A Long Time to Stay in Iqaluit

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“Cancelled?” I ask, as if hearing the word for the first time.

The plane came down hard on the tarmac in Iqaluit, bouncing once. From the window I had seen ice in the bay and ice in flat, white chunks beached at the high tide line like driftwood. But when the doors open, the day comes in warm with a rush. I walk comfortably to the yellow igloo, the Iqaluit terminal, without a jacket.

“Cancelled.” she says flatly.

Inside, the terminal is abuzz. White workmen in bibs and hard hats talking on cell phones. Inuit mothers pushing strollers with other children in tow. Inuit men along the wall. Queues of tourists in fancy boots.

She stands in front of the ticket counter as if guarding it. “Mechanical issues. Next plane Monday.” (It’s Friday.) “Were you making a connection in Nuuk?”

This baffles me, the idea of flying from tiny Iqaluit to tiny Nuuk in order to connect by plane to somewhere else.

“No,” I say. Then, “Yes. A boat. I’m catching a boat in Nuuk. I’m sailing to Nome. Is there another way?”

Now she is confused. Her eyes turn for the first time, searching the help of a colleague.

“Another way across the ocean?” she says as if thinking to herself. “No. There is still only one plane. It’s in Nuuk. We’re putting people up at the Frobisher. We pay for everything except alcohol. It’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit, I know. Come back Monday.”

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The plane had departed Ottawa at 9AM, shooting straight north. All the way to the horizon, a lush forest unevenly perforated with flashes of silver, a fortune of water caught in bog, had slowly given way to scrabbled hills of rock still white at the shoulders but otherwise bare. Lakes, reduced in number, were frozen at their centers, serpentine in color, and rimmed with ice. The aspect was that of a high mountain dessert.

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“How many people live here?” I ask the taxi driver.

“Seven thousand,” he says. “And it’s the same winter too. Good work here. When it’s sixty below zero, nobody wants to walk. They call the taxis. I make plenty money. I make good cash in taxi; I work in bar for cash. I have good house for free. It’s all cash work—so much money here. I call my brother. He lives in the South.”

“The South?” I ask.

“Yes. In Seattle. He cries to me. HE CRIES. He cannot find work. You have no jobs in America. I say, come north. But he will not.”

“Where are you from?” I ask. The man is African.

“Calgary,” he says. “You are visiting?” I explain my situation. “Oh, that is a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”

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Iqaluit comes out of the hillside as if it were a village on Mars. Narrow paved roads are blown over with sand and lined with modular public buildings that look orbit-worthy. Homes, also modular, are raised off the ground and brightly painted; they have tin roofs, small windows.  A large diesel tank decorates every front yard. There are no garages, no lawns, no fences. I am walking. Dogs bark as I pass. Each is tied to a stake near its own house of crudely cut plywood. Snowmobiles are scattered about, left where they sat when the snow melted.

Trash gathers in the corners of the land and in the streams that run through town. Cigarette butts, soda cans, candy wrappers, a plastic water gun, an old shirt. A broken bicycle clogs the conduit beneath a dirt bridge.

Cars and trucks and taxis (one in three vehicles is a taxi) and ATVs fill the streets with dust. There’s the noise of traffic. Frequently the roar of a jet from the airstrip just below.  A helicopter lifts off with a large satchel hung low and flies north. Everywhere the sense of bustle overmatches the size of this place.

At the beach, ice blocks, askew at the tide line, drip frantically in the heat of the day. A man and woman are laying out a gill net at low water. “Arctic char,” he says when I inquire of their catch. “Pretty much all we have up here besides cod.”

The woman asks where I’m headed. “Not here?” I ask. “Not likely,” she says. I explain my situation. “Oh, that’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”

Above the beach, sand and rock give way to tundra and a riot of wild flowers only a few inches high. I am stooping to inspect a carpet of purple when a voice asks, “Do you know what those are?” Across the stream a young woman holds an armful of flowers. “That is Purple Saxifrage, but we call it fire weed. You can eat it.” She stoops, picks a flower and eats. So do I. She explains the Yellow Arctic Poppy, the Arctic Cotton; that the bunches in her arms are Labrador Tea. The wind dies. We are mobbed by mosquitos as large as house flies and I move on.

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Iqaluit began as Frobisher Bay, named for the European, Sir Martin Frobisher, who first explored this region in the late 1500s while searching for the Northwest Passage. He discovered gold here, which turned out to be pyrite, and what he thought to be his “strait to Asia” turned out to be but a moderately deep bay. There were whaling operations here until the 1900s and a US Airforce base in the 1940s. Iqaluit’s current claim to fame is as the capital city of the newly independent Nunavut Territory, which separated from Canada’s larger Northwest Territories in 1999.

If it is not clear how a town of 7,000 residents could be called a city, note this from the hotel’s pamphlet:

“Iqaluit is the largest city in the territory of Nunavut, whose total population is 31,000. Our largest neighboring city is the capital of Greenland, Nuuk (population 15,000).”

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The bar attached to the hotel is a local’s hangout. It is Friday night. At 9PM the sun rides well above the horizon and traffic at the bar is light. I order a beer in a can because the bar’s entire selection is cans with the most expensive being $9 and the least, $7. The bartenders are two white males; the bouncers, of which there are several already, are African. Between the bar’s two entrance doors is a coat check, manned by my taxi driver from earlier in the day.

By 10PM the bar is beginning to fill; now there is music, the crack of billiards on the mezzanine. My taxi driver busily takes coats from the flood of young Inuits, mostly women, who make up the majority of new-comers.

“Plenty money, these Inuits,” he says to me privately. “Many they get $28,000. Spend it quick. In three years I go back to Calgary and buy a house.”

The bar stools fill with white men just off work. A neat line, again mostly Inuits, forms to one side of the bar and orders are placed one-by-one. The standard order is two cans of beer. The standard Inuit is short, head and neck barely breaching counter top. They take their beer politely and with smiles, as if receiving a gift. The few whites in the mix order shots, served in plastic medicine cups. Twenty dollar bills burst from the till.

An hour later the music is louder still; dancing begins. Two older Inuits are drunk. The old woman has snuck into line and has a beer in both hands before being spied by the bouncers. Two of them escort her, weaving, to a table where she is allowed to enjoy her prize. The old man is not so lucky. A bouncer stands between him and his goal. The old man raises a hand in objection, leans way forward as if battling a stiff wind. The bouncer does not move; does not speak. The old man is gently handed his coat and he departs.

Now the two white bartenders are joined by a third. The new bartender is a young Inuit woman, though paler than most. She is six feet tall and has a bust the size of Texas. Talking at the bar quites as the men concentrate on their beers.

I choose this moment to order the Muskox Burger, the length of day here having fooled me into forgetting my dinner.

“It’s made of Bison, you know.” says the woman.

“Why would be called Muskox, then?” I ask.

“It’s a new menu,” she says. “Not from here are you?” I explain. “Oh, that’s a long time to be in Iqaluit.”

Outside the sun has finally dropped below the horizon, and the night appears to be early evening. The clouds above Iqaluit are lit crimson from below, and they stay crimson until dawn.

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