Welcome to 'the place that never thaws'
Just 1,500 km from the North Pole, one small store depends on the sealift to keep shelves stocked
For 25 years, Frank Holland dreamed of living in the Arctic. And seven years ago, he was finally able to move from Amherst, N.S., to Grise Fiord, Nunavut — Canada's most northern civilian community.
"It's very beautiful here. You know, it's very pristine," says Holland. "That's something I [wanted] to explore."
Minding the store in Canada's northernmost community
Nestled on the southern shores of Ellesmere Island, Grise Fiord's Inuktitut name is Aujuittuq, "the place that never thaws." It's a name that is nothing if not accurate.
"The weather can be very harsh; conditions extreme at times," says Holland. "But the people and the challenges make it interesting."
As the general manager of the Co-op, Holland wears a lot of hats.
"I run the store," he says. "[I] run the hotel. I'm an airline agent, postmaster, a cell provider, and also the internet provider. A few of the jobs I do."
He also faces some unique challenges, the biggest of which is keeping the shelves stocked with staples. This stunning hamlet is so cold (temperatures dip to -50°C) and so far north (just 1,500 km from the North Pole) that only one shipment of goods can be made by boat each year.
"It's the lifeblood in this community," says Holland of the vessel filled with thousands of tons of cargo, including food and supplies for the Co-op. "Whenever the sealift comes in, it's like Christmas."
A tenuous lifeline
The sealift has a brief window to make its once-a-year delivery when the waters around Grise Fiord are clear of ice. Timing is key. However, harsh weather, mechanical problems, unmapped channels and large chunks of floating ice can all cause long delays, jeopardizing the ship's ability to make it before winter sets back in.
"It's very disheartening," says Holland, his voice filled with worry when the sealift is late. "We have a community of 130 people that rely on this store to have food. It's a lot on my shoulders."
Bare shelves and wild game
"People don't understand how hard it is sometimes up here," says Vanessa Kiguktak as she tours around the Co-op with her one-year-old daughter, Fiona, on her back. It has almost been a year since the last sealift and the shelves, freezers and refrigerators are uncomfortably bare.
Finding nothing to buy, Kiguktak and Fiona head home to share some muktuk, a traditional Inuit meal of whale skin and blubber. Like many people in the Arctic, Kiguktak depends on what her family can hunt, especially when food is running low at the Co-op.
"I'm grateful for the community," says Kiguktak. "We help each other out."
Hunting wild game also helps, as it's low in cost and high in nutrition. Store-bought food is extremely expensive in the Arctic's isolated hamlets, where everything has to be shipped in. Community members own the co-op and Holland does his best to keep costs low, but it's not always possible. He remembers one year when he flew in one-kilogram bags of sugar and had to charge customers $24 just to cover costs.
"If the sealift doesn't come in, what you see is basically what we're going to have," says Holland. "Empty shelves for the whole year."
One big family
Despite these challenges and concerns, Holland has no regrets about realizing his life-long dream. He thinks of Grise Fiord as his second home.
"I consider this as family — the whole community," he says.
In Episode 6 of High Arctic Haulers, the sealift fights through extreme weather conditions and challenging navigational waters to try and reach Grise Fiord before winter sets in, icing up the shoreline and preventing delivery.