I would plunk two weighty bags of groceries as well as the leg of lamb tucked under my arm on the kitchen counter if Oscar Wilde's head and hands weren't lying there. "Oh, let me get those," fusses Danny Osborne, rushing to haul away his marble carvings. "Oscar is always getting in the way…" It's my first night back in the Arctic and I'm cooking dinner for friends in the Iqaluit home of the British artist who is doing renos on his 1997 sculpture of the renowned Irish playwright that is usually found lounging in Dublin's Merrion Square.
I schlepped the frozen lamb 2,050 kilometres due north from Montreal since heavy items like this are a pricey treat in Iqaluit. Matty McNair arrives, balancing a pie for dessert, her face flushed after giving a kite-skiing lesson on frozen Frobisher Bay; the feisty redhead's day job is guiding adventurers to the North and South Poles. Other guests amble in, including Isaac Sobol, Nunavut's Chief Medical Officer of Health, whose résumé reveals past lives as a rock-band manager and wild-animal caretaker, a colourful character who stores his vast vitamin collection in his dishwasher.
This quirky crowd is typical of the atypical residents who have made Iqaluit their home. While about half of the booming population of 7,000 are Inuit, the balance are an eclectic international mix of "southerners" who found their way to this no-frills frontier outpost seeking an escape from a conventional life or following a dream of northern adventure. Many are driven away by the harsh lifestyle; others become hooked on the culture, wide-open spaces and sense of freedom, and never leave.
As I prepare dinner on my 18th trip north since 1992, I count myself among those Arctic junkies who can't stay away. With all the interest in climate change and the melting Arctic, more folks are interested in heading north and Iqaluit is a convenient and comfortable place to start a northern prowl. It is Arctic Easy - hiking, boating, dogsledding and fishing start within town limits, making it a great base for exploring the North with the luxury of returning to modern hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries at day's end; things get considerably more rustic and costly the farther up the globe you travel.
As usual, the first thing I do when I arrive is walk the streets of "downtown," an awkward collection of glass and metal government buildings, military structures from the 1950s and a couple of space-age, round-windowed schools that would look at home on Mars. There is one main intersection, Four Corners, but this territory has yet to see its first traffic light. Some streets are paved, but it's still a dusty bustle of ATVs and pickup trucks. Teenagers in hip-hop bagginess ride mountain bikes alongside girls wearing traditional amoutiq parkas, babies snuggled on their backs. Walk into suburbs with names like "Tundra Valley" or the colourful cube townhouses of "Legoland" and it's not uncommon to see sealskins stretched on racks in the front yard or a polar bear pelt drying over a balcony railing. Be prepared for possible walrus tusks stashed in the trunk of your jitney-style communal six-bucks-gets-you-anywhere taxi.
A gauntlet of blaring Bollywood-style music to keep teens from loitering in the entranceway greets me at the front of Arctic Ventures, a fun grocery/electronics/general store. I check out the current exorbitant prices of milk and grapes before heading upstairs to peruse the extensive collection of northern books. Nearby, the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum is an art gallery in an original 1940s Hudson's Bay Company trading post warehouse that was sledded across the sea ice from the neighbouring community of Apex. Curator Brian Lunger is busy buying carvings for his gift shop from a local Inuit as I check out the collection of ancient Thule artifacts and a featured travelling exhibition of clever contemporary carvings by Greenlandic schoolchildren.
Art is everywhere in Iqaluit, inside and out - Arctic wildflowers grow amid the sculptures on the main street. Opposite the greenhouse where ardent gardeners fight to keep their veggies from bolting in round-the-clock summer light is the LegislativeAssembly Building - "the Ledge" - a mini-gallery of Inuit art; the chamber door handles are ornate walrus tusks and the members' seats are crafted from sealskin.
I catch sight of a plume of dust and follow it to artist Anilnilk Peelaktoak sitting in the sunshine on an overturned milk crate power-polishing a traditional stone mask. He tells me that he carves to make money when he is not out hunting or fishing for his family. Inuit carvings are considerably cheaper in the North, even for the most coveted pieces from the community of Cape Dorset, Inuit Art Central, where the works of their internationally renowned carvers are gifted to popes and presidents visiting Canada.
