Human ingenuity has allowed the Inuit to adapt to one of the world’s harshest ecosystems by developing amazing techniques to obtain daily needed proteins. One of the most striking examples of such cleverness is the unique way Kangiqsujuamiut harvest mussels… under the ice when the tide recedes.
Aturquoise light breaks through the ice, shining on the algae attached to the ice roof over our head. Squatted in a 1.5-metre high cavity, Juusipi Nappaaluk scans the area with his headlight to find hidden mussels through the seaweed-covered ground. It is only 1 pm, but the sunlight barely goes through the thick layer of ice covering Wakeham Bay. “I was coming here to harvest mussels when I was young,” says the 65-year-old man, witness of an ancient practice in the area.
Under the ice mussel harvesting is a remarkable adaptation to the natural environment because the activity is only practiced in a few locations, where geography and topography permit. “We can only come under the ice around the full moon, during the biggest tides of the year,” explains my guide.
A few metres away, George and Alasi Pilurttut and two other tourists also look frantically through the ground to harvest as many mussels as possible in a short period of time. We need to hurry, because the tide is rising and we have less than an hour before the water comes back. “When the tide rises, fog starts filling the air and it’s time to go out,” explains Alasi. To make sure we don’t get stuck, we stay not too far from the hole we dug to get in, but there are also other rules to follow. “For security reasons, we should never yell under the ice and nobody should walk over our heads,” she adds.
The experience is so unique, I feel like I am in a live documentary. And I am not the only one feeling this way since many international filmmakers, from Germany, Japan, Italy, France, and many other countries, come to the area every year to show the world this practice.
One of a kind experience
Ever since I heard about harvesting mussels under the ice, I have wanted to live this dangerous looking experience. To transform this idea into a reality, I reached out to Aventures Kangiqsujuaq, a community-based tourism business incubator managed by the Nunaturlik Landholding Corporation. “We want to help local people start their own outfitting businesses,” states Brian Urquhart, Economic Development Coordinator at Nunaturlik Landholding Corporation.
To help tourists get out on the land for archeological, wildlife or outdoor experiences, Aventures Kangiqsujuaq created a guide directory. When I asked about mussel hunting, Brian put me in contact with Juusipi Nappaaluk, a respected elder in the community.
Around lunchtime on April 14, he picked me up with his snowmobile at the Co-op hotel, with all the gear stowed in his qamutiq, the traditional Inuit sled. “The tide will be low in about an hour, so we need to head out quickly,” he says. I hop on behind him as he drives slowly through the ice monticules to reach the bay of Wakeham, named after William Wakeham, a British explorer who led an expedition to the Hudson Strait in 1897.
Once on the ice, we feel surrounded by the mountain range encircling the 800 souls community. We only need to drive a few kilometres out to reach the mussel harvesting grounds, near a cliff where peregrine falcons nest, explains Juusipi.
He surveys the ice methodically to find a fracture, where ice mounts emerge near the shore. His goal: find where the ice is the thinnest because there is almost two metres of ice in some areas! He stops, knocks a few times on the ice to hear if it’s hollow underneath, and keeps going to find a better spot. After a few tries, Juusipi finds a suitable location to start digging with his ice chisel. A few minutes later, another group, led by George and Alasi, join us, and we all take turns digging through the ice.
After more than half an hour, the half a meter hole is big enough to let us reach the hidden gem under the ice. As soon as I get in, I notice the temperature difference. Even if it is under -20°C outside, the temperature reaches around 5°C under the ice, a particularly hot weather at this latitude.
While I am still amazed by the sight of the turquoise light shining through the ice, the locals start looking for mussels, to see if there is enough to be harvested. “It’s not the best spot, but there will be enough for all of us,” says Juusipi.
I take a bag and start digging though the seaweed to find mussels attached to the bedrock. Meanwhile, I learn the seaweeds are also edible and I pack up a bunch for tonight’s dinner. “You can cook them together and it tastes very good,” George tells me, sneezing, before adding, “it’s also a good medicine for coughs”.
Forty-five minutes after getting in, it’s already time to get out before the cavity is filled by the rising tide. As soon as I get out, I realize how lucky I am to have such an amazing experience.
After driving back to the hotel, Juusipi agrees to come inside for a coffee. We continue our conversation and he tells me how life has changed since his childhood. Born and raised in an igloo (during winter time) until he was nine, he recounts the numerous trips he made with dogsleds to go hunting near the crater. He also remembers when the Canadian government decided to kill most of the dogs in the 1960s, for “security” reasons. “We are lucky in Kangiqsujuaq, he says, because there has always been a lot of food in the area and we did not have big famines like in other villages.”
The Aivirtuq area, 30 km south of Kangiqsujuaq, has always been known to be a good hunting ground for Bowhead whales and walrus. In the late 1700s, around 300 people lived in the area, the largest population in the Ungava Bay.
Developing a tourist product
With the growth of tourism since the opening of the Pingualuit Park, Nunavik’s first national park, in 2007 (the park was created in 2003), and all the documentaries made about under the ice mussel harvesting, some locals are concerned the mussel grounds could become over-harvested, notes Brian Urquhart. “Everybody who comes to town wants to go and do that,” notes the Scottish native who moved to roam through Canada’s Arctic in 1970.
To develop tourism in an ethical way for locals, the community decided to put restrictions on people who can use the site close to the community, he adds, and develop another site, on the other side of the bay, for tourists. “Tourism is a completely new thing in the community, and we need to develop it slowly and properly if we want the local population to accept it.”
The Kangiqsujuaq area has been inhabited for centuries and is recognized as an archeological hotspot. One site is of interest because it holds 180 human and animal faces carved on soapstone made 1,000 years ago by the Dorset people. The Qajartalik site, about 40 km away from Kangiqsujuaq, is one of the Canadian proposed sites to be listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. According to Brian Urquhart, it could become the main tourist attraction over the coming years.
To find a guide, visit: www.aventureskangiqsujuaq.com. Cost is approximately $100 per person, with a minimum of 2 persons.