How two towns in the Canadian Arctic get their food

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Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The other evening, I was sitting in a typical house in Tuktoyaktuk enjoying a meal with an Inuvialuit family as the waves crashed outside. This small hamlet in the Canadian North faces the Arctic Ocean and will soon be the terminus of the only public highway in North America to extend to the coastline of the world’s northernmost sea. Inside the cozy, multigenerational home, mom, dad, children, grandparents (daduk and nanuk), auntie, and uncle sat in the kitchen and living room tearing freshly cooked caribou meat off the bone. Some garnished the dark, grassy meat with sea salt while others doused it in ketchup. I enjoyed my portion salted while sitting across from a young girl who put a whole fistful of tender caribou meat on a slice homemade bread. This being “Tuk,” as locals refer to the town, there are no year-round road connections to the rest of Canada, so store-bought loaves that are fresh rather than frozen are hard to come by. Around town, the yeasty smell of baking bread mixes with the salt tang of the ocean and the dust of the dirt roads.

Over dinner, the girl ate spoonfuls of cornflakes with milk in between bites of her open-faced caribou and ketchup sandwich. The combinations of processed food and country food symbolize the complex ways in which people in the Canadian North eat. In the past fifty years, Aboriginal diets have changed enormously, from relying solely on the land and sea for sustenance to now combining wild foods with store food in sometimes curious ways (think HP sauce with beluga whale). With food insecurity already a widely debated issue in the region, I was intrigued by how people actually do manage to put food on the table.

In Tuk, which has a population of about 900 people, most of whom are Inuvialuit (an Inuit people), there are basically four ways to get food: from the land or sea, the grocery store, the greenhouse, or the food bank. In the 3,000-person town of Inuvik, the government center of the Western Arctic, the options are much the same even though it has a year-round connection via the Dempster Highway to the rest of Canada.

By land or sea

When I asked one man what percentage of their protein comes from the land or sea, he responded, “80 pecent.” In Tuk, a large number of people still hunt, fish, and harvest. Early July is prime time for hunting beluga whales, with the Beaufort Sea population being one of the most stable in the world. A group of men will go out in a boat, travel the 25 kilometers across open water towards Hendrickson Island, and then hopefully catch a beluga whale. The snow-white cetaceans are usually butchered on the island before being brought back to Tuk in more manageable pieces. So far this season, the biggest beluga whale caught measured 14 feet long. Three whales around this size can help meet a large family’s protein needs for a year.

Muktuk

Muktuk – beluga whale skin and blubber – cut up before being boiled.

I got to help lay out boiled squares of muktuk – the blubber and skin of a whale – on pieces of cardboard to dry overnight after being boiled. We protected the meat with a tarp to keep the peckish seagulls away. While setting out the muktuk, I watched one man set a fishing net from shore into the harbor and pull it back a few minutes later, already full of nine whitefish and one crookedback. Two family members gutted and filleted the fish and gave me a taste of raw whitefish roe. Meanwhile in the nearby smokehouse, thin black pieces of beluga whale meat were being smoked over an open fire. The air smelled briny and foresty.

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A man and his fishing hut, with the Cold-War era DEW Line visible in the background.

The next day, I joined the same family for a “fish fry.” The whitefish caught the previous night were cut up, battered, and deep fried to a crispy perfection. We dipped the fried fish in HP sauce and tartar sauce with mashed potatoes on the side. Not to be forgotten was the beluga whale muktuk, which is also very popular with HP sauce, a condiment originally from the UK that seems much more popular in Canada than in the U.S.

If beluga whales are the taste of summer in Tuk, then salmonberries, or aqpiks, are the taste of fall. Women, and some men, go out to the tundra just south of Tuk to gather the orange berries by the hundreds. One man told me one of his favorite country foods is “aqpiks with cream” – again, a combination of country food and story food only possible in the post-contact era, after Europeans arrived.

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Frozen aqpik (salmonberries) and goose eggs in the background.

At other times during the year, the land provides goose eggs (richer than chicken eggs), geese, ptarmigan, grizzly bear, and polar bear (boiled grizzly bear paws, I’m told, are a real delicacy, while polar bear is overly rich, but bear in general is less widely eaten than it once was). The land also provides caribou, which are best in fall. In summer, one woman told me their sweat makes the meat less tasty, so it’s best to wait for the cooler months to hunt them. Yet caribou hunting has become harder for people living in Tuk due to new boundaries established by the government in an attempt to stabilize the herd’s size, which has been declining recently. Many townspeople I spoke to were angry about the boundaries, claiming that the biologists whose research informed their demarcation didn’t know as much about caribou as the Inuvialuit.

