There are a few things that strike you pretty quickly after arriving in Iqaluit from "the south." The main one is that building is a tricky business that requires special considerations.
One consideration is that there are no natural building materials here other than stone. And stone, it has to be said, is not that suitable as a building material here because it is not a great insulator. So everything has to be shipped in, which of course is costly. That means that most architecture is pretty functional.
Another consideration is - duh - the weather. Ice, cold, wind, and snow for the better part of the year. And permafrost.
These considerations reveal themselves in many ways. There is very little concrete to speak of, at least that is visible. No sidewalks. No concrete foundations. Buildings are mostly built on steel piers, so that they are more flexible in response to the shifting ground. The piers puzzled me at first, because the building floors are off of the ground without any skirting or insulation to the ground. I got a chill just thinking of the heat loss in winter. With this puzzle turning in my head for several weeks, I was delighted to recently discover a handy little booklet, "A Homeowner's Guide to Permafrost in Nunavut."
I learned that the ground below houses is very deliberately left open in order to prevent thawing of permafrost, which is a big problem in general, but a particularly immediate and practical problem if you're a homeowner building on permafrost. The booklet even advises to get rid of snow banks around your house, because they insulate the ground and help thaw it.
Should you care to delve deeper into that permafrost, the booklet is available on-line: http://www.climatechangenunavut.ca/en/resources/news/homeowners-guide-permafrost-nunavut-just-released. The same web site is also pretty interesting in that it starkly shows that climate change in the north is not a future scenario to ponder; its effects are being felt right now, in very tangible ways. Another thing you notice here is that almost all outdoor steps and ramps, at least on public buildings, are made of serrated steel grates. This is an absolutely brilliant idea: The snow and ice don't build up as much, and in addition you have an excellent rough surface so you never slip! And less shovelling! Why this has never caught on in Saskatchewan and or Maine is beyond me. People, take note!
I'd like to say that harsh weather conditions and the cost of materials has resulted in highly energy-efficient homes, but if my building is typical, that is sadly not the case. My building is only a couple of years old, but the wind virtually whistles through the windows and walls, and the walls are cold to the touch when the temperature drops. Glad the heat is included in the rent. There is such a shortage of housing here, so builders are under pressure to get buildings up quick. This generally does not lead to good design and energy efficiency.
Having said this, there are a handful of truly beautiful buildings here, including the Qamutiq building, which is shaped like an Inuit sled (called - yes - a qamutiq!), and the legislature, which emulates the curves of the land. Also beautiful in their own way are the two 60s-style schools that look a bit like square igloos - blocky and white and blue.
The fact that rock and stone are abundant means that the main decorative elements on streets are stone carvings or just plain old boulders. Of course, there are many inuksuk, the stone representations of people, but there are also incredible carvings, including one that manages to cram in just about every northern stereotype you can think of: polar bear, raven, AND a muskox.
For some weird reason, on the main streets downtown there are wooden posts to demarcate the sidewalks from the roads. Why not stones? Another puzzle still floating around in my head.
QAMUTIQ BUILDING, MORNING LIGHT WITH A HALF MOON IN THE SKY A LESS ARTISTIC SHOT OF THE BUILDING, WITH THE CONTEXT OF THE MORNING RUSH HOUR
STEEL GRATE AT THE LEGISLATURE STEEL GRATE AT MY WORK BUILDING BICYCLE WITH EXCELLENT EXAMPLE OF PIER BUILDING STRUCTURE INUKSUK AT THE LEGISLATURE. AND ANOTHER EXCELLENT SHOT OF PIER CONSTRUCTION ROCK GARDEN - WITH CHRISTMAS TREES IN A LAND OF NO TREES - AT THE LEGISLATURE. HOW MANY INUIT/NORTHERN SYMBOLS CAN YOU SPOT IN THIS PICTURE? (HINT: I SPOT AT LEAST SEVEN OBVIOUS ONES)
SEA MAIDEN JUST A PLAIN OLD BOULDER - BESIDE A WOODEN POST
MORE WOODEN POSTS. WHY? WHY NOT BOULDERS? SCHOOL ARCHITECTURE - NO PICS BUT HERE BUT YOU CAN VIEW THEM AT: INUKSUK HIGH SCHOOL: http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674photo_inuksuk_gets_a_new_coat/ NAKASUK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/58772651
26 January - Every time I walk on the land here, I think it can never get more beautiful. Then I take another walk, and it gets more beautiful still.
Today was another small adventure. After National Non-Smoking Week (a special kind of "Hell Week" for those of us who work in tobacco control) ended yesterday, I woke up today with the not too ambitious plan of walking down the Road to Nowhere, following the river valley. This is always a safe walk - there are lots dogs and their owners around, along with skidoos and skidoo tracks to follow. And you can get a nice walk for twenty minutes or for a couple of hours.
