Pingos and Ice-Houses in Tuktoyaktuk
04 September 2010 | Tuktoyaktuk
Liz for Dermot
We got into Tuk last night at about 10pm. We seem to have got our clocks a bit confused and ended up an hour too far behind the locals here in Canada's North-West Territories. What I do know is that by the time we get to Alaska we ought to be 9 hours behind the UK (or Irish Time as Maire seems to stick to wherever she is- a policy that I can see some logic to). We celebrated in the now traditional with Hanseatic hot whisky and wine.
Once again (as in all the communities we have visited) the people in Tuk have been fabulous. As example, Andrew and Maire were walking though the town and a woman called Maureen stopped them and said that we must as visitors see the çice-houseâ and would we like to meet her there at 7pm? Obviously we said yes, and it was a definite "must see". They had dug a shaft over 30 feet into the permafrost to form a network of nature's deep freezer. From the base of the shaft were 19 individual storage rooms. Bizarrely they are colder in summer, -8 degrees, than winter, at -1 degree. In the winter, the snow and ice insulate things and the earth's heat (such-as-it-is is) cannot escape. It was extraordinarily dark down there with no lights other than a couple of torches.
My impression of the permafrost was that it is frozen earth. In fact it is really just ice with thin strata of sand. It lit up beautifully (or trans-illuminated to use a medical phrase) when a torch was put up to it. On the ceiling were the most incredible ice crystals. The individual rooms were used to store fish, seals, whale meat etc. Maureen who had shown Billy Connelly around on his 2008 NW Passage tour refused to take any money for showing us around.
If the permafrost were to melt then Tuk would be below sea level.
Almost everyone stops and says hello or at least waves. One optimistic chap tried an impressive pick-up line with Sibeal of "I haven't seen you round Tuk before". He might need to polish up his technique a bit.
Earlier we had filled up with diesel. Finally I got to help with the process, having missed it in Pond Inlet both this time and in 2008. On that occasion it had been a real struggle getting the jerry cans up onto the much higher decks of Arctic Tern from a pitching dinghy in rough weather. Not that Andrew kept reminding me or anything about how I had previously abandoned him to this unpleasant task.
The two supermarkets were open on a Saturday, but otherwise the town was effectively closed. We are still struggling to get hold of propane gas to cook with. There is a hint that one individual might be able to sell us a cylinder later tonight. Fingers crossed. We have also stocked up with food. I managed to resist buying corn on the cob at $2.50 each!
One of the other key local features of Tuk are pingos. These only happen here and in one other site in Siberia. They are also permafrost related. Apparently water seeps in, freezes and expands and leaves a vacuum and more water comes in. The result is that the ground rises up in a big mound. They can also happen out on the seabed and cause an unpleasant and unpredictable hazard to navigation.
In the shop I met a guy leading a team building a wooden walkway on the largest of the pingos who said that if we could get a taxi out there, he would take us across to see them in his boat. Getting a taxi wasn't that easy. There is only one in the town who I tracked down to the health centre, but she was busy doing a medical evacuation to the airport. I arranged that if we walked out, she would pick us up. Sibel and I set off walking about an hour to the site. I then met the chap who stood us up as his team had a "new job to do".
Walking out we went past bays with phenomenal quantities of beautifully aged driftwood that apparently comes down the Mackenzie River. After that we walked past the town dump. On of the less scenic parts of arctic life is the disposal of waste. It is never going to decay and is far too expensive to ship back down south. The waste will be an eyesore for years to come.
We got out reasonably close to the pingos, which are impressive mounds. They are very delicate and global warming threatens their very existence. On the way back we got a lift with the sister of the health centre whom I'd been talking to earlier who was giving some new nurses a tour of the area.
The community has a number of churches including two catholic ones. We looked in the first and it seemed in a pretty poor state of repair. On looking in the next door building a retired policeman called Daryl was doing sterling work ripping out the rotten and it was clear that both buildings were getting some much needed love and attention. He sent us to visit the sister here (there is no priest), a wonderful woman called Sister Fay. And I am not just saying that because she gave us tea and home-made cinnamon buns! All the time people were popping in for a chat and it was clear that she was making a significant impact. She was telling us of the work that she and the Society of Vincent de Paul do for the needy people of Tuk and how in the 5 years she has been here she has noticed the community regain a sense of purpose and hope.
She had also mobilised a group of kids to strip down and paint an old mission ship called Our Lady of Lourdes that now looks resplendent next to the church.
Looking at the distance still to cover, it is looking almost impossible for me to be able to guarantee making it to Nome in time for my flight home. I will need to look into closer alternatives such as Barrow.