July 25, 2011

First Impressions of Iqaluit

I've just returned from a week and a half in Iqaluit, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. It's the capital of Canada's territory of Nunavut, with a population of only 8 thousand. It's below the arctic circle, barely, at about the same latitude as Reykjavík, Iceland. While I was there, there was continuous light from 2am to midnight every day, temperatures ranged from 5 to 20 °C (41 to 68 °F), and there were still patches of snow and ice at the bottom of north-facing cliffs.

The first thing a southerner notices when stepping out onto the tundra is the complete lack of trees, bushes, or any other sort of vegetation more than 10cm high. This is not to say that the terrain is flat or uninteresting. Baffin Island is a rocky and rugged place, with boulders, bedrock outcrops, hills, and cliffs everywhere you look. The melting snow during the spring and summer causes streams and lakes to form almost everywhere, and wherever there's water, there's tundra vegetation. Despite all the plants hugging the ground, there's an incredible profusion of vegetation forming the tundra: lichens, mosses, grasses, dozens of flowering plants, dwarf shrubs and trees, and even mushrooms, all woven together into a thick, spongy mat that covers every low spot on the ground, from the valley bottoms to small hollows on bare rock. In places, the stuff is meters thick, and has completely overgrown sizable waterways, concealing them so well that one can walk across some of them without seeing anything.

Away from town, it was incredibly quiet. I could easily hear those concealed streams burbling away beneath the tundra, and on several occasions I heard a faint swishing sound, looked around, and saw a raven gliding by. I had been hearing the sound of the air ruffling the feathers at the tips of their wings.


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