The Road to Nowhere heads more or less north, but the river valley runs from north to south. Usually I go north, but on a whim I decided to go south, possibly circling back quickly for a short walk. Soon, the river valley starts narrowing, almost into a gorge. I debate a little bit. I know I won't get lost, because the river valley heads to Frobisher Bay. On the other hand, I don't trust myself to retreat back if needed because I sense that the gorge holds mystery and wonder. Mystery and wonder win out, as they always do. Off I go.
The valley narrows quickly and descends. I am a little daunted, because I don't know what happens when the frozen river begins to meet the frozen sea. But I am encouraged because there is a set of recent footprints in the snow ahead of me, and also a fainter trace of snowmobile tracks. I follow the footprints. As long as I don't see them disappear into a large hole, I figure I'm good.
The gorge is getting narrower and ever more beautiful. Coppery rock faces with colourful lichen are rising up the sides. I'm taking picture after picture, already piecing potential photo collages together in my mind.
Following the footprints works for a good while. I start coming across signs that the river is meeting the sea. There are variations in the levels of the ice cover, cracks in formations, and a turquoise shade of blue in the cracks. It's the colour of icebergs, of glaciers at a distance. This is clearly ice break up from shifting tides below. But the footsteps continue, avoiding the obvious variations in ice levels, and sticking closer to the sides of the valley/gorge. It seems wise that I do the same. The snowmobile tracks have disappeared, either blown away by snow, or by a reversal in direction.
Then, the footprints diverge. They start heading up the side of the valley, but it is the opposite side of the valley that I want to be on. The wisest course would be to go up the valley on my own side, but it is too steep. Plus, I can't see the bay yet. I'm drawn to continue until I see where I end up. I know I'm close, because I can see a small sign or utility structure of some sort ahead. I continue cautiously. The path is nearly all broken up ice now. It is clearly frozen solid, but I am uncertain if the pieces of ice are still shifting, and how big these shifts might be.
I soon find out. My left foot goes down not on solid ice, but into a hole, knee deep. Holy shit. I'm waiting for a flood of freezing water to fill the hole and wondering how the hell I can scramble quickly onto dry and stable ice. To my immense relief, no water bubbles up. But I have seriously bruised my leg, and I'm wondering just how well I'm going to be able to navigate the steep slope of the valley, never mind walk the 3 km or so back home over snow and ice. I could retreat back the same way I came, but it is not well travelled and if my leg really is injured, I want to be on a hill looking for the nearest sign of civilization. Preferably a road and a taxi.
The slope has leveled out a little bit. I scramble up sideways like a crab. It is more snow than ice, so I can dig in, and my leg holds up just fine. At the top, I see that I am a five-minute walk from the Apex Road, and am in fact not looking over the Iqaluit suburbs, but directly over Apex. I feel relieved to see this, but stupid that I explored the river valley without telling anyone where I was going, and doubly stupid that I was feeling like the Great White Adventurer. I could have broken a leg, and then frozen to death within spitting distance of a taxi.
But relief overwhelms all. My leg is feeling good, so I start back over the hills, heading home quickly for one of the three reasons I usually turn around from a walk on the land: fear. (The other two reasons are cold and lack of light. Both can quickly run to fear.) I stick reasonably close to the road and where I know the dog walkers occasionally wander.
The late afternoon light is incredible and I stop a couple of times to take pictures. The magnificence of the land remains, the cautionary tale already fading away. I'll be out here again. Soon.
LOOKING TOWARD THE GORGE
RIPPLES IN THE SNOW THE VALLEY NARROWS
LOOKING BACK, THE SUN IS TRYING TO POKE THROUGH
COPPERY ROCKS ALONG THE SIDE OF THE GORGE
LOOKING BACK UP - RETREAT IS POSSIBLE!
AN ARTISTIC YET OMINOUS SIGN - CRACKS IN THE ICE
MORE OMINOUS SIGNS. FROZEN RAPIDS.
THE PARTY’S OVER. LOOKING BACK AT THE HOLE I STEPPED IN. IN FUTURE TELLINGS OF THE STORY IT WILL BECOME A CREVASSE.
APEX, BEAUTIFUL APEX. HALLELUJAH, CIVILIZATION! GORGEOUS LIGHT WALKING BACK
HOME SWEET HOME. THE NAVSAT MARTIAN THINGIES AND, IN THE DISTANCE, MY APARTMENT BUILDING.
I know these are the questions inquiring minds are asking.
It is actually not very cold for the most part, although we have had our moments up here. The worst so far has been about -38 C (for reference, -40 is the same on both temperature scales) with wind chill. Absolute temperature was probably about -30 C. I could hear a weatherman's voice from my youth, "At this temperature, exposed skin freezes in 10 seconds!"
