Jesse of Ausuiktuq (Grise Fiord)
Updated: Sep 12
In 2019, Adventure Canada was one of the two expeditions ships to visit Ausuiktuq (Grise Fiord) meaning, "the ice that never melts".
It is a beautiful hamlet with a small population of only 129 and one of the coldest inhabited places in the world—with average yearly temperature of −16.5 °C.
In 1953, when the Canadian government wanted to ensure sovereignty in the North, it relocated eight Inuit families from Inukjuak, QC and moved them 2,000 km north to Grise Fiord, promising them homes, food and lots to hunt—as well as the freedom to return two years later. Promises were not kept by the government, and the families were faced with the challenge of having to adapt to life on their new homeland without the necessary tools and assistance. They turned to traditional knowledge for survival, and built their community from the ground up. It is an incredible story of resilience and strength.
I approached Jesse while he was having a smoke right after he had finished walking a small group to the monument, carved by local carver named Looty Pijamini. It's a gorgeous granite sculpture of a mother with a young boy looking overlooking the ocean, with a husky beside them. The sculpture represents the brave Inuit families who were relocated to Grise Fiord, and is an apology for the forced isolation and separation the families had to endure. It represents their perseverance and ingenuity.
Community leader Larry Audlaluk sat down near the monument to tell his story to passengers. He talked about the major challenges he faced adapting to harsh environments and growing with the community. It was clear to all that he proudly preserves and promotes its heritage, even after all he has been through.
Jesse and I shared a short conversation, and he immediately agreed to say a few words about Grise Fiord on camera shortly after. "In the summertime, there is 24 hours of daylight and in the winter time, it's 24 hours of darkness" he began to explain, as soon as I pressed record.
After the walk to the monument, our whole group ended up at the community centre where Larry continued to tell his story to Adventure Canada passengers.
It was not my intention to separate from the group, but my adventurous spirit lit up when Jesse asked me if I wanted to go for a tour of the area with him to places he wouldn't normally take visitors.
I was thrilled and obviously couldn't say no, and my colleague Marc Hébert who lives in Yukon was happy to join along for the ride on his day off. All three of us politely excused ourselves from the community centre and jumped into Jesse's truck.
The rest of the story kinda goes something like this:
First, we drove past the landfill—where residents go to fetch spare parts and any materials they may need for any projects or repairs. There's a very welcoming sign on the way in with a warning that polar bears are often seen in the area... but we knew we were in good hands!
We continued down the path and got out of the truck to find about a dozen of Jesse's sled dogs in an area full of whale and narwhal bones. Some dogs peed and squealed out of excitement, others barked at us—their new unexpected visitors.
Jesse explained: "These dogs only eat meat, no dog food."
They also feed on the blubber on the bones after he's done taking what he needs from them. He explained that this year happened to be a bad one for whale hunting.
Pictured below is a pile of more narwhal and whale bones in the field, I thought this was so cool to see.
On our way out, we spotted two majestic Gyrfalcons flying right beside us—which was Jesse's first sighting of them all year. I had a 85mm lens on since I was mostly shooting video and unfortunately, they flew by too quick for me to switch it but I was lucky to get this photo. They have an average wingspan of 48 inches—that's over a meter!
Right around the bend, we arrived at his father's house where he showed us some of his finest treasures, including a narwhal tusk and a beautiful harpoon.
"I'm so proud of myself for it" said Jesse, as he showed us the details of the sharp tip of the harpoon he carved by hand out of brass and steel.
Jesse then took us to his family shed where tons of fur coats of all types were stored. Everything from polar bear to caribou hide were made into coats, pants, blankets for camping and other warm wearable items that are optimal for survival and comfort in harsh environments. He let me try some on and they felt amazing! This polar bear coat sure was something special.
I also tried on this beautiful and soft amauti made of caribou! An amauti is a traditional inuit parka with a large and warm hood for a mother to carry her child on her back up to around the age of two. Obviously, for me it sat empty—but who doesn't appreciate an oversized hood? I certainly do! What a gorgeous piece. Grateful to have been given the opportunity to wear it as Marc snapped a photograph of me by the ocean (although my hair totally could have used some better styling since it was wet and stuffed under a hat all day!)
Out of respect, I did not take any photographs inside his family's residence, but the treasures they showed us were extraordinary. A 9ft long narwhal tusk his grandma hunted, on which she carved symbols into by hand was proudly displayed in their living room.
Jesse told us a story of how his grandmother hunted a monster-sized polar bear 10 years back and unwrapped it for us to. It still has the head on and everything. She still enjoys displaying in the spring time when the weather is nice and doesn't damage it.
The house even has skulls and bones lined up outside and he has the coolest "secret" convenience store hidden in the back in case anyone can't make it to the only store co-op in town due to its wonky hours.
Jesse took Marc and I to the Grise Fiord Co-op once all passengers were done their browsing. We went in and purchased some wonderful Grise Fiord merch! I found a beautiful hoodie and some shirts and gave the cashier a little more money than she asked for.
A twin-otter plane delivers good every two weeks on a very small airstrip (511 meters in length) and it is a very challenging approach for aircrafts due to the surrounding mountains. Only once a year, a large ship will arrive with bigger supplies and fuel. Like most Arctic communities, residents rely heavily on what they can hunt to properly feed themselves.
Expedition travel allows for short stops (this all happened in a matter of a couple of hours!) and as you can see, we made the most out of our experience in Grise Fiord all thanks to Jesse.
I'm extremely fortunate to have learned so much about Inuit culture, traditions, and their communities all in the company of amazingly passionate people thanks to the company I work for, Adventure Canada. Here's an idea of how far the ship was anchored from shore. I'd say it was about a 5 minute Zodiac ride, but you can double that time when the wind and swells pick up!
Everyone and everything I experienced on Out of the Northwest Passage was so insanely inspiring. There are huge lessons to be learned everywhere—even in the smallest things. You don't even have to look for them because they find you, and they will immediately move you. My eyes and my heart were, and still are so full from what I experienced on this trip of a lifetime.
We lost track of time and sensed there was some urgency to get back to the ship. Swells were really picking up and the last Zodiac was about to leave with the kayak guides. All I could hear in my head was our Expedition Leader Jason saying: "The last Zodiac leaves at 13:00, and not everyone fits in it!"
The swells were so high and there was really no way around getting soaked by freezing cold water. Waterproof bags and clothing are necessary for these trips, and are often not enough!
Imagine a wave of Arctic water going right down your neck? To me, that's the least of my worries. I'm more worries about keeping my gear safe from salt-water splashes, which is always a challenge.
Here's a little collage of stills from a video I took on my phone to give you an idea of what it felt like:
As soon as we got to the gangway and stepped onto the ship, I could feel water dripping down my body inside my coat.
I had a permanent smile on my face. "What a great day!" I heard another staff member say.
With very little time to process what just happened, I couldn't help myself and started shedding tears before I even got into my cabin. I immediately turned on the shower and calmly allowed myself to think for a moment as the warm water flowed into my tears of joy and hope—hoping to bring as much warmth to the North as it brought to me again someday.
The best way to get to Grise Fiord is by ship with Adventure Canada. It's important to note that landings are never guaranteed due to common rough weather conditions—and the weather can change fast! Flights from Resolute Bay are limited and most of them only carry cargo.