Spring has started to arrive in Nunavut. The days are long, and the sun is bright. The temperatures, however, are still well below freezing and the ice on Cumberland Sound, a body of water more than a thousand feet deep in places, is still plenty thick for ice fishing.
I arrive in the town of Pangnirtung via charter plane from Iqaluit. The flight is just over an hour long, and the airport sits right on the edge of the water. Pangnirtung is often called the Switzerland of the Arctic, and with peaks in the background — the highest on the Canadian Shield — it is easy to understand why. I walk out of the plane and right off the runway, and down to the ice where I meet Peter Kilabuk and his crew of fishermen. Peter is from Pangnirtung and knows the area very well. In the past, he worked as a Park Warden in Auyuittuq National Park and now operates an expediting and outfitting service. He exudes confidence and charisma, and I know that I’m going to have a great day.
Originally, the plan for Pangnirtung involved going into Auyuittuq National Park. That’s where Mount Thor and Mount Asgard are. You’ve seen Mount Asgard before, if you’ve watched The Spy Who Loved Me. The ski jump scene in the intro was filmed on it. Mount Thor, on the other hand, features Earth’s greatest vertical drop at 4,101 feet. Seeing these mountains has been on my bucket list for a very long time. The problem, however, is that the Park was closed when we visited the region. There’s simply not enough snow to prevent terrain damage, and Parks Canada was doing the right thing and keeping it off limits. Not enough snow in the Arctic Circle, in April? Climate change is a real thing, and here in the Arctic its effects are most prevalent.
Crews ice fish all winter long, and the process is a lot of work. We climb onto snow machines pulling qamutiit, traditional Inuit sleds, and head out onto Cumberland Sound to a spot some 20 kilometres away. Occasionally, we stop to make sure the ice looks safe. On one occasion a seal is spotted out in the middle of the Sound, but we stay away since seals usually surface only where the ice is thin. I am grateful for the expertise possessed by Peter and his crew, since the water here is more than a thousand feet deep.
When we arrive at the cabin — itself on a sled so it can be removed at the end of the season — everyone gets to work. The hole, frozen over since the last visit, is broken open and small pieces of Arctic char are cut up for bait. More than one hundred hooks are baited on a line carefully laid out on the ice. The line is very long, since it must reach all the way to the bottom of the Sound, where the turbot are. We learn that it is very important to know where other fishermen have placed lines, since trying to disentangle lines below the ice surface is an incredibly difficult job.
Slowly, the weighted line is lowered into the hole and adjusted so the current carries it along the bottom. And then the waiting begins. Since this experience wasn’t an overnight one, the plan is to wait about two hours, and then haul in the line. Normally, fishermen will wait as long as eight hours, even spending the night in the cabin in temperatures below -40 Celsius. Often, if a line can be set at night, teams will return to Pangnirtung and then return in the morning, and the catch is hauled up. Usually the line is reset and placed down in the water again.
As we wait, we spend time in the cabin. With a small cooking stove burning, the cabin becomes very warm, and soon jackets and boots come off, food and warm drink is shared, and stories are told. Peter has lived here his whole life, and tells stories about incredible winter storms, and powerful winds that have blown ice fishing cabins away. The tradition has extended to his children, and even his grandchildren. Peter’s son is also a fisherman and he has brought his granddaughter out to the cabin as well.
Listening to Peter share his knowledge, I realize that fishing here is not just a profession but a way of life, and to be successful at it requires lifetimes of knowledge, passed down from generation to generation.
After our wait, the process of bringing the line back up begins. Nowadays it’s done with a small gasoline engine, but it used to be done via hand crank. The line is extremely heavy, especially if there are fish on it. Remember, the line must go all the way to the bottom of the Sound, and then lie along the bottom since that is where the fish are. In this case, we end up with more than 40 fish, all of which are cleaned and filleted right there on the ice. I am astounded at how quickly the work is completed, and how little is left behind for the hawks and eagles that will find it after we leave.
By now, it is late afternoon and the wind has picked up, adding tremendously to the cold. Despite the drop in temperature, I watch the wind move the drifts of snow on the open ice, sculpting them into shapes I’ve seen in artwork in Nunavut. The qamutiit now have containers of turbot packed on them, and I am thankful the wind is out of the west as we head back to Pangnirtung. The 20-kilometre snowmobile ride back would have been much less comfortable had the wind not been at our backs. Despite the cold, I am continually struck by how beautiful the area is and wish I had more time to spend here. I suspect a night out on the ice, on a clear night with the Aurora shining above would be an unforgettable experience.
The whole day is an experience I will not soon forget. Peter and his crew are incredibly kind to share their time and expertise, and I feel very privileged to have been able to do this, since it’s not something that visitors to the region usually get to experience. I come away with a better sense of understanding why Inuit communities feel so connected to the land they share, and some knowledge about why it’s so important that we all work together to protect it.