The Pingualuit National Park is a huge playground for ski lovers who want to be pulled by the wind, ski down the crater or simply trace their way back to Kangiqsujuaq on cross-country skis. It’s also a great place to experience Inuit culture such as eating raw food and sleeping in igloos.
It’s -20°C and the wind blows at 50 kmph on the vast plain at the bottom of the Pingualuit crater, as we set our kites to ski to the next camp, 30 km away. We are four kite skiers, escorted by two guides in snowmobiles, riding in paradisiacal conditions: a treeless territory with constant winds, where we can ski for hundreds of kilometres on soft wind packed snow.
On this sunny morning, we navigate through the Ungava Plateau hills, riding down the small slopes as fast as we can. George Pilurtuut, an Inuit rider from Kangiqsujuaq, checks his GPS; it says 80 kmph. The wind keeps gaining strength, and for a short while, it feels like we ride through a complete whiteout, with the colourful kites in the air and the snowmobiles ahead as the only landmark I can see.
Two hours later, I notice the wood camp where we will sleep for the night, equipped with solar panels, a technology that stands out in this wild territory.
“This is the craziest kite ride of my life,” yells George, an old friend of Guy Laflamme, the founder of a kite ski program in Nunavik in 2006, who invited him for a kite ski tourism pilot project in the Park. Christine Laflamme, Guy’s sister, is also part of the adventure.
Even though the Pingualuit Park offers the option to kite ski on Manarsulik Lake, nearby the crater, it’s the first time a group kite ski between camps, notes Noah Annahatak, the Park warden since its opening in 2007.
“It’s really nice to see the kites in the sky and it’s much faster than cross-country skiing,” he says, while offering me a piece of sausage-like meat. “It’s cooked mattaq (beluga skin with a layer of fat) rolled in beluga intestines,” he adds. While raw mattaq is hard to chew and unfamiliar for most qallunaat (southerners or white people), these sausages are particularly delicious, with a smoky taste.
All along the trip, beluga bites, fresh fish meals or caribou feast allow us to discover the Inuit gastronomy, while living by the territory’s rhythm. Behind each piece of meat, lies a hunter’s story, notes Noah, who always shows great respect towards the animals. “We do not waste anything. We use all the animal pieces,” says the 53-year-old man, with a lively look.
Raised by his mother, Noah never had the opportunity to learn the traditional knowledge when he was young. Today, he seeks to transmit the knowledge he learned, bit by bit, and even revive some old practices. His eyes brighten when he recalls how, in 2008, he worked with a group of hunters to catch the first bowhead whale in over a century in Nunavik — a 49-ton beast that he shared with all Nunavimmiut (Nunavik residents), faithful to the tradition.
The journey in the Pingualuit Park started a few days earlier, in Kangiqsujuaq, where we loaded all our gear onto the qamutiit, the traditional sleds, pulled by snowmobiles. The plan: ride 120 km to the Pingualuit crater base camp, and make our way back by our own means, be it cross-country skiing or kite skiing, over five days.
Besides the four kite skiers, two Montreal tourists who won a trip on the radio to discover the Park, three guides and a travel agent complete the group. After a long snowmobile ride, we finally reach the Manarsulik camp, 2.5 km away from the Pingualuit crater, at around 7 pm. This is the Park’s base camp, with four cabins equipped with private bedrooms, solar panels, and Wi-Fi connection, a luxury in this isolated area. Water is taken right out of the lake, a few dozen metres away.
The isolation and the absence of luminous pollution make this a perfect place to see Northern Lights. When the night comes, I go out with Lucasie Kiatainaq, one of our guides who is also a photographer, and we share tips to take the best arsaniit shots.
Skiing the crater
The next morning, while looking at the topographical maps on the main cabin wall during breakfast, we notice the crater’s slope reaches more than 200 metres in some areas, the equivalent of mount Saint-Sauveur in the Laurentides. Excited by the discovery, Christine, Guy and I put our ski boots on before jumping on the snowmobile to reach the crater.
The machines bring us halfway up the hill and we walk the remainder to reach the crater’s ridge, where we can see the perfectly circular Pingaluk Lake, formed 1.4 million years ago when a meteorite created the 3.4-km diameter crater.
We put our skis on and start to ride down the hill on a wind-packed surface. The hill is steep and I enjoy every turn. “We skied the crater,” yells Guy Laflamme as I join him at the bottom with a big high-five. The sensation was so good, we decide to climb right back up for another ride.
Then (almost) satisfied, but thirsty, we make our way to the water hole dug by our guide to taste one of the purest and most transparent waters of the world.
Since there is no wind in the afternoon, we make our way to another ski hill, in the Puvurnituq Canyon, before heading to a good fishing site. In less than an hour, our guides fish 12 lake trout and Arctic char, which made excellent sushi the same night. Unfortunately, tourists cannot fish in the Park, but since many sites are located outside the Park’s boundary, one can ask for a permit at the Landholding Corporation before heading out.
The next morning, the wind blows just enough to be pulled with our kites. After a few kilometres, the wind dies in the hollow of a small valley. Noah takes advantage of the time out to dig a hole and start fishing. A few minutes later, he pulls out a 20 kg lake trout. Despite appearances, nature is generous in the North.
Sleeping in an igloo
When we reach camp, Noah distributes nikuk, dried beluga meat. The cabins are modest, with bunk beds. Noah offers to build an igloo and challenges us to sleep in it, a one-of-a-lifetime experience, he says. George decides to build another one to practice his technique and to make more sleeping places. Two hours later, the two igloos are completed. After supper, they lend me a foam mat and an extra sleeping bag, and I get prepared to sleep in my snow house for the night. A few minutes later, I hear George coming my way to make sure I am comfortable.
“Do you want me to shut your door nicely,” he says quietly.
“Of course,” I answer. He then adds snow through all the small cracks to make sure I don’t get cold. “If you want to go out, just kick the door. Good night.” Laid back comfortably in my igloo, I assume it’s probably the most original way to wish me good night!
With the width of the snow blocks, I quickly realize the igloo is even more comfortable than a winter tent. Sleeping with fresh air, in the middle of the wild Arctic environment, definitely adds a magic touch to the adventure.
Let’s cross-country ski
We still have 60 km to go before reaching Kangiqsujuaq, but the wind has died down. The sun shines hard and it’s warm — 5°C — on this mid-April morning. We exchange the quickness of our kites for the meditative rhythm of cross-country skiing. And instead of making our 30-km ride in two hours, we plan five to six hours to reach the next camp. On our way, we decide to branch through the Iqqalivik Canyon, where I go downhill skiing (once again). At the valley’s bottom, Noah throws me a rope to pull me with the snowmobile to reach the camp before dark. Across the magnificent valley, we see the only trees of the trip, less than two metres high.
For our last day, we make our way down towards Wakeham Bay, discovering another breathtaking canyon. In front of us, the village appears, and a nostalgic feeling hits me, since I have no clue when I will have the opportunity to live such an experience once again.