Iqaluit got under my skin the moment I first stepped off a plane one May, took my first gulp of frigid Arctic air, and walked across the tarmac into the iconic — now much missed — “Yellow Submarine” airport terminal packed with people saying their hellos and goodbyes. Since then, I’ve returned three times and never stopped thinking about how to get back.
There has been the joy of racing across the sea ice on a handmade Inuit sled behind a team of Canadian Inuit Dogs fantasizing that we had the ocean, or perhaps the whole world, to ourselves. There has been stunned silence on the shore of Frobisher Bay as electric green northern lights exploded in the sky over town. There’s an abandoned red lifeboat that starred in a White Stripes video that I didn’t find until my third visit, and a Lebanese joint whose chicken shawarma I never miss and would take to a desert island.
And never mind the temperature. The colder it gets, the more Canadian I feel when I’m on Baffin Island. You just have to prepare for the north, physically and mentally.
Nunavut is a mystery to most Canadians — a place they can’t quite visualize, a supposed bucket-list dream that never becomes reality, a place you can only get to by air or sea that seems too challenging and too expensive. But wrap your mind around this important truth — Iqaluit is just a three-hour flight from Ottawa.
Canada’s youngest and smallest capital city has 8,298 or so people, but it’s a business hub for the Arctic and surprisingly busy and international. Between October and May, Iqaluit’s temperature hovers in a range of minus-4 Celsius (25 Fahrenheit) to minus-28 Celsius (minus-18 Fahrenheit). For four short months, from June to September, the temperatures climb just above freezing.
“You can’t be here and not love winter,” Inukpak Outfitting’s Louis-Philip Pothier declared that day we dog-sledded on the sea ice on my first trip to Nunavut. It was late May and I had missed the Toonik Tyme “spring” festival by a month and was surprised that winter had lingered.
Pothier — as tall and fit a person as you’ll ever meet — goes by the Inuktitut nickname “Inukpak,” the name of both a legendary Inuit giant and the outfitting business he runs with his wife, Martine Dupont. They take people snowmobiling, back-country skiing, kite boarding, and ice fishing in winter, and sea kayaking, hiking, canoeing, and camping in summer.
My dog-sled adventure was a leisurely 20-kilometre (13-mile) jaunt across Frobisher Bay, and I say leisurely because Pothier and the dogs did all the work as I relaxed on plastic-wrapped cushions on the qamutik (sled), slack-jawed and mesmerized by the otherworldly landscape.
“We’re nature people and outdoors people,” Pothier confided. “I think we first fell in love with Nunavut because of the close contact we have with nature. And everything in the Arctic is so much more relaxed.”
Flying over the territory in large and small planes and even a helicopter, I’ve coveted off-grid cabins and caught glimpses of caribou, seals, and whales. I’ve camped in a yurt on the ice and snowmobiled to the floe edge, taking a calculated risk for the rare chance to see polar bears, belugas, narwhal, and rare seabirds. Nunavut has just shy of 40,000 people in 25 unconnected communities and thanks in part to expedition cruises, I’ve meandered about Grise Fiord, Arctic Bay, Gjoa Haven, Kugluktuk, and Pangnirtung, where the population ranges from 137 to 1,585 people. By Nunavut standards, Iqaluit is huge.
Another time when I visited the capital in December, the ice wasn’t yet frozen, there were only five hours of daylight and the sun hung low in the sky. That time I tried dog-sledding on the tundra with Jovan Simic, who creates “dog-powered adventures” at Kool Runnings.
It was the same drill as with Inukpak — a dozen Canadian Inuit dogs attached to a wooden sled by towlines that allowed them to fan out as they ran. Simic served as musher and I, again, was the seated passenger, but this time we criss-crossed the rocky tundra instead of the sea ice and dodged exposed rocks while accompanied by ravens and yearning for ptarmigan, rabbits, wolves, and polar bears.
We had the place to ourselves that time, too.