With caribou meat proving harder to obtain off the land, some people have instead turned to buying reindeer meat from the region’s sole, privately managed herd. Buying food – particularly country food – would have been unheard of in previous generations. Even today, sharing remains the norm. The man who brought in Tuk’s first beluga whale of the season told me that he didn’t get to eat much of it because he shared most of it with other people in town. It’s this generous philosophy of helping each other out and sharing meals that allowed me, as an outsider, to essentially strike up a conversation with a person in the street and the next day be invited to a wonderful fish fry with their family.

Fish-Fry

A cozy family fish fry in Tuktoyaktuk.

The grocery store

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For soda pop, chips, and all the other conveniences of modern food, locals shop at one of two grocery stores in town: Northern or Stanton’s. One local complained to me that Northern makes all their money off of “pop” (soda), with one can costing CAN $1.99. Obesity and diabetes are two modern diseases that have hit Tuk and other Aboriginal communities hard for two reasons: first, the prevalence of high-calorie, high-sugar, high-carb food, and second, a genetic predisposition among Aboriginal peoples to diabetes.

The locally beloved ice cream machine at Stanton’s, which functions when the mix has been delivered (it goes fast on hot summer days, which can reach over 30°C/86°F), and the deep fryer that spits out french fries and chicken strips do nothing to improve access to healthy food. While apples, bananas, and green beans are sometimes impossible to obtain (unless the Fruit Man, who drives a truckload of fresh fruit and vegetables from Vancouver every few weeks, makes an appearance), soda pop and slushies are in no short supply in the Western Arctic. One friend who carries out research in the Mackenzie Delta told me that slushy cups can be found all across the region’s swampy lakes and rivers.

The bulk of Northern and Stanton’s food items have to be flown in during the summertime. Stanton’s charters airplanes sometimes to fly in deliveries. A lot of non-perishable items are brought in over the ice road in winter or by a barge in summer, but that hasn’t come so far this year for a number of supposed reasons. First, the Inuit-owned company that runs the barge, Northern Transportation Company Limited, filed for bankruptcy last year. Second, water levels on the Mackenzie River are low, prohibiting smooth passage for the barge as it makes its way to numerous communities along the river in the Northwest Territories. Some locals rumored that the low water levels are due to the oil sands production in Alberta, which overlaps with part of the Mackenzie River Basin.

Ironically, high water also poses a problem for getting delivery in and out of Inuvik, and by consequence, Tuk. The Dempster Highway connects Inuvik by land to the rest of Canada via a 12 hour drive to Dawson, in Yukon Territory, from which point it’s possible to continue on to Whitehorse and then Edmonton. Most of Inuvik’s groceries come up from Edmonton by truck, and the long and arduous journey by road means that milk costs close to $10 a gallon, while a package of cold cuts is $22.00. And if you want your Cheez-Whiz, you’ll have to dig deep for one jar, which costs $19.29.

Making matters even more difficult for transport, the Dempster has two ferry crossings. The ferry across the Peel River is particularly susceptible to closing due to high water levels. The other week it was closed for five days, meaning that the availability of fresh fruit and produce in Inuvik and Tuk dwindled to a measly amount since trucks couldn’t get through. Worse, yet were the conditions for people stuck on the south side of the Peel River, where it is a two-hour drive to the nearest facilities with a restroom and running water, in Eagle Plains. While traveling up the Dempster towards Inuvik, some friends and I got stuck on that side for 26 hours and had to camp by the road, and that was bad enough.

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Not much to do when the ferry is closed on the Peel River in the Dempster Highway.

Still, eventually the ferry re-opened and the produce came up the road to Inuvik.

In Tuk, a lot of individuals I spoke with hope that once the new highway is opened, the price of groceries will drop, helping to reduce the high cost of living. Yet when the road opens, the government will likely stop identifying it as an “isolated northern community.” This means it could lose access to the Canadian government’s Nutrition North (formerly Food Mail) program, which helps to subsidize the high costs of nutritious, perishable items. Whether grocery prices go up or down, then, is anyone’s guess.

