Celebrating Inuit traditions and a return to Spring

Toonik Tyme in Nunavut takes place in April, an annual festival in Iqaluit celebrating Inuit traditions and a return to Spring. The festival is volunteer-run, and I am privileged to take part in some of the festivities this year, including a dogsled tour, spending time with local artisans, and learning the proper way to build an igloo.

Dog sledding is an experience that I first had years ago while in Norway. Since then it has stuck with me and I was very much looking forward to doing it again in Nunavut. It absolutely lives up to expectations, but the differences are enough to make me a novice again. The dogs are harnessed very differently in Nunavut, with a fan approach; each dog is tied back to a central point just in front of a traditional sled called a qamutiq. It’s attached this way so hunters can quickly release their dogs to encircle prey, allowing the hunter to get into position and take the animal.

The Inuit sled dogs are incredible, power­fully pulling our sleds over the ice of Frobisher Bay. The runners on the sled fly effortlessly over the ice, and when we turn back towards Iqaluit, the prevailing wind is in my face, and I imagine myself spending long days racing across the tundra. The sun­light on this day is fleeting, but when it does poke through the clouds, it creates fantastic bursts of light that shine on distant mountains; the interplay of bright and dark create scenes a photographer like me dream of.

Mathew Nuqingaq, wearing his distinctive polar bear claw necklace, fabricates a piece of jewellery in his studio.

If you’re out on the ice and tundra for a whole day dog sledding, you may find yourself looking for a place to spend the night.

You may want to build an igloo. I visit Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park with Martine Dupont, Director of “Awesomeness” with Inukpak Outfitting, where I am given a brief introduction into the importance of igloo construction.

I learn how to choose a site based on how the snow has drifted, and how to determine if the snow is suitable. If the snow is too soft, you won’t be able to cut firm blocks for your walls and your igloo will fall apart. Because of their density, the snow blocks are heavy, and it is sweaty work. During Toonik Tyme, there is an igloo building competition where teams race to see who can build one the fastest. Martine and her partner were able to win the competition by completing their igloo in 41 minutes!

I also spend time speaking with local artisans. I am very fortunate to visit with Mathew Nuqingaq, a well-known local artist. He calls himself, “The Metal Guy” and creates beautiful earrings, sunglasses, and rings from a variety of materials, including silver and copper. If you’ve been to the Legislative Assembly and have seen Nunavut’s ceremonial mace, then you’ve seen some of Mathew’s work. He’s exhibited all over the world.

Metal is far from the only material being used in Nunavut. Many artists create incredible sculptures from serpentine and soapstone and adorn their work with precious and semi-precious stones like garnet, amethyst, and lapis lazuli, all of which are found in the territory. A visit to the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum is a must, as its collection of Inuit artifacts and art is free to see and is attended by friendly, knowledgeable staff. There is an excellent gift shop full of work created by local artists, as well.

During my visit, it amazes me just how tightly interconnected everything is. It’s impossible to experience the beautiful scenery of the Arctic without being forever grateful that the people who call this place home are willing to share so much.