I’m straddling a snowmobile behind a badass woman with a gun.
We’re racing across the ice on Frobisher Bay, a section of the North Atlantic Ocean that’s solidly frozen even on this relatively balmy -7 C April day. We’re traveling from Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, in search of the polynya: the point where the sea ice meets the open water.
Our guide, rifle-toting Martine Dupont, is “Director of Awesomeness” at Inukpak Outfitting, the adventure travel company that she founded with her husband and business partner, Louis-Philip Pothier, in 2011.
Hoping to learn something about Canada’s Arctic landscape and how its climate is changing, our group of six Nunavut first-timers tromped into the gear room of the two-story house that serves as Inukpak’s offices and the family’s home. Dupont assessed our multiple layers of clothing, cautioning, “If you’re cold, you’ll be miserable. And it can be dangerous.” She directed me to a shelf of thickly insulated boots and distributed padded waterproof gloves.
I borrowed a parka that I’m wearing over my long underwear, leggings, insulated snow pants, wool sweater, polyfill jacket and down jacket, plus two pairs of socks, two sets of gloves, two hats, a facemask and ski goggles. As I waddle outside, I feel like I’m stuffed into a sausage casing of toasty winter gear.
Milling around the snowmobiles, I try to absorb Dupont’s instructions: how to start, speed up, slow down, stop. We’ll ride the heavy machines in pairs, alternating as driver and passenger. I’m nervous, particularly at the thought of taking a passenger on my first turn at the controls.
“You can ride with me then,” Dupont says, as everyone buddies up and I clamber onto the snowmobile behind her. Her gun, I learn, is to protect us from an unlikely encounter with a polar bear.
We follow Pothier single file into the snow-covered street, rumbling past brightly painted wooden homes, before turning onto a narrow trail that pitched downhill toward the frozen bay.
Although the snowmobile feels novel to me, it’s essential winter transportation in the North, supplementing the dog sled. Earlier in the week, during Iqaluit’s annual Toonik Time Festival, I’d watched children as young as seven race around a frozen track, competing on kid-sized snow machines.
Dupont and Pothier have three boys (aged 14, 12 and 10) who help in the business, caring for the family’s sled dogs. “They’re the best dog poop shovelers in the world,” laughs Dupont.
“Not all kids own two dog teams and get to go snowmobiling every day,” she says. “For them to see northern lights, they just peek through the window.”
As we bounce across the bay, the landscape appears flat, a broad expanse of ice. I soon realize that we’re following a track that other snow machines have travelled. We call out “good morning!” to three Inuit men towing qamutik, traditional wooden sleds, behind their snowmobiles.
When we stop for a closer look at several dirt-topped hills, I see that layers of thick ice coat their flat front surfaces. Pothier explains, to my surprise, that these ice cliffs rise and fall with the tides. The North Atlantic has tidal variations like any ocean, even when frozen. “Notice the cliffs when we pass by later today,” he says. “See if they’re at the same level.”
At another rest stop, one of our group steps into a pile of slushy snow that gives way, plunging his leg into icy water. Dupont is at his side immediately. “Drop onto the snow and roll. Right now,” she commands. She pats his snow pants with more snow, an Inuit technique to pull out the moisture quickly, she explains.
When we break for lunch, Pothier lays an animal skin across the snow as a picnic blanket. We dig into caribou stew and Arctic char, both smoked and cured, while Dupont recounts what brought them to Nunavut from their native Quebec. “When we first moved, it was for a one-year contract, but we totally fell in love with how welcoming and amazing Nunavut and its people are. That’s what we want to share with visitors.”
We start walking across the increasingly slushy ice. We’re finally approaching the polynya, the point where the ice of the bay meets the sea.
Pothier tests the ice with a long pointed pole, and we avoid approaching the water line. When planning day trips like ours, Dupont says that they constantly monitor the ice conditions. While Nunavut weather is often unpredictable, these days, “elders are raising red flags about climate change.”
Inuit elders and hunters, she continues, “are the ones who have to live with the reality of the land and weather and adjust to these changes.” Yet, it’s something that anyone working or playing in the Arctic has to face.
Before we retrace our route toward Iqaluit, Dupont says she hopes that we’ll leave with “memories of the beauty, the vastness, and the uniqueness of our land.” I may not be ready to pilot a snowmobile or carry a gun, but I’m definitely in awe of these Nunavut landscapes.
Note: Before planning a trip to Nunavut, check the Government of Nunavut website for current travel restrictions.