Stretching across Canada from Cape Breton to Kamloops, twice the square kilometers of Ontario, and yet a population under 40,000 people, this only begins to describe the vast territory of Nunavut…

Last fall I landed a first Arctic work contract in Cambridge Bay. The hub of the Kitikmeot Region, this small town of less than 2000 residents is situated upon the massive Victoria Island well within a world of mostly snow, rock and ice upon the Dease Strait. A job there for six weeks, I was introduced to a new healthcare system, a short glimpse of Inuit life, and as well the full days of near darkness and the harsh tundra winter reality. It was an impressive initiation to say the least, and departing CamBay before Christmas, the Supervisor along with the Regional Co-ordinator both gave good feedback with regards to my efforts. So, I would be asked to return again in the New Year for another six weeks, to take a placement in the most small and remote community under their authority, Kugaaruk. (aka Pelly Bay)

Flying north beyond the treeline the land is an endless blanket of white. It is rather surreal. Anyone would expect the arctic tundra and frozen ocean to be just that, a place of total awe, although nowhere have I ever been or flown is it so completely desolate a planet when peering down and out from 27,000 feet. To witness it the first time seemed strange.

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Ottawa to Calgary to Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven to Kugaaruk, two days and over fourteen hours of plane hopping, I crossed west over Canada from Ontario, only to fish-hook back around again and find myself directly above Thunder Bay. (except that I was 2000 or so kilometers north) A weird thing, was that I would remain on Yellowknife time, a two hour difference from home.

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The sun in Kugaaruk had been down since early December. I arrived January 7th and the first rise of 2016 was scheduled for next day. Because of high ridges to the south behind town, no one would see that big glowing orb anytime soon. Regardless, first sunlight was expected to shine on the 8th lasting 34 minutes and 38 seconds, and from there onward the days would grow long, fast. In fact, by a departure home on February 16th, daylight would span from zero to eight hours in just under six weeks. Oddly again, being on a western clock two hours behind eastern standard time, yet planted at a longitude equal to Ontario, high noon would be kinda around 10:00am.

Home in Kugaaruk would be a cozy 2-bedroom apartment above the Health Center. This made the 5 1/2 week, 240 work hours and 380 hours on-call a little more manageable. Decent cable TV and all five seasons of Game of Thrones on DVD, there would be enough hours remaining for my viewing pleasure. For northern work trips my employers have been good about booking priority flights as well, helping ensure the seats and luggage see me through to the destination. Baggage allowed is 144-pounds with AirCanada but otherwise 180-pounds with Canadian North. This trip like the last, a cooler was stocked full of meat, cheese, butter and frozen veggies to the total of 70 pounds. Hidden within checked-baggage clothes and the carry-on were other foods like rice, pasta, sugar, coffee and more. It is pretty much down to a science, packing much of what will be needed for the duration of the stay. Store prices are outrageous in much of the north although, I appreciate how Nunavut approaches the off-setting of air freight costs in their creative food prices; in contrast to how remote Ontario towns go about it. Junk food prices are the highest, necessities a little less, but still, a 2L milk is $8.99, small box of cereal $8.99, dozen eggs $6.99, small jar of mayonnaise $8.99… and yet a lighter junk food item like the first bag of out-dated Mrs.Vickies chips I bought, was $10.49.

Work is busy enough through the eight hour days Monday to Friday and I’m also on-call two nights then off one, and repeat. Basically the assignment this time was all urgent/emergent (call or walk-in) acute care patient loads, while the other nurses ran programs such as well baby and immunizations, well woman and man, prenatal, sexually transmitted diseases and, following high risk and/or chronic care patients in the community.

The first weekend in town the weather was a little warmer than usual. Stretching the legs I walked the Kugaaruk River and a little ways up into the hills. The twilight hours very short and the skies rather grey, the world seemed bleak and eerie albeit in a fascinating kind of way. Along the river I spotted some crows gathered. Stumbling over their direction, in the snow either wolves, foxes or dogs had tried digging up a frozen seal buried in the pack snow. The following day I chose another direction, heading out south towards the highest peaks around. Not realizing how far I had followed along this one road, the skies were growing dark and winds building up when I began to slow some. Thinking to cut across the tundra towards town instead of back-tracking semi-circular by which way I had come, the boots lead off the road. The hard pack of the tundra is always and everywhere akin to the hardest snow pack and drifts one would find upon a wind-swept lake or field. Nineteen out of twenty steps you walk atop the snow, until that one surprises and trips you up. Peaking a first ridge hoping to spot town on the other side, there ahead was just another short fjord and frozen pond to cross. It was around then I came to think of how the distances appear far on land but are often quite short. I had learned already that on the flat frozen ocean it is the opposite. But, when surrounded by the greyness, in the hilly yet otherwise relatively featureless land, it can get you turned around pretty quick. I could only imagine what total darkness would be like. For a lost and weary traveler out on the tundra, a one and only symbol of hope to keep going might simply be a pile of cleverly stacked rocks. For even knowing I was quite close to town but just could not see it, the odd Inukshuk placed here or there felt rather comforting.

