Letters from Nunavut


 to Nunavut June 24/02


July 3/02 ~ most photos by David

I'm back from the North. I meant to write every other day with some sort of diary entry, but the business of living in the moment got the better of me.

Our arrival prompted a feeling of unreality and fascination for where we had landed that did not wane for the entire visit. It seemed more important to look and listen and think about the place than to begin a travelogue.

We arrived in a cold and driving rain, walking across the wet tarmac to the terminal building, itself futuristic enough to look like an outpost on the moon. A perfect introduction to what is surely another world. Our mentor and prime northern road manager Jack Hicks was there to meet us. I'd met Jack at the Black Sheep in Wakefield Qc., where the idea of the trip was mentioned. A steady stream of emails followed and with Jack orchestrating and with the help of Daniel Cuerrier and the Francophone organization in Iqaluit, we found ourselves in the airport on the shores of Frobisher Bay. I will be forever in Jack's debt.

There is a frontier excitement to Iqaluit that put me in mind of traveling to Whitehorse about 30 years ago. The same feeling of removal from the world of the south, in a foreign place of discovery and change. The gravel streets, the small low set square houses, the sandy gravel yards, the dogs and the hills of rounded rock were so unlike anything I had yet seen on this earth. I felt very much an observer, moving through the everyday lives and places of the Inuit population - a people that, until this visit, I had had no personal contact with. To be in that position in my own country - that alone was worth the trip.

We were made as welcomed as it is possible to be upon our arrival, and this continued for our entire visit. I had the great good fortune of being billeted with Nora Sanders and Aven, "Action Dog of the North". Over the course of the week Aven and I logged a few walks on the hill behind Nora's house, and a large but fine companion he proved to be. The daylight was essentially permanent and so the notion of time for itinerant musicians seemed to fail completely. I managed to keep Nora up til all hours, although it was partially her own fault for being such an interesting individual. I never failed to be enthused by hiking up behind the house and taking panoramic pictures at 3:30 in the morning. Sleep seemed to be the least important activity.

Wednesday found us flying to Pangnirtung, north and east of Iqaluit in a Hawker Siddeley twin-engine prop plane. I was thankful to be flying with Dave Clarke, the consummate calm flyer, thoroughly at ease in an airplane seat. We clattered and roared down the runway and beat our way in the direction of Greenland. I'd never fully realized that Greenland is our close and immediate neighbour, so immediate that had we flown another hour and a half past Pang we would have crossed the Davis Strait to its shores. I was struck by the altered perspective on the world one has, depending on where one stands.

The hamlet of Pangnirtung is situated at the end of a long fiord off of Cumberland Sound. The flight in to land on the relatively short gravel runway was exhilarating to say the least. Spectacular is a word that also springs to mind when describing anything to do with the place. It is a setting of incomparable beauty, the ice breaking up in the open water of the fiords, the hamlet nestled on the shore at the foot of the low hills, the boats at rest on the water and on the beach, and at the head of the fiord the mountains that are so reminiscent of the Rockies in full splendour.


Our stay in the village was enhanced immeasurably by the people we came to know. To tell the truth it started on the plane when we met a wonderful trio of backpackers who had seen us perform in Peterborough Ontario who were off on a long hiking adventure in the National Park at the head of the fiord. Adventurous and respectful people, thoroughly appreciative of the uniqueness of their surroundings and their pending journey. It occurs to me that as I write this that Debbie, Erin and David will still be completing their odyssey. I wish them all safe travels.

Roger Alivaktuk met us at the airport and drove us around the village by way of introduction. He had organized an impromptu concert for that evening in the Community Centre. Pang is known far and wide for its development of local crafts. Weaving, printmaking, stenciling and carving are all represented in the beautifully designed Craft Centre. We were privileged to see the completion of a tapestry weaving of an Inukshuk (standing stone statues) that measures 22'x10', scheduled to be displayed in the Legislative Assembly in Iqaluit. The skill and beauty of the artwork displayed is stunning.

Our billet was with Markus Wilke, a nurse for many years in the high Arctic and a source of insight into life in the settlements of the far north. His tales of the endless winter nights in Grise Fiord were the stuff of childhood imaginings. He was an interesting and gracious man, and had the admirable and appreciated ability to whip up an excellent meal in a very short time. I do not think it would be possible to end up in better hands. It was Markus who, during our concert that evening, suggested I speak through an interpreter to the Inuit elders who were present. I am extremely grateful for this guidance. It was the appropriate path to take on the evening and I found myself very comfortable in the setting after that. It was typical of the man's respect and sensitivity to his adopted home.

