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Under the spell of the crystal eye


By Isabelle Dubois

Long ago, far away in a silent endless land now known as the Ungava Peninsula, a massive meteorite struck the earth with such power that it instantly pulverized on impact, turned to dust, vanishing as fast as it had appeared, as if by magic. The cataclysmic crash, carving out in rock a perfectly round chasm 3.4 kilometres in diameter, left an open wound in the ground that would not go unnoticed.

The event occurred a little over 1.3 million years ago. Over time accumulated precipitation and melt rose up within the 400-metre deep walls to form a circular lake of exceptionally clear, dark blue water, some of the purest in the world. When seen in the light from above, it peers back as a sparkling and mysterious crystal eye incarnate.

Had an ancient fortuneteller been able to divine this liquid crystal she would have seen a bright future for the crater that remained. In all probability Inuit were the first human beings to come across its mystifying beauty. They named it Pingualuit and, indeed, this mirror-like natural wonder “turned Snow White” in winter can be pronounced “the fairest of all in the land” of Quebec’s Far North —the Nunavik region.

Etched in the past, the near mystical site became Nunavik’s first gem of nature to benefit from the protection of Quebec’s national parks network in 2004. Pingualuit now welcomes travellers from around the globe to share its inner most secrets.

A two-hour flight from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik’s main door to this treasured land, a pit stop is in order in Kangiqsujuaq, the park’s gateway.

In this inviting village snuggled between Wakeham Bay and the hollow of voluptuous mountain ranges, visitors are treated to an enlightening natural environment and cultural interpretation exhibit.

Then, and only then, after a 20-minute flight with Air Inuit, will the legendary meteoritic crater reveal itself moments before the plane lands at the park’s base camps, just a stone’s throw from nearby Lake Manarsulik (a.k.a. Lac Laflamme).

A vibrant experience awaits hikers venturing further along the winding Puvirnituq River.

Here even the most adventurous of tourists will discover that comfort is a luxury one can easily become accustomed to. The full-service camps are equipped with a main kitchen complete with a kitchenware set, oil-burning stoves for the cool northern summer nights, state of the art bunk beds, running water, and therefore showers, and WiFi Internet.

While the cool crystal eye of the pingualuit crater watches, coyly hidden in the distance, it is easily forgotten for a moment as one takes in the serene beauty of Lake Manarsulik. Even those eager to walk to the crater will first be charmed by Manarsulik’s fine sandy beaches, easily enticed to stay to bask in the peace and quiet along the shore, to play in the sand with the kids, cast for a fish dinner, or enjoy a late evening-lit walk as the sunset kisses the near never-ending day good night. Bringing their good fortune, Northern lights may glow up high to steal the show as darkness finally sets in for the few hours of an Arctic summer’s night.

Feeling on top of the world with the best guides there are in this Inuit wonderland.

Of course, a visit at the Pingualuit Park would not be complete without paying tribute to its main attraction, the crater that inspired the name. In the language of Inuit, pingualuit means “where the land rises” or “pimples,” fittingly depicting the protruding silhouette it sketches against the vast horizon of this otherwise flat landscape. Though the crater is only a 2.5-km climb from the base camps, patience, caution and care must be observed.

The pathway to the crater’s splendour is scattered with rocks, some of which may just move turning out to be rock ptarmigans too perfectly camouflaged amidst the rugged terrain.

Finally, having achieved the crater’s crest to gaze in awe into its crystalline waters, all thoughts seem to grow clearer as the mind is freed of distractions, having attained a meditative state via the crater’s hypnotic power and beauty. Inuit like to call the spot, nunavingmi pikkuminartuq, meaning a remarkable place where a person may become revitalized.

Now flush with renewed mental energy and the body charged by a well-deserved picnic at what seems to be the top of the world, the trek continues. Just three kilometres more, a quarter of the way around the crater, one can carefully walk down to the water level (some 130 metres below), which on a windy day is reminiscent of the sea. During the climb back up, blueberries picked along the way will give the humbled explorer the nutritional fuel needed for the return hike back to camp. For the hardy, the journey can be pursued all the way around the rim of the crater, a good 12-km trek, during which fascinating Inuit archaeological sites can be uncovered as one walks atop the moon-like tundra. Despite the fact that Inuit were and still are primarily a coast-dwelling people, in their past as nomadic hunters, they and their families often had to venture inland in search of caribou. Once the calving ground to hundreds of thousands of caribou from the Leaf River herd (May through July), the area traversed by Inuit on their perpetual quest for food left behind rock shelters and stone tent rings as remnants of their early presence long ago.

Uniquely camouflaged rock ptarmigan blend all-too-perfectly with the landscape.

Even though caribou are more scarce nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a few still roaming the park’s expanses. Wolves, foxes, snowy owls and other birds of prey, as well as Arctic hares and lemmings also thrive in the park, but are more wary of strangers.

After a daylong hike around the crater, a good night sleep in the comfort of the park’s camps will be welcomed. Back at Lake Manarsulik the next day can be spent leisurely canoeing or kayaking its calm waters. Both types of boats are available to visitors.

The park’s friendly Inuit guides know this land like no other and those who might wish to explore its boundaries further can choose a boat ride across the lake, bringing them closer to the Puvirnituq River, another discovery worth the detour to hike along or paddle the canoe some more.

Flowing through a wide canyon, the enchanting Puvirnituq River carved its path through the faults and folds of the 1.8-billion year-old earth’s crust known as the Ungava Trough, sometimes taking a right-angle turn for the extraordinary, as the bedrock rich in iron and other minerals translates to colourful scenery.

With all this beauty, it’s no wonder the crystal eye is known to put a spell on whoever dares to stare in it. On the return flight, be sure to catch one last glimpse to see what Nunavik adventures the future might hold. A winter visit to Pingualuit perhaps?

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