Created in 1999 when it separated from the Northwest Territories, Nunavut means “Our land” in Inuktitut — the mother tongue of 70 per cent of Nunavummiut. The four official languages are Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun (spoken in the western part of the territory), English, and French, and the territory believes it has the most artists per capita of anywhere in the world.
Iqaluit — “Place of many fishes” — started as a trading post and evolved into a United States air base during World War II named Frobisher Bay. Now it has a modern, art-filled red airport terminal that’s eight times the size of the shuttered Yellow Submarine. Speaking of art, always carry a bundle of cash for the roving artists who will come up to you on the street and in restaurants with sculptures, prints, jewelry, and crafts.
It was on a historical and cultural city tour with Inukpak’s Dupont that I first learned to go to Makigiarvik Correctional Centre on Friday afternoons to buy soapstone and marble carvings and other art made by the incarcerated men. On my last visit, I wrangled a visit to the carving yard to interview the men as they worked. A more traditional place to buy art is the not-for-profit Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.
Depending on the weather and the amount of daylight, I’ve walked around town alone and flagged $8 flat-rate taxis with other people already in them, waiting patiently for my turn to be dropped off and watching for polar bear hides and seal skins being tanned outside homes.
That shawarma spot? It’s Yummy Shawarma and Donair run by Khaldoun El-Shamaa. Black Heart Café, meanwhile, would find a following in any Canadian city, and wing night at the Royal Canadian Legion is a trip. NuBrew (Nunavut Brewing Co.) opened in 2018 and became the northernmost brewery in Canada. I always take a sobering look at Arctic food prices at the NorthMart, and stock up on smoked Arctic char from Nunavut Country Food.
Even the obvious things to do here feel unusual. Nobody misses the igloo-shaped St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral, a replica of a church that was first built in 1970 and destroyed by a 2005 arson, or the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre’s cultural exhibits and wildlife displays. I finally got around to taking the free tour of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and was charmed by the Inuit doll collection and bejewelled mace made from a narwhal tusk.
One day I hope to walk down Iqaluit’s Road to Nowhere instead of just driving until it dead ends. It’s as equally bleak and as compelling as you’d imagine. And I need to dig deeper into the area’s historic DEW line, the Distant Early Warning system of radar stations set up in the 1950s to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War and raise the alarm about sea or land invasions.
Every city has its suburb and they aren’t usually interesting, but in this case, Apex is a must-see. The “beach suburb” started as an Inuit community in the shadow of the air base and is now home to an iconic bowhead whale-bone arch that acts as the gateway to the municipal cemetery.
Apex was a filming location for The Grizzlies, a 2018 movie based on the true story of how lacrosse transformed an Inuit community. It has historic and photogenic Hudson’s Bay Co. buildings, as well as the red boat on the beach where the White Stripes filmed the video for “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” when they visited during a 2007 tour. The spot is where kids play in the sand and people dip their toes in the ocean.
Perhaps my current favourite place in Iqaluit is a barren hill between Apex and downtown Iqaluit where Dupont showed me a mysterious red steel bell on a twisted pole drilled into the rock. It might be tied to a northern lights legend that says when people ring the bell, their loved ones up in the sky will come down in the form of lights to say hello — or it might not.
“It’s a mystery for all,” Dupont told me. “I think that’s what makes it even more special.”
I love a good mystery, but until it’s solved, the bell marks a beautiful spot to wait for the aurora borealis or at least watch the sunset on the Canadian Arctic.
More About Visiting Iqaluit
Where to Stay: The 95-room Frobisher Inn is a hub of activity, with the Frob Kitchen & Eatery, Storehouse Bar & Grill, Caribrew Café, a convenience store, and an indoor connection to the Astro Theatre. All rooms come with a fridge and microwave, while suites have kitchenettes. The Frob boasts room and laundry service, a fitness centre, conference centre, and free airport shuttle.
Address: Astro Hill Complex, Iqaluit, NU (see map below)
Room Rates: A recent search of website showed prices range from $271 to $318.
COVID-19 Considerations: A travel bubble with the Northwest Territories has been suspended. Travellers should consult the Government of Nunavut website for the latest updates and adhere to both territorial and federal travel advisories.