Cold trip to Iqaluit

By James Oerding
This item appears on page 29 of the June 2018 issue.

Grant Oerding, guide Jack Anawak and James Oerding in Iqaluit.

One of my life’s missions is to visit all of the Canadian provincial and territorial capitals. For 2016, I chose Iqaluit (pronounced ee-KAH-loo-it), capital of the territory of Nunavut, and early on Dec. 7, 2016, my son, Grant, and I set off on our quest, first flying from Sacramento, California, via Chicago to Ottawa, arriving at about 9 p.m.

We overnighted at the Ottawa Hampton Inn (100 Coventry Rd.; 613/741-2300, hamptoninn3.hilton.com), where the rate of CAD83 (near $65) included a good continental breakfast and airport shuttle service.

Dinner (with a 10% discount through the Hampton Inn) was at the Lone Star Texas Grill, about a 100-yard walk away in the windy, -10ºF cold. When I ordered a burger, the waitress suggested, as a side, a Canadian dish called poutine (fries, cheese curd and gravy), which I found very tasty. An otherwise ordinary fare, the meal, with minimal drinks and tip, cost CAD40 for the two of us.

In the morning we flew to Iqaluit on First Air, arriving about 1:30 p.m. Our total airfare, round trip from Sacramento to Iqaluit in economy class, was a jarring $2,450 per person plus a charge of CAD20 for our one bag, which we had been told would be free. (On our return, we were not charged for our bag.)

In Iqaluit we stayed at the Frobisher Inn (Astro Hill Complex; 877/422-9422, www.frobisherinn.com). It had a formal restaurant, a “nightclub,” a snack-and-coffee bar (which closed at 6 some nights), a mini-shopping center, exercise facilities and a movie theater. For our 3-night stay, we paid a total of CAD734 ($570).

We ate in the Gallery Fine Dining Room, where I tasted Arctic char (a local delicacy) for the first time. It was like a combination of salmon and trout — very good. Grant enjoyed a nice steak. The cost, with tip and no drinks, was CAD102 for both of us.

We had scheduled a town tour the next morning with Jack Anawak*, who owns Beaches Bed & Breakfast (www.iqaluitbeaches.ca). He met us at the inn the next morning around 10, when it was fully light. (During our visit, the sun rose around 9 a.m. and began to set about 2:30 p.m. By 5, it was quite dark. In the summer, when days are nearly 23 hours long, Iqaluit is a thriving beach resort.)

An auto repair shop in Iqaluit. Photo by Grant Oerding.

Driving around Iqaluit, we saw the igloo-shaped St. Jude’s Cathedral, Nunavut Arctic College, the town’s legislative building, the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre, the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, several craft shops and a North West Mounted Police station. Unfortunately, because of the ice that had formed on the windows of our pickup, we didn’t get many photos.

Fortunately, the most interesting attraction in Iqaluit was Jack Anawak, himself. He had been a 2-term member of the Parliament of Canada, then, as Interim Commissioner of Nunavut, he helped build the government of the new territory of Nunavut, after which he served awhile as a member of the Nunavut legislature. He and his wife, Caroline, have 13 children, including foster children, adopted children and one biological son.

Jack claimed to be the most well-known person in Iqaluit… and proved it, as everyone we met greeted him by name. We questioned him about nearly everything, and he answered thoughtfully. 

He was so fascinating, I didn’t want to let him go, so I invited him to join us for lunch, after which he invited us to meet his wife at the B&B. We then returned to the Frobisher Inn.

One thing Grant and I learned during our tour of Iqaluit is that the town center is compact, perhaps eight to 10 city blocks in size, so we planned to take in more of the downtown on foot.

For the next morning, however, I called Inukpak Outfitting (inukpakoutfitting.ca), recommended by the inn and Jack, to try to arrange a dogsled ride. I left a message. We waited through the next morning hoping to get a call, but it never came. We should have scheduled the sled ride before our arrival.

Typical warehouse in Iqaluit. Photo by Grant Oerding.

We hoped to see the northern lights on this trip. On our second night, the manager promised to wake us if the lights showed. In the morning, he told us he had seen only a dim glow on the far-western horizon but nothing above.

By noon of the third day, after we had waited for the dogsled call, temperatures had dropped to -15ºF, a strong wind had picked up, and tiny knife-like frozen crystals of ice filled the air everywhere. This made touring the downtown seem impractical. We hunkered down in our room, later visiting the inn’s Storehouse Bar & Grill for supper. 

Live loud music, a pleasant atmosphere and the largest serving of nachos I’d ever seen greeted us there, at CAD12 a real bargain.

During our town tour with Jack, we had noticed one anomaly: bay ice piled up on the shore. Frobisher Bay has a very high tide, which breaks up the edges of the firmly frozen ice around Iqaluit, leaving fragments that collect along the shore in mounds about 6 feet tall. 

Just 8 feet inland from these ice mounds, there was a row of Conex containers. The city provides the Conexes for the homeless, who claim shelter in them when it becomes more severely cold (first come, first served).

On the morning of our departure, the cold had become more intense (about -25ºF) and the snow was blowing fiercely. Our Air North plane, which was to have arrived at about 2 p.m., flew over us without landing, since the billowing clouds of snow and fog obscured the airstrip. It continued to an airport in Québec to refuel and try again.

Three hours later, it returned, just barely able to land in the darkening twilight. Grant and I took off for Ottawa, landing in a near blizzard to find that our flight to Chicago the next day had been canceled due to weather. We spent the night in the same Hampton Inn we had stayed in before, returning home the next day via San Francisco instead after a negotiation with Air Canada.

Nacho plate at the Storehouse Bar & Grill in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. Photo by Grant Oerding

Our advice to others visiting Iqaluit — obtain the cheapest flight possible prior to booking the rest of your trip, even if it’s not on a day you’d prefer. These flights are few and far between. Once you’ve done that, book a hotel room as soon as possible.

A visit to Iqaluit in the winter should encompass more than three nights, since the weather can make it hard to complete visits and can thwart plans.

Calling ahead to schedule every activity, including a dogsled ride and northern lights viewing, is also recommended.

JAMES OERDING
Capay, CA

*With his wife at the wheel, Jack Anawak offers a guided, 2- to 3-hour “Community Tour” (the story of Iqaluit and showing handicraft shops and places to dine) for $75 per person and a day-long islands tour by boat (including a historical site and lunch) for $125 each. Email jack@iqaluitbeaches.ca.