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Lucky to work with incredibly intelligent and dedicated people, life in the Kugaaruk Health Center is good. A steady stream of patients day in and day out, time passes quickly until the weekends allow for a little rest and exploration. There was this one day come the second weekend there which was really quite enjoyed the most. A morning when I walked out onto the ocean a good ways in order to get past the land, and see a first bit of sun and photograph it setting at noon. I later that day posted this to my Facebook…

“Hiked out on the sea ice again today, to get out from under the land’s shadows where a lower horizon and the sun could be found. A sharp north wind kept at my back. I took a place to sit atop a mountain peninsula, and there was able to watch the noon sunset. Out over the ocean, little snownadoes blew up, quite a show. Kugaaruk was off in the distance. It may seem silly for some but today was a rather spiritual day, the outdoors has been the only church for many years. Walking the ice, hiking up the mountains, scaring a hare out from under the drift, facing home thousands of miles away, and simply having the suns rays shine on me, I felt a fortunate man, and thankful within those moments. While returning to town snowmobilers rode over to ensure I was okay. Three strangers on the streets having seen me crossing out on the sea ice asked the same. A man offered me a lift to go see a dead polar bear, and I accepted. Invited into a home I chewed the fat for over an hour with a family never met, all the while watching as several skinned the fat off the fresh pelt, there on the living room floor. The whale blubber offered could not be stomached, the smell of the bears flesh and blood in the small hot room was quite easy to digest. Later I bought a walrus tusk and that polar bear’s fang but, the five foot long, magical unicorn narwhal horn was just a little out of reach. A sweet eighty year old lady whom I had helped at the hospital told me some of the towns people were talking, they are happy, and she thinks I am the perfect nurse. She wants me to come back in the summer to go Arctic char fishing and caribou hunting, says she’ll drive me on her new Honda 4-wheeler to the good spots. Incredible day and for that and much more, here and everywhere, I feel a fortunate man.”

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Walrus tusk.
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Narwhal horn.
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A kind of day worth years, are days lived like this.

The largest of all bears is the Polar Bear. Some might argue Alaskan Kodiaks are bigger but they would be mistaken. In Nunavut the Polar Bear is named Nanook, the freaky Latin name is Ursus Maritimus. Adult males standing upright reach 8 to 10 feet tall and weigh 770 – 1550 pounds, while females tend to be half that of a male bear’s weight. The largest Polar Bear taken from the wild is 2209 pounds, 11-foot, 1-inch tall. Similarly, the male Alaskan Kodiak Grizzly Bear averages 800 – 1500 pounds, stands 8 to 10 feet as well but, the largest bear on record was a captive bear fed to an enormous 2132 pounds. No wild Grizzly killed has been close to that.

Polar Bears live up to 25 years with a few reaching thirty. On land their moving average is 5.6 km/hr and they have a max speed of 40 km/hr. They can swim for days into weeks and up to 400 miles continuously without rest. They have human-like vision and hearing but a heightened sense of smell. It is said they can sniff out a seal from miles away, and humans too. Hunted Polar Bears are edible. The Inuit eat all but the liver, which can be poisonous, and care must be taken with the meat as well due to risk of trichinosis. A bear’s pelt can be sold for several thousand dollars and legal hunts can bring in huge revenue for Inuit families. Hunting aside, it was a local elder’s near fatal misfortune which lead to my first up-close encounter with a killed bear.

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Dom had been on the land hunting. His snowmobile rolled injuring his knee, and once upright the machine wouldn’t start again. At the time this happened, there would only be four to five hours of twilight in the day. A long and cold darkness setting in, Dom prepared to hunker down. Nanook must have caught a scent for sometime during the night Dom or his machine had been hunted. A bear showed up, and after tearing off a chunk from the back rest of his snowmachines seat, alone and possibly being the next bite, Dom took the 9 ½ foot Nanook down. The family was very happy for the kill and to find Dom okay the following day… Later, I somehow found myself sharing in some of this with all of them, and taking a special keepsake from the time as well.

