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The Logistics of Northern Living, Part 1: Sealifting

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One of our reasons for visiting Ottawa on our recent vacation from the north was to do a sealift order for the year. While we had a great time with friends and family in the capital, we also spent a couple of rather hectic days buying supplies for the upcoming year and delivering them to an expediting company that will ship them to us by sealift, the term for the seaborne annual resupply of northern communities by large cargo ships.

Here in the north there are only two ways to get anything: by air or by boat. While communities today are supplied with everything from mail and fresh produce to small vehicles (like snowmobiles) by cargo flights several times a week, if not daily, not that long ago that the sealift was the only way to get the bulk of your yearly supplies. Despite improvements in transportation and infrastructure, sealifting is still the only way to get large and bulk items, such as cars, trucks, heavy equipment and construction materials, unless you charter a military-style heavy lift aircraft. Not coincidentally, First Air (“The Airline of the North”) operates the only two civilian owned Hercules aircraft in Canada.

The sealift is still a common way for many people to get supplies, such as groceries and furniture, cheaper than simply buying them locally. Some people will even sealift entire sea containers, filling them with groceries, household goods and vehicles. An added bonus of this is that the sea container can be easily turned into a ready-made shed or workshop.

A sea of choices

Before we left for our vacation, we researched several different sealift options. There are companies that sealift out of Winnipeg (moving goods by rail or road first), Montreal and Ottawa, and companies that will shop for you if you provide them a list, then will ship your goods when ready. We knew we wanted to sealift out of Ottawa if possible, since we wanted to go there anyway, and that we wanted to shop for ourselves rather than have a company do it for us. Companies that shop for you will often substitute items they can’t find, and since you also can’t control the quality of what’s being purchased for you, it’s not always the best choice.

So we decided on The Service Company out of Ottawa, and we booked our space. It’s important to book your shipping space as early as possible since there are a limited number of sealift trips each year – and they do fill up. The Service Company has a simple model: bring in what you want to ship and pack it into a crate. When you’re finished, they professionally package and waterproof it and get it ready to be loaded onto a ship.  A couple of months later, it arrives on the beach in Arviat, where you are responsible for getting it to your house.

Our first sealift experience was good (at least the Ottawa part of it – it hasn’t arrived in Arviat yet, so that part remains to be seen). The Service Company was great to deal with, and when we arrived in Ottawa we confirmed our booking and went shopping. Our first stop was, of course, Costco, where we stocked up on bulk items like canned goods and toilet paper, among other things. When we could no longer push our two carts we decided that was probably enough. We also visited Loblaws, Wal-Mart, Costco again, and a half-dozen smaller stores (including a Lindt Chocolate outlet store) to finish off our order.

How many pounds of flour do you use in a year? How many pounds of coffee? How many cans of tomatoes?…How many Lindt chocolate bars do you need for one Arctic winter?

It made for a busy and exhausting few days, and the experience of buying thousands of dollars worth of groceries at once is rather strange. How many pounds of flour do you use in a year? How many pounds of coffee? How many cans of tomatoes? Diced, crushed, or stewed?  How many Lindt chocolate bars do you need for one Arctic winter? Try and figure out the answers to these questions and you’ll get some idea of the challenges involved.

But I expect it will be like Christmas morning when our crate of goods arrives in town, which should be sometime in mid to late September. In fact, the annual sealift (or sealifts – there are several trips made each year in the ice-free months of July thru October) is pretty much an event in itself. The waters near Arviat are too shallow to allow the cargo ship to come close to town since we lack a deep water port. Instead, the goods are loaded onto barges farther out at sea and towed to shore, where front end loaders unload the crates and shipping containers. It’s common for people to meet the incoming barges and receive their goods, or just watch the loaders at work and see what new vehicles are arriving in town this year.

- Keith Collier photo

Sealifting is not for everybody. While you can save money, and while it can be convenient to have most of the year’s groceries purchased in advance, for some people the extra time and expense of planning, organizing, shopping, and shipping is just not worth the effort. Sealift orders are also virtually impossible to do sealift orders if you can’t afford to buy a few thousand dollars worth of food and goods at once (or can put it on a credit card and pay it off in a reasonable amount of time). This means those who are most in need of affordable food options are usually the same people who are denied the opportunity.

But for those who can take advantage of it, sealifting is another of those unique aspects of life in the north.

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

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