Everywhere you looked was white and flat; the infinite horizons blended with the sky and it was impossible to orient yourself. We were on the second day of our Arctic trek and Natalino and I were rushing to build an igloo. An ominous storm was coming and he knew this way before I did and he was in a hurry to cut the blocks and put them together.
It was a chilly minus 48 C (minus 54 F) and the wind was picking up fast. Within an hour, the darkness covered everything and the snow was blown horizontally. The immense power of the storm was so loud, it felt a train was passing by. By this time, we were already inside the igloo, safe and sound, with the 14 huskies secured outside and the sled covered.
I was alone with my new friend, a famous guide and hunter of Nunavut, Canada, Natalino Piugatuuk. The two of us, buried in an igloo, at 73 degrees north, South of Arctic Bay. I started to wonder what brought me here…
The Inuit are by far the toughest survivors the world has ever known. Descendants of the Thule Culture, people from the Siberian tundra who crossed over the ice bridge between Kamchatka and Alaska in search of food some 3000 years ago, the Inuit (Inuk, singular) survived here in conditions impossible to describe in words.
Bitter cold, months of darkness during the winter, lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and a diet of raw seal, whale and caribou (reindeer) made these people the hardiest tribe.
Today, the Inuit face their greatest challenge: global climate and forced sedentarism. The ice is melting, faster than anyone predicted. I can tell you from personal experience that when I was on the sea ice with Natalino in 2005, the ice beneath us was 8 m thick. In the same month of March, 2011, the ice was 70 cm thick, not even able to support a dog sled anymore. Their precious food is dwindling, international pressure on seal hunt and polar bear restrictions mean that they can eat these less and less of the wild game and this forces them to stay in their communities and purchase very expensive Western food, full of sugar and preservatives that destroy their bodies.
The youth has the greatest problem: stuck in a grey village, unable to live off the land as their parents and grandparents, they are watching Western TV shows and playing video games, while being introduced to drugs and alcohol. The depression and suicide rate in the north is skyrocketing at rates no one predicted before.
Suddenly, a beautiful, peaceful and strong culture, who survived 3000 years is now in great peril. Over my 5 trips to the North, I have pushed tirelessly for creation of youth programs, like reading in their library, sports in their gyms, aid to elderly, etc, so the youth find pride and joy in their own culture.
I am humbled by the friendships I made in Nunavut, the great people I met and the lessons I learned, of survival in the harshest environment on Earth, of their history and of their challenges in the 21st century.
We will keep returning there and continue to support them. Join us in this amazing journey and be a Pilgrim!