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“Evidenced in legend, ritual, ceremony and art, the Polar Bear is the most worshiped animal of the Arctic. For the Inuit, it characterizes endurance, power, courage and acceptance. Historically, to some northern Shaman, a Polar Bear’s canine tooth was a highly valued talisman, as it was believed it could help summon the bears spirit and also give protection…” Just stoked to have this treasure.

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The people in Kugaaruk are of the friendliest I have ever met anywhere. Always a hello on the street, and never out on the land would a person go by without stopping to see if you’re doing okay. Very quickly everyone knows your name, and when people like the grocery store clerk, airport attendant or some patient you have never met, call you by your name then make friendly conversation, you feel so far removed from your life elsewhere. Being invited into a home, offered a lift, or having others go out of their way to accommodate, you find yourself really wanting to treat people in essence that same kind way.

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The tastiness of the Arctic char in this town is said to be the best of anywhere in Nunavut. Come mid July to September, from the river in view of the apartment here, char enter the Kugaaruk to head upstream and spawn. A good couple hours fishing can be two dozen fish, but it’s all in the timing. A road stretching out of town follows the river for miles, providing plenty access points. Eventually after forty minutes it reaches Barrow Lake, a fifteen kilometer long water body holding lake trout exceeding thirty pounds. ( have seen pictures ) Two other similarly sized lakes can be found a little more remote and further across the tundra. Out on Pelly Bay in less than hour, two other char rivers can be reached by boat. Those are the real gems for nearby char fishing, where it is said it can be a fish every cast. There will hopefully come a day when finding out if this is all true.

For now it is winter. There is no ice fishing to be had until April. The town is busy all night long buzzing around on snowmobiles while school-age children play in the streets often ti’ll 4:00am in -30C to -50C weather. The guy across the road from the hospital revs his skidoo and rides in and out from his place all night long too. I actually thought up a little poem about that…

My Sleepy Time Poem.

Every night across the street,
lives a man who does not sleep.
Eleven, twelve, one or two,
standing out in the cold he revs his skidoo.
I know things are different in Nunavut
but hey there noisy neighbor…
Arrrrrggghhh!!!! F&#% YOU!

During the day some of the locals take off onto the land and sea in search of caribou or anything else that could provide food or income. Many disliking the taste of the drinkable town water, people from most households also ride the half hour to a nearby river to fill their buckets with the best gin clear, fresh water available.

Myself, I have been worshiping the sky a lot. While out hiking on the sea and in the hills I often look south to the low light on the horizon and marvel at how incredibly beautiful the glowing orange arctic sun is. I am actually energized by it. The necessary breakfast dose of 3000ug vitamin D surely helps the mood, but it can’t quite provide the same purpose, spectacle and vitality as the real life source. Over hills and across the land and sea ice, a couple of free days from work I was able to trek out alone, and one day with a friend. The winter sun is truly a sight to behold and little opportunity was wasted under it’s short daylight.

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As time drew to a close in Kugaaruk I took a couple last hikes out onto the sea ice heading across to some nearby islands. Frostbitten cheeks and earlobes during the second outing, and that squeaky crunch of each step on the snow, the warmest choice was to actively keep the heart rate up. On that walk I thought about what was enjoyed most on this first work trip to Kugaaruk… The answer is the people. From my co-workers to the community this is an amazingly friendly place.

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Being out on the land and sea comes once or twice a week for a couple hours, the rest of the time is spent in the Health Center keeping busy. In less than six weeks a personal census showed 265 patients were treated, most of those children and infants. On top of that, while on-call Monday to Friday days and sometimes nights, and including the odd weekend, I gave advice over the phone to many dozens more. In the north it is Nurses who provide the access to all facets of healthcare and, it is a team approach which wins each day. I was fortunate to meet and work alongside a number of good people, everyone making the job a pleasure to take part in.

Finally on the last day off before my departure, after humming and hawing about hiking at -40C with a -48C windchill having nabbed a little frostbite day before, I set off upriver to get away from a smoke hazed town. On the return later the horizon cleared, and walking back on the ice the setting sun was one intense sight to behold. A lingering haze magnified its glow, even more-so in the camera lens, while the colored land and sky became other-worldly. Snapping pictures of Kugaaruk’s historic church, I nearly shot a raven and hare in the same photo before returning gaze to the sunset. Out off shore on Pelly Bay a man and his two children were playing aside an igloo they had just finished building. With only minutes before the sun would fall, huffing, puffing, bundled and stumbling, I ran my arse off out to them knowing that an incredible photo opportunity was slipping away. In the nick of time, approaching with the Nikon, the telescopic lens shot what I considered to be magic. Sunset pictures that truly say so much. The entire hike, in fact the entire stay in Kugaaruk… chasing the sun in the hills, up and down the river and over the ocean ice, I could not have imagined a greater Nunavut arctic experience than this one and, I cannot wait to return.