David and interpreter Meeka at the centre, Impromtu jam after the show

Our interpreter was an Inuit woman by the name of Meeka Mearns, who, as it turns out is married to a red-haired Scot by the name of Donald Mearns. Donald originally arrived on the shores of the fiord as a Bay Boy, recruited from Scotland to operate a Hudson's Bay Post. Both Donald and Meeka proved to be quick to laugh and as helpful as they could be. We all ended up in their warmly lit kitchen, trading stories and songs into the wee hours. Over the course of the evening, we were treated to the sweet and timeless singing and drumming of Becky Mearns and the joyous intensity of Throat Singing by Becky, her sister and friend. It was mesmerizing to witness, at such close quarters, a privilege shared by all too few. I was struck hard by the beauty of it. The evening ended with Donald breaking out the Pipes and whistles, and we traded songs back and forth with the seasoned jammer Dave Clarke supporting us all. It was, as they say, a night to remember.

Our return to Iqaluit happened all too soon, but just to have made the trip to Pangnirtung was an experience that both Dave and myself are profoundly thankful for.

Iqaluit seems to attract more than its fair share of interesting and accomplished young people from the south, some of whom are there for the short term and some of whom find the life they want in the rocky countryside and clear waters of the bay. I can see why the country lays such claim on visitors. All that to say, we were lucky enough, through Jack of course, to meet a fair number of these people both in the days leading up the concert and during the show itself. How each arrived there and their impressions would make a book, and a very interesting one at that. Suffice it to say it was a pleasure to perform for such people and I sincerely hope we get to do so again. We have the Francophone community to thank organizing our concert. It speaks volumes for them that they would bring up an English singer songwriter as part of their celebration and at the same time donate all proceeds of the show to the Iqaluit Women's Shelter. What exceptional people!

David and Dave at the Francophone Association, JH

I think that Dave and I returned south with many cherished memories, but surely our excursion by sea kayak among the ice flows of Frobisher Bay on Sunday has to rate as one of the standouts. Jack (may his days be long on the water) is an inveterate kayaker, and had intended all along to take us out. The weather which had been rainy all week - the sky leaden and grey - suddenly and miraculously cleared into glorious sunshine and unlimited blue. Our adventure among the ice was the stuff of dreams. There was the seeming unreality of the activity itself, such a strong sense of contentment inherent in the stillness and quietude of the space between water and ice, land and sky. I may end up doing many other seemingly adventurous things in my life, and I have had some exciting moments in the past, but I doubt I will ever feel the contentment that I felt that day on the water, surrounded by the remnants of a long winter, among friends, under the silence of the summer sun. I will be forever grateful for that day with Jack, Nora, Danielle and Dave.

Our leaving was difficult, as it seemed impossible to put into words our appreciation for the kindness shown us. I felt we had made some fast friends and met truly inspired people who appreciate fully their place and time on the earth. I would like to thank Jack Hicks and Nora Sanders for their exceptional thoughtfulness and generosity. They are splendid company.

I was looking out the window of the plane as we waited on the runway, and I thought back to earlier in the week when Dave and I performed at the Elders Centre in Iqaluit. Our audience was a group of Inuit elders, and once again we had the benefit of an interpreter. We had a wonderful time and could not possibly have had a more enthusiastic audience. I had my picture taken with some of the elders. I connected with one woman in particular. I think we were mutually taken with one another and her comment on having our picture taken was "Whenever you look at that picture, my heart will breaků." I know what she means.
Until next time,

David's special Iqaluit friend, Elders Centre, JH

For earlier letters from Nunavut
click here

back home

photo of Frobisher Bay by David Francey

Dave, Jack and David, Jack's house, photo Letia Cousins

Iqaluit, from the shore

Aven "Action Dog of the North", Nora and David, photo DC

kids on bikes, Pangnirtung

Roger Alivaktuk

Tapestry weaving, Craft Centre, Pangnirtung

Donald plays a tune, Pang

Jack prepares some maktak LC

...and they like it! LC

New friends, Iqaluit photo LC

the smiles tell it all, paddling photos JH