Society

The Spinach Armada

How the North gets its groceries

kugaaruk—Every April, Sidney and Tess Rodnunsky sit at their kitchen table calculating how much toilet paper their family of four will use in the coming year. “We hate to run out, so we figure on six rolls a week,” says Sidney, the school principal in this eastern Arctic village of 688. On a form from Marché Turenne Inc., a Montreal-area cargo expediter, the couple puts down their order and moves on. How many jars of pickles will they go through in twelve months? How many boxes of laundry soap? Bags of Halloween candy? Then they send off the mother of all grocery lists and wait.

In Nunavut, where no roads connect the twenty-six communities to one another or to the south, everything arrives by plane or ship. Air transport is expensive yet essential for perishables and mail. But most supplies are delivered by private cargo vessels, which carry more than 100,000 tonnes of goods in an annual sealift during the ice-free window between June or July and October, depending on the latitude.

It is now early September, and at the deepwater port of Nanisivik, on Baffin Island, chief officer Michel Dufresne and his boatswain have just spent two days loading hundreds of cubic metres of cargo, relayed from Montreal and bound for Kugaaruk, onto the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Des Groseilliers, a ninety-eight-metre icebreaker, and its little brother, the Terry Fox. (Kugaaruk lies on Pelly Bay, whose waters are notorious for thick, shifting ice floes that could crush the hulls of conventional ships; it is the only civilian community in Nunavut that regularly needs such muscle for sealift.) The lift’s volatile goods, which include acetylene, all-terrain-vehicle batteries, and hundreds of kilograms of ammunition, must be spaced at least three metres apart. Then there is distributing the weight; over the lift’s four trips (two per ship), Dufresne and crew will deliver crates of sunglasses (252 kg), hockey sticks (133 kg), and potato chips (299 kg), two motorboats, construction material for eight houses, and, parked on the Des Groseilliers’s helipad, a Chevy Silverado truck for the police “It’s like playing Tetris,” Dufresne says.

After two days knocking through a jumble of ice pans, the Des Gros sights the hamlet on the treeless shore — a low cluster of houses, a modern school, nursing station, and rcmp post, and, heralding the ship’s arrival, teams of barking sled dogs. As one of the onboard cranes loads the first landing barge, children crowd muddy Barge Landing Beach alongside a couple of idling forklifts. Anticipation is high; for weeks, paper