I struggled to grip the handle bars with my oversize gloves. When I did manage to hold onto them, I squeezed the throttle a little too hard and was jolted forward in a sudden arresting fashion. It had been four years since I’d driven a snowmobile, but snowmobiles are kind of like bicycles, and what’s that saying? You never forget? I was about to set off snowmobiling in Iqaluit, Nunavut – and I had this under control.
My guide drove the snowmobile in front of me, effortlessly manoeuvring both the snowmobile and the qamutiq he pulled behind him. A qamutiq is an Inuit sled, traditionally pulled behind dog teams but now more commonly pulled behind snowmobiles. In it he had extra fuel, clothing, shelter, cooking supplies and more fuel. We were only going out for four hours, but in an environment as unforgiving as the arctic, you can never be too prepared.
Together we weaved our way in between houses, over gravel roads and toward the frozen arctic ocean to begin our journey.
Ice cliffs & the second highest tides in the world
Our first stop was an island located out in Frobisher Bay. With heights between eight and twelve meters, the tides in this bay are the second highest in the world. In the winter, most of the ice rises when tide comes in and falls to the sea floor when the tide goes out. Where the height of the tides becomes most evident is around the perimeter of the islands, where the ice grips to the rock and leaves ice cliffs when the tide is out.
To get reach the island, we snowmobiled over the frozen arctic ocean. I love being on the sea ice, whether it’s because I’m snowmobiling or attending an all-night party (one where a giant wooden dog gets lit on fire with flaming arrows).
Wildlife and wonder at the polynya
As I said, this wasn’t my first time on a snowmobile. During the summer of 2015, I’d worked for an outfitter in this very town. One of our most popular tours was snowmobiling on the arctic ocean. We usually took guests out to the polynya, a peculiar patch of water on the arctic ocean where one can find seals and birds.
I remember one evening we watched the sun approach the horizon, leaving a slight pink tinge on the hills and over the reflection in the water. For first timers to the arctic, when your guide asks you where you’d like to go, I highly recommend choosing the polynya.
The expansive tundra
Having visited the polynya and traveled over the sea ice many times before, after the ice cliffs my guide took me in land instead. As we made our way from the ice cliffs to the shore, again we were weaving our path, only this time it was between chunks of ice that had been crushed and crunched by the tides, causing them to jam together and push high into the air.
On the tundra, we were surrounded on all sides by rocky, snow covered hills and I appreciated that my guide was both experienced and carried a GPS with him. How Inuit and their predecessors navigated a largely monotonous and monochromatic environment I couldn’t fathom.
One thing about snowmobiling is that it isn’t exactly conducive to conversation – I had plenty of time to wonder about my surroundings and the people who once survived and (somehow thrived) here.
One persistent thought was how Inuit tolerated the cold. I was quite comfortable in the many layers of clothing I wore, plus the outdoor gear my guide had fitted me in prior to heading out. Occasionally my hands got cold from taking off my gloves to change lenses, but this didn’t last long as the handles on the snowmobile were heated (there’s even a thumb warmer for the throttle).
Slipping on frozen lakes
On the tundra, we went over many frozen lakes. In some areas, the ice was covered in a thin layer of snow. In other areas, the ice was exposed, revealing intricate and beautiful patterns (and providing the ideal surface to slip on, I soon realized).
Surprisingly, staring into the frozen lakes was my favourite part (the actual snowmobiling a close second). Maybe it’s my background in chemistry or maybe I just like patterns, but something about the way the ice froze and cracked and reflected light was mesmerizing.
A moment for snacking
After approximately 2.5 hours of our 4 hour journey, we stopped in a valley for some snacks. My guide pulled out trail mix and chocolate covered almonds, cheese and crackers and jerky. He served me coffee in a mug and we stared out onto the tundra.
I had a bit of a deja vu moment here – I remembered myself packing trail mix and cheeses into plastic containers and pouring hot water into Stanley thermos to bring on my own snowmobiling adventures back when I was a guide. I’d always suspected that taking some extra time to pack nice snacks was appreciated by the tourists I took out. Now that I myself was the tourist, I can confirm that snacks are extra delicious when enjoyed on the land and the coffee is even more comforting when you’re a little bit cold.
Making our way back to town
After the snacks, we continued snowmobiling through the tundra, over more frozen lakes and climbing more hilltops. Eventually we made it back to the sea ice and began our quick return back to the shores of town. The sea ice is so expansive and smooth that you can get moving pretty quickly – on a few occasions my snowmobile hit 50-60 km/h. (When I was guiding I went out with some of the other guides on our day off and got my snowmobile to 100 km/h – I could only sustain it for a minute or two before dropping back down to 70 km/h. Your guide won’t let you get that fast, but it illustrates just how smooth the sea ice is.)
Upon reaching the guiding office, I reluctantly returned the snowmobile and went back to the warm and cozy apartment I was staying in. There really isn’t any feeling like being out on the land, and I think there is something extra magical about being out on the tundra.
Want to go snowmobiling in Iqaluit, Nunavut yourself?
If you’d like to have this experience yourself, here are some things to know.
Getting here: You can fly to Iqaluit from either from Ottawa, Montreal, or Yellowknife. Check out my post How to get to Nunavut, Canada’s Seemingly Inaccessible Territory for some tips on how to get cheap flights. To get to the start of the tour, take a taxi to building 3310 (you don’t need street names here and all taxi are $7 per person).
Where to stay: In Iqaluit, you can stay in a hotel (The Frobisher Inn, the Discovery or Accommodation by the Sea) – I haven’t stayed in any myself, though I hear the best things about Accommodation by the Sea. However, before anything I’d recommend looking at Airbnb first.
Best time of year: End of March through May is pretty much the only time to go (when it’s starting to get warmer outside, there is more daylight than darkness, but the sea ice is still frozen). I have a detailed post about what to expect each season in Nunavut.
Guided snowmobiling: There’s really only one outfitter that does snowmobile tours and it’s Inukpak Outfitters. (It’s also worth noting that although I recommend Inukpak, I was not sponsored by them. I sought them out and paid full price for the tour.)