Sunlight caught the metal trigger of the gun, blinding me for a second. “Don’t worry,” said the pilot, as he saw me eye the firearm, “I’d fly away before I’d use it.” I looked around at the remote shingle beach on which we were standing. Here we were, high in the Canadian Arctic, on an island inhabited by at least 50 polar bears, 70km from the nearest landmass, and the pilot of the only chartered plane hereabouts had just said that he’d desert us if the bears got too close. I gulped, hard. “We’d definitely come back for you though,” he shouted as I followed my guide Allen Gordon along the shore of Akpatok Island. Thankfully we weren’t on land for long.
A waiting Zodiac took us out to a small catamaran, from which we began our – safer – search for bears. The sea was so still that our wake felt like an intrusion. Icebergs rose from the turquoise water like frozen turrets and, above, black guillemots called out into the sky. We trained our binoculars on the island’s fort-like limestone cliffs, scanning for anything white. Excitement bubbled a few times when someone spotted a buoy or a large rock, but soon the salty air became too much and we left the deck to have lunch and commiserate with each other on our lack of wildlife sightings. Not that I could complain. In the past few days I’d enjoyed not one but three close encounters, any one of which you’d count yourself lucky to see in a lifetime.
The far, far north – Look at a map of Quebec and at first it seems fairly digestible: there’s Montreal, with its French liberalism and high-rises; the wide St Lawrence River, which snakes through the province and out to sea via a string of pretty villages; the cliff-side cobbles of quaint Quebec City. But look north and you’ll see that’s only a fraction of the story. The top third of the province, roughly twice the size of Britain, surrounded by water on three sides and stretching beyond the Arctic Circle, is Nunavik (not to be confused with the more well-known Nunavut to the north). It comprises just 14 villages, none of them connected by roads. Getting there is a challenge: if you drive north from Montreal, the road ends at Caniapiscau Reservoir – still hundreds of kilometres shy of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik’s southernmost administrative centre and unofficial capital.
Kuujjuaq is where I’d begun my journey days earlier, courtesy of the one daily flight from Montreal. It was July, and with the ice temporarily melted, a barge had also just arrived, bringing fuel for the giant generators that provide power for the entire community. “We’re reliant on bulk delivery now,” explained Allen, as he drove me around Kuujjuaq, the town where he was born and raised, as were his parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. Evidence of human habitation in this area dates back 7,000 years but a European community, known as Fort Chimo, was first established in the 1830s by the Hudson Bay Company. In 1942 the US established an air base where Kuujjuaq airport sits now, and the town as it is today began to develop.
“I remember, in the 50s, people lived in houses made from shipping crates. In the 70s the ATV or snowmobile was the family car. Now it’s all pick-up trucks,” said Allen. In 1945 the US left the area but the community continued to develop, first with a church, then a hospital and finally a school. Allen was one of the first three students to graduate in Kuujjuaq. “When I was a kid, the outdoors was our playground,” he recalled. “We’d ride our bikes outside the courthouse – that was the only smooth place in town. I used to know everyone but things have changed, now I only know about half.”