It was just before 2 p.m. and the sun was already starting to dip below the low, rocky hills we were flanked by. So many off-whites and blues were laid out around us, both at our feet and in the sky, as we followed along Niaqunguq River, also known as Apex River, which has been used as Iqaluit’s secondary drinking water source over the last few years. We walked over that crystal blue sheen, following the river’s ice as it meandered like a vein over land.
When you hike in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the first thing you will notice is that even when there are formal trails, they are much more of a suggestion than a required path.
For the most part, the tundra does not have carved out trails, marked off with cairns or orange ribbons that lead you along the way. Some of this has to do with the fact that there are no trees here to serve as something of a fence to hold you in, but that is not the only reason hiking in Iqaluit is much more open-ended than in other places.
Even when you walk along an official trail like Apex Trail or those at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, not only are the precise measurements and elevations not recorded, but the trails’ paths can change, daily or throughout the day, depending on how much snow there is. There is also very little descriptive elements or archived history at government agencies that are associated with specific pieces of the land in Iqaluit.
From what I discovered in my research, besides the Apex Trail, none of them have any officially recorded names.
At Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, for instance, the longest trail runs along the shore and includes some waterfalls and incredible vistas. The Nunavut Department of Environment’s Parks and Special Places division has not recorded the trail’s official length or elevation details. Sylvia Grinnell was established as a territorial park more than 25 years ago, in 1995, and the land was originally set aside “for park purposes” as far back as 1974 when the area was a part of the Northwest Territories. A Parks spokesperson said that they would be working on the park’s “master plan” this year.
I found similar results with the other hikes I tried to write about, even if they were not official trails. One was a popular road for tourists, but the city could not answer its precise length or elevation.
In fact, even Apex River is not the real name of the water, though I suppose it is technically an official name. The Department of Environment, Culture and Heritage, Tourism, the City of Iqaluit, Inuit Heritage Trust and various tourism operators in Iqaluit do not know the name of this piece of land.
An Inuk tourism entrepreneur, Adamie Itorcheuk, who is considered a local specialist of place history in Iqaluit, told me this patch of land and skidoo trail is called Tasiluuliagia, which means “towards Crazy Lake.” “In Inuktitut we call it Tasiluu,” Itorcheuk said. “Some Inuit who have moved into town more recently might say as well Pangnirtuuliagia, meaning towards Pangnirtung.”
David Marineau Plante
You won’t find it on the Iqaluit city map, Google or even the Inuit Heritage Trust place names project. The easiest way for me to describe where this hike is located is by saying it starts to the right of a body of water officially called Dead Dog Lake—and even that location led me down a winding rabbit hole to learn more about Iqaluit place name origins. This hike then follows along the Niaqunguq River, which is found just behind the Tundra Ridge residential area.
The water was officially named Dead Dog Lake quite recently, I learned, at least after 2000, but the City of Iqaluit and various government departments do not have archived details around the years or reasons why this name replaced the Inuktitut name. It was previously known as the “Old Water Reservoir” in English, which both described precisely what it was used for and translated almost perfectly to match with an earlier Inuktitut name for it.
Itorcheak said he had heard that the newer “Dead Dog Lake” name had come from a child’s error, mistaking a lake where a dead dog was found. Another long-time, non-Inuk local said it was likely named after a city water worker’s joke. One other non-Inuk long-time local who works at the Iqaluit district education authority told me a likely origin story.
According to Lynda Gunn, a man named Michael Salomonie who had known there was a Dead Dog Lake previously in Cape Dorset borrowed that name when he advertised his firework event held on New Years at the old Iqaluit water reservoir. Gunn told me it is possible that Google Maps, in town for mapping research, may have misunderstood the joke or reference when they were doing research in the town, and that Google used the name for the lake before it was even official within the city. Iqaluit didn’t officially adopt the name until years after the community was already calling it that, she said.
Two Inuit I spoke with said they wished this body of water were still called its traditional Inuktitut name Immiqtaqviviniq (Inuktitut for “place to get water”).
Other Iqaluit hikes involve walking up a hill known colloquially as Hospital Hill (a hill that is beside the hospital), a walk along the Road to Nowhere (a three-kilometre street that originally led to a dead end but now leads to a shooting range and a rotary park), a trek to the radar station, or up to a big, teetering rock, balanced at the top of a hill along the Niaqunngusiariaq road.
When my husband and I reached the rockier part of our hike near Immiqtaqviviniq, over Niaqunguq, the ice started to thaw into a bluish slush along the surface. My husband heard some cracking when he stepped. Instead of continuing, we climbed up the rocks and then circled back, unwilling to risk walking farther on that creaking ice.
In the same way, we had also forged our own paths on all our other hikes we had taken here the last month. We circled back early at Sylvia Grinnell’s longest trail when we found that the snow was getting much too deep—about waist high—three quarters to the end. On Apex Trail, we even looped up at the midpoint where the cliff dips near to a residential street because the trail was getting far too rocky under the snow. There is a looseness and flexibility while hiking in Iqaluit, much like living here. In that way, Iqaluit trails are a lot like what locals call “living on Nunavut time.” It is the opposite of rigid.
David Marineau Plante
In a place where snow sometimes only melts about two months of the year, it is really no surprise that the trails you will see carved out before you are often not created, maintained, measured and archived by bureaucrats in government offices, but by the power of the local’s skidoo, the hunter’s boots or the early morning dog-walker, stopping and stooping as they make their way through the snow. You must walk in the tracks of those who zoomed or trudged through before you since the last snowfall or since the windstorm blew up the drifts earlier that day.
This was originally supposed to be a listicle about the 10 best hikes in Iqaluit, but I have learned there are far more than that, and they are mostly filled with variation, mystery and potential. The trails are ever-changing, and the weather is just one small reason why. Writing about the land and searching for place names in Iqaluit is a difficult feat, especially if you are an outsider.
I do not know their real names, the stories of these rocks or that hill, but I hope we some day learn or remember. I haven’t found all the people who know all these names, but I will keep asking. Meanwhile, I will continue to practice pronouncing their real names instead of their English names. Tasiluu. Immiqtaqviviniq. If I’ve learned anything about how place names have changed here in Iqaluit over the last few decades, it is that if enough people are saying it, eventually it becomes official.