Nunavut: Paddle in the park

The clerk in the Northern Store in Kimmirut, Nunavut, looked at me, her eyes wide with astonishment. For her, it was clearly one of the hottest days of the year, and here I was asking for a scarf. “Do you think it’s cold?” she asked me incredulously before running off to another part of the store, ostensibly to find me a scarf. No doubt she was also off to tell her colleagues about the weirdo from the south asking for winter wear. At least I was saved further embarrassment by having the foresight to pack eyeshades, not wanting to be kept up all night by the fierce midnight sun.

I never did need the scarf because the weather improved. As for the eyeshades, I was so exhausted every day from hiking and rafting on the Soper River that I was fast asleep long before daylight ended.

Our newest territory, Nunavut, is a fascinating place, and a good way to get to know it is to visit Kimmirut (formerly called Lake Harbour), a village of 400 on the southern shore of Baffin Island. There are three ways of getting there: after flying into Iqaluit from Montreal or Ottawa, you can take a 25-minute flight to Kimmirut, enjoy a two-week boat trip from Iqaluit rou the south end of Baffin Island, or fly west of Iqaluit to Katannilik Park and paddle and hike for five days. We chose the latter.

Unless you are experienced in the outdoors, I’d recommend an organized tour to get to Kimmirut. A hiking and paddling tour takes you through the stunningly beautiful Katannilik Territorial Park. We hiked, camped, paddled and lined (pulling the boat by a rope) along the Soper River, a Canadian Heritage Site since 1992. A relatively easy tour, it’s a good way get to know the tundra at a leisurely pace.

Starting out
From our Twin Otter, which took us from Iqualuit to our fly-in spot where we would begin our trek, the area looked bleak and uninhabitable. But by the time we made it to our destination — a narrow valley that inches its way toward Mount Joy — we discovered an area teeming with life, including a welcoming committee of caribou stationed near the gravel runway forcing us to make two attempts at landing.

Next page: Conquering the rapids

Then we spent 90 minutes inflating our raft and receiving our first lesson in canoeing before shooting our first set of rapids. After testing our canoeing mettle and looking back at the rapids we’d conquered, we felt quite sheepish: they didn’t look like much from this angle.

We paddled to shore for our first hike, starting at the base of the Cascade Falls. The park’s name, Katannilik, means “the place where there are falls.” Never has a park been more appropriately named. The falls help to make the Soper a wide and rather deep river unlike most Baffin Island waterways, which tend to be shallow. Hiking up Cascade Falls, we crossed the bog-like tundra for the first time.

From a distance, the hillsides seem foreboding and barren, on closer view, we enjoyed an entire hidden universe of plant life: three types of heather, Arctic fireweed, Dipensia and tiny trumpet-like lichen called goblets, puffballs the size of softballs, yellow saxifrages and lovely lousewort (in spite of its name, lousewort is very pretty and is capped by a sort of joker’s hat). I hadn’t seen puffballs since my childhood, and a francophone lady on the tour taught me the French term for them — pet de loup, or wolf farts.

On our second day, we set up camp where the Livingstone River joins the Soper, a site that Inuit hunters have used for thousands of years and where the caribou often cross. We slept a stone’s throw from an ancient boulder-ringed campground. Camping next to a precious archeological site is allowed as long as you respect the Arctic rule — leave the land so that the next person is unaware you passed through.

The push to Kimmirut
On our final day, we visited Kimmirut before our plane took us back to Iqaluit. Strong headwinds roared, and the odd snowflake fell by the time we made it to the equipment drop-off site and prepared to make the final 30-minute hike to Kimmirut.

Most of the residents of Kimmirut make their living from sculpting, and you can see them on the front steps of their homes, working in the open air. In the harbour, seals, icebergs and the occasional whale are not uncommon. The town has a clinic, school, RCMP station, Northern Store (formerly Hudson’s Bay Company) and, of course, an Anglican church, the latter three being the staples for any Arctic settlement.

That night, we ate with an Inuit family, and it seemed the entire extended family visited during the meal — daughter, son-in-law, friends, grandson and an adopted son (adopting children is very common in the North; it’s not uncommon for a pregnant woman to be asked if she plans to keep her baby or put him up for adoption). We dined on caribou stew and Arctic char fish cakes while baseball and football scores from the south played surrealistically on the radio.

We spent a full three days in Iqaluit, getting a chance to try other Arctic delicacies such as frozen whale blubber. The town map helped us get around on foot, but taking a taxi was an experience with people getting in and out as need be. The drivers know all the addresses in town. They have to — streets have no names, and house numbers are in no particular order. The houses themselves are scattered — as though someone just threw them down from the sky. The only road with a name is The Road to Nowhere, and it leads, as you may suspect, nowhere.