Underground Freezers, Raw Whale and Severed Fingers!


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Published: October 19th 2012
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Underground Freezers, Raw Whale and Severed Fingers- I’d say it was an eventful circuit!

A week ago I had the opportunity to travel with the Territorial Court to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (pronounced : Tuck-Toy-Yuck-Tuck…say it, it’s fun!). Inuvik is right on the Arctic Circle and Tuk (as it is colloquially called) is on the Pacific Ocean.

First I would like to tell you about Tuk!

-In the local dialect, Tuktoyaktuk reads: Tuktuuyaqtuumukkabsi and means “looks like caribou”

-The commute happened daily from Inuvik at dawn in a small Charter plane. It was seriously amazing to watch the sun rise over the crest of the earth and reflect off of all the small arctic lakes we were passing over. I know I am romanticizing the life-style, but I liked to sit back and imagine the aboriginal tribes out hunting on the land with spears pre-contact and wondered if any of them spent time on the areas of earth below us!

-I put my hands in the Arctic Ocean, and yes it was cold. (Unfortunately I do not have the accompanying picture because cell phones and I are not getting along well as of late and mine crapped out....and I forgot batteries for my camera. Le doh.)

-Court took place in the community Recreation Centre. The optics of it all gave me pause. From a complete outsider/stranger perspective, I feel it still looked like that the “white people” were coming in and judging the “natives” and presenting the information in a way (language, formal process, etc) that even I couldn’t understand sometimes! We were lucky enough to finish three hours early on our last day there so we had an opportunity to chat with the local people and see some of the cool things in the town. I was told that this doesn’t ever get to happen as normally they lawyers, judge and workers are so busy that they only have time to fly in, get the work done and fly out. Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals willing got paid time off in the communities that they visited? I think it would open up lines of communication and provide a little more understanding and compassion to the whole process.

-Tuk was once the harvesting site for Tuktu, the caribou. In the past, thousands of Inuvialuit (the name of the aboriginal tribe) were scattered along the coast from Herschel Island to Cape Bathhurst. During the winter from December to March, they gathered at Kittigazuit, 16 miles from Tuk, at the mouth of the East Channel of the Mackenzie River Delta. The harbor provided protection and shelter from the powerful Beaufort Sea resulting in the establishment of the area as an early shipping point for a number of communities. A Hudson Bay Trading post was established in 1937. The community has evolved as an important marine port serving the needs of the Inuvialuit and the oil and gas industry. The town has a population of about 700 people.

-Interestingly, I was talking to a member of the local RCMP who told me that youth crime has gone down significantly since the building of a basketball court and skate ramps. Sweet, recreation works my friends!

-Satellites point down!

-Big Game Hunting is a way of life. The people often go out onto the land or sea to hunt polar bear, caribou, wolverine, wolf, grizzly bear, musk oxen, beluga whale, white fish, trout, etc.

-During court I heard submissions regarding an “assault with a weapon” charge in which the weapon was an antler. My first reaction was to laugh, because I pictured someone wielding a huge antler and swinging it around…however, I guess it was not so funny because the antler in question had been cut and made into a knife.

-I also heard a sentencing submission from defense counsel that his client had turned his life around. Why? Because he had an epiphany this summer when he and his friends were out hunting on the ocean and they got lost and were adrift for three or more days. They had to be found and rescued by the Coast Guard.

-I have included some photos from Tuk that were taken by the judge that I was travelling with. One of the coolest things I have ever seen is the underground community freezer. It was built in the 1930s or 1940s by residents of the community who wanted to find a way to keep their meat (game, fish what have you) cold during the summer. So, somehow, they created this HUGE community freezer down underneath the permafrost! It is 30 feet down (seems like the pit of despair) on a rickety ladder and then it is a labyrinth below the ice! Three hallways and 15 little rooms!! Totally awesome.

-I also tried muktuk! (Raw whale.) Those photos are also included. It’s really not that bad- it doesn’t taste like anything. However, there is a bit of a “I just ate raw whale” aftertaste. I am going to try to bring some home with me for the adventurous among us that would like to try!

-I would like to take a minute to give you all a geography lesson, as Tuk is surrounded by “pingos.” (Pronounced Ping-Go). A pingo is a conical hill that dots the Western Arctic landscape and are considered the region’s most famous landform. Currently, there are about 1,450 in total and the Ibyuk Pingo, just south of Tuk, is probably the world’s largest growing pingo. Every few years, a new pingo begins to form in a recently drained lake. The sandy ground beneath a lake is unfrozen but surrounded by permafrost. Once the lake drains, the permafrost begins to spread into the unfrozen sediments as they become exposed to frigid winter temperatures. Water in the saturated sand freezes and expands, pushing excess water ahead of the freezing ground. As the circle of permafrost inches toward the centre of the lake, the excess water comes under increasing pressure. Trapped between the continuous permafrost below and the much weaker freezing crust of the lake bed above, the pressurized water finally pushes the lake bed up- and up and up. When the lake completely freezes, the pingo stops growing.

Ibyuk Pingo is growing at about two centimeters per year, indicating that the basin of Ibyuk Lake is not yet frozen through (even though the pingo is probably more than 1,000 years old!) Most pingos have a large crack across their summits (which makes them look kind of like volcanoes) where the ground has split apart as it is forced up from below. If the crack looks fresh, the pingo is likely growing, but if healthy willows have established themselves in it, growth may have stopped. Pingos have been and continue to be a great asset to Inuvialuit hunters on the land. If they get lost, they just climb a pingo and take a good look around to re-establish their bearings!

Here are some quick facts about Inuvik, a charming city!

-Population is approximately 3,504 and its area is about 57 square kilometres in which approximately 5% is utilized.

-It enjoys 56 days of twenty-four hours of daylight in late June, July and part of August and has 30 days without sunlight mostly in the month of December. It’s extreme maximum temperature has been recorded as 32.8 degrees Celsius and the extreme minimum temperature has been recorded as -56.7 degrees Celsius. (Brrrrr!)

-Permafrost is within one half of Canada’s land surface including most of the NWT and is defined as “permanently frozen ground.” Because of this, Inuvik has some of the worst conditions for building in the world. When it thaws, the ground shifts causing building materials to lose their support. Most of the buildings and homes in Inuvik sit above ground on pilings which are stilt like poles (wood or steel) drilled through the active layer of the permafrost into the continuous permafrost layer beneath.

-Petroleum exploration in the Mackenzie Valley and Beaufort Sea provided tremendous employment and business opportunities in the region beginning in 1971. These activities continued until 1990 when petroleum companies decided to pull out because of disappearing government subsidies, low gas and oil prices, and local resistance to resource development. Since 1999, oil and gas companies have once again begun to explore for natural gas.

-Completed in 1979, the Dempster Highway is the only highway in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle at kilometer 403 and it starts in Inuvik! The highway is named after Insp. William John Duncan Dempster of the RCMP. He was known as the “Iron Man of the Trail” for his legendary dogsled journeys from Dawson City in the Yukon to Fort MacPherson, sometimes in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. The highway roughly follows his trail which he learned from the Gwich’in tribe of the region who learned it from their ancestors. He carried mail, the news and the law.

-Also, many thanks to Candace for inaugurating me into the “Stinky Pinky Club” in Inuvik. I am now a proud card-carrying member, #535. (I believe those photos speak for themselves…)

Taima Folks! (That’s All in Siglit, the traditional language spoken in Tuk)



P.S. Photos of the inauguration are on FB.


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19th October 2012

A Correction...
Hey folks, I mis-spoke in the blog posting above. In Northern Canada aboriginal groups prefer to be called "Nations" instead of tribes. My bad.

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