Scattered throughout this blog and my everyday conversations, you’ll find evidence of my unwavering fascination with the territory of Nunavut. Some days it feels Voyageur Tripper is simply a drawn out love letter to the one that got away. I loved the summer I spent living in Iqaluit, Nunavut and still regularly daydream about zipping over expansive sea ice in a snowmobile or hiking on the colourful tundra.
Yet as much as I talk about the territory of Nunavut itself, I rarely talk about my experience living in its capital city, Iqaluit. I write about the beautiful landscape and unique way of life, about doing polar bear safety training and kayaking among icebergs. However, there is still one aspect of Nunavut I leave out of the picture.
For the first few weeks I was living in Iqaluit, I was painfully homesick.
A departure into the unknown
I remember the first day clearly. With my backpack and duffel bag packed at the front door, I worried I had forgotten something. Yet, despite this worry, I wasn’t willing to unpack and repack my bags. Again.
For the last three weeks, I’d commandeered the dining room table, using it as a home base for the many base layers, sweaters, and miscellaneous cold weather gear I’d be taking with me. Like many other young twenty-somethings, I was about to leave home for my first long adventure. An adventure the result of persistent and tenacious convincing, careful planning and seemingly endless preparation.
So much time had gone into making Nunavut a reality and I secretly worried it would all fall short of my expectations.
“Hopefully whatever I’ve forgotten can be purchased up there” I said with a false air of nonchalance. (Can you just purchase things out there? Are there stores? I didn’t really know.) With that, I hopped in the back of my family’s car and my parents drove me to Toronto Pearson Airport.
I wore boots, thick leggings and a down jacket; in my carry-on was a thick coat and mitts. A stark contrast to the vacationers around me in shorts and flip flops. I myself had worn a sun dress the day before, sipping drinks on an outdoor patio for the last time that summer.
I said goodbye to my parents, promising to FaceTime them if the WiFi allowed. As I turned my back, I took a deep breath. On the exhale, I confidently walked through airport security and to my first departure gate.
And so the journey begins
The flight from Toronto to Ottawa was uneventful, yet deep in my stomach there was a sinking feeling, growing with each bounce of turbulence. So subtle, it could have easily been misdiagnosed as motion sickness. But I knew I never got motion sickness, and instead the feeling was an anxious pit in my stomach.
I was finally on route to Nunavut, a place I’d dreamed about visiting for years. I was too close to my goal.
Surely I’d get denied boarding in Ottawa and not make it north. Or, if I did board, the plane would inevitably crash. Sometimes the brain will do anything to mitigate feelings of hope and excitement; mine was no exception.
To my surprise, however, I wasn’t denied boarding. Instead, I followed the others as we entered the First Air plane from the back – the front of the plane, I later learned, was filled with cargo. Everyone on the plane seemed to know someone else. They greeted each other fondly and asked about recent holidays or reasons for going south. Everyone except me of course; I didn’t know anyone.
I sat there looking rather sheepish, collapsing into my introversion.
With a take-off shakier than I would have liked, we were off the ground and flying to Iqaluit, Nunavut.
My arrival in the Great North
The flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit lasted almost four hours. We still hadn’t crashed, and instead the flight attendants prepared the cabin for landing. I’d been thinking about this moment for years: my touchdown in Nunavut. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t pull my gaze away from the window, eagerly searching for a first glimpse of my new home. Perhaps this is what Neil Armstrong felt just before the moon landing?
But my first glimpse, it turned out, would not be from the sky. The plane was surrounded by thick clouds and swirling snow. A blizzard.
It was May and I was flying into a blizzard. Wonderful.
The plane touched the ground and I walked off the plane toward the airport – a bright, round structure that could have been inspiration for the Beatles’ yellow submarine. The inside of the airport must not have been larger than an elementary school gymnasium.
As I waited for my bags to arrive, I searched the area with a slight feeling of panic. I had assumed someone from the company was meeting me at the airport, but I hadn’t actually confirmed this. Surely they would be wearing something identifiable, right? I kicked myself, finally acknowledging just how unprepared I really was. Frantically (though I like to believe I was subtle), I turned my head in every direction searching for a company logo.
Sure enough, my panic was irrational. There were two members of the company there to meet me, both wearing company jackets. K, who had interviewed me months prior and would shortly return back to Ontario, and P, the day-to-day manager I’d be working with.
Hello to my new home
They drove me to the house I’d stay in while I was living in Iqaluit – a townhouse in an area called White Row. Once inside, I signed some final employment paperwork. It wasn’t long before the two employees left me alone to get settled into my new bedroom. As quickly as they’d arrived, they were gone and I was on my own again.
Wandering through the townhouse took less than a minute. On the first floor there was a little entrance; beyond the entrance a landing with a bedroom on both the right and left side, and immediately a set of stairs. At the top of the stairs, there was a small bathroom to the left, a bedroom straight ahead and a kitchen/living room to the right.
I chose a bedroom on the main floor, unpacked my things and then sat in the living room waiting for the remaining two employees to arrive. It wasn’t long before I heard the van pulling up in front of the house. From a second floor window, I watched two women exit the van and enter the house. Suddenly I was nervous again.
Welcome to the team
The women – MC and F – had flown in from Montreal. MC was from Quebec and her prior experience was a patchwork of tourism contracts strung together by changing seasons. Most recently, she had worked at a heli-ski resort on the West Coast. F was also from Quebec, but had recently been living in Victoria, British Columbia on a house boat. She was a professional diver, photographer and guide. The summer before she had supported a ship crew along the coast of Greenland.
I tried to swallow the sudden sense of inadequacy that was washing over me.
