Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Part IV, Day 2: 080722

Iqaluit is a slightly surreal place, at least in my limited experience. The events of today are the reason I have this opinion. The day started normally enough…

Checking out of the Navigator Inn and moving to the Frobisher Inn across town was reasonably smooth. Check in time at the Frobisher isn’t until mid-afternoon, but check-out at the Navigator is at 11:00, so I knew I’d have to kill about 4 hours between hotels, but the taxi ride would only take about 10 minutes, including loading and unloading my luggage. The Frobisher, like many hotels, has a luggage room near the front desk that can be used in situations like mine. I phoned, they explained this elementary fact of the hospitality business to the clueless grad student on the phone, and I rode a taxi over.

Temporarily freed from my abundant luggage, I set about further explorations of Iqaluit. I’d left my little tourist map in the room at the Navigator, since that’s where I’d found it and somebody else had obviously used it before me; I thought I’d pass it along. The previous owner of the free-tour guide I found in the lobby of the Frobisher wasn’t so nice; the map had been ripped out. Well, Iqaluit isn’t very big, and I pretty much remembered most of the places I wanted to visit, or could simply see them (e.g. the waterfront), so I wasn’t too worried. I wandered around town until I got close to the water, then walked out to the end of the breakwater to check out the sea.

From the end of the breakwater, the sound of a Hercules airplane warming up and taking off was almost the only thing I could hear above the wind and waves. I guess from nearby such aircraft must be extremely noisy.

Looking the other way, roughly South-East, there were a couple of small icebergs grounded on the sediment. This part of the bay is quite shallow, and at low tide is almost completely dry.

The Frobisher Inn, where my abundant luggage was stored and where I’m staying tonight, is the large pale-coloured building in the middle of this picture. The odd-looking blue building is somehow educational; I think it’s a branch of a community college.

The wind was blowing a huge amount of dust around, so I decided to find some building to be inside for a couple of hours before heading back to check in to the hotel. The Nunavut Research Institute (NRI) was listed on my little tourist map yesterday, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of where it is located, if not what the building might look like.

Eventually I found the NRI, and wandered inside. It’s not a large building, just one storey and with room inside for one hallway with offices, meeting rooms, and labs on both sides. The NRI is the branch of the government of the territory of Nunavut responsible for tracking and permits for all types of research in the territory. This obviously includes basic scientific research like what I do, as well as social-science type work, for example permits are required for archaeological, anthropological, and sociological work in Nunavut.

I walked in, and just sort of hung out in the hallway, reading the posters for a while because I could hear a conversation happening in the open meeting room at the end of the hallway and I didn’t want to interrupt. Eventually I found myself visible from inside the meeting room, and I was invited in, to many exclamations that I was in no way interrupting anything. I introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Martin Brummell, a PhD student from Guelph…” and a woman sitting on my side of the conference table, who I had taken to be another researcher from the parts of the conversation I’d overheard, asked me “Are you Arden’s son?”. Arden is indeed the name of my father, and is a fairly uncommon name, so I was a little surprised by the question, but I answered “yes”. Sabina introduced herself as the partner of an old family friend, a man who has been friends with my parents since before I was born. I’d heard of Sabina, but never met her, and today I finally met her in Iqaluit, of all places. We talked for a bit, then she had to go to get some other stuff done; she was attending the conference that had soaked up so many hotel rooms, and had to get out to the bed-and-breakfast she was staying at before the evening’s banquet.

Just as Sabina was leaving, another woman entered from the hallway, saying “I thought I heard your voice!”. I haven’t seen Brianne since she was doing her M.Sc. at Simon Fraser; I think she graduated in 2005, and the last I heard she was doing a PhD in St. Louis. “What are you doing here?” was a question we asked each other. Turns out she’s doing a bit of a side-project with a professor from SFU that had been involved in her M.Sc. before. Something to do with Arctic birds, I gather.

Through both of these rather odd and serendipitous encounters Mary-Ellen, head of the NRI, sat at the conference table with a sanguine expression on her face. She said more than once, to my expressions of surprise at these encounters: “Everyone comes to the NRI”. I initially took this as low-grade propaganda, but perhaps she is correct.

