The spirit of the Arctic

Cape Dorset, NunavUt-The turboprop from Iqaluit lands past dark. A hazy moon illuminates the runway and the low hills, still covered in snow, glow neon blue.

Located on the southwest edge of Baffin Island, the small Arctic town of Cape Dorset is one of the final tourist frontiers. Part of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, its population hovers around 1,300, yet remarkably it's the hub of 2010 michael kors handbags outlet the Inuit art world with reportedly more artists per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Tucked into my purse is a tag from an Inuit carving I inherited from my uncle years ago. The carving is of a mottled green bird, precariously balanced with one wing up, one tucked in. Its michael kors coupon curled beak is open, as if poised to attack. The tag says Oshoweetok I. Cape Dorset. 1985.

It's a long way to go to track down information about an artist, and for all I know he's long forgotten. But carvings, to me, are much like the North itself: Canadian symbols, yet little known. And, I suspect, getting to know the artist might be a way of getting to know the Arctic itself.

My guide, Kristiina Alariaq, is waiting at the airport. Born in Finland and raised in northern Ontario, she came to Cape Dorset for a year-long teaching stint in her 20s. Thirty-two years later she's still here, married to a local, Timmun Alariaq, with whom she owns and runs Huit Huit Tours, a local tour company specializing in soft adventure, as well as art and culture tours.

She drops me off at the Dorset Suites Hotel in the centre of town. Designed and owned by the Alariaqs, the building's oval shape is loosely based on the traditional stone dwellings of the Inuit, while the airy interior reflects Kristiina's Finnish roots.

In the morning, as we bundle up for a snowmobile tour (in summer transport changes to boating and hiking), I ask Kristiina how many tourists come here. She starts listing them off on her fingers.

"Five Swiss. Then five pilots. A woman who's coming camping with our family and 14 women in July." Add to that a handful of cruise boats in summer, government workers and an art dealer or two, it still comes to less than 1,000 visitors a year.

Unlike larger Iqaluit, which has a lively outpost energy with hotels and restaurants, Cape Dorset has an end-of-the-world feel. Set on a small bay, it's a speck in a solitary landscape. The scattered bungalows, gravel roads, tethered sled dogs and even the large Kinngait Co-op - a retail/grocery store and major local hangout - seem dwarfed by the surrounding hills and water. In the summer, tundra flowers burst into bloom and many residents head out to live off the land, but now, in spring, the terrain is still coated in snow.

I jump on the back of Timmun's snowmobile and our small convoy roars into the hills, forging trails through virgin snow.

Near the flow edge, where ice meets open ocean, we lunch on Arctic char salad and bannock bread. At our feet is the bowl-shaped Fire Hearth Mountain, a sacred site to the Tunit, as well as to the Inuit's ancestors, the Thule, who arrived around 1000 AD. It was centuries later, in 1631, that the British explorer, Captain Luke Foxe, came to the area and dubbed it Cape Dorset.

It seems extraordinary that this remote region produces so many artists. "Some places have a particular energy," Kristiina says. "There's a reason temples are built in certain places. Cape Dorset is like that."

I show her the tag from my carving. "Oshoweetok I. is Osuitok Ipeelee," she says. It turns out michael kors outlet he was one of the original master carvers from the '50s, a right-hand man of the Connecticut artist, James Houston, who is credited with bringing Inuit carvings and Dorset prints to fame. Sadly, Ipeelee died in 2005.

"Timmun was distantly related to him," Kristiina says of her husband.

"He was quiet," Timmun says.

"What else?"

Timmun thinks a minute. "He was able to dogsled for long distances."

But he hunts up a picture of Ipeelee in a book by the Arctic expert, Norman Hallendy. Laugh lines crinkle Honghn2604 around the artist's eyes. High, broad cheek bones are tucked into the fur-trimmed parka of a mystical man who carved spirits out of his imagination. And one of these spirits is sitting at home on my bookcase. Suddenly my piece is taking on michael kors outlet online a whole new resonance.

The next day I visit the West Baffin Eskimo michael kors factory Co-operative, established in 1959. The co-op is the eye of the storm, a rambling building that provides printmaking facilities and buys carvings direct from the artists to ship "down South."

In one room a printmaker is pulling a print from the stone, a red and blue fish designed by Timmun's aunt, one of the most famous Inuit artists, Kenojuak Ashevak. One of her prints, the Enchanted Owl, was depicted on a Canadian stamp and sold for a record $58,000 in 2002.

Chris Pudlat, the buyer for the co-op, sits in his modest office. "Who are the upcoming artists?" I ask.

Chris motions to a fierce dancing shaman on a shelf. It's a traditional michael kors factory outlet motif, but the approach is edgy and full of fire. The sculptor is 35-year-old Isaacie Etidloie, who, two minutes later, pokes his head into the doorway.

It seems providential. "Do you have any carvings for sale?" I ask.

He pulls one out of his pocket, an Inuit boy pulling a boat. The hand is awkward, the eyes glitter and the parka hood, carved from serpentine stone, looks as plump as down.

I buy it on the spot, for a fraction of what I'd pay in a gallery. Maybe someday one of my nieces or nephew will inherit it and make a pilgrimage here of their own.

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