For the last four-and-a-half years, Kelly Kamo McHugh and her husky, Thrasher, have called Inuvik, Northwest Territories, home. A remote town just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Arctic Ocean, Inuvik is known for its rugged landscapes and unforgiving weather. After landing a job as an environmental technician, Kelly left southern Ontario and moved 4000 miles (6,600 kilometers) north, settling into a new community that has done nothing but surprise her. We asked Kelly a few questions to learn more about her life above the Arctic Circle.
What were your first impressions of Inuvik?
During my first weekend here, I attended the community’s annual Muskrat Jamboree, a festival featuring traditional events and foods that’s held each spring. It always kicks off with a community feast that includes local dishes such as eskimo doughnuts, cloudberries, muskrat stew, arctic char chowder, and muktuk (whale skin/blubber). Then, throughout the weekend, there are events such as jigging contests that can last for hours, tea-boiling and bannock-making (a type of flat quick bread) contests that take place out on the ice road, honey-bucket hockey, and dog-sled races. During that first weekend, I found Inuvik’s people extremely welcoming, and I enjoyed the festivities immensely. I thought that if every day in Inuvik was like that, then I knew I would like living here. While everyday Inuvik lacks the same flurry of the Muskrat Jamboree, it’s definitely a welcoming, busy community, and I love it here.
What have the people of Inuvik taught you?
Growing up in Elmira, Ontario, I was proud to be Canadian. Since moving to Inuvik I’ve been exposed to Canada’s history when it comes to Indigenous people and Indigenous issues. The history of colonialism in Canada wasn’t taught when I was in elementary or high school, and I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t really learn about the residential school system until I was in my late teens and early 20s. Living in Inuvik — which is built partly on Gwich’in First Nation land and partly on Inuvialuit land — and seeing how much colonialism still affects Indigenous communities is heartbreaking, but the Indigenous people I know are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. As challenging as it is to see people going through these hardships and feeling like I can’t do much about it, I’m glad I know about this dark chapter of Canada’s history, as it’s still very much a part of the present. I’m grateful to the wonderful Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people who have taken the time to share their history, culture, and local knowledge with me. It’s an education I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.
What’s been the biggest challenge since your move?
Maintaining a sustainable lifestyle has been one of the main challenges. I studied environmental sciences at university and try to live an environmentally conscious life, but it’s difficult to accept that my carbon footprint increases exponentially when living in the Arctic since most of the food and supplies are trucked or flown in from southern Canada. I also fly home a couple of times a year to visit family. As much as I love everyday life in Inuvik, I do think there are things we can improve upon, environmentally speaking, such as developing a recycling program that includes cardboard and paper. Some Inuvik organizations are starting to encourage reusable plates and cutlery at community events, which is awesome, but we still have a long way to go. To help combat my personal environmental footprint, I try to eat locally when possible. I compost throughout the year and have a garden plot at the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, which is open from April to October. I also freeze and preserve certain vegetables for the winter and try to walk and bike whenever I can, which is easier because of Inuvik’s smaller size.
Do you think there are things people take for granted when they live in towns and cities that seemingly have every available resource?
For sure. A lot of food-related things affect this, such as always having fresh produce readily available, being able to find any ingredient at the store, having a variety of cafés and restaurants to choose from, being able to order take-out, never having empty grocery shelves, being able to buy a specific type of dog food, and being able to go to the grocery store before noon on a Sunday. As for travel and recreation, in less remote places, there are lower gas prices and no gas shortages, live music, and a larger dating scene. I also miss going to the movies.
However, all this means that those of us who live farther away from these places have to get creative in how we have fun. For example, I recently attended a home cooking competition at a friend’s house, which was a huge hit!
Was there a moment where you realized just how different life is above the Arctic Circle?
I’ve experienced many things since moving to Inuvik that I may not have experienced elsewhere. My first year here, a man was stranded at the airport because his truck had broken down. I gave him a ride to town, and he complained that I drove too fast (for context, the speed limit in town is 20 mph). However, he was very grateful for the ride and said that, since he is a fisherman, he would give me free fish or let me use his boat anytime I like. I haven’t taken him up on the offer, but it showed me how friendly people can be up north.
I also never thought I’d see a herd of approximately 3,000 reindeer crossing an ice road.
What are some of your favorite Inuvik activities that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else?
Skijoring with Thrasher, my husky (who some people tell me is part fox). Hiking to Ibyuk— the largest pingo in Canada (pingos are vegetation-covered ice hills that form in areas of permafrost). Driving the Mackenzie River ice road to Tuktoyaktuk or Aklavik. Going to the Inuvik Curling Club during the winter for curling and karaoke. Driving 10 hours on Friday nights during the summer just to go out for dinner in Dawson City and enjoy the sunshine, and then driving back to Inuvik in time for work on Monday. Attending the annual Muskrat Jamboree. Participating in Inuvik Ukulele Club pot jams (think potluck plus ukulele jam sessions).
But there are also things that are more unique to Inuvik itself: going to the Mad Trapper (the local bar) in the summer and leaving at 2 a.m. in broad daylight, tuning in to the radio program Trader Time where just about everyone calls in to buy or sell things, and being advised via Facebook to boil our water in town this summer.
Is it safe to say that people spend a lot of time outside despite the harsh conditions?
Definitely. For me, some of my favorite things are found outdoors: the Northern Lights; candle ice during the spring breakup; the cotton-candy skies at noon during the winter when sunrise fades into sunset; picking cloudberries, blueberries, and cranberries from the tundra; hoar frost; and the stunted black spruce trees that tilt over due to permafrost thaw. Since moving to the north, I’ve seen grizzly bears, black bears, caribou, beluga whales, moose, muskoxen, and sik siks (ground squirrels). I’ve driven on ice roads, climbed pingos, and driven snowmobiles. In short, I’ve learned that the outdoor activities are worth the cold, bug bites, and wind burn.
That being said, life in Inuvik is similar to places below the Arctic Circle in many ways as well. It’s a regional hub in the Western Arctic Region, so we have a hospital, a courthouse, the Aurora College and Aurora Research Institute, two grocery stores, and three hotels. People sometimes think that all communities above the Arctic Circle are the same, but that just isn’t true. My experience could be completely different from someone living in Nunavut, Greenland, or Russia, for example.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to travel farther north?
Don’t be scared! Be open-minded and up for trying new things, and listen to the advice locals give you. If you travel up north during the winter, just remember to dress for the weather (the Arctic’s can quickly change). Even if things don’t go as planned, it will still be an unforgettable trip!
Have an experience similar to Kelly’s? Let us know in the comments below!