Mostly when it's been cold I've thought, "finally!" Some weather worthy of Iqaluit's reputation. All in all, I'm feeling pretty self-satisfied at my hardiness. I am not finding it uncomfortably cold in the least, and I usually walk outside thinking how wonderful the air feels in my lungs. Part of it is the dryness. OK, western Canadians routinely look eastern Canadians in the eye and say, "But it's a dry cold." And eastern Canadians look back and wonder if they're being made fun of. Which of course they are.
But there is something in this. Iqaluit is dry like Saskatchewanians have never imagined. It is a desert up here. The crunchiness of the snow, and the range of hollow-ish noises your boots make as you walk on top of snow drifts without making a dent are unlike any snow I've ever experienced. There is, as near as I can tell, absolutely zero humidity most of the time.
Part Two of the question: No, It Is Not Always Dark. Iqaluit is quite a bit south of the Arctic Circle, so it does not experience 24-hour darkness. As I write today, December 7, just 14 days from the shortest day of the year, it was light from about 8:00am to 2:30pm. Even better, the light here in winter is spectacular. The sun is always low in the sky, so the "magic hour" that photographers wait for is pretty long. When the sun is shining, I gape at the landscape. I don't think I have seen anything as beautiful as Frobisher Bay in winter.
And when it is dark, there is often a bonus: Northern Lights. I've seen them a few times. They are not the best I've seen - Saskatchewan and New Zealand have given me greater shows so far - but they are so close to the horizon here, it seems like they're about to descend and touch you.
A few people here have said that I am here at the best time of year. I'm inclined to agree with them.
YOU KNOW IT’S COLD BECAUSE……..YES! THE CONDENSATION IS VISIBLE ON THE WATER. AWARD YOURSELF A GOLD STAR.
This is a continuation of the previous blog. The short climb out on the boulders to get a view of Iqaluit turned into a longer adventure. My hands were getting a little cold, what with whipping out my camera every 2 minutes, so I stopped back at my apartment to put on wind pants and a warmer pair of mitts (the down ones, that blew away on my first day!) When I came out, my intention was to just walk on the tundra a hop, skip and a jump from my apartment building. Instead, I looked at the hills beside the suburb leading toward Frobisher Bay at a white circular structure of some sort. I'd been wondering what this was, thinking it might be one of the skating rinks in town, so I headed toward it.
I got there after not too many minutes of walking. There was a small bit of excitement when a couple of quite large dogs - maybe part husky - started running toward me at full speed. I hadn't thought about wildlife; I was within sight of buildings for most of the walk and I knew that polar bears didn't generally come close to the town. But as the dogs ran toward me and didn't stop, I experienced a moment of panic. Could these possibly be wolves? Well, they weren't. About two seconds before they reached me, a voice called to them and their owners appeared in the distance. The dogs pulled up short in front of me, wagging their tails. The owners shouted their apologies, and I responded, "I'm just glad they weren't wolves!"
On to the strange structure. It turns out to be an electrical station, although a very artistic-looking one. I'm relying on my brother Richard to identify what exactly its purpose is.
Beyond the structure, I realized that I could keep walking on the land down closer to Frobisher Bay. So I kept walking. And the scenery got more spectacular, and the Bay kept getting closer. In the end, I walked right down to the shore rocks and dipped my fingers in the water, which actually wasn't all that cold. In fact, sitting in the sun on the rocks was quite pleasant. I felt like I was in a Caribbean sort of haven, a nice little micro-climate.
But the pictures tell the story better than any words. So here they are.
ELECTRICAL INSTALLATION. LOOKS LIKE A SPACESHIP LAUNCH PAD. LOOKING BACK AS I HEAD DOWN TO THE BAY. THEY SAY THERE IS LOTS OF COPPER IN THE WATER HERE. NO WONDER WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE ROCKS! ARCTIC COTTON - I THINK THAT IS WHAT THIS IS. AN INTERESTING LICHEN PATTERN.
A HOCKEY STICK ON THE TUNDRA. PERHAPS THE ULTIMATE CANADIAN ARCHETYPE. OR SYMBOL. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. POLLUTION - LOTS OF CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS, OIL BARRELS AND SUCH (THAT’S WHITE PLASTIC, NOT SNOW). RAVENS ARE EVERYWHERE. I WAS THRILLED TO SEE ONE SITTING THERE WHEN I HAD MY CAMERA. I CAUGHT HIM JUST AS HE WAS TAKING OFF. THIS LITTLE NATURE SHOT IS AS I SAW IT, NO ARRANGEMENT OF ELEMENTS, NO PHOTOSHOPPING. GETTING CLOSER THESE WERE THE VIEWS FROM MY SOUTHERN EXPOSURE ROCK SEAT. I WAS FEELING PRETTY DARNED LUCKY. ONLY A TINY LITTLE PIECE OF ICE UNDER THE WATER.
