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On Top of the World in Canada : Despite the harsh climate, the High Arctic is hospitable and provides an opportunity to observe and absorb northern culture at a leisurely pace.


GRISE FIORD, Canada — Jaypatee Akeeajok's long whip cracked in the crisp Arctic air as he urged his team of huskies across the sea ice that stretches from Canada's northernmost permanent community, Grise Fiord in the Northwest Territories, into mind-bending timelessness.

It is said that if you walk on the permanently frozen tundra around the breathtaking fiords here and come back years later, you will still find your footprints, just as the Eskimos, or Inuit, have for thousands of years while wandering the trackless land in their perpetual search of food.

Akeeajok's sled skimmed almost noiselessly across the ice as the leathery-faced hunter, garbed in bearskin trousers and sealskin mukluks, occasionally jumped off the runners and trotted alongside his dogs, angrily shouting in his melodious Inuktitut dialect the equivalent of "Mush on, you huskies!" but which he admitted was somewhat more indelicately worded.

Our destination last April was an ancient stone bear trap said to have been built 1,000 years ago by the Thule People, who regularly trekked across the ice from Greenland to this Ellesmere Island fiord.

The shed-size trap, which polar bears were supposed to be able to crawl into but not out of because they are unable to move backward, is about the only reference point of time in this exotic, unexplored wilderness, whose Eskimo name, Ausuittuq, means "the place that never melts."

This is Canada's eastern Arctic, the top of the world in terms of permanently settled North American communities. But it is more accessible and hospitable than many travelers would expect in a region known for its harsh and unforgiving climate.

In winter, when temperatures regularly drop to 50 degrees below zero or more and exposed flesh can freeze in 15-30 seconds (depending on wind velocity), the High Arctic is not for the faint of heart.

But July and August are comfortable months for watching schools of killer whales and narwhals frolic along the shoreline of eastern Arctic waters, or boating through towering icebergs and glacial ice shelves, rafting on clear rivers, visiting vast and unspoiled national parks or exploring the deep, spectacular fiords that slice through imposing granite mountains. And April to June are ideal months for dog-sledding, ski-trekking, taking snowmobile excursions or watching the Inuit hunt for polar bear, walrus, caribou and musk oxen.

Any time is a good time for simply walking around Inuit settlements, talking with the friendly and outgoing locals, watching them skin freshly hunted game, attending a meeting of elders or looking on as skilled carvers add to the collection of soapstone sculptures that are fast becoming hot big-ticket items of native art in galleries in Canada and the United States, but which are still a bargain here.

"Most people who come here are looking for a northern experience, which is not something every tourist wants. We're not trying to sell the Arctic to everybody; we don't want to overload our facilities," said Cecil Clark, general manager of the Northwest Territories' Baffin region tourism department in Iqaluit.

The attraction of visiting the High Arctic lies not in any go-go whirlwind of contrived activities intended to keep the visitor busy, but in the opportunity that it provides to observe and absorb northern culture at the leisurely pace at which the Inuit go about their daily lives.

There are 20 major islands in the Arctic archipelago, but among the most frequently visited places in the eastern Arctic are:

- Grise Fiord (pop. 134), at the southern end of Ellesmere Island--the northernmost settled community in North America. Surrounded by imposing mountains, Grise Fiord is believed by many travelers to be the most scenic of all Northwest Territories communities.

- Iqaluit (pop. 3,038), formerly Frobisher Bay, which is the gateway to the High Arctic and offers a broad range of attractions, including historic national parks, archeological sites, white-water rafting and boat trips through floating icebergs.

- Igloolik (pop. 847), situated above the Arctic Circle on Melville Peninsula. Inuit have lived here continuously since 2000 BC, and it remains one of the far north's most traditional communities.

- Pond Inlet (pop. 834), on the north end of Baffin Island, which is in floe-edge country and which features whale-watching, fishing, kayaking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and historical sites.

- Resolute Bay (pop. 173), which is at the southern end of Cornwallis Island. The staging base for most North Pole expeditions, Resolute Bay offers guided archeological tours to the sites of the ancient Thule and Dorset peoples.

In Grise Fiord, whose Main Street is barely longer than a football field, I noticed that when the locals became bored from being shut in by the elements, they would slip into their sealskins and go calling around town--table-hopping, as it were, as they stopped here and there for a cup of coffee and some gossip or a game of dominoes.

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