Things are still changing. We passed the Kuujjuaq Inn – the town’s second hotel, which was in the process of being extended due to demand. The most recent census puts the population at around 2,300, but due to the transient community of oil and mine workers – Kuujjuaq is rich in iron ore and minerals – and the odd tourist from ‘down south’ (aka the rest of Quebec), Allen reckons it’s closer to 3,000. “The landscape is changing all the time too,” said Allen. “Winter is much greener, spring comes earlier, winter is often delayed. Migrating caribou used to pass through town every year, but now you rarely see them. But times change – it’s a fact of life. Still, we don’t forget how things used to be.”
Caught in the throat – In Kuujjuaq teaching children where they come from is important. Pupils learn the native Inuktitut language first and then in Grade 2 (age 7) they choose either French or English – the former being the most popular. In addition, lnuit traditions are kept alive. That night two local teenagers came to Kuujjuaq’s only restaurant to demonstrate throat singing, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the town’s youth. Dressed in traditional arnautik tunics and classic kamik boots made from caribou fur (for warmth) and seal skin (for waterproofness), the two girls explained their ancestors’ art: “Women used to do it to pass the time in igloos when crafting, cooking or settling the baby,” they explained. “It was a game; you’d sing facing a partner for rhythm and the first to stop would lose.”
The songs might be about everyday life, or composed to encourage sleddog teams, they explained: “Now we try to do more modern twists – one of us might sing in rap, the other may do beat-boxing.” The girls turned to each other. One began with a guttural bass; the other added a higher pitched chirp. The sounds mimic those in the natural world – streams spluttering, birds calling. I was instantly lost in the tune, imagining Kuujjuaq without its modern trappings, just endless tundra covered in black spruce and larch. It was beautiful.
Marvellous meteors – I didn’t have to use my imagination the next day. An early flight saw me transported even further north to Kangiqsujuaq. In 1884 the Hudson Bay Company set up a trading post here, as in Kuujjuaq, and once more the village began to develop. Now it has a population of just over 600. Sitting on mussel-rich Wakeham Bay and surrounded by hulking mountains, it’s home to one hotel and a general store; many buildings are decorated with murals of village elders, whales and caribou, painted in bright, primary colours. Kangiqsujuaq is also the gateway to Pingualuit National Park, and home to the park’s interpretation centre, opened in 2007.