In the late 1960s a friend of mine worked in Rankin Inlet, a hamlet located on the northwestern shore of Hudson Bay, in what was then part of the Northwest Territories.
Now in Nunavut, the location of Rankin Inlet hasn’t changed, but part of the territory was renamed in 1999. Our friends invited us up to visit all those years ago, and so we went.
The only way to get there was to fly, first from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba and then from Churchill to the airport in Rankin Inlet. The plane we took from Churchill was a DC-3. It was a propeller-driven aircraft, with twelve seats and a small kitchen inside. Flying wasn’t the big industry then that it is today, but even for that time, flying in a small propeller-driven craft was an adventure. However, it turned out to be very comfortable. It had the added advantage of letting us meet out fellow travellers who were happy to get to know us, since we were all going to the same destination.
Rankin Inlet began as a mining town, but by the late ‘60s, it was an active centre of art and soapstone carving. It wasn’t a large town, and, as visitors, we met many of the local residents who were keen to introduce us to the North. Even though it was August, you needed to wear at least a light jacket to go outside, something like April in southern Manitoba. But during our visit we had beautiful sunshine and wonderful long-distance vistas across the water of Hudson Bay.
I was told that we were definitely not in the prairies or the forest, but in the tundra, which to my eyes meant that the ground was covered with summer vegetation that was very green and alive but only about four inches high. There were no trees, and large parts of the ground were rock with no vegetation cover at all. You could walk a long way. “And,” one of the Inuit men told us, “you could walk a long way, and not find your way back.”
The inukshuk (inookshook) has now become something of a symbol in parts of Canada, but this was the first time I had ever seen one. And it was the real thing! Built by Inuit people themselves! We were told that they began building them long ago as markers for their journeys across the tundra. With the large rocks available and the immense distances across fairly flat territory, you could see why they came to be.
We had a lovely visit. We were invited into many people’s homes and given a tour of the carving shop where Inuit men were working on soapstone carvings. We heard a harrowing story about a group of people who had lost their way in a snowstorm the previous winter. They had been headed for the airport in a “bombardier”, the local large metal vehicle that functioned as something of a bus. They had sat in the stormy cold for hours until an Inuit man with his dogsled found them, along with others from Rankin Inlet who were out with their dogs looking for the missing bombardier.
For our trip back, we flew out of Rankin Inlet in another DC-3 to Churchill. On the trip home we took the train. We left Churchill in the early morning and arrived in Winnipeg in the afternoon of the following day.
It was a great trip! I’ve never had the opportunity to go back, and I wonder how much Northern Canada has changed since then.