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Summer on the Icy Edge of the World

January 05, 1986|BARRY SCHIFF | Schiff is a Marina del Rey free-lance writer. and

INUVIK, Canada — Every day people travel east to the concrete confusion of New York City or west to people-paved Waikiki Beach. But those with a flair for the unusual can travel a similar distance in a different direction and step onto one of the vast, raw, uncrowded edges of the world, into the neolithic culture of the Canadian Arctic.

It is a world of awesome beauty: of shimmering auroras dancing in the sky, countless lakes dotting the tundra, vast herds of grazing caribou, bands of Eskimos marching quickly into the 20th Century from an Ice Age way of life.

Summer Wonderland

Most people consider the Arctic a frigid, inhospitable wasteland, the domain of ice and cold. That is true of the savage winter Arctic, where temperatures can plummet to minus 60 degrees. But the summer Arctic is dramatically different. Temperatures can reach 90 degrees, although 57 is average.

It's a place where one can be alone when one chooses, or can mingle with a hardy people who live in constructive harmony with the vagaries of nature.

The Arctic also is a sportsman's Shangri-la. A plethora of wildlife challenges the best hunters. Anglers find an almost untouched paradise where Arctic char and grayling provide spectacular light-tackle acrobatics in lakes never fished, nor even named. Lunker trout are abundant and average 35 pounds. There are more than 100,000 lakes in the Canadian Arctic, the world's largest reserve of fresh, unpolluted water.

Gateway to the Roof

The small town of Inuvik, Eskimo for "the place of man," is the Arctic's front door, gateway to the roof of the world. You get here by connecting with a Pacific Western Airlines flight at Edmonton, Alta.

As your course to Inuvik heads toward the Arctic Circle, invisible boundary of the Land of the Midnight Sun, it passes abeam Great Slave Lake, which is larger than Lake Erie. You are then guided by the Mackenzie River (Canada's longest) as it flows north to the Arctic Ocean.

The terrain below is flat, a barren wilderness, drab and colorless, without sign of civilization. But that is not surprising. The Northwest Territories are half as large as the United States, yet populated by fewer than 40,000 souls, mostly Indians and Eskimos in widely scattered settlements. Not enough to fill Dodger Stadium.

A sand bar in the river marks the crossing of the Arctic Circle, an anticlimax to those who expect to see a frozen hint of the Arctic world. But ice is too much to expect during the warm Arctic summer.

Protective Coloration

From above, Inuvik looks like a toy city freshly cut from cereal boxes. It is a town where the homes are painted in a wild array of brilliant colors.

Neither roads nor rails tie this place to any other on earth. The town's 20 miles of dirt streets lead nowhere. Inuvik's only link with civilization is the highway of the sky. Supply barges do come here, but only during the Mackenzie's ice-free season, May to October.

This surprisingly modern community of 4,000 was built from scratch by the Canadian government in the mid-1950s at a cost of $31 million, a remarkable achievement considering that the area is covered by ice and snow nine months of the year.

A center for Arctic development and administration, Inuvik brings education, medical care and opportunity to the natives of the western Canadian Arctic. It also is an oil exploration center, and regional headquarters for the fabled Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Government Workers

Who lives in Inuvik? Mostly government workers who either want to get away from it all or consider that the high salaries paid them are worth two years of hardship. Most are from southern Canada and have difficulty sleeping during glare-filled summer nights and working during gloomy, dark winter days. They manage to average five hours of sleep a day in summer and hibernate for about 11 hours a day in winter.

Their multicolored wood-frame homes are similar to many in the United States, but all are connected by an umbilical web of above-ground plumbing that supplies heat and water from a central plant.

The buildings perch on stilts driven deep into the permafrost, the permanently frozen earth only inches below the surface. If the houses were built conventionally, the alternating summer thaw and winter freeze would heave them off their foundations.

Only one building in Inuvik rests on a concrete slab: the Catholic church, which is designed and painted to look like an outsize igloo. It conforms to the theory by tilting first one way and then the other with the changing seasons.

The summer Arctic climate is almost tropical, owing to the humidity from water evaporating off thousands of surrounding lakes and streams. Lightweight sportswear is recommended, and visitors also should bring the latest in Arctic fedora fashions, a headnet, as well as enough insect repellent to kill a caribou.

Hazardous Breathing

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