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Returning home late February there was essentially a month left to squeeze in an ice fishing season. Or so I thought..? A mixed bag of winter weather plagued the Ottawa valley this year. Local online reports were rather scarce, some folks squeaking now and again about thin ice, sketchy ice and their lack of drive to bother fishing. Up in the Arctic there hadn’t been much time to think about or miss it really. Hadn’t been the time to jonze for the tug nor long for the fish, but once I was off from work everyday and just sitting around the house, I was quick to want to do something. So I started with a couple days for laketrout then went to whiteys from there. A few quick outings with one of the two laker trips being a skunk, those ice conditions some were concerned about weren’t an issue at all, not yet anyways… but, rusty fishing skills were indeed in need of a good fine tuning. Hadn’t taken 3 1/2 months off fishing in nearly a decade.

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Having been away the girls had missed me some. My eldest kept very busy with exams, Ju-Jitsu, work, Drivers Ed and her friends, my youngest having less on her plate hoped for a little time and attention with her dad. School cancellations due to snow or ice storms came conveniently often, and a day playing hooky to ski as well, Leah and I made up for some lost time. Summer and I too found room for a dinner and movie date in the city, spending some hours the way she likes it best.

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Old buddies this year kept it real and about friendship, and in a flash our annual Calabogie trip was upon us. The weather had taken a worrisome turn. Mild March temps, the group wondered about ice and snow conditions for the machines and safe fishing. No problems. For four days the sun blazed, hitting double-digit temps at times and the trails held out just enough for bikes and sleds to come and go over our long weekend getaway. The lake ice too remained a good foot or more thick of mostly black. Poker and great musical entertainment accompanied big meals and drink, and seeing this gang was as welcome as it has been for years. A perfect time for Brenda and I was shared alongside folks who were there to enjoy themselves, and happily depart the better for it until next year.

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The winter finishing fast I had placed much stock into the annual pilgrimage north for big lakers. Truth be told, the bit of actual fishing I had done this season meant little overall, as this trip is the one I have come to love and look very forward to each winter. The drive, the down time, the cabin, friends Len and Rob, the scenery, riding out alone each morning onto the big lake with it’s even bigger lakers… it is an escape, a sort of recharge while on a rigorous quest as well, and one that I’ll hope to take every year until there is nothing left of me. I’d give up all other ice fishing for it really. So one could imagine as it’s days approached, my worry and wonder while watching a forecast for the north spike daily plus temps up to double-digits, sometimes with prolonged rains for days, and over a couple of weeks on end…

Returning from Bogie on a Sunday, after speaking with Rob and Len we made the decision to go on the Monday, planned and packed Tues and Wednesday, then hit the road early that Thursday. Boy was I glad it happened.

The lake was glass. Sheer ice! The few trouble spots I found along some shoreline rock were nothing to worry about. The ice thickness was anywhere between 18-22 inches with two inches white and the rest black. There was no snow for big machines to turn up and Len’s liquid cool was nearly useless for the week. The Bravo train on the other hand had no issues at all, and except examining before crossing the odd pressure crack, the lake was nearly all mine for the exploring. Point the sled and go!

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The week fully enjoyed, the seven day highs averaged about zero, the coldest -7C the warmest +3C. Little change in the weather there were a couple flat calm days, couple windier days, some cloud but mostly sun, and no rain or snow. Turned out to be perfect timing and had it been a week earlier we would have suffered the worst soup and slush imaginable. All ice and conditions for us just locked in tight for the duration, and from first lure dropped to last reel up, I put in 7 to 8 hour days of sledding, drilling, jigging, running and gunning.

First day was a bit of a gong. There were others on the lake and they were lost as to what to do. Spotted out there, before long they came hovering around me where I had been set-up alone. Six different people visited over a few hours during that afternoon, all from a same group and all surely punching waypoints into their GPS’s. Friendly guys they were, but heck they all wanted something and a couple were quite eagerly fishing for information. I hinted that with such a large group they could look for fish by eliminating water together or, set-up somewhere fishy-like and put in the hours waiting as I often do, but they seemed impatient to that, confessing they had little time and they wanted big fish. Turned out their half dozen anglers with three days on the lake managed an eight pounder for the table. That’s fishing. But, while distracted during our visits, at different times I happened to miss two and catch one. The hours finished for that day I went 1 for 3 and marked 5.

