This is where I met Pierre Philie, a French cultural geographer with a strong interest in anthropology, who reluctantly came to Nunavik on assignment 33 years ago, fell in love with the place – and a local woman – and never left. He talked about the wildlife found in the park, such as snowy owl, gyrfalcon, Arctic fox and grey wolf. And he showed me pictures of the early lnuit community, explaining that they never wasted anything. They went ice-fishing in winter and used the leftover skin to make bags; if they hunted caribou they ate the meat, dried any excess for later, made clothes from the hide and tools from the antlers and bones.
We headed to the airport. In Nunavik terms the park is close to Kangiqsujuaq but the only way to access it is by plane. We were heading for a short, bumpy landing strip, over a hundred kilometres away from anywhere or anyone – but not anything: we would be staying near Pingualuit Crater. “People thought that the crater was caused by a volcano,” explained Pierre as the perfectly circular lake appeared from the otherwise endless russet permafrost below.
The small plane noticeably tipped as everyone leaned over to catch a glimpse of this mysterious watery hole that the lnuit call the Crystal Eye. “If it had been volcanic there would have been valuable mineral deposits,” said Pierre, “but one scientist quickly quelled the speculation – and now it’s known that it is a meteor crater. The meteor fell 1.4 million years ago. Its impact was 8,500 times stronger than the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” The giant crater disappeared as we came in to land. It was too late to walk up to it, so we spent the evening at the park’s cabins kayaking on nearby Lake Manarsulik, looking for rock ptarmigan and watching the sun flare scarlet as it sunk below the horizon.
The next morning we made our way over the tundra, an excited Pierre regaling us with tales of Pingualuit. He talked of the strange fish with unusually large heads that live in its lake (no one can decide how they got there); of the Second World War pilots who used it as a navigational tool; of the archaeological sites that remain undisturbed nearby. “The landscape is a living book – there is so much we can learn,” he exclaimed, picking up a rock that showed indentations made when the meteor crashed all that time ago.
The lake was huge; 3.4km in diameter, with a circumference of over 10km. Despite the sunshine, a thin layer of ice coated its surface like hardened treacle on a toffee apple; someone threw a rock on it and the silence exploded into a wind chime-like melody. On the way back, the ground started moving. “That’s not the ground,” Pierre corrected, “that’s caribou.” We stopped to watch as one became three, became five, became 20, became more than I could count. A migrating herd, nibbling at the lichen-coated rocks. One stopped and looked me right in the eye – I gasped, overwhelmed by our connection. Seconds later he was gone, but it took a while before I could move, reluctant to break the magic.