It’s cold in the hamlet of Rankin Inlet but the air is clear and you can see for miles. People come and plan to stay for a few days or weeks or months and wind up staying years. This despite the cold weather and the slow internet and the distinct lack of Costcos.
Or maybe that’s why they stay.
Myself, I was only there for three days. I was a little wary of the cold. The coldest I’d experienced to date was minus twenty-nine one day in Whitby. That day I walked my daughters from the van to their elementary school entrance to make sure they got inside safe thinking damn, this is cold. My first few steps in Rankin Inlet were about that cold and I was thinking pretty much the same thing. It was minus thirty outside and even though I was dressed in four layers I was shivering by the time I made it from the plane to the airport terminal. Maybe because I’d already been cold inside my North Air Boeing 737, sitting in a window seat, where I’d touched my hand to the window and realized that there wasn’t a whole lot separating me from some pretty cold arctic air. I really hoped we didn’t crash. Of course, if we did I’d probably have bigger problems to worry about than the cold.
The Katimavik Suites Hotel sent a truck to pick me up at the airport. It was too cold to wait outside so I waited inside the terminal. It was pretty crowded. I admired the attire of a young mother who was wearing a kind of parka with an enormous hood. But the hood wasn’t for her head, it was for her child, tucked comfortably into the enormous hood, his feet perhaps wrapped around his mother’s waist. This permitted Mom to have both hands free, an arrangement that worked quite well, I imagine, unless she happened to bend over too far to pick up something, such as, say, a fish, in which case her infant might shoot out of the hood over her head. Which actually happened once, somebody told me later. Fortunately the parent in question caught the child, though they lost the fish.
A young woman from the hotel clad in furry winter boots stepped into the crowded terminal looking for me. In her truck I spent a couple of minutes trying in vain to locate a seat belt but there was none to be found. “Nobody uses seatbelts up here,” she told me. “We don’t go fast enough.”
This was another one of those communities — like Iqaluit — with a fair amount of vehicles on the road (mostly trucks) but not a whole lot of road to drive them on. There is only one road out of Rankin Inlet, and it only goes for about twelve miles before ending at an Elder’s Lodge.
Beyond that it’s snowmobile country.
It may have been cold outside, but it was warm inside. A bit too warm—in the hotel I had to strip down to a T-shirt to make myself comfortable. In the morning I enjoyed a continental breakfast in Katimavik’s kitchen and chatted with a bunch of guys in town to convert an existing hardware store into a Home Hardware. Myself, I had business at the local CBC Bureau.
To get to the bureau I had four taxi companies to choose from, which seems like a lot for a hamlet of only 2900 people and a finite series of roads. I chose Fluffy’s Taxi because I liked the name but, although friendly, there was nothing fluffy about the guy who came to pick me up. I shared the taxi with two women from Iqaluit who were in town to do some accounting for the local government. Government work being, I understand, Rankin Inlet’s primary industry, though it’s also known for other things such as mining once upon a time, and hosting the only Inuit Fine Art ceramic production facility in the world.
After spending the morning at the CBC a colleague took me to lunch at one of the few restaurants in town, the Captain’s Galley, located adjacent to another hotel, the Siniktarvik Hotel. I ordered a salad, but it turned out they were all out of salad ingredients (this happens a lot in the North, my colleague informed me), so I had what he was having, the Inukshuk Club Sandwich. A fortuitous choice; it turned out to be one of the best club sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. And so huge that I wound up skipping supper that night.
Driving back to the bureau (it was too cold to walk—maybe the reason there are so many taxi companies) I saw lots of big black birds, about half again as big as crows. Ravens, my colleague told me. Nevermore! Ravens are the raccoons of Rankin Inlet, after your garbage. Except, unlike raccoons, they work in broad daylight and disappear during the summer, heading further north, maybe. Or perhaps they’re simply on vacation then.
I saw a lot of dogs, too, some loose, others chained up. Apparently the hamlet has been cracking down on loose dogs since a couple of kids were recently attacked. The dogs all appeared to be of the husky variety. Not a whole lot in the way of Chihuahuas.
Back at the bureau we parked beside the local graveyard, where no grave dates earlier than 1950. Before 1950 those who passed on were buried on the land, usually beneath a pile of rocks. Due to the permafrost, a backhoe is required to dig the graves. The story goes that one year the man in charge of the graveyard, deciding to get a head start on the digging during the summer, pre-dug a bunch of graves. But he dug way too many. So many that everybody thought it would take years to fill them all.
That year they filled every single grave.
They never pre-dug the graves again.
On my third and last day in Rankin Inlet the temperature rose to minus 12. “T-shirt weather!” a local joked. Not quite, but it sure felt nice after minus thirty. It was quite comfortable, actually. People who reside in the north have told me that they find minus one in Toronto harder to take than minus thirty in the north. A different kind of cold. Drier, warmer somehow, up north.