BUT ON A NORTHERN EXPOSURE SPIT LOOKING BACK AT MY IDYLLIC PERCH, ICE HAD ALREADY SETTLED IN.
MORE POLLUTION, ALBEIT VERY ARTISTIC POLLUTION, BLENDING IN WITH THE ROCKS. THIS IS AN OFT-PHOTOGRAPHED BOAT, RESTING ON A LITTLE SPIT ON THE COAST TRAIL FROM IQALUIT TO APEX. LESS PHOTOGRAPHED IS THE RUSTING OUTBOARD MOTOR JUST OUTSIDE OF THE FRAME! ALAS, TIME TO GO HOME.
There is a ridge of bedrock that rises up above the Apex Road that I look at every day as I'm walking to work. There’s a wooden cross at the top of it. I’ve seen a couple of people walking their dogs up there, and the ridge is easily accessible from my apartment. When I looked out my window one morning a couple of weeks ago and saw blue sky, as opposed to the fog that had engulfed Iqaluit all of the previous weekend, I practically ran out the door (well, after washing a two-day build up of dishes and drinking an adequate amount of coffee).
Although the sun had disappeared and clouds were rolling in by the time I got outside, I still got a great view from the top. When I had arrived at my apartment building for the first time, I thought I must be in the furthest, most isolated, most unprotected-from-weather suburb in Iqaluit. As I climbed to the top of the ridge and looked back, my little neighbourhood looked positively cocooned in comparison to some others. Here are some panoramic views to give you a sense of what is where in Iqaluit. There are pointers and text on some of the photos - you should be able to read them in the enlarged view you get when you click on the photo.
Ed Hamel, take note of the snow fence in the fourth photo down!
I also spent quite a bit of time studying, in amazement, the plant life among the rocks. How these colourful and various living creatures survive up here is beyond me. One description I read said that plants on the tundra are literally, "clinging to life." They are on the edge of survival, on the edge of the inhabitable zone for living things. In addition to lichen, there are little berries growing on ground plants, root-like structures that seem inexplicably unconnected to a plant, minute mushrooms, and tiny evergreen/anemone-like growths that look like they belong on the ocean floor. And a bubbling stream with a clear layer of ice on top.
OCT 29th UPDATE: Elections here are over - the premier here, Eva Aariak, was defeated by a newcomer in the very riding I live in. I met both of them campaigning door to door. Sorry for the lateness of this post - my web host was hacked and I wasn’t able to post for more than a week.
Most of you reading this blog probably know nothing or very little about Nunavut. I knew very little myself when I was thinking about coming up here. When I grew up in Canada, we had 10 provinces and 2 territories, the later being Yukon and Northwest Territories. Nunavut became a separate territory only in 1999, carved out of the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories as part of a lands claim settlement between the Government of Canada and the Inuit, Canada's northernmost First Nations people. All of Nunavut lies above the tree line, and it extends from Hudson Bay and the Manitoba border to the south, all the way up past the Arctic Circle. All of Nunavut's major settlements except for one - Baker Lake - lie on the coastline.
One of the more interesting things about Nunavut is that it is governed by consensus. There are no political parties; all candidates run as independents. This system is also found in the NWT. Elections are coming up here on Oct 28, so the CBC had a very good story on how the consensus government works, with some good discussion of its advantages and disadvantages: http://www.cbc.ca/elections/nunavutvotes2013/features/view/what-is-consensus-government
80% of the population is Inuit, although this proportion is a little lower in Iqaluit, the capital, where I live. The rest of the population is mostly white, say the statistics. This is undoubtedly true, but I have also seen a few non-white, non-Inuit faces on the street. There is an enormous shortage of medical staff here - not to mention skilled staff of many kinds - so I'm guessing this is drawing a more diverse group of people to the city.
Iqaluit was formerly known as Frobisher Bay, the same name as the bay on which it is located. Frobisher Bay was established as an American air base in 1942, and became part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line under NORAD in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War.
Today, Iqaluit is dominated by the Government of Nunavut, the major employer in town. When you google pictures of downtown Iqaluit, most of the buildings you will see house territorial or federal government offices. It is much more urban than most of Nunavut and, as is said of most capital cities, very different from the rest of the territory it represents. And different from every other capital city in Canada, as you will see in future posts.
Pics below: Nunavut legislature in downtown Iqaluit My work building, the Sivummut Building, which houses Justice, Education and Health. For orientation, the federal building is in the foreground, which is the building behind the legislature in the first pic. The RCMP building, across the road from my building and kiddy-corner from the federal building. The ridge of buildings above is a suburb called “The Plateau.” It is not as far away as the Road to Nowhere, but apparently it is windier.