The greenhouse

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Flowers and kale growing in the small greenhouse in Tuktoyaktuk.

A few years ago, Tuk opened its own greenhouse in front of an abandoned RV park, which itself might be renovated and reopened in anticipation of the forthcoming highway. I peeked inside the quiet greenhouse, where numerous heads of kale were sprouting up robustly from the soil. Although the greenhouse is well-built, it’s about a 15 minute walk from the center of town and residents have to carry or truck their own water in since it has no connection to the utilidor. One local resident told me that instead, the greenhouse has inspired people to start their own mini-greenhouses in their own backyards.

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The enormous greenhouse inside the old hockey rink in Inuvik.

Whereas Tuk’s grocery stores are surprisingly comparable to those in Inuvik despite the lack of a permanent road connection, Inuvik’s greenhouse dwarfs Tuk’s. Housed in a former hockey rink, the greenhouse sports a huge number of plots. During the short summer growing season, they provide a critical source of fresh fruits and vegetables for people living in a town where these are in short supply. Even when lettuce or tomatoes do arrive from the south, they’re often wilted or overripe. The local school has four plots, while the homeless shelter also has one in addition to the numerous families and individuals around town who take advantage of the greenhouse. One plot costs $75 for the season. It includes water and soil comes from the nearby golf-course, though it’s not the most nutrient-rich. Upstairs from the ground-level plots on the forming viewing level of the hockey rink, the greenhouse grows colorful flowers, vegetables, and other plants for sale. Some of the products are sold at the weekly Arctic Farmer’s Market in the center of town. From time to time, yoga classes, volunteer dinners, and even a rhubarb social have even been held up on the former viewing deck.

With the 24-hour daylight in Inuvik, which is north of the Arctic Circle, plants grow in record time. This helps to compensate for the short growing season, which lasts from May to September. People grow everything from 40 types of tomatoes to purple cauliflower to rhubarb in the greenhouse, and nearly all of them appear to sprout before your eyes.

I asked one person who works in the greenhouse whether climate change and warming temperatures have had any effect on plants’ ability to grow. She said that more important has been the new roof, demonstrating the underlying importance of solid infrastructure in the modern Arctic. Since the greenhouse has no insulation, it has to shut down in winter. If this were remedied, one volunteer said, “It would be a dream to have the greenhouse year-round.”

The food bank

Both Tuk and Inuvik have food banks, which help fill in the gaps in people’s food supply. One volunteer I spoke to says that sometimes, people drive up in shiny new Ford F-150 trucks and ask for a box of food. But you can’t say no to them, for you never know what their situation is. In Tuk, the food bank is run out by the local Roman Catholic church, which has an active community in town. In both instances, the food bank also provides a nice weekly gathering spot for people. At the food bank in Inuvik, I stood inside as people came in to pick up a box filled with a can of Irish stew, a box of pasteurized milk, potatoes, an onion, and a couple of other cans of vegetables. In Tuk, I watched a woman exchange a large bag of whole-wheat flour for all-purpose flour.

All of these rather basic items which we take for granted in the south can be exorbitantly expensive in northern grocery stores. Below are a few examples of the prices of various items at a grocery store in Inuvik. Some southerners may wonder why they have to subsidize the cost of milk, cheese, and cold cuts going to the North. But when the Canadian government forcibly settled many in the North in the name of sovereignty decades ago, it was likely inevitable that Northerners, moving into insulated homes and driving motorized skidoos, would develop a taste for dairy, sugar, salt, and all the other foods we enjoy in the South.

If the Canadian government wants to continue to claim sovereignty over the North, supplying fresh milk at reasonable prices is just one of the costs it must bear. “Bread and circuses” is no trivial matter in the Canadian Arctic. It might just be rephrased as “milk and jamborees,” in reference to the festivals that communities throw every winter.

Plus, there is a misconception that hunting and gathering is free: it’s not. Gas costs money, bullets cost money, boats and quads cost money – and most of all, hunting takes a lot of time. If Aboriginal peoples are gainfully employed in the wage economy, they have less time to devote to traditional hunting and gathering activities. The grocery store instead forms part of the routine, just as it does for people in the south. If anything, Northerners are more resilient and flexible than many of us living in the south. While we search for coupons to reduce our costs, they go out and hunt and gather and fish, grow their own plants in their greenhouses, and turn to the food bank in time of need.