Mary-Ellen took me to the office of Andrew, the man at the NRI responsible for permits in my category (Land and Water, I think). He said he’d get my permit sorted out; it’s a very good thing that I decided to check in at the NRI because apparently my permit was not as fully established as I had thought. I was also introduced to some other “bug people” working in a lab in the building. Andrew (another Andrew, not the same as the first guy) is a PhD student from York University, studying some of the lakes and ponds in the High Arctic, particularly around Iqaluit. We got my name on his permit for the day, and arranged a quick field trip. He hadn’t been planning to get out to the lakes today, but since I showed up he thought it would be fun.

We got trucks and so on sorted out, then Alex, another employee of the NRI, drove us out to the end of Nowhere Road. According to Alex and Andrew, this road has no official name, but is universally referred to as either Nowhere Road or the Road to Nowhere. Since the federal government of Canada carved off Nunavut separate from the Northwest Territories in 1999, Iqaluit has been experiencing something of a boom, more than doubling in population in 10 years, with lots and lots of construction. Federal and Territorial government functions are concentrated in Iqaluit, with an associated increase (though less spectacular) in certain private industries. All of this construction requires lots of sand, which comes from a series of large pits at the end of Nowhere Road. When these sand pits were chosen and the road constructed, some of the locals were rather annoyed that the road wouldn’t be more useful for other purposes; i.e. it doesn’t go near any good hunting areas. Hence, it goes Nowhere.

Two of the sand pits at the end of the Road to Nowhere, viewed from a nearby ridge. Some of that dust is from recent vehicle traffic, but mostly it’s just getting spontaneously blown around by the wind.

Andrew and I walked out to a lake near the end of Nowhere Road, and spent a rather productive hour or so collecting amphipods and beetles from the unusual lake. This lake has no fish (and hence is of little interest to anybody who is not either an invertebrate zoologist or a limnologist) and is distinctly bowl shaped, deeper than most other lakes of its size.

Andrew and Alex had suffered some miscommunication arranging our ride back to town, so we had to walk it. It was a fairly nice day, in the mid-twenties, though the dust was annoying. Large dump trucks are almost the only traffic on Nowhere Road, and they produce an amazing dust cloud as they pass.

The inland terrain near Iqaluit is classic tundra: low vegetation consisting mostly of moss, spread across gently rolling hills with frequent rock outcrops. And ponds, and dust.

I took us a little more than an hour to walk back to the NRI. Andrew headed back to the cabin he’s staying at for his multi-week visit to Iqaluit, and I walked back to the Frobisher Inn. As I was standing at the front desk, checking in, Sabina showed up and asked me if I was coming to the banquet. Most of the conference is being held at the Frobisher, including the banquet that has closed the main restaurant. Room service is supposedly available, with a somewhat limited menu. I had planned to wander into some haphazardoulsy chosen restaurant in town, but Sabina assured me I could be smuggled into the conference banquet as long as I could act like an academic for the evening. No problemo, so we arranged to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30. This gave her a chance to run back out to her B&B to change, and me a chance to get my specimens put away and remove some of the dust coating me.

Come dinnertime, Sabina and I entered the surprisingly-well-guarded banquet hall by a more back-ish door, and found a table. The open bottles of wine on all tables – one red, one white – was immediately a very good sign. A few other conferenceers that Sabina knew showed up, but our celebrations were postponed by the usual conference-banquet round of “short” speeches. Why does every speaker assure the hungry audience they will be short, then proceed to thank, by name and primary occupation, dozens of people who are not present and probably had better things to do? Oh well, the wine went down rather well on my empty stomach, and once the speeches ended (huzzah!) the food was quite good.

They tried to put an authentic-Arctic spin on things, so adjacent to the carved roast beef was a platter that carried, among other delicacies, maktaq, the raw skin and outer fat layers of beluga. I tried some (I’ll eat almost anything impaled on a toothpick); my verdict: meh. There was almost no taste, the fat portion basically dissolved instantly in my mouth (probably this is a side-effect of the massive dioxin and PCB loads of marine mammals), but the skin portion was tough and chewy, with a rather unpleasant texture. Everything else was great, especially the abundant wine that a certain professor from Ryerson proved to be highly skilled at acquiring from nearby tables. We were the noisy, rowdy table, but I had a great time.

Tomorrow I’ll fly to Resolute, and begin my High Arctic fieldwork in earnest.

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