Later that day I would meet the final member of our team. An Inuk man from Labrador, W had a sun-kissed face and kind eyes. His inherent wisdom was immediately evident.
This team – myself, MC, F, P and W – would soon become my entire life. The three women lived in White Row, P and W lived in The Green House (which, in addition to people, also housed our office and some equipment).
For the first three weeks we worked nearly everyday. The weather was cold, windy, and mostly overcast. Much of the work was in preparation for the upcoming summer season. We were outside organizing storage containers, sifting through gear which had frozen solid in the previous winter. I was perpetually cold and persistently lonely.
Queue the homesickness
At first I was startled by my loneliness. Wasn’t I, the adventurous one, supposed to embrace all new environments? Dive head first into foreign experiences and unknown situations? I had never experienced homesickness before; I didn’t know what to make of it.
Nor did I know the root of it. I liked my team. They were all extremely proficient at their work and I could learn a lot from each of them. They were friendly; I enjoyed working with them each day. I spent most of my time with W and MC. W would take me and the others snowmobiling on the frozen arctic ocean. He helped me shoot a rifle and showed me how to prepare a wild goose for dinner. MC had quick and witty humour which I appreciated when the work got mundane or the temperatures dropped ten below freezing.
Yet despite this, it’s difficult to center your entire work, personal and social life around the same four people, especially in a a town of 6,800 people 250 km from the next community. Plus, the age difference was becoming increasingly apparent. The rest of my team was aged 28 to 50+. I had just turned 20.
The first few weeks living in Iqaluit, I cooked myself up a nice bowl of loneliness .
- Place one overflowing scoop of cold, miserable weather into a large pot
- Add three cups of non-stop (largely mundane) work
- Subtract social life with peers at a similar life stage
- Add inconceivable distance from everyone you know and love
- Heat over the flames of social media (all my friends are drinking on a warm, summer patio without me)
Looking back on this, I realize how self-destructive and entitled this thinking was. Of course my first commercial guiding job was not going to be a constant string of out-of-this-world experiences. Of course it was going to be cold – I was in the arctic! And obviously scrolling through Instagram was bad for my mental health (I would eventually disable Instagram and create a new one for the sole purpose of sharing photos of my life in Iqaluit).
But hindsight is 20-20 and, at the time, my life in Iqaluit made me very lonely.
A change in mindset
There were a few moments in those early weeks where I really wanted to go home. I knew I wouldn’t – unhappy as I may have been, I was no quitter (I also imagine there was an element of pride – how would I face my friends and family after quitting something as once-in-a-lifetime as guiding in Nunavut?).
And yet I remember sitting on the floor of The Green House one evening when a thought came to my mind: “Three weeks down, 14 to go.”
The realization I was counting down the weeks until I could leave the place I’d dreamed about for years was like a dagger to my heart. Suddenly my demeanour changed. Now I was angry, really angry. I was angry at myself for having sky high expectations matched with a poor attitude. Determination brewed inside of me as I walked back to my house on White Row.
“I am going to make this experience count if it GODDAMN KILLS ME!” I declared, fist in the air.
The next day I awoke the same person, but with a different mindset. How much I enjoyed living in Iqaluit was solely my responsibility. I sprang into action.
First, I requested my weekly day off. Turns if you don’t ask for something, you don’t get it. My managers were happy to grant me the day off I was entitled to. I just hadn’t asked for it.
Second, I sought out ways to fill my time outside of work. I tried running, found a yoga studio, went on short solo hikes. Anything to get myself out of the house. Soon after my resolution, I met someone named R.
The night everything changed
R was a professional diver who had worked with the guiding company for several seasons. He was passing through Iqaluit on route to another polar dive trip, but during his few days in Iqaluit he invited us all to a party. This party, Yurt Fest, was the catalyst for my new life in the north. I won’t go into too many details about the party, as I’ve detailed it all in another post How a Flaming Wooden Dog Gave Me a Social Life in the Arctic, but here is the gist of it.
At this party I met other people living in Iqaluit. Unlike in the south, where you meet people and never see them again, these new people followed up. Did I want to join them for dinner the next day? Would I like to join them on an overnight camping trip next week? With these new friends, I went on hikes, explored the town and became a part of a micro-community. Through that micro-community I met more and more people (I even found an ultimate Frisbee league to join).
Life in Iqaluit: the no-longer-lonely aftermath
Soon after Yurt Fest, our team of five was joined by two more: T, a outdoor recreation student from Quebec, and C, a girl close to my age who had been living in Iqaluit for most of her life. Four years later, I stayed with C when I made my second trip to Iqaluit, Nunavut in 2019.
This is when everything turned around. Most evenings I had plans, with either friends from work or friends outside of work; joining a yoga studio and ultimate frisbee team meant I exercised regularly and met even more people; during the working day I was cheerier and more enthusiastic. Eventually the weather warmed up (I even wore shorts a few times).
The hardest part about living in Iqaluit was life before found myself a community of people. Once I had that, my eyes opened up to the whole territory.
And this part is usually when I start my stories. I talk about the adventures and the wonderful friends I made. It’s not that I am trying to hide my initial loneliness, I just don’t think of it often. Most of my photos and memories are from the cheery part. I am seldom reminded that for my first long adventure far from home, I was living in Iqaluit – a small, cold and isolated town where I didn’t know anyone. A bit of loneliness was inevitable. But I worked through it.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a little piece of advice. If you’re moving far away from home, understand loneliness may visit you. But loneliness is often a matter of mindset. Get out of your comfort zone and into the community – I’m sure it’ll make a difference!
Keep scrolling for photos of my wonderful arctic friends!