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Next day I didn’t return to that spot as there was already a crowd set-up hours before I would arrive on the lake. Setting out to experiment, the last hole punched on a hunch off the back of an island previous season, it was a final hour fish that hard hit and spit which haunted me all year. A real freight train on the graph it was one of those heavy weights for sure. So, heading there I hoped to reconnect but, that wasn’t happening. Not a laker marked all day despite drilling in a few other nearby areas as well. Had I wanted to catch ling on that spot by pounding bottom, it could easily have been a dozen or more fish day. If downsizing for whiteys, there would have been even more. The following day I tried two other spots. The morning I hit up the entrance way into a huge whitey feeding flat, then in the afternoon I returned to an underwater point which previous year I’d found to be holding smelt and herring. Not a single laker marked all day, although some decent herring kept it playful.

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Evening before while having a beer with Rob’s dad Wilf, he said something that got me thinking. Before retiring to bed I was thinking some more, and come the next day I had a new game plan to try. Setting out onto the lake it felt like starting over. I punched a half dozen holes to set up and FOUND ‘EM Tonnes of whiteys, sometimes a dozen or more on the graph hovering from bottom to thirty feet up. Had I been there to fish for these guys it would have been an all day slayfest but, the lures for the lakers I am after aren’t overly whitey friendly. An exceptional day finally, I popped 5 for 7 on the lakers and marked 8, catching twice as many fish as had been caught the entire trip year before. Picked off many whites incidentally as well, shaking them off so to not consume much time. Most of the lakers were the smallest I have seen in this area of the lake though, and I did sorta care that they might bring down the 17.5-pound average I’d currently been running. Biggest fish of the day with the pinch hit almost 42.5 inches. By length it should have ranged 25 to even 30 pounds but being too skinny it didn’t quite make that weight class.

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Len had been down and out since day one, spending but a few hours on the lake the whole trip. Having told him about my previous day, at breakfast he assured me that we’d be seeing each other on the lake this day. When arriving out to the spot I spent the first morning hour drilling new holes to explore the area more. Before long I’d created a line half a mile long following the underwater contour and depths I was hoping to fish. Skidoo and auger, there was a hole about every 100 meters and the ones I liked were marked with a softball sized rock and the GPS. Bear in mind there is no hydrographic data for the area, how we learn what and where is through time spent by myself on the ice, by Rob or myself during the summer, plus trial and error punching holes and fishing them. Those efforts paid off with another banner day. 3 for 3 with 6 marked, and when Lenny arrived around 2:00pm he instantly caught his first giant and another fish as well. The whiteys were quite busy with us too. The run and gun picked myself up another over twenty which was a little hard to get a grip and decent grin on.

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Slap!
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Goof face!
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Was out early next day to continue mapping the area. The bite in the morning was active but skittish, and in hindsight I wished I had fished sooner. The lake to myself until 3:00pm when Len arrived, the afternoon bite tapered right off. Beyond 12:30pm there wasn’t another laketrout marked for the day. A few whiteys to accompany a couple greys, I landed 2 of 5 and marked 7. It was a bit cooler a wind and being slow later on I left an hour early. Steak night it’s nice to get back in good time, unwind and enjoy a drink with Rob or Wilf.

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The final day was forecast to reach +1C and both Rob and Len were expected to join me at some point. Fearing the fishing area was on the decline but it having been good the past three days, I was flip-flopping in the decision to stay or try another decent spot. The boys coming out though, they would need to know where I was going ahead of time and in the end I stuck with what had been working. It didn’t pan out. Fished 1 for 2 on the day marking only two lakers. Hopped around all over the area punching out old holes and barely marked any whiteys either. The fish had moved and there wasn’t enough time and energy left to pick a direction and continue on along the contour looking for them. The boys did almost come out that afternoon as well but, their snowmachines were overheating too often and it took them nearly three hours just to arrive, before they had to turn back.

This trip was my ice fishing season really. Big days with some big fish spent mostly alone on the lake taking it all in at my own pace. Evenings spent in good company with Len, Rob and Wilf back at the cabin. Plenty fresh air, hearty meals, fine scotch and every night a good sound sleep. Looking forward to next year already.

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Thanks for reading…
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Bunk
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