Q & A

January 14, 2014

Dear friends, new and old,

I'm back from my trip to the Western Arctic! It was two magical, jam-packed days of fun and firsts at the Inuvik Sunrise Festival—and a glimpse into life in an environment so very different from the one I am used to. It was also exhausting. I picked up a cold on the return trip and I have an urgent project to complete this week, so it may be some time before I write about my trip in detail. I know you're all eager to see pictures, but I'll tell you right now that I don't have a whole lot to share—some, but not a whole lot. How could I go to the Arctic and not come back with tons of pictures? Let me answer that question and a few more below.

Q: So, what was it like? How cold was it really?

A: Very cold, though not particularly cold, relatively speaking. Or so they told us. The temperature was −25 or less the entire time I was there. The temperature hasn't yet hit −40 this year, at least not in Inuvik, and it should have.

The cold there doesn't hit you the way it does on a super cold day in Toronto. It doesn't hit you right away, but it sneaks up on you after you've been outside for a while, particularly if you aren't moving. It is absolutely crucial to dress properly.

Q: Did you see the sun rise?

A: Actually, we didn't. It was too cloudy! We saw sunlight, in the sense that the sky lightened and we had a semblance of daylight for a couple of hours each day, but we didn't actually see the sun above the horizon except from the plane and from the ground in Norman Wells, which is the first stop on the three-leg flight from Inuvik to Edmonton.

It was surreal to look out the hotel window at 8:45 am and see absolute darkness and all the streetlights on. It was surreal to see the sky start to lighten ever so slightly, from pitch black to a dark dark blue, some time after 10 am. It was surreal to see the blue-grey light of an overcast winter's day fade oh so gradually back to total darkness by late afternoon.

Q: What about the Northern Lights?

A: Nope, we didn't get those either. But I learned a lot about where and when to see the Northern Lights in the future. Apparently, the place to go is Yellowknife!

Q: What was your favourite thing about being in Inuvik?

A: Going dogsledding and the people. The locals were incredibly warm and generous. They shared stories, information, anecdotes, history, and tips for where to go and what to do. During the drumming and dancing on Friday night, I sat next to a woman who moved to Inuvik 39 years ago… and never left. She filmed me dancing and asked two of the girls in the group to stand next to me and another "winter tourist" for photos afterward. One of our guides/drivers taught me the difference between an igloo and a quinzee, the dangers of speeding on the Dempster Highway, and the value of entrepreneurship, flexibility, and generosity when you live in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

The dogsledding is a story in itself. You'll have to wait for that one.
: )

Q: But… where are your photos? And why didn't you take lots!?

A: When it's 25 below and you're wearing unwieldy mittens over a pair of glove liners which are both tucked into the sleeves of your down coat, it's not so easy to whip out your camera to take a picture, much less fiddle with the settings to get the best possible shot. And I'm not a particularly good photographer to begin with. I decided pretty early on to leave the photography to the professionals (see below) and to focus on living the experience.

Also, there is just so much that photographs can't capture or convey:
  • the loud pops of the best fireworks I've ever seen, and the way their bright light sometimes dangled and drifted in the blackness before going out
  • the heat of the massive bonfire fuelled by dozens—hundreds!—of wooden pallets collected specifically for the occasion
  • the way the snow crunches underfoot everywhere you go (Snow accumulates and becomes compacted throughout the winter. There are no warm days during which some of the snow melts, as there are in Toronto. When snow falls in Inuvik, it stay on the ground until spring.)
  • the volume, tone, and power of the drums played by the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers, and the way it resonates in your body
  • the feeling of flying across the snow, through forests and over frozen lakes
  • how much time and effort it takes to get dressed to go out!
  • the moon in the sky about the clouds when the sun is also up, as seen from the plane (I could see it clearly with my eyes, but not at all through the camera)
  • the huge difference that snow/wind pants make in keeping you warm (I didn't wear them the first night for the short walk from the hotel to the community centre, nor did I wear my long johns. Bad idea. Lesson learned.)
  • the way the cold can chill you to the core, and how long it takes to warm up (An hour after coming in from dogsledding, I still didn't want to remove anything but my coat. By the end of day two, keeping my long johns on at all times, indoors or out, felt just fine, thank you very much.)
  • the taste of bannock, reindeer, char, muktuk, fried bannock, and smoked fish
  • the distinctive cadence of our guide Gerry's soft speaking voice
  • the friendliness and spunk of all the children we met
Two Edmonton media outlets sent reporters to the festival:

The town of Inuvik has posted beautiful photos from the weekend here:

I promise to post my photos somewhere soon! [Note: There's now a link to a slideshow at the top right of this page.] In the meantime, look right for proof that I actually WAS there.

Let me add that iPhones, at least old ones, do not work well in cold weather. In fact, mine didn't work at all sometimes. I got several temperature warnings: "iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it." Which was absurd, given that the phone felt like a popsicle. I actually had to rub it, or put it between hot packs, or just wait for it to warm up. Hilarious!

Q: Was this on your bucket list?

A: I don't have a bucket list! I've never been able to make long-term plans, at least not consciously. I'm too indecisive and anxious. What I do seem to have figured out, however, is how to seize opportunities when they present themselves. And this was a fantastic opportunity, to see a place I've only ever read about and, in one of those coincidences that reminds us how small the world is, to be reunited with friends from public school that I haven't seen in years. The cost of the package deal, even with the added cost of a flight to Edmonton, was less than the return flights alone from Edmonton to Inuvik. And the experience as a whole was truly priceless. Huge thanks to the people of Inuvik for being so welcoming; my sister-in-law for lending me crucial pieces of clothing and a digital camera; friends Samer and Lindsay for their hospitality in Edmonton; and my parents for the generous Christmas gift that helped fund this trip.

Q: But why Inuvik? In winter??

A: Because I really like winter! I love the snow and the cold, even though I don't spend a lot of time outdoors and didn't even know how to dress properly for cold weather before this trip (woollen long johns are my new best friend). I've never been downhill skiing, and I didn't even learn to skate until I was an adult! But I like winter. Where better to experience winter in all its harsh beauty than the Arctic?

Q: Would you go back?

A: Oh yes, definitely, though it may be a few years before I can. There is still lots to do and see, not just in Inuvik, but in the surrounding area. I think I'd like to go back at a different time of year. The cold was manageable, but I'd like to see the area under different circumstances. But not in the height of summer—if I had to choose between 24 hours of darkness or 24 hours of daylight, I'd probably still choose the darkness. Better yet, I'd take some of each in spring or fall!

And I hope to drive there next time. Now that the all-season Dempster highway, which currently ends in Inuvik, is going to be extended to the northern coast, well, how could this newly-enamored-of-road-trips girl resist?


Slideshow (5 minutes)


music: On the Sunny Side of the Street, Peggy Lee; I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine, Dean Martin