The Road to (Almost) Nowhere Nunavut, New Canada Territory, Is a Continent's Last Frontier

Article excerpt

You have to be there to feel how a wolf's howl beneath a crescent moon in a sky filled with dancing northern lights -- forever becomes part of your soul. In summer, time flows without punctuation as days merge into undark nights north of the Arctic Circle. Wildflowers dot the tundra and trace the edges of flowing waters in what appear to be endless mountain meadows. This place is called Nunavut, "our land" in the Inuktitut language.

On April 1, the vast region of the Canadian North became a new territory larger than any province. Of course, Nunavut has been there all along in the netherworld of the Northwest Territories where the continent splatters into myriad islands before dropping off the edge of the Earth into the Arctic Ocean. But now, a line has been drawn on the map of Canada, splitting the Territories.

More important, the establishment of the new territory means the 80 percent Inuit majority will regain control of ancestral lands inhabited for thousands of years before Europeans "discovered" and claimed them without even a treaty. Inuit, meaning "the people," refers to the circumpolar ethnic group outsiders used to call Eskimos, a name still in use by aboriginals in Alaska, but not in Canada.

Mentioning Alaska begs comparison with a Nunavut that will be a third again larger, farther north, with one-tenth the people and far more polar bears.

Before my visit last August, I held a romantic notion that seeing Nunavut before the change would be akin to a pioneer vision of my native California before statehood. I returned with frontier experiences far beyond my imaginings.

Tourism in Nunavut is destined to become ever more regulated by local people. Businesses are required to be at least 51 percent Inuit-owned with key decisions made at the community level. Adventure travel will continue to be the tourism mainstay in a land with only 12 miles of roads outside its few scattered towns. These factors make Nunavut unlikely to become just another one of those ecotourism destinations where travelers face each other in suspiciously comfortable lodgings owned by absentee landlords and surrounded by an underclass of seemingly traditional people who worship the dollar.

An Inuit guide on Baffin Island told me, "We live off the land, while white people live off money. That's why we worry about our land and you about your money."

The difference cuts to the heart of what visitors experience. Twice during my month's stay I witnessed an abrupt change in Inuit villages where perhaps a half-dozen other land-based tourists were being inconspicuously guided. The slow-paced ambience would disappear before my eyes as a hundred or so passengers disembarked from a luxury icebreaker for the day. My plan was to arrive in Grise Fjord by sea kayak, the original aboriginal conveyance, after a trip with Inuit guides led by "Tundra Tom" Faess of Great Canadian Ecoventures.

But on the day before my departure, Tundra Tom called from the bush via satellite phone to report a freak polar storm. His guides were unwilling to venture a hundred miles out amid icebergs in unseasonably frozen seas. Having ignored Tom's earlier advice to buy trip cancellation insurance, I was pleased I didn't have the option of bowing out for a cash refund after inviting my 28-year-old son, Tony, to join me for a month's adventure. We boarded our scheduled flight with trepidation about what we would do.

Our first stop was Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. Formerly called Frobisher Bay, the town sits on glacier-polished shield rock at the southern edge of Baffin, the world's fifth-largest island. We visited Inuit camps on a wild Arctic river, an ancient archaeological site and a dog team that had recently returned from the North Pole. But most surprising, yet typical of Nunavut, was "The Road to Nowhere," a dirt street that abruptly ends two miles out of town in open tundra.

From Iqaluit, a scheduled prop flight took us north over wild cliffs and fjords to Pond Inlet on the island's north coast. …