When I was in Nunavut in April 2019 on a project for Destination Nunavut I had an opportunity to go fishing for turbot out on Cumberland Sound, near Pangnirtung, which is just below the entrance to Auyuittuq National Park. Spring had definitely started to arrive in Nunavut. The days were long and the sun was bright. The temperatures, however, were still well below freezing and the ice on Cumberland Sound, a body of water more than a thousand feet deep in places, was still plenty thick for ice fishing.
Words and Images by Jason Nugent
I arrived in the town of Pangnirtung via charter plane from Iqaluit. The flight is just over an hour long and the airport sits right on the edge of the water. Airport formalities are not relevant here. I walked out of the plane, right off the runway, and down to the ice where I met Peter Kilabuk and his crew of fishermen. Peter is from Pangnirtung and knows the area very well. In the past, he worked as a park warden in Auyuittuq National Park. I knew that I was going to have a pretty great day.
"The entrance to Auyuittuq National Park, as seen from Pangnirtung."
Originally, the plan for Pangnirtung involved going into Auyuittuq National Park, the home of Mount Thor and Mount Asgard. If you’ve watched The Spy Who Loved Me, you’ve seen Mount Asgard. The ski jump scene in the intro was filmed on it. Mount Thor, on the other hand, features Earth’s greatest vertical drop, at 4,101 feet. Both have been on my bucket list for a very long time. The problem, however, was that the park is closed right now. There’s simply not enough snow to prevent terrain damage and Parks Canada is doing the right thing by keeping it off limits. Not enough snow in the Arctic Circle? In April? Climate change is a real thing, folks.
"Cozy, isn’t it?"
But, I digress. Back to ice fishing. Crews ice fish all winter long, and the process is a lot of work. We climbed onto snow machines pulling qamutiik, traditional Inuit sleds, and headed out onto Cumberland Sound to a spot some 20 kilometers away. Occasionally we stopped to make sure the ice looked safe for travel.
"Peter spots a seal in the distance."
On one occasion we spotted a seal out in the middle of the sound. We stayed away since seals surface where the ice is thin. When we arrived at the cabin - which was on a sled, so it can be removed at the end of the season - everyone got to work. A hole was broken open and small pieces of Arctic char were cut up to be used as bait.
"The fishing line, baited with Arctic char, lying neatly on the ice to prevent tangling."
More than one hundred hooks were baited on a line that reached all the way to the bottom of the sound, where the turbot were. Slowly, the weighted line was lowered into the hole and adjusted so the current carried it along the bottom. And then the waiting began.
Because this experience wasn’t an overnight one, the plan was to wait about two hours, then haul in the line. Normally, fisherman will wait as long as eight hours, even spending the night in the cabin in temperatures below -40 Celsius. Often, if a line can be set at night, teams will return to Pangnirtung and then return in the morning. Like I said, it’s a lot of work.
"Peter working the winch to retrieve the line."
After two hours, the process of bringing the line back up began. Nowadays it’s done with a small gasoline engine, but it used to be done via hand crank. The line is extremely heavy, especially if there are fish on it. In this case, we ended up with more than 40 turbot. The turbot were cleaned and filleted right there on the ice and packed up to be brought back and sold.
The whole day was an experience I’ll not soon forget. I felt very privileged to have been able to do this. Apparently, it’s not something that visitors to the region usually get to experience. I came away with a better understanding of why First Nations communities feel so connected to the land they share and some knowledge about why it’s so important that we all work together to protect it. I am very much looking forward to going back.
"The fish are cleaned and filleted right after they are caught."
As for gear on this trip, I had my trusty f-stop Tilopa with a Pro ICU - Large, holding two cameras, an assortment of lenses, plus a tripod. The Pro ICU - Large leaves me enough room at the top of the pack for food for the day and a second set of warmer mittens for when I’m not using my camera. I was able to use the side straps to secure a big thermos full of coffee. There’s no point in bringing regular water bottles out in this climate, since they’d freeze solid.
"An Inuk elder looks on."
Jason is an adventure, landscape, and action sports photographer and writer from Eastern Canada. In addition to creating fine art landscape work that is exhibited at galleries in Canada, he travels and writes about his experiences for a number of publications, including Subaru Canada’s Six Star Magazine, Sail Scotland, the Arctic Journal, and others. He is also a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada, a Lumix Storyteller for Panasonic Canada, and ambassador for Altitude Sports, and one of the official photographers for the Canadian Rally Championship.