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An Unexpected Visit to Iqaluit in Nunavut

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It’s a rare day when I’m happy with a plane delay. But on the way up to Pangnirtung – the starting point for a two week backpacking trip in Auyuittuq National Park we were delayed in Iqaluit – the capital of Nunavut – initially for four hours, though ultimately for seven hours.

John and I didn’t think we’d have any chance to see the city (town?) since flights in and out were supposed to have only a few hours maximum between connections. But in the far north I don’t think you can ever count on planes arriving and leaving when they’re supposed to – and often its days before you can get to where you want to go.

"The approach to Iqualit"

The approach to Iqaluit suggests more winter than summer to me

We jumped at the opportunity to explore the city on foot – and easy thing to do as you can walk to anywhere in the city from the airport.

"Iqualit Airport"

What a welcoming colour for an airport – notice the fact the building is constructed above ground due to permafrost

We had left Ottawa 3 ½ hours earlier in summer type temperatures of about 24 C. John wasn’t thinking and didn’t even bring a fleece as a carry-on so it was a rude awakening to get off the plane in about 5 C temperatures. We started wondering what we’d got ourselves in for with regards to backpacking. Fortunately I’d packed an extra fleece in my carry-on so he squeezed into that and off we went in our sandals to see what the city had to offer. Our first stop was about 10 minutes away. We wanted to check out the state of the pack ice. It was starting to break up and by the time we went through again on July 13th it was clear enough for shipping.

"Down by the frozen ocean in Iqualit"

"blue boat in Iqualit"

I liked the look of this boat sitting down by the ice

"ice chunks in Frobisher Bay"

The wind off these chunks of ice kept the temperature chilly

It wasn’t long before we decided we needed to warm up and have some lunch so off we went to one of the local hotels where a buffet brunch was happening. The place was almost empty because according to one of the workers the town empties out on the July long weekend and everyone goes south to Ottawa. We dug into a plate of food trying to guess what it would set us back – as almost everything but gas and subsidized fruit and vegetables is wildly expensive in the North. I guessed $35 each but was wrong. It was $40 + tax for nothing special – except the art in the dining room was fantastic. And it was warm inside.

Next we decided we’d just wander and see what we might see. It was glorious not having an agenda and the time to do as we pleased.

"Loved the colourful houses seen all over Iqaluit"

Loved the colourful houses seen all over Iqaluit

"Another view of Iqaluit - with all buildings above ground"

Another view of Iqaluit – with all buildings above ground

"Sled on the back streets of Iqaluit"

We saw many a sled

"Stop sign in English and Inuktitut"

Stop sign in English and Inuktitut

We decided to check out the grocery store for pricing. Orange juice was an astounding $12.79 – as everything comes via air except in July and August. A regular sized Gatorade was $10.

"Orange juice for $12.79 in Iqaluit"

Orange juice for $12.79 in Iqaluit

Kids have freedom in this town. They walk, ride bikes and hang out – just like I did growing up.

"kids wandering the streets in Iqaluit"

Kids can wander the streets in Iqaluit without having a parent nearby

There were Canada Day celebrations in full swing – more of a weekend event than a one day affair. We came across this young woman modeling clothes made of seal fur. Before you get indignant I’d say visit the place and you’ll have an understanding why seal fur and not leather from cows is used.

"Modeling clothes made out of seal fur"

Modeling clothes made out of seal fur

"Some of the workshops on tap for the weekend"

Some of the workshops on tap for the weekend

"snow toys for transportation"

Waiting for the snow to fly again

"messy yard with snowmobiles"

A lot of yards look like this

"sled dogs"

One heck of a lot of sled dogs – just 10 minutes away from the airport

We checked out a book store with a fantastic selection of northern writing and by then it was time to return – or so we thought. Once back at the airport we were told it would be another three or four or who knows how many hours to go. We did finally leave about 8 pm – with the sun still shining as it does up there for 24 hours a day right now.

"Departures rotating between Inuktitut and English "

Departures rotating between Inuktitut and English

By the time we returned to Iqaluit two weeks later we both felt like we were going back to the big city. It does have about 6,700 inhabitants – and after being in the middle of nowhere that feels big.

We were both very happy to have had a chance to explore Iqaluit – especially as I doubt we’ll be returning anytime in the near future.

Have you ever had an unexpected flight delay in a place you wanted to explore?

Leigh McAdam

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Author Hike Bike Travel

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • What a lucky break! Looks like a pretty interesting place to explore for a couple of hours. I can’t imagine staying there for much longer though, especially with orange juice nearly 13 bucks!

