Undisputed kingdom of the polar bear, this Northern region of Québec is also inhabited by the world’s largest caribou herd. It is also possible to encounter groups of musk-oxen, spot a snowy owl, as well as Arctic hares, fox and wolves, not to mention numerous migratory birds—such as Canada geese, eider ducks, Arctic terns and thick-billed murres, to name only few—which, once summer has arrived, bring life to this unspoiled and otherwise peaceful land.
At sea, if it is trickier to find walrus, it is not rare to see seals show themselves. One could also be happily surprised by the visit of a bowhead whale, a family of belugas or, with a little bit of luck, a group of the legendary narwhals. From time untold, marine mammals, especially seals, walrus and beluga, have been vital to Inuit life. An important source of food, the pelts, bones, ivory and blubber of these animals were also traditionally used for tools, clothing and heating oil, shelters and boats.
Generally speaking, Inuit hunt two types of seals: the ringed seal (natsiq) and the bearded seal (ujjuk). Male ringed seals grow on average to about 150 cm in length and can weigh up to 68 kg. In contrast, bearded seals are greater in size, measuring 230 cm and weighing around 300 kg (male and female). Both ringed and bearded seals are solitary animals. Traditionally, Inuit transformed seal fat into heating oil. They continue to this day to age fat and eat it as a condiment (misiraq). Sealskins are also still being used to make warm and water-resistant boots, mittens and other garments. The main predators of ringed seals are polar bears and occasionally walrus. As for bearded seals, they may be attacked by killer whales and walruses, but their principal enemy is the polar bear.
The walrus (aiviq) is the largest pinniped in the Arctic—an average male measures 306 cm and weighs 900 kg. Walrus are very distinctive with two prominent canine teeth, which become powerful tusks as they reach adulthood. Very sociable, walrus live mostly in large groups and huddle together along shorelines and on drifts of ice. To this day, walrus meat is used to prepare a prized delicacy called igunaq. Preparation involves sealing walrus meat in tightly sewn skin bags and leaving these bags in a cool cache, traditionally under large rocks, for three to six weeks. In the past, walrus skin was used for building boats, shelters and many types of accessories. Inuit artists use their ivory tusks for carving, especially jewellery. Polar bears and killer whales may sometimes attack walrus, but they are fearsome adversaries.
Another marine mammal that plays an important subsistence role in the lives of Inuit is the beluga (qilalugaq). Small in size for a whale (an average male measures only 400 cm and weighs 800 kg), belugas are also called white whales because of the colour of their skin. These very sociable animals generally live in groups of five or six in waters that remain open in winter. Every spring, they migrate throughout Hudson Bay, spending the summer in warm estuaries. At these times, as many as a few hundred belugas may join together. Belugas are primarily a source of food for the Inuit. Not only is their meat eaten dried (nikkuk), frozen-raw and cooked, but their thick skin (maktaq) is another delicacy, rich in vitamin C. Beluga meat and fat is still used today to make igunaq and misiraq. Beluga skin was traditionally used for footwear, boat covers and dog whips. The two main predators of belugas are killer whales and polar bears. Though not an endangered species, the Inuit of Nunavik limit the number of belugas harvested every year in order to prevent any decline in stocks.
The majestic polar bear (nanuq) is a symbol of the Arctic. Males may vary in length between 150 and 300 cm and weigh between 345 and 500 kg. Polar bear fur is a yellowish white. This solitary animal roams the ice-floes of the Arctic seas in winter searching for seals and young walrus. Only pregnant females hibernate. As the ice melts in summer, the polar bears move to shore. In summer, they rest in holes dug in snow or the ground to hide from the sun and mosquitoes. Except for hunters and killer whales, polar bears have very few enemies. Traditionally, the tracking and hunting of a first polar bear marked a young hunter’s passage to adulthood.
The history of Nunavik's musk-oxen dates back to August 1967. At that time, 15 of these young bovine mammals, captured around Eureka on Ellesmere Island, were transported to an experimental farm located at Old Chimo, a few kilometres downstream from present day Kuujjuaq. It was hoped that captive muskoxen could be domesticated to boost socio-economic development. Inuit would use the soft, fine qiviut (musk-ox wool) to make warm clothing for the harsh, cold winters and they would be able to incorporate meat from the animals into their diets during periods when caribou became scarce. Though the outcome of the socio-economic experiment has not produced the desired results, the introduction of musk-ox to the tundra of Nunavik has been a great success.
The musk-ox, called umimmaq in Inuktitut (the bearded one), is not only the oldest of the bovines, but also the only one to live in the Arctic. Adults can be between 1.2 and 1.5 m in height and weigh between 180 and 400 kg. Rutting season is at the end of September and the beginning of October. Gestation lasts eight months and females have one pup a year.
These animals live in small groups. For protection against predators such as wolves, adult musk-oxen will encircle their young, their horns facing outwards. This legendary animal shares several characteristics with other species. First, its small size, agility, and thick, long and shaggy coat resemble sheep. Secondly, its powerfulness, the huge size of its head and the shape of its horns make it seem more like a bull. Finally, it has the same number of ribs as goats and Indian water buffalo and all three species share some identical chromosomes.
Musk-oxen are one of the oldest species of mammals still living today. About one million years ago, the ancestors of these bovines roamed the steppes of Northern Asia, along with the mammoth. More than 90,000 years ago, this animal crossed the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska to populate North America. Fossils have been found in several sites in Canada and the United States, notably in Saskatchewan, Ontario and New England. Curiously, this strange creature survived the climate disruptions of the Ice Age and what followed, hunters and even whalers.
In the short period between 1862 and 1916, the Hudson’s Bay Company recorded sales of 14,000 skins. Musk-oxen are found today throughout the tundra of northern Canada and Greenland. Their population is estimated at 20,000 head in Greenland, between 50,000 and 60,000 in the Canadian Arctic and about 10,000 on the Canadian mainland, mainly in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The umimmaq has also successfully been reintroduced in Alaska and Siberia, where 1700 and 230 animals, respectively, can be counted.
In Nunavik, the first animals to be released were three calves. That was in 1973 near Tasiujaq. By the time the Old Chimo experimental farm terminated operations, in August 1983, a total of 52 head had been released at a few sites in the region. Excellent forage conditions have helped this animal to multiply significantly. A survey conducted by the Québec government in the summer of 2005 determined that Nunavik's musk-ox population now exceeds 2000 head.