My mom recently visited Cambridge Bay, Nunavut for 10 days in March 2011. Since not many people are fortunate enough to travel that far North, I asked her to write a guest blog post about her experience.
I received a short-term contract to do year-end work for a company in Cambridge Bay. They provided a nice 2-bedroom apartment with a view of the bay. It was located right across the street from the office so I thankfully didn’t have to walk far in the cold weather. They paid all my expenses including the $1800 return flight!
I had never been that far north and it was an interesting journey. I was told that I should bring food (especially meat) for the 11-day trip, as the cost of food and other goods is extremely high. All of their supplies are shipped in by plane in the winter and by barge in the summer making it very costly. For example, a small box of pasta sold for $12 and fresh fruit and vegetables were impossible to find. Usually I take two suitcases on trips but this time I left one suitcase behind, opting for a cooler instead. My cooler weighed 35 pounds (which I thought was heavy) and I was told it was obvious I was an inexperienced northern traveler. Most people take huge coolers packed full to the maximum limit of 70 pounds.
A = Cambridge Bay B = Yellowknife C = Edmonton
The flight to Cambridge Bay had a stop over in Yellowknife. Passengers carrying onto Cambridge Bay were supposed to stay on the plane but the flight attendant asked us to deplane. Due to bad weather, they weren’t sure the plane could fly into Cambridge Bay. We waited in the airport for about 1 hour and then they announced the flight was boarding. I found it rather odd that there was no security or ID check when we got onto the plane, particularly because new passengers joined us. We flew to Cambridge Bay (1 ½ hour flight) and then the pilot announced we could not land as the weather had worsened. We flew back to Yellowknife. I booked a seat on the next flight the following morning and hauled my suitcase and cooler to the hotel. Yellowknife looked like a typical boomtown although the surrounding area looked beautiful. The cost for hotel and meals was extremely high and the internet reminded me of dial-up. I heard a couple people talking about the cost of housing in Yellowknife and they were similar to the high prices in Ft. McMurray.
The next morning I went to the airport and waited in a tiny departure gate packed full of people. Apparently, the weather was bad in numerous communities leaving many people stranded in Yellowknife. I heard some people taking about 3 day waits and they hoped this time they could get home. Sheesh! I noticed however, that people were patient and understanding and took the delay in stride without complaining. I guess they must be used to it.
Again, no security checks were done. Apparently, terrorists and hijackers have no interest in flying to the frozen north. It was a little unnerving. Several flights were announced at the same time (on a loudspeaker no one could understand) and people streamed out the door onto the tarmac into the howling wind and freezing temperatures. Yes, you have to walk outdoors to all their planes. Usually that’s done in the tropics, not in places where it’s freaking freezing! Since no direction was given by ground crew, I stood on the tarmac and looked at three Canadian North planes, trying to decide if I should flip a coin to figure out which one I was supposed to board. Suddenly I spotted a man I recognized from the flight the previous day and decided to follow him. I ended up on the right flight. Yay! So far so good!
The passengers on the plane were mainly Inuit people and they were very friendly. In fact, it seemed that most people knew each other. I found it interesting that the Inuit women carried their babies on their back. They slung them onto their backs in a large blanket that wrapped and tied around the front. Then they put on a huge winter parka that completely covered the baby. I guess it must be warmer for the baby but I’m not sure what they do if the baby starts crying. Of course, their cries would be quite muffled under all that fabric. lol
Most of the white people on the plane were consultants flown in for short-term contracts. I chatted with one man that flies to Cambridge Bay every few weeks to do strategic planning and other consulting work with the government. Our flight stopped in Kugluktuk, Nunavut to let off passengers, which gave me my first glimpse of the northern landscape. Everything is white, absolutely everything! The ground was white, except for the little bit of cement showing on the tarmac; the sky was white and the wind howled and blew snow around, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Hmmm…and this was better weather then the day before! I chose to stay in the plane and wait while other passengers deplaned to visit with relatives that met them at the airport. After an hour of waiting, (the fuel truck driver forgot he was supposed to come to the airport to refuel the plane), we took off for Cambridge Bay. Thankfully, we were able to land and I was met by the owner of the business and taken on a guided tour of the town.
Cambridge Bay is situated on Victoria Island in the Arctic Ocean and has a population of about 1477, mainly Inuit people. As we drove the short distance to town, the wind was blowing and there was an ice fog over the area. All I saw was white and more white. The land is white, the sky is white and the ocean is frozen over and white. No trees, no pavement (it’s covered completely by snow) and almost totally flat. Nothing but white!!! I was told that if a blizzard blows in it is dangerous to go outside. Because everything is white, people become disorientated even trying to cross the street.
The houses and businesses around town are mainly covered with bright coloured metal siding (blues, reds, greens), maybe so they show up in all the white. The houses are generally quite small and the average price is about $350,000. It’s impossible to tell one yard from the other as there are no fences, no trees or anything else to distinguish different properties. The town has tons of satellite dishes (the huge ones) and giant storage containers everywhere (the kind that you would see on a barge). They don’t have wells or sewers and they ship in their water and ship out their sewage. The houses are equipped with a storage container and trucks make water deliveries every few days. The internet and satellite TV are not very dependable which made me feel even more isolated. The internet was so slow that I questioned if there was a long internet cable running across the frozen tundra to Yellowknife and a polar bear was chewing on the cord. I longed for the speed of dial up I encountered in Yellowknife!
There is an equal amount of skidoos and trucks/SUV’s on the road. It seemed strange to hear the skidoos roaring by at high speed throughout the day and often throughout the night. I can’t imagine riding a skidoo down the street with the wind-chill at -59 C but the weather doesn’t slow them down.
Most of the employment in town is with the government or other small businesses that have government contracts. I was amazed at the amount of government money given to businesses, and to people to improve energy efficiency and attend educational courses in Yellowknife, Edmonton or other cities. Without government money, I don’t think most businesses would function.
Canada's new High Arctic Research Station will be built just outside of town in the next few years, which will increase the population by an estimated 54 families. Businesses are trying to gear up to ensure there is enough housing and adequate services. Right now, there is almost no entertainment or other activities except the arcade or having coffee at the one restaurant in town. And for those brave enough to endure the weather, there is sledding, hunting and fishing. Of course, there is some entertainment value in watching your web pages load for 5 minutes or watching satellite TV that goes on and off depending on the weather conditions. LOL
The children in Cambridge Bay are now able to attend school in their community. At one time, students were moved to Yellowknife after grade 6 to attend residential schools. I heard horrific stories about the abuse that occurred in these schools and many of the current social problems are related to these experiences. Alcohol is a serious problem in the community even though liquor stores are not allowed. There is a 7-member RCMP detachment and they cannot keep up with all the crime. That’s a huge number of police for this size of community.
When I asked about polar bears, I was told they moved further away from the community because of global warming. However, somehow grizzly bears were introduced to the island and are a real threat to wildlife and people venturing outside of town (not to mention the wolves that may attack). Grizzlies normally eat small animals and berries but because there are very few small animals and no berry bushes, they now go after the muskox. Apparently, muskox are not very smart animals and just stand there while the grizzlies smack them across the head with their large paws. lol (sorry, but it’s kind of a funny visual). The herds are now dwindling and the people who hunt and guide for a living are concerned.
Visiting Cambridge Bay was an interesting experience but I can’t imagine ever living there. I was so excited to land in Edmonton and appreciated the warm temperatures (-6 C), trees everywhere, pavement and the hills and valleys. It never looked so beautiful!
One other thing I discovered is that whether it is -40 C or -59 C, it feels about the same and is just terribly cold!