The Canadian Arctic is not a place most of us know too well. What’s up there, really? We imagine vast white expanses, ice floes bobbing around, the odd snowmobile or polar bear.
What rarely occurs to us, however, is that once a year, in the summer months, the Arctic gets summer. The ice melts, the waters open and the tundra blooms a million tiny flowers. The season may be short, but it’s very intense, courtesy of the so-called “midnight sun,” which shines on everyone and everything 24/7.
If this means all-out, literally endless parties for the youth of this century (I see you, the Yukon and Alaska!), in the old days, it meant all-out work for the Inuit who lived off the land. (2 AM fishing, anyone?)
So snap on your Inuit sunglasses and check out these 3 films about the little-known reality of Inuit life in the dog days of summer.
(Warning: those who have issues with people hunting, skinning or eating wild animals raw will enjoy watching something else.)
Land of the Long Day (1952)
This 1952 doc opens in familiar Arctic territory. It is winter on Baffin Island and snow is everywhere. We are following Idlouk, an Inuit hunter and his family as they wrap up their winter camp. Spring is coming, and the nomadic unit – all 3 generations of it – needs to get a move on.
Soon, it is June, and the sun lights the land non-stop. There’s still ice on the sea, but the water is open and moving, which gives rise to these really interesting floating ice sculptures. (How cool are those mini nuclear mushroom cloud ones?)
At the summer camp, where canvas tents replace igloos, everyone keeps busy with their respective tasks. While the kids poke around for relatively smaller fry (like Arctic char), the grown-ups are after the kind of prey that will keep everyone fed for months, like a baby beluga, a narwhal or why not, a whole whale. The hunting itself is impressive and fascinating to watch, and the entire family definitely looks like the best crew to go summer camping with. Provided you’re into maktaaq, of course.
Tuktu and the Ten Thousand Fishes (1967)
Fishiness persists in this awesome short film from the Tuktu series. In this installment, Tuktu, a darling boy in a sealskin suit, accompanies his family to the ancient stone weir for a bout of summer fishing. A sort of snaking dam that hinders the passage of fish, this particular weir was used for centuries by Tuktu’s people.
There, the boy’s father and uncle step out of their sealskin breeches and into the river, where they proceed to harpoon and string together dozens upon dozens of fishes. The harvest is wildly prolific. Once the job is done, and the river’s bank is plastered with fish, we witness one more miracle: the 2 men light a fire for the cooking pot using nothing but 2 pieces of wood and a string.
Northern Games (1981)
Summer in the Arctic is also a time for reunions and traditional games. In 1980, people from all across the North met up in Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman Island, 800 km North of the Arctic Circle), for that year’s edition of the Northern Games, a celebration of Inuit culture… with a competitive twist.
The film takes you right to the heart of the competition, where you witness everything from the “good woman competition” (bannock-making, tea-boiling, goose plucking, seal and muskrat skinning) to the men’s games, which include every manner of endurance, strength and perseverance-testing activities. There’s ox-wrestling, ear-pulling, something called the eagle carry, as well as many different kinds of high-kicks, some of them performed in positions reminiscent of breakdancing. Lots of fun under the never-setting sun, by the looks of things.