That morning the aforementioned local (he didn’t want me to share his real name, so I shall call him Rupert here) offered to drive me around the hamlet and show me the sights. We drove through every part of town, which is divided into Areas 1 to 5, if I recall correctly (I was hoping we’d see Area 51 but apparently that’s in a different, much warmer part of the world.) He showed me the hamlet’s giant Inukshuk, one of the human-made towers of rocks that my club sandwich had been named after. Inukshuks are used by people of the north for several reasons: to signify a cache of something valuable, or to act as a landmark, or to indicate direction. Rupert also showed me the town dump, a bit of an eye sore, I’m afraid, but one that hamlet authorities appear to be dealing with if the “no dumping” sign at the edge of the dump is any indication.
Rupert pointed out a long pipe that ran from the coast into town, which is how they get fuel from oil tankers into town. And he told me the legend of Marble Island (though we couldn’t see it as it’s located 32 kilometres east off the coast). Marble Island only looks like it’s made of marble—it actually consists of a type of rock called wacke, laced with quartzite, which just happens to resemble marble. Anyway, according to Rupert, a young girl got swept out to sea and prayed to her Gods to save her. In response to her prayers, the Gods made Marble Island rise from the sea to carry her to safety. Or so the story goes. It didn’t save eighteenth century explorers, though, who got stranded there and perished, starving or succumbing to scurvy when they foolishly refused Inuit offers of help.
We drove past a long, high fence at the edge of town placed there to prevent too much snow from accumulating in town. It’s made of slats with plenty of holes between them and is strategically placed to inhibit prevailing winds. It’s much higher now than when it was originally built because the permafrost is gradually forcing it out of the ground. The permafrost is an issue for housing, too. There are no basements in Rankin Inlet. All houses are elevated and designed in such a way that the houses can be relevelled every couple of years. Also, you have to be careful how you build houses up there. Even a tiny hole can result in massive snow piling up inside your house. A couple of guys from the south came up and built a house with ventilation in the attic. Perfectly sensible idea in the south. Bad idea in the north, unless you like lots of snow in your attic.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see any Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) during my time in Rankin Inlet, but maybe this was a good thing because I like to whistle, and according to Rupert, if you whistle at the Northern Lights they will descend from the heavens and take your breath away. Rupert swore this happened to him one night outside of town. Putting the legend to the test, he whistled at the Northern Lights and sure enough they began to descend from the heavens. Before they could take his breath away he stopped whistling and hightailed it back to town and has never whistled at the Northern Light since.
One curious feature of Rankin Inlet is the local military base, which, although diligently maintained, is completely uninhabited. Once in a while a few soldiers will come up for an inspection or to fix or check on something or conduct a military exercise or two, but nobody ever stays for long.
Aside from that, Rankin Inlet is a bustling hive of activity. A central hub for many smaller communities in Nunavut that you can only get to via snowmobile or airplane. It’s got variety stores, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, an elementary, middle, and high school, a college, and even a minimum security prison.
“That’s got to be fairly empty, isn’t it?” I asked Rupert.
“Pretty full, actually,” he told me. “Minor infractions, though, like the two guys busted for throwing furniture out a hotel window not long ago.”
Shortly afterward we drove past the hotel in question and sure enough, a large window on the second floor was boarded up.
But what is there to do in Rankin Inlet? Lots, it turns out. Right now they’re building a new sports arena. Rankin Inlet just happens to be the home of Jordin Tootoo, famous Canadian hockey player. If you like hunting and fishing, like Rupert does, you might like Rankin Inlet. Or maybe you like Bingo. Early on in his stay in Rankin, Rupert was invited to a Bingo match. He wasn’t interested. Until they told him it was a ten thousand dollar purse. They take Bingo seriously in Rankin Inlet. He bought cards for himself and his roommate. His roommate won the ten thousand dollar purse. Rupert never played Bingo again.
If you prefer something a little more dramatic, you can spend your time in Rankin Inlet on the lookout for Russians. In the arctic, we have our own version of Texas Rangers, called Canadian Rangers (often mistakenly called Arctic Rangers). Five thousand strong, armed with Lee-Enfield Rifles, our rangers patrol the north, assist with Search and Rescue operations, and help train soldiers in cold weather survival. If I lived in Rankin Inlet, I would want to be a Canadian Ranger.
It’s an expensive place to live, though. You want to be smart how to spend your money. Goods only come in via airplane and barges. You have a choice between spending a fortune shipping something up by plane, or planning wisely and using a barge. Not one you have to build yourself. One you can rent space on. For instance, you want some printing paper? Consider purchasing three years worth via barge rather than $70 a shot by plane.
Rankin Inlet is undeniably frosty, at least in the winter. It gets up to about 10 or 15 degrees in the summer. Rupert told me he couldn’t get warm for the first three years he was there. Until he finally got himself a homemade winter jacket. It’s all about the windproofing, he told me. A friend made it for him. Rupert bought some raccoon fur and sewed it on the hood himself. He was wearing it when I met him. it looks terrific. Honestly, I thought it was store bought. It’s much thinner and warmer than a Canada Goose jacket. Which, according to Rupert, is the sort of coat tourists wear.
It’s a small town, Rankin Inlet. Everybody knows everybody. And, according to Rupert, they like one another. It’s easy to make friends in Rankin Inlet, Rupert told me. That’s why he likes it. For the people.
I liked it too.