August 24, 2011

Remote Outpost

Nunavut has an area of two million square kilometers. If it were a country, it would rank 14th largest in the world, just ahead of Mexico and Indonesia. Yet it has a population of only 33 thousand. Iqaluit, the capitol of and largest population center in Nunavut, has a permanent population of less than 7 thousand.

In places that are more connected to civilization we take a lot of things for granted, like access to a variety of foods, clothing, and other consumer goods, infrastructure like roads, highways, the power grid, and running water, and an abundance of services and specialists who can be hired to do just about anything. In Iqaluit, it's quite difficult to take any of these things for granted.

During the summer, when Frobisher Bay is ice-free, cargo ships bring in everything from toys to heavy machinery. Iqaluit doesn't have a deep-water harbor, so the ships anchor off-shore and the cargo is brought in by barges to the dock. More cargo, mostly food, comes in on year-round daily flights landing on Iqaluit's WWII military-grade runway. Prices for anything not available locally tends to be somewhere between double and triple what you'd expect in the south, and the only things available locally are fish (Arctic Char, yummy!) and stone (there's a quarry for gravel, dirt, and other building materials which can be used in road-beds, and a small industry of stone-carvers creating figurines to sell to tourists).

Another thing the ships bring in is fuel: there's a pipeline leading from the shore nearest the anchorage to a group of storage tanks, then through town to the power plant. The power plant is right next to the water-treatment plant, just below a dam that creates the town's reservoir of drinking water. Water pipes are also visible throughout the town, since they're often above ground. (I got a nice photo of a pipe-bridge. The footbridge on top was just an afterthought. A little scary.)

Despite having a population of 7 thousand, Iqaluit has all the services you'd expect in a capitol, and then some. There's an RCMP building, a judiciary building, the Nunavut Legislative Assembly building, separate men's and women's prisons, a campus of the Nunavut Arctic College (including dorms), a museum, a library, a cathedral and several churches, schools, a hospital, a sports arena, banks, hotels, and various government offices scattered throughout. Yet there are only two supermarkets in town, the Northern Store and Arctic Ventures.

The roads in Iqaluit are paved using local materials, if they're paved at all, and have branches extending about a kilometer from town in various directions (to a nearby park, to a quarry, etc.). The taxi service does the bulk of its business during the summer, when snowmobiles aren't the dominant form of transportation. Many taxi drivers are temporary residents hired from the south for one summer at a time.

In truth, Iqaluit wouldn't have ever developed beyond a small fishing community with a Hudson's Bay trading outpost if it hadn't been for the airport runway, which was built in 1942 as part of a route for the US to fly aircraft to the UK.


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