Living On The Edge Of The Arctic Circle

I was fortunate to visit Iqaluit in the Nunavut territory of Canada this week. The challenge of living near the arctic circle quickly became clear. Having a healthy lifestyle takes planning in these remote communities.

Me in Iqaluit
The CIity of Iqaluit behind me

Iqaluit is on Baffin Island and has been a traditional fishing place used by Inuit for thousands of years. Like many Inuit names it is referenced by its function, hence the name Iqaluit, which means place of many fish. Iqaluit is north of the tree line and almost at the Arctic circle. The only bush that grows is a 6 inch Arctic willow. On December 21, the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 9:22 am and sets at 1:42 pm – 5 hours. The total number of sunlight hours in December is 9. It is the reverse in July.

Inuit elder lighting an oil lamp used in an Iglu – wick is made of moss and Arctic willow.

In 1942 an American air base, Frobisher Bay, was built as a stop-over and refuelling site for aircraft flying across the Atlantic  in support the war effort in Europe. After 1959, the Canadian government established permanent services at Frobisher Bay and some say forcefully settled the the Inuit population. An Inuit elder I spoke with recounted how she was born and raised on the land with her nomadic family; living simply on what they could hunt. Until, that is, when they were settled in Pond Inlet as part of the Canadian government’s policy of populating the north.

Communication station looks like something from Star Wars

Today the population is close to 8000 people. I was in Iqaluit to run a change management workshop for a government team. While there, I quickly observed how different and challenging living in a remote Arctic community is from my city of Ottawa. You get a sense that this is really living on the edge.

Teaching Yoga during the workshop

Besides the -40 C/F temperatures, here are 10 observations that made me conclude how different it is:

1- There is no 100 km food here – there are no roads so everything is flown in.
2- Iqaluit has the busiest Canada Post outlet because people order their stuff from Amazon who offers free shipping. It is still less expensive to buy this way then the local store.
3- Power and heat are from petrol based generators and furnaces. Cars have automatic starts to run them until the passenger cabin is warm.
4- No liquor or beer stores underscore the alcohol problem. By Nunavut law, to have a glass of wine or beer at a restaurant you must order a main item. Appetizer only doesn’t count. At bars, beer is served in cans (no draught or bottles) and wine is served from bags.
5- The sewer lines are always running with water so that the pipes don’t freeze.
6- Gasoline prices are regulated by the Nunavut government. They purchase gasoline in bulk during the summer months and distribute it at a fixed price during the year. There are no petrol companies like Esso or Shell.
7- Although there are street names, the houses are numbered by when they were erected. Your house may be 501 as it was the 501th house built. Your neighbor may be 1006.
8- Houses are built on stilts. There are no basements because you have a 99 year lease for your house to be ON the land, not IN the land.
9- Internet access is limited to a fixed bandwidth for the whole community because it only gets what the satellite can provide.
10- Life is scheduled around the school, There are no school lunch programs. So everyone with kids heads home for an hour lunch. This causes the “traffic minute” four times a day.
House built on stilts
House built on stilts
How do people stay healthy in this remote region? The people I spoke with generally follow this regime:
1- Order food from Amazon as there is greater variety than the local store.
2- Incorporate and have on hand nutritional supplements such as meal-replacement or protein shakes, fibregreens, healthy snack bars
3- Take Vitamin D and have a anti-SAD lamp
4- Exercise to keep yourself awake
5- Go out and have social interactions to stay connected
6- Grow some vegetables on a small scale in your home
The "traffic minute". There are no traffic signals in Iqaluit.
The “traffic minute”. There are no traffic signals in Iqaluit.
Coming home, I sure appreciated my fresh veggies and internet access. I was really impressed by the courage it takes to live on the edge of the Arctic circle.

One comment

  1. When we lived in the Arctic, we had most things come in once a year by sea lift. We used Canada Post to augment supplies. It was cheaper than paying to ship by air freight which was a dollar a pound back in 1982 – 84. There was no Amazon then and the Coop was expensive and fresh food was scarce. Eating healthy was a challenge, for sure.

    Peas and potatoes were freeze dried. Vegetables and fruit were canned. Even the bacon was canned. We shopped at the end of May in Edmonton and we ordered everything by the case. It was palleted and shipped by transport to Hay River. There it was off loaded and barged down the Mackenzie River to Inuvik. The barges were then towed by sea along the Arctic Coast to the various communities. Ours was the second last stop. When the barge arrived just before freeze up in early September, it was like Christmas. We picked up our goods and transported them to our house by ATV.

    In the Spring people would run short of things and have excess of others and you would find people trading smoked oysters or shrimp for a can of pineapple. That was fun!

    Having things sent by airplane was risky. We had one teacher who ordered a case of wine at great expense for a dinner party only to have it dropped off on his doorstep in midwinter. He ended up with no wine and broken glass to clean up. When air freight was a dollar a pound it was more cost efficient to order wine than Coca Cola. Back then a single apple in the Coop was a dollar and it was likely bruised and wrinkly at that.

    We were smart enough to have wine and beer shipped in our barge order. We stored it under out house in a heated storage container. Our house was also on stilts, but it was a split level. You did not need a freezer. We had a second locked unheated container that you accessed from outside. The Inuit just put caribou and whole fish on the roof, out of the way of wandering dogs.

    Our sewage was pumped out once a week and water was delivered once a week. When you saw the water truck coming you filled the sinks and the washer to get a head start on next week’s cleaning. Otherwise you risked running short. When that happened you had to make due. Electricity was generated from petroleum that was delivered once a year by barge and held in large storage tanks in the community.

    Reading this memoir of your travels brought back old memories. Thanks, Alan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s