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Strawberries grow in the Inuvik Greenhouse.

To understand the road to the Arctic Ocean, first go south.

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The Dempster Highway heading through the Ogilvie mountains, viewed from Sapper Hill in Yukon.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in the Northwest Territories studying the new highway being constructed between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Work on the road began under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013, and it should be completed by October 2017. Once all of the “furniture is put on the road” – that’s to say, all the speed limits, interpretive signs, and so forth” – the highway will open, becoming North America’s only public road to the Arctic Ocean. The Dalton Highway in Alaska only reaches so far as the southern limits of Deadhorse before becoming an oil-company-only access road to the North Slope.

In Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of a little under 900 residents whose economy has been in the doldrums since the oil boom ended in the 1980s, people are hoping the new road will bring more tourists while lowering the price of groceries and fuel. Others are worried about the road’s impacts on the crystal-clear lakes it passes as it winds up from Inuvik, a government center of 3,000 people, to Tuktoyaktuk (called “Tuk” by locals), on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Many from Tuk spend the long summer days fishing (or, during the frigid winters, ice fishing) in the Husky Lakes, as they’re called, catching trout and other types of much-needed protein in a place where milk costs upwards of $10 a jug.

The Inuvik-Tuk Highway (ITH) will extend the more famous road that currently terminates in Inuvik: the Dempster Highway. This 740-kilometer long gravel-surfaced road bears the nickname “The Road to Resources.” That’s because the road was originally approved in 1958 by newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who envisioned opening up the North to resource development via the building of roads. The Dempster Highway was conceived of as providing year-round access to the rich oil and gas resources in the Mackenzie Delta, where surveying and exploration had begun the year before.

After about twenty years, the highway was finally completed. The discovery and development of oil and gas resources next door in Alaska in the early 1970s gave the Canadian government the impetus it needed to jump start the project, which had been put on hold in 1961 after just three years of construction due to political infighting between the federal and territorial governments. The Canadian government’s desire to display sovereignty in its northwest Arctic played a major role in building the Dempster, just as it does today in extending the highway to the shores of the Northwest Passage, where outwardly signifying Canada’s sovereignty was high on Harper’s agenda.

Traveling the Dempster – a mix of gravel, mud, culverts, and potholes which together represent the challenges of road engineering and design in a permafrost-laden environment – gave me a grasp of the vastness and richness of Canada’s North. The irony is that I wouldn’t have been able to see these spaces without the road, but the road has also permanently altered the communities and environment along and around it in ways both good and bad. As one person in Inuvik remarked about the forthcoming ITH to me, “It’s progress, right,” while another person in Tuk commented that the new highway, which will allow permanent, year-round access, will bring “more drugs and alcohol, certainly, but that’s part of growing.”

I traveled the Dempster in the opposite direction of most visitors, heading south from Inuvik all the way to Tombstone Territorial Park and then back up to the North. Most people climb up the road in their RVs, Ford F-150s, or motorcycles beginning in Dawson. (I also spied a couple of avid bicyclists starting out from Inuvik and making their way down to Brazil, mirroring the “Antipodes Expedition” from Ushuaia, Argentina to Inuvik in 2004.)

I’ll write more about my experiences along the Dempster and the ITH in the coming days and weeks, but because time is short and I have my fieldwork to get back to, for now, here are a few snapshots from the road, quite literally.

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Big sky country.

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The Dempster Highway curving along the side of the hills, with the muddy Engineer Creek flowing in the foreground.

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A hidden fishing spot off the side of the Dempster in the Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon.

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The highway as it stretches through Tombstone Territorial Park, viewed from Goldensides.

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Time to head back north.

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The soon-to-be-completed highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, as seen from a low-flying Aklak Air propeller plane.

 

 

A Russian icebreaker and an Italian pianist float into the Arctic…

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From floating piano concerts to new icebreakers launching, a lot is going on in the Arctic lately.

