A much bigger bay

Our newest column follows the experiences of a Newfoundlander adjusting to life in the Far North

There we were, surrounded by unpacked boxes and about to climb into our new, unfamiliar bed. It was difficult to believe that less than two months ago, we were getting ready for our wedding on the shores of Newfoundland. Two months and three thousand kilometres later we were on the shores of Hudson’s Bay, where the sky was now a brilliant red and purple, the sun going down slowly like it does in the north.

Two months earlier, it was late June. My fiancée was about to leave for the lovely town of Campbellton, where we were getting married in barely two weeks, to take care of some of the dozens of things a wedding requires. Shortly before she left, she saw an ad for teaching jobs in Nunavut. She had applied for these before and nothing ever came of it, but she was still looking for a job for September, and applied anyway.

That was Thursday. The next day she got a phone call. Could she forward her credentials immediately? Would she be available for a telephone interview on Monday?

By Monday afternoon she had accepted a position at John Arnalukjuak High School in Arviat, Nunavut, starting in late August, and suddenly I was moving to the North. Of course, we still had a wedding to get through first.

Place of the Bowhead Whale

Arviat is a community of between 2500 and 3000 people, located on a small inlet in Hudson’s Bay about 250 kilometres north of Churchill, Manitoba. The population (mostly Inuit, of course) is incredibly young, with almost half the population being under the age of 20 due to a high birth rate. Arviat was known as Eskimo Point until 1989, when it was renamed Arviat, meaning “Place of the Bowhead Whale” in Inuktitut. Currently the third largest community in Nunavut, behind Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet, Arviat is expected to overtake Rankin as the second largest within the decade.

Arviat is located on about the 61st parallel, not within the Arctic Circle but above the tree line. There are no roads leading into the town, so like most northern communities Arviat depends upon its airport and seasonal sealifts for transportation and supplies.

In a happy coincidence, the principal of John Arnalukjuak High School was in Newfoundland in late July, and we were able to meet him and his wife for lunch and talk about what to expect when we moved north. He was positive and encouraging, while also honest and direct about what to expect. We talked to many people who had lived and worked in northern Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, most of them teachers. We heard horror stories, but we heard more about the wonderful people and amazing landscapes of Canada’s north. Although their experiences were varied, the more we learned about the north, the more excited we became.

“You want an OLDER phone, Sir?”

Except for a slight rain delay in the outdoor ceremony, our wedding went smoothly, and our first challenge as a married couple was to get ready for the move. We were moving thousands of kilometres, not just within the city, and we had a thousand things to do: cancel our utilities, change our mailing addresses, sell our car, move out of our apartment, purchase things we would need to bring with us, and so on.

Since the school board was paying for us to move several thousand pounds of personal effects, we had to decide what to sell, what to give away, what to put in storage, and what to take with us. We were being provided with furnished accommodations in Arviat, so we ended up giving away or selling most of our furniture. We shipped clothing (warm clothing, and lots of it), kitchen appliances like our microwave, bread maker, and slow cooker, our television and DVD player, pictures and books, and camping equipment.

Have you ever talked to a cellular provider about DOWNgrading your cell phone? It confuses them.

Figuring out our cell phones was more complicated. My wife and I both had new BlackBerries with several years remaining on our contracts, so abandoning them would be expensive. Our contracts included Canada-wide “Fave 5” deals so it would be a great way to stay in touch with family without huge long-distance costs. That is, if the phones worked in Arviat. Which, it turned out, they did not.

Arviat has only had cell phone service for a few years, and only offers CDMA service. That means newer phones that use SIM card technology – like iPhones and newer BlackBerries – do not work. So we had to track down and buy older BlackBerries and swap them out on our contracts. Have you ever talked to a cellular provider about DOWNgrading your cell phone? It confuses them.

Northward Bound

The day came quickly for us to leave, and our flight out was at 7:00am on what turned out to be one of the longer days of our lives. We hadn’t slept much the night before, since we had just finished moving out of our apartment and had to spend most of the night packing our bags, trying to keep them below the required 50 pounds.

Our itinerary took us from St. Johns, to Montreal, to Winnipeg, to Churchill, and finally to Arviat on a series of increasingly smaller aircraft. However, it didn’t quite work out that way. The flights as far as Churchill were fine, but when we began our approach to Arviat, it became clear that the coastal fog was not going to cooperate. The more things change…

After traveling for almost 20 hours, we had to bypass Arviat and land in Rankin Inlet, where we spent a comfortable night at Tara’s B & B in Rankin. We met some great people, including teachers and their spouses also moving to Arviat for the first time. And since our luggage, which contained our sheets, towels, etc., had been bumped from our flight, it was a more comfortable introduction to the north than if we had been able to land in Arviat.

The next morning we learned there was a 50 percent chance we still wouldn’t be able to land in Arviat, and would end up flying back to Churchill. I had horrible visions of us leapfrogging over Arviat for the next few days, but luckily that didn’t happen.

Considering that just a few decades ago it took people days if not weeks to reach the north…it didn’t seem too bad for a several thousand kilometre journey.

We deplaned onto the gravel runway of Arviat airport, and the school principal met us inside the small terminal. I noticed our luggage (which had been sent by air cargo because of the number of extra bags we had) coming off the same plane, so one of the new teachers and me tracked down the cargo terminal (the garage door ten feet to the left of the main passenger entrance) and struck up a conversation with the cargo handlers.

10 minutes later, we were riding into Arviat in the cab of a beat up cargo truck with a piece of yellow nylon rope for a door handle. Brian, the driver, was a friendly guy and pointed out buildings as we drove, including the school where my wife would be working. He also offered to stop at his house to show us some of his artwork, which was for sale. Arviat is known for its artistic people, and like most of what we’ve seen, Brian’s art is good.

At Eskimo Point Lumber Supply (the kind of catch-all business that operates in the north, similar to those in small towns in Newfoundland, actually), which acts as the cargo agents for Arviat, Brian and his co-workers unloaded us, and Gord, the cargo supervisor, called us a cab to take us to our new homes. I was only a little surprised to learn that Gord, too, was from Newfoundland, and had moved to Arviat a few years ago.

“Yeah,” he said. “There are a few of us up here.”

It had taken us two full days, but we had arrived. Considering that just a few decades ago it took people days if not weeks to reach the north, in much less comfortable conditions than we did, it didn’t seem too bad for a several thousand kilometre journey. Hudson’s Bay might be bigger and colder than any bay in Newfoundland, but the water lapping at the shores just a few dozen feet from our new house felt like home. I took that as a good sign.

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