The hilltop Frobisher Inn seems an unlikely art emporium, but on Saturday mornings artists display their work on tables in the lobby. During meals in the dining room, carvers often make the rounds of tables, shyly pulling from their parka pockets everything from half-moon shaped ulu knives to caribou antler earrings fashioned into inukshuk.
At the Unikkaarvik Visitors Centre, I rent a mountain bike to head farther afield, starting with a pedal out the aptly named "Road to Nowhere," a route straight into the wilderness. A pair of snow bunting birds hop amid a flurry of spring wildflowers growing to the road edge, an ankle-high bonsai forest of rhododendrons and willows.
In the afternoon, with my fishing licence and a borrowed rod, I cycle just past the airport runway to Sylvia Grinnell Park and hike to the falls. It's peaceful to sit amid the solitude of the stark, tree-less landscape watching for snow geese and lemmings, Arctic fox, ptarmigan and gyr falcons, especially knowing that polar bears are a very rare sight in this part of Baffin Island.
Along the shore in late spring after the sea ice has broken up and drifted out of Frobisher Bay, fantastically shaped chunks of ice - bergy-bits - beach themselves at low tide. Several were perched high and dry, glittering aquamarine near the seaside cemetery, the starting point for the scenic shoreline Apex Trail. The winding walk was historically used by Inuit travelling between Iqaluit and Apex, the Hudson's Bay Company trading post started in 1949. The cluster of red and white HBC buildings still stands on the beach. There are many short hikes around Iqaluit, including one to an archeological site with the subterranean remains of ancient Thule sod houses where more than 600 artifacts were unearthed. Twenty minutes farther afield by boat - longer by dogsled in winter - are more Thule remains in Qaummaarviit Territorial Historic Park.
Historian Kenn Harper is one of those southerners who arrived for a short-term stay - he came in 1966 - and never left. One night, over an Arctic surf and turf of caribou medallions and Arctic char, he talked about why he stayed. "It's a strange town in a strange place," he mused. "Certainly not like anywhere else."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Individual travel in the remote North is pricey, but if Iqaluit is a stopover on a High Arctic adventure package, rates are lower. Canadian North, Air Canada and First Air all service Iqaluit.
WHERE TO STAY
Capital Suites All the mod cons in the centre of town. From $185. 867-975-4000; www.capitalsuites.ca/iqaluit.htm
Accommodations by the Sea Stylish bed-and-breakfast-style rooms in a large house overlooking Frobisher Bay. Guests are welcome to use the extensive kitchen facilities. From $129 single occupancy (add $20 per night for additional guests). 867-979-6074; www.accommodationsbythesea.ca.
WHERE TO EAT
The Granite Room at the Discovery Lodge is the hub of Iqaluit's fine dining, including Arctic char and caribou. Sunday brunch is a popular local tradition. 867-979-4433; www.discoverylodge.com.
The friendly Kickin' Caribou Pub in the Nova Hotel serves casual pub food, including musk ox burgers. 1-866-497-6933; www.novainniqaluit.ca/dining.html.
WHAT TO DO
-Most outfitters are booked up well in advance so book early. Or pick up a fishing licence (ask at the visitors centre for purchase locations) and head to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park.
-Inuksuk Adventures, an Inuit outfitter, runs fishing charters and boat trips to Qaummaarviit Territorial Historic Park, Sylvia Grinnell River and Katannilik Territorial Park. 867-979-2113; www.inuksukadventures.ca.
-Depending on the time of year, NorthWinds Adventures offers multiday dogsledding trips or half-day Tea-on-the-Sea (the frozen sea) excursions to Qaummaarviit. Pay $150 per person, minimum two people. Arctic clothing supplied. Slightly farther afield, river rafting down the Soper River to the community of Kimmirut is a four-to-10-day excursion. 867-979-0551; www.northwinds-arctic.com.
-Rent a mountain bike for $20 for a full day, $14.50 for a half-day, through the Pisootiit! bicycle program at the Unikkaarvik Regional Visitors Centre. www.nunavuttourism.com/
-Faroe Islander Rannva Simonsen produces chic fashions from sealskin. Call 867-979-3183 for a viewing; www.rannva.com.
-Pick up smoked Arctic char at Iqaluit Enterprises. 867-979-4458.