On June 16, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker, Arktika, in St. Petersburg. It’s approximately two football fields long and can punch through ice thirteen feet deep. A video from Russia Today documents its maiden voyage into the Baltic Sea:



The reason the ship looks a little odd is because the 2,400-ton superstructure with cabins for 75 crewmembers will be placed into position following the launch, according to PortNews. Once this is complete, the Russian website Hi-News reports that Arktika “will not have to stand idly without business. Arktika will come to the assistance of tankers carrying raw materials from Yamal and other northern resource deposits to the East, in accordance with the economic cooperation framework framework with the governments of the Asian-Pacific region.” In other words, Arktika’s primary role will be to guide ships transporting oil and gas resources from the Russian offshore to Asia via the Northern Sea Route.


NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly traveled to St. Petersburg to watch the launch. She spoke with Sergey Kiryenko, head of Russia’s nuclear energy agency, on the VIP platform of the docks. He explained to her in Russian, “Asia is developing fast. And if ships can cut through the Arctic, they can get from Asia to Europe in a week. Russia stands to profit hugely as previously frozen waters melt. And that helps explain why when its economy is in crisis, Russia is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars on a supersized icebreaker.”

So while some American media and commentators see militaristic overtones in the launch of Arktika, economic imperatives are also motivating Russia’s construction of these floating megastructures. Arktika is just the first of its kind. Two more similar icebreakers will be built under Project 22220 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg for commissioning in 2019 and 2020. By that year, the U.S. might just be getting started with constructing a new icebreaker.

In contrast to the largely commercial role of Arktika, Russia, with a tad less fanfare, launched a new, diesel-electric military icebreaker, Ilya Muromets, earlier in JuneThe vessel is Russia’s first new military icebreaker in 45 years. While Russian state-owned company Rosatomflot will operate Arktika, the Russian Navy will operate Ilya Muromets, named after the legendary medieval warrior. A decision on building more icebreakers like Ilya will be made later this year. Ilya Muromets’ launch can be watched here:



The top comment on this YouTube video? “Выражаем огромную благорданость за санкции)))))))))))”, or “We express our deep thanks for sanctions,” representing a view within Russia that sanctions have actually stimulated homegrown construction of military and commercial icebreakers like Arktika and Ilya Muromets. 

Concert on ice

Amidst all the industrial ribbon cutting and icebreaking, Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi recently performed a piece he composed called “Elegy for the Arctic” on a floating platform in the icy green waters off Svalbard. Calving ice from the Wahlenbergbreen glacier creaked, cracked, and bubbled over the musician’s melancholy piano chords. The concert, arranged by Greenpeace, formed part of its campaign to “save the Arctic.”

The environmental non-profit’s efforts to prevent oil and gas drilling in the region have lately benefited from a drop in oil prices, which have stymied the oil majors from developing resources in the region. Yet even though companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have withdrawn from Arctic exploration in recent years, they still have their eyes on the long-term prize of offshore oil.

Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips all wrote letters to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management last week during its consultation period for the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program. Shell expressed, “We continue to believe offshore Alaska and the broader Arctic have strong exploration potential, and that these areas could ultimately be important sources of energy.” Statoil’s letter argues, “Statoil believes that the three proposed Alaska OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) lease sales should be maintained without further access restrictions.”

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Their comments echoed those expressed in a letter by a number of prominent political officials, including President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense and the supreme Allied commander of NATO. The letter states, “Arctic offshore energy development will occur, whether or not the U.S. participates, as other countries pursue the Arctic’s large energy resources to meet long-term energy needs,” right before mentioning Russia and China’s Arctic activities in a wary tone. “Even China, calling itself a “near-Arctic” state, has been building new icebreakers, encouraging Chinese shipping companies to use Arctic sea routes, and making resource-oriented investments in Arctic countries,” the letter notes.

Russia and China, however, aren’t the only ones developing the Arctic. Just a couple of hundred miles from the Greenpeace piano performance off Svalbard, Norway is developing its Goliat offshore oil field, which is the northernmost in the world. And across the Arctic, Canada is completing a highway to the Beaufort Sea, which will facilitate year-round access to the immense oil and gas reserves there. But saying that Norway or Canada are developing their northern infrastructure and natural resources doesn’t cause enough of a scare to pressure BOEM into going ahead with its lease sale than mentioning Russia and China. So if claims are going to be made that the removal of the Alaskan offshore from the leasing sale would mean that America is falling behind in the Arctic, it’s worth being clear that the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon are not the only ones ahead of it in the game – and for that reason, the Arctic is not going to fall into their control anytime soon.