It is mid-summer on the Arctic Ocean and the sun will not set for another 40 days. I’m riding in a motorboat with the friendliest family in the Northwest Territories. I met Jordan McLeod on Facebook while desperately trying to find transportation to the traditional summer community of Shingle Point on the Yukon’s Arctic coast, and now I’m a member of the family as I join Jordan, his partner Cecilia, and their gaggle of half a dozen happy kids for the five-hour boat ride from Aklavik to Shingle.
It’s two am and the sun has hit its lowest ebb as we pull up to a few dozen shacks on the small spit of land jutting out in the cold Arctic waters. Two boats have pulled in ahead of us with a recently harvested Beluga whale.
I’m a stranger to the community, nervous about how I will fit in, when a booming voice calls from shore, “Hey Peter, how are you doing? Good to see you friend! We had a good hunt today.” With one sentence, the whaling captain Manny Arey, has warmed my heart, introduced me to his whaling crew and opened the Shingle Point community door to me.
I first met Manny in early 2013. I was in the community of Inuvik as a photographer, presenting at their Arctic Image Festival. Inuvik is a unique town: a mix of Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, and non-first nations. When the festival ended, my girlfriend Terri and I rented a truck for the three-hour ice road drive to Aklavik. I needed to attend a meeting of the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers’ Committee in hopes of gaining their support for a photo project I was planning within their traditional territory. The photo project, revolved around a month-long ski trip into Ivvavik National Park to document the migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd.
Somehow, Manny and I became friends back on that cold winter day in Aklavik when I explained why I wanted to document the caribou migration. The whole committee showed incredible patience as I talked of my work trying to protect the caribou calving grounds. The people of Aklavik depend on the herd for their cultural and physical sustenance. They have been eating caribou for thousands of years, but the caribou’s calving grounds are threatened by potential oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I had been working on lobbying Americans and the U.S. government for years for the protection of the herd. Once we started talking caribou and its importance to the people, my project was approved and, more importantly, we became friends.
I spent the next week with the McLeod family at Shingle Point, which is a magical place. It is a spit of land 50 metres wide and five kilometres long on Yukon’s Arctic shoreline, just east of the Northwest Territories border and is the only safe harbour for a hundred kilometres. Historically, it has been of great importance to the local Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people. A thousand years ago it was a seasonal location for Inuvialuit following the movements and cycles of the wildlife that sustained them. A hundred years ago it was a year-round whaling community with a residential school drawing children from across the Arctic.
Today, Shingle Point is a bustling summer community for the people of the Mackenzie Delta, who reunite and reconnect with family through hunting, fishing, and activities. Children outnumber adults two to one, and the 24-hour sunlight serves as a permanent sugar rush for their young bodies. Their average day goes something like this: wake up at 2 p.m. for pancake breakfast, followed by a tour of the spit on the family ATV; then gather friends for carving, floating boats, baseball, and a game of kick the can or hide and seek, followed by a supper of deliciously greasy roasted goose. Evenings involve pulling up the fishing nets with the family, then gutting, cleaning, and smoking the day’s catch of herring and char with grandparents. Bedtime arrives around 3 or 4 a.m., but not before a few rounds of cards, video games, or a movie—unless, of course, a Beluga has been harvested.
Successful Beluga whale hunts happen once or twice a summer. Once a Beluga is towed into camp, the entire community quickly converges to watch, celebrate and to help with all the work. Over the next four hours the women butcher the greasy white whale. Squaring the snow white skin into igloo block size chunks, before laying it out onto sun bleached driftwood to dry. The Inuvialuit favourite Muktuk is created by boiling the white skin and fat for hours, before drying it once again and finally storing it in a cool dark locale.
The highlight of the summer on Shingle Point is a gathering called ‘Shingle Games’. The summer community assembles on the very tip of Shingle to play western and traditional games into the early morning. The end of the games signals a slowing down of life at the Point. Families begin packing boats and preparing for the day long journey back to Aklavik, Inuvik, Kaktovik or Tuktoyuktuk. Within a week, the community is down to half a dozen families and some fisheries biologists. With the onset of fall, kids head back to school, the biologists head back to the computer desk, and the caribou have moved into the forested lands to the south, followed by the whales and the birds.