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Pelly Bay *          [pop: under 500]

by Steven W. Metzger

In early April, the night sky is completely dark for only a few hours; by late may, the sun will be up for 24 hours. But the warmth of May is still a dream, and the tuktuit [caribou] are still far away. The men spend many hours fishing, waiting for warmer weather and the return of the caribou, enduring as they always have. They travel in the bitter cold to Kuuk [Kellet River] or to one of the many other bountiful lakes and rivers in the area, to tend their fish nets. Arctic char and whitefish are in good supply, and occasionally a seal is caught near Qurvigjuaq ["big urine pot"]. Still, everyone longs for the caribou to return, to complete the group of animals - seal, caribou and fish - that are synonymous with life.

I moved here five years ago, and after countless journeys on the land I'm still captivated by it's stark beauty and isolation. I marvel at a culture that enabled Inuit to thrive for centuries in this challenging environement using only animl products, stone and snow. Elders welcome visitors to the community, and relish the chance to retell the old stories. As they talk, their warmth and joy fill my spirit. I snese a bond with the land, and I feel my growing respect for the Arviligjuaqmiut [ those living in the area Arviligjuaqmiut, "the place with lots of bowhead whales" ], which is the Inuit name for Pelly Bay. The English name came from early explorers who chose to honor Sir John Pelly, a governor of the Hudson's bay Co. The bowhead whales of the Inuktitut name ply the waters no more.


In 1968, the Canadian government transported 32 prefabricated house into Pelly Bay. Until then, the Arviligjuaqmiut lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Small family groups, lving in igluit [igloos] and skin tents, followed the wildlife that sustained them. Occasionally, groups would come together to hunt and fish. In 1937, whenthe Catholic mission was established here, groups would meet for Christmas celebrations at Kugaarjuk [the mouth of the Kugajuk River], then separate again to pursue their nomadic cycle.

The first Catholic missionary, Father Pierre Henry, arrived in 1935. He built a small stone chapel/house, but soon learned that stone wasn't a good insulator in this harsh climate. Instead, he adopted Inuit ways, living in an iglu and wearing traditional Inuit clothing during the cold months. He and Father Franz Van de Velde, who remained a powerful force in the community until 1965, built a stone churc in 1941. Recently, the Hamlet of Pelly Bay received a governemtn grant to restore the deteriorating church as a historic site.

Until 1955, when the DEW Line construction began. people here had almost no contact with the outside world. In 1829, English explorer John Ross camped narby, but no whalers or Hudson's Bay Co. trading post ever came to Pelly Bay. Ice jams around the islands guarding the bay's mouth made access almost impossible.

The rapid arrival of te modern workld has led to an interesting blend of cultures. It's not unusual when visiting a home to find family members watching the latest movie on a large-screen tv, while eating raw arctic char cut from a fish lying on a square of cardboard in the centre of the room.

Created by the Canadian government to help assert its sovereignty over the North, Pelly bay is now a small settlemtn with a wage economy. Although traditional activities remain very important here, the community is in rapid transition; cable TV has arrived, and internet access began in 1998. Only a few elders who have lived more than half their lives in the old ways on the land remain. And while efforts are being made to preserve Inuktitut, English is now the first language of many preschoolers.


Gjoa Haven: Its Land and Wildlife

Between the bay to the west and the seemingly endless, flat tundra to the east, Pelly Bay is nestled in the coastal mountains at Kugaarjuk. The settlement’s stone church, set off by a large group of inuksuit, and its cross, built by hand atop a mountain across the river using 45 gallon gas drums, are distinctive features of the scene.

    July to September marks a time of rapid change. The sea ice melts and the tundra becomes a multi-coloured carpet of wildflowers. Migrating birds arrive from the south including falcons, rough legged hawks, snowy owls, sea gulls, ravens, terns, jaegers, ptarmigans, cranes, ducks, geese and swans. Over the past few years a small number of narwhal have visited the bay in August. In early August Inuit fisherman use kakivait  (traditional spears) to fish at an ancient saputit  (stone weir) on the Kugajuk River. Insect repellent is a must during July and early August.

    By the end of September the ice starts to form again. You can fish for arctic char and explore archeological sites. The wide open tundra and mountain valleys provide unlimited hiking and camping opportunities.


*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook