stretching his back and sides as he fires up a gas stove a metre or so from my feet. His 19-year-old son Eric remains out like a light, snoring gently and releasing a thin plume of steam with each outbreath. Suddenly, the snowmobile's hum cuts out and from just beyond our sealed-in cocoon I hear a muffled shout of "Hello! Good morning?" from somewhere out in the snow. I respond with a faint "Morning," then slump back into my sleeping bag.

It's -19°C out there, but the windchill takes it to almost -30°C; I'm lying on broken-down cardboard boxes; the tea isn't quite boiled yet and the stove isn't doing a very good job of heating us up. What's more, today is the only day in my life that I've ever had a lie-in in an igloo – I'm staying in bed for a bit.

For the last 24 hours, I've been in a makeshift camp learning cold-weather survival techniques from Inuit elders in Nunavik, the northernmost region in the Canadian province of Quebec. We're stationed about five kilometres outside of the village of Puvirnituq on an island next to the mouth of the Povungnituk River, and a couple of miles from the wide expanse of the Hudson Bay. The word "bay" is a little strong, though: from roughly October to June each year much of the water is frozen, and right now in early April it's a 470,000sq mile block of ice that connects the shores of the Canadian provinces of Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

Put simply, I'm north – a long way north. Not as far north as the Arctic Circle, but pretty damn close. On a clear night I could see the Northern Lights, on an unlucky night I could come face to face with a polar bear, and on a spring night like last night I could easily find myself sleeping in an igloo.

Sitting on Quebec's north-west coast, Puvirnituq is about 60 miles from the village of Akulivik to the north and 100 miles from the town of Inukjuak to the south. A journey to either is difficult, too: the roads run out almost 430 miles to the south in La Grande Rivière, and the only means of transport between communities is by snowmobile, dogsled or a hopper flight along the Hudson Bay coast with Air Inuit. The latter is exactly what I did the day before, the front half of the flight from Montreal loaded with cargo for co-op stores in the communities around Nunavik, and Inuit passengers' bags packed to the brim with food, clothes and gifts that are cheaper and easier to get hold of by travelling 1,000 miles south to Montreal.

Qalingo Sivurapak and Inukpak Itukallak enjoy bannock in an igloo in Nunavik

Setting off by husky sled and Ski-Doo after breakfast on our first morning, we head out on the land to experience the tundra and learn the old ways of the Inuit people. We roll through the town – teenagers are wandering around in implausibly few layers for the -20°C air temperature, many people ride snowmobiles with shopping bags hanging off the handlebars, and cars are buried under a winter's worth of snow – before tacking west along the river mouth by following vague landmarks along the coast. My toes, wrapped in three pairs of socks and Arctic-grade boots, freeze sore to the bone as the snowmobile flies from point to point, my sunglasses steaming up under my helmet and freezing within seconds as I duck my head and cling to the back of my guide Sean's bright-red parka.

After about 40 minutes of flying through cold-to-the-bones windchill, we find a spot in the lee of the breeze and Peter starts slicing at the ground with a long snow knife called a pana. He inserts the blade deep into the snow, slashes forward one way and back the other, then stands up: "Not good enough", he says, getting back on his snowmobile without another word and heading 200m further north, where the snow is deeper, older and better packed – perfect for turning into bricks for an igloo.

we walk around the camp to keep our toes from getting frostbitten and I stand one foot land, one on two-metre-deep ice

This time, when Peter carves his pana through the ground, he can pull up a two-foot-long cuboid of solid snow, which he places next to the hole before climbing down and slicing another block. This is how the physical and laborious process of building an igloo always starts, digging yourself a foot or so into the ground and gradually building a wall around yourself. After five minutes of carving, chiselling and lifting, Peter has overheated and thrown off his parka, hacking deeper and deeper into the snow in a hoodie and a camo baseball cap. It's repetitive, incredibly calculated and slightly mesmeric: he carves a block from the floor beneath him, gets someone to hold it up and help him place it, then he chisels it deftly into shape with his pana until it sits firm. He then repeats the process over and over again, spiralling the walls slowly upwards like a snail's shell until a keystone or tarpaulin can be placed over the hole at the top. Usually, he tells me, it would take a group of four physically fit Inuit about two or three hours to build an igloo. Today, it takes us five: Peter has just got back from a 500-mile husky-sled race with an injured shoulder, and we're pretty clueless accomplices.

In that time, we take shifts dipping in and out of a temporary tent to drink tea from the stove, spend time walking around the camp to keep our toes from getting frostbitten, and enjoy being in this most extreme of places, standing with one foot on land, one foot on two-metre-deep ice over the easternmost edge of the Hudson Bay – each of us nearly unrecognisable from the next in our balaclavas and huge hooded parkas.

In the late afternoon we take a 300m Ski-Doo ride over the shoreline with Eric to chisel a hole through the thick ice, through which he can fish for cod and char to boil in snowmelt for dinner later that evening. He stabs away with a long, sharp iron rod for 15 minutes until the ice breaks with a plop and water surges to the top of the hole. He drops a weighted hook down and almost immediately lifts out a small cod. Eric kills the fish with one stout tap of his line handle, and within five minutes it's curled back on itself, frozen solid in the freezing cold air.

By the time we return to the camp, Peter and his brother Inukpak have almost completed the structure of a second igloo, the latter leaning over his shovel and panting through a toothless grin, his snow goggles – a small, slitted pair of glasses carved from caribou antler – tied tight across his forehead. As I join them, Inukpak hands me the shovel and gestures to a little hole in the side of the igloo. Sliding through on our bellies, we enter a magnificent carved out dome that glows ice blue. At Inukpak's request, I start using the tip of the shovel to carve at the edges of the dome, digging us deeper into the ground for better insulation and making more room for beds at floor level. Within two minutes I'm in a pool of sweat, chiseling the side, lumping the excess snow into a pile behind me and compacting it into a foot-high sleeping step across the middle of the igloo that'll be flat enough to sleep on for the night.

The spiral pattern on the roof of an igloo in Nunavik, Canada

By the time I'm done it's dark, and outside there's no light but the gentle glow of Puvirnituq over the crest of a small hill to the east. Everyone is inside except Eric, who's feeding the dogs with chunks of a frozen walrus he hunted up north inside the Arctic Circle and flown down (completely legally) in his hand luggage on Air Inuit. It was his first walrus kill from a hunting trip last summer, and he's so proud of it that he's kept the animal's penis bone as a memento: "It's the size of a baseball bat," he chunters as we walk back to the igloo. Inside, we eat, clamber into our sleeping bags and Peter seals the doorway with a huge block of snow. I wake with a start to the sound of Sean's snowmobile outside the following morning.

A day like the one I've just described – spent on the land in the frozen tundra of the far north – is fast dying out among the Inuit of Nunavik. Although Peter was born and then raised in an igloo for the first decade of his life, his wife Winnie was among the first to live in the comfort of a permanent house in Puvirnituq, and coming out of the igloo that Sunday morning I was greeted by 24-year-old local Qalingo Sivuarapik standing on top of the igloo he helped build next to mine, posing with pana in hand for a photo to commemorate his first night out on the land.

"In the past, we were able to have better connections with our families," says former president of Nunavik's co-ops Aliva Tulugak, giving us a primer on the town's history back at the co-op-run hotel that evening – "when I grew up there were no rules: we grew up in one shack and you respected your parents and grandparents. Teachings from the south are having a bad effect up here."

Until the 1950s, Puvirnituq was little more than a trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company. When they opened a general store in 1951 and closed stores in other villages, an influx of Inuit moved close by. In the following 20 years, regional police used a loophole in an agricultural law to slaughter thousands of sled dogs – a vital tool for travel, hunting and nomadic life – effectively forcing Inuit people to settle in fixed locations around the north coasts of Quebec.

Peter Boy Itukalla builds an igloo in white-out conditions in Nunavik, Canada

Peter builds an igloo in the whiteout

Today, the town is swelling, and has grown by several hundred since the last census in 2011. There's a whole new housing development since Sean last visited, and the village now has a restaurant for the first time, too. The tendrils of the modern world are reaching Puvirnituq, and they're getting in the way of its history – from kids sitting inside watching TV or playing games on their phones (there's no signal up here to actually call anyone) to the old ways being forgotten due to the proliferation of Western societal norms, there's something of a cultural crisis.

The fight for the culture's survival is on, though: several events across Nunavik celebrate the most important aspects of Inuit culture, from feasting and throat singing to dog sledding. Later that Sunday we trade our the igloo for Puvirnituq's cavernous gymnasium, where a feast is being held for residents who competed in the Ivakkak dog sled race – Peter and Eric, who finished third on the podium this year, among them. The ten-day, 500-mile point-to-point race is a celebration of the pure-breed husky dog, a species that rapidly dwindling towards extinction in Nunavik at the beginning of the 21st century.

The north is an incredibly harsh place to inhabit, so we have to learn to work together here in order to survive

Under the flashing LEDs of a basketball scoreboard, three 25m-long rolls of brown greaseproof paper are unfurled with whole fish and frozen joints of caribou meat laid out from the town's communal freezer ready to be carved into super-tough chunks to chew ice-cold and raw. Children run around the hall as adults gather on the floor with caribou stews, salads and oily, fishy seal meat brought back from trips further north. The town's deputy mayor steps up to a microphone and addresses the room in the Inuktitut language, celebrating the winners, drawing a raffle and saying grace ahead of the meal.

"Our language is still strong here because it is still taught in our school and used administratively in our government," says Aliva. "Further up north in the province of Nunavut, people are speaking only in English."

It's not the only language, either. After dinner at the Puvirnituq restaurant renowned performer and local Akinisie Sivuarapik demonstrates throat singing, an age-old form of Inuit music that mimics the harsh northern winds, the howls of husky dogs and the cracking of the ice. Once a form of entertainment for Inuit women while men were out on the hunt, today it's a niche skill, but one Akinisie travels the world to demonstrate and run workshops on, trading a deft and ever-evolving pattern of guttural breath rhythms and voiced yelps with a partner in a looping and hypnotic wave of call and response.

"The north is an incredibly harsh place to inhabit, so we have to learn to work together here in order to survive," says Aliva, back in the hotel after dinner. And whether that's a trip out on the land to teach heritage and survival to young people and outsiders like me or a sled race, feast or throat singing demonstration, community may never have been more important to the Inuit than now. Survival might not mean life or death anymore, but a culture needs its traditions if it wants to remain as strong, undiluted and intoxicating as the pull of the far north.

Loading