The history of Canada lies above the tree line.

There are only two ways into Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut — by boat or by plane. By sea, you can experience the cityscape in profile — buildings on stilts suspended above the permafrost; candy coloured exteriors contrasted against the monotone tundra. But it’s the aerial view that’s truly a sight to see. The small city is dwarfed by the immense Arctic landscape, which is 20 percent of Canada’s land mass — an intimidating welcome to the vast land of the still relatively unknown.

While there may be only two ways to get to this land, the ways in which it can get to you are countless. As you fly over Baffin Island, the land is wildly enchanting — a rocky mass with peaks and valleys, surrounded by water and covered, for most seasons, with snow. The North is a place many of us see only on a map. It’s a study in extremes when it comes to both weather and wildlife, and days of unflinching sun or 24-hour nights, depending on the time of year.

Upon your landing in Iqaluit, the Arctic air is brisk even in summer, and the capital, with its population of 7,700, seems both familiar and foreign. There is the Tim Hortons, a ubiquitous sight in any northern Canadian town, but also Nunavut Country Food, which stocks Inuit culinary staples, like Arctic char, caribou and muktuk (whale skin and blubber) that would be hard to find anywhere else. The Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, a gallery space for contemporary Inuit art and culture, is housed in a modest one-storey building that would look at home anywhere across the country. And yet, a short walk from there, at the centre of town, you’ll find Saint Jude’s Anglican Cathedral, shaped like an igloo, the visual icon of true north.

Though it’s Canada’s newest territory — it separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999 — Nunavut is the site of the country’s richest history and wildest terrain. Indigenous peoples have lived off this land for 4,000 years, and it wasn’t until 1576 that English explorer Martin Frobisher chronicled Nunavut for the first time in written history. The region has acted as a gateway to the north, greeting explorers with the challenging (and sometimes fatal) Northwest Passage, and it’s where the English gained an economic foothold on the continent with the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670.

Today, the territory’s 25 communities stretch out across a huge swath of the country, from Kugluktuk, located high above Alberta, on the coast of Coronation Gulf, to Pangnirtung, which is almost right above Labrador, at the edge of Pangnirtung Fjord. As you explore, expect to be awed by nature as well as the culture — from the wildlife that ekes out an existence in this starkly beautiful landscape to the world-famous Cape Dorset prints that tell stories of Inuit life.

ON YOUR VISIT – WHERE TO STAY AND DINE

The Discovery

An intimate boutique hotel with well-appointed suites that once provided lodging for the crew of Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), The Discovery is also home to The Granite Room, one of the city’s top restaurants and well known for its weekend brunch. Its menu proffers French cuisine with a northern influence — think eggs Benedict with Arctic char. thediscoveryiqaluit.com

WHERE TO GO

Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum

Inuit fine art and artifacts are showcased in this quaint museum, housed in what used to be a Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse. Adjacent to the main gallery is a room devoted to temporary exhibits, such as the annual showcase of prints by Cape Dorset artists, whose works are coveted by international collectors. 212 Sinaa Street, Iqaluit

Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre

This small museum highlights Arctic geographic conditions, along with Inuit history and heritage. 220 Sinaa Street, Iqaluit

WHAT TO DO

Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park

Drive or hike to this picturesque park (a mere kilometre from town) to picnic by the scenic waterfalls or to go fishing for Arctic char. Or lace up your boots and hike the numerous trails to view the region’s wildlife and Arctic flora. nunavutparks.com

Inukpak Outfitting

A full-service, all-season tour operator, Inukpak Outfitting can plan any itinerary for you, from historical and cultural city tours to ice fishing, sea kayaking and igloo building. inukpakoutfitting.ca

Arctic Kingdom

This upscale operator offers the ultimate in Arctic wildlife encounters. Catch a glimpse of caribou near Baker Lake and Kimmirut or charter a boat to photograph narwhals in Arctic Bay and Resolute Bay. And you won’t want to miss the magnificent polar bears — the largest land carnivores on Earth — in Arviat and Pond Inlet. arctickingdom.com


By Maryam Siddiqi – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Spring 2018

Photos: Lee Narraway (Nunavut Tourism); Christian Kimber (Nunavut Tourism)

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