  • John says:

    Iqaluit is certainly a visual shock when coming from the south but a delight to the ear is the Inuktitut language. It is very soft but fascinating to listen to. Would love to delve into the symbols.

  • Never heard of Iqaluit and have no idea where it is- will have to Google. Looks a bit depressing with all that tundra! The food for your 2 weeks out must have been a house-payment unless you brought the freeze-dried stuff with you.

  • Jackie Smith says:

    What an amazing few hours you had! I love the photos and story as I got a real feel for this wonderful little place. I think a few hours is just about the right amount of time for here – but certainly an interesting stop.

    • @Jackie It’s a rare day that I’m happy with an unexpected delay but this was definitely one of them. I was truly thrilled to have a chance to walk around and get a sense of the place.

  • noel says:

    Wow, I think I got everything out of seeing your images, I can’t imagine cold environments anymore such a wimp compared to the warmer environments I’m from. Wow if my Hawaii friends saw that seal outfit they would have a major cow over that, scary.

    • @Noel I appreciate why people hunt,eat and use seal now that I’ve been up there. Seal is a food the Inuit eat all the time – just like venison might be to hunters in parts of North America. I know people don’t like photos of baby seals being clubbed to death (myself included) – but living off the land and using all of the seal I can understand for those that live there year round.

  • This looks like a wonderful way to spend your unexpectedly long layover. I am very surprised to see Didgeridoo on the workshop schedule. So, will you be showing us what this place is like in the winter?

    • @Michele If someone would like to fly me up (as the flights are also ridiculously expensive) and clothe me in traditional wear then yes you might see some pictures – otherwise no.

  • Muza-chan says:

    The airport looks amazing…

  • budget jan says:

    How lucky were you! Those colourful houses are amazing. And the huskies. Would not like to be paying those supermarket prices. We have not had any flight delays that have been fortuitous. :(

  • What an ideal airport for flight delays with everything in walking distance! I’ve never heard of Iqaluit until now but it looks like a cute albeit expensive little town.

    • @Dana There isn’t a northern town that isn’t expensive – just because it costs so much to get anything in. It was a cute. colourful place and I feel lucky to have had a layover there.

  • Marcia says:

    If I had to pick a place for a layover, Leigh, I’d definitely pick Iqaluit. I love all the colors, which come in handy during the winter.
    Those prices remind me of Bermuda, and the smaller islands that have no place to grow anything so everything’s imported and expensive. Wonder what salaries are like there?
    What a cool (pun intended) experience though!

    • @Marcia I think those coloured houses would really brighten up the days when you don’t see much light let alone sun. I hadn’t appreciated that Bermuda and some of the smaller islands were as expensive as you suggest but it makes sense.

  • Sophe says:

    Would love to visit this little town. It looks a bit like Longyearbyen in Svalbard – not surprising, I suppose.

    I wonder why killing a seal is worse than killing a deer, or a lamb. They’re all cute. (Not that level of cuteness should be relevant). Apart from endangered species, you either disapprove of killing (and eating/using) animals – or not.

    • @Sophie I think people see killing seals as less humane because they are often clubbed to death. But in the north I can’t see how you can get away from not eating and using as much of the seal as you can since it’s one of the biggest protein sources. Sealing is a very emotional issue and people seem to be firmly on one side or the other – so a visit to the Arctic is very enlightening and eye opening. There are always two sides to every argument.
      And agreed – it is a cute little town with a lot of colour.

  • Love the colorful houses, but it looks a little cold for my taste!! Glad you got to explore such an interesting place…

  • Lay overs are usually a bummer, but this one looks fascinating. It looks like an interesting way to spend a couple of hours to a place you would not normally have the chance to visit.

    • @Ted Usually I’m annoyed if I have an unexpected layover but that was certainly not the case in this instance. There’s a nature park within walking distance of the airport that I found out about later that I wish I’d had a chance to visit.

  • Hi Leigh, welcome back! What a very interesting town and a very different world. I love your images. The colorful houses are adorable – they look like Lego houses::) The boat next to ice looks so surreal. And those dogs without their sleds look so lost. I’m curious how this town look like in the deep of winter. Sometimes flight delays are blessing in disguise, it gives you the opportunity to explore the unexpected. Really enjoyed this post.

    • @Marisol I was shocked to see so much colour in Iqaluit too – but what a cheerful way to brighten a landscape. I am also interested in how the town looks come the dead of winter – and I wonder how people cope with the very dark days.

  • Your photos are absolutely lovely! And yes, what a place for a layover. If only all of us could be so lucky. Can’t wait to explore more of your blog! PS: I found you through the Travel Photo Thursdays linkup :)

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