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Do you know how many different ways you can use a rock in the Arctic? This was one of many questions that the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment set out to answer during their “Learn to…” program, a weekly series of events held throughout the summer of 2016.

The idea for the program originally came from an initiative created by Federal, Provincial and Territorial Parks Ministers. The Ministers were concerned that Canadians were becoming disconnected from the amazing nature that surrounds them, and wanted to encourage people — young and old — to get outdoors and enjoy Canada’s natural environment. And so the “Learn to Camp” program was born – a program that has been highly successful across many parts of Canada.

Participants could clean their fish in the clear waters of the Sylvia Grinnell river as part of the “Learn to make pitsi (dried char)” workshop. © Tana Silverland

In Nunavut, however, the Department of Environ­ment’s Parks and Special Places Division decided to go one step further. The “Learn to Camp” sessions were still there — learn to set up a tent, learn to cook out on the land — but some of the most popular sessions of the whole summer were those that introduced people to some of the traditional ways that Inuit have survived and thrived for so many centuries in the often-unforgiving Arctic environment. Having learned how to light a modern-day camp stove one week, the following week participants learned how to light and maintain a qulliq — the traditional stone lamp, fuelled by seal oil, that provided the only source of heat and light for many generations of Inuit out on the land.

Another session brought together the traditional and the modern in a single day. Partnering with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for a thoroughly fishy afternoon, two federal fisheries scientists first explained the techniques they use to sample Arctic char in order to assess the viability of potential commercial fisheries in the territory. Participants had the opportunity to not only weigh and measure the specimens specially provided for the activity, but also to try their hand at finding and extracting fish otoliths — the tiny bone inside a fish’s ear that can tell scientists the age of the fish in much the same way as tree rings record the age of a tree. Then, staff from the Parks and Special Places division took over to demonstrate the traditional way to make pitsi, or dried Arctic char. This was one of the best-attended sessions of the summer — maybe because of the gloriously sunny weather, and maybe because participants went home with their carefully prepared fish!

Participants in the “Learn to make a traditional ulu” workshop try their hand at drilling through slate with a hand-powered bow drill. © Tana Silverland

Also extremely popular was the traditional plant walk. A local elder led an enthusiastic group of learners on a walk just outside of town, stopping to talk about the traditional uses of the plants that grew along the route. The Arctic tundra may not look particularly diverse at first glance, but there is a surprising wealth of plant life that takes advantage of the short snow-free season — and those plants have many uses. Most people on the walk knew about the abundance of wild blueberries that ripen each fall, but other edible plants were less familiar: the crunchy, nutty bistort roots, or the refreshing sweet-and-sour of mountain sorrel leaves.

It wasn’t just food the plants provided. Participants learned about the important medical benefits of the local flora as well, such as moss for heartburn, or puffball mushrooms to stop bleeding. Even beauty treatments were covered, although participants were warned that the smell of the skin-softening mushroom treatment might not be so good for their noses!

The afternoon came to a very pleasant close with a cup of freshly brewed tea — prepared from local plants, of course.

Partnerships with other people and organizations were a hallmark of the program, bringing together expertise from a variety of sources to cover a varied selection of topics. Nunavut Tourism ran a tasty session on cooking in the great outdoors, while the Inuit Heritage Trust led participants in a hands-on introduction to the traditional way of making an ulu (the half-moon-shaped knives that are used for many different purposes, such as fleshing sealskins). Before the advent of trade with the West, these iconic knives were made from stone, and although metal hand tools were provided for this workshop, those who attended also had the opportunity to experience first-hand the effort involved in drilling a hole through a piece of flint using only a sharpened piece of stone and a hand-powered bow drill. Once again, participants were able to take home the proud, and surprisingly sharp, fruits of their labours.

Members of the public also got involved, volunteering their particular areas of knowledge and expertise to expand and deepen the learning for everyone who attended. Reaching out to the whole community was an important part of the program, and the success of this aim was evident in the wide range of people attending the sessions — young and old, local residents and visitors, all had the chance to learn something new.

Which brings us back to those rocks. What looked like nothing more than random piles of stones to the untrained eyes of those attending, turned out to be a wealth of different, quite deliberate, constructions. In this land, far above the treeline, rocks are the primary building resource and, over the years, Inuit have refined and developed the techniques for using them for everything from fox traps and kayak stands to graves and, of course, the world-famous inuksuit. Parks staff explained how the different shapes and forms of inuksuit provide important way-markers and navigational aids for people out on the land, the arms pointing to good hunting grounds, or perhaps a food cache (which would, naturally, also be built from stone). Participants then had the opportunity to try building a stone structure of their own, but in keeping with their new-found understanding that an inuksuk built without a purpose can do more harm than good. All the inuksuit were dismantled again at the end of the session… except for one, which proudly pointed to the excellent fishing spot by the falls in Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, where most of the sessions were held.

Although the program is still in its infancy, the Government of Nunavut has big plans for their “Learn to…” sessions. In light of the success of the Iqaluit pilot project, they hope to roll out similar activities to other territorial parks in the future, helping yet more Nunavummiut and visitors to connect with the great northern outdoors. Schedules and details of the program can be found on the Department of Environment’s website at www.gov.nu.ca/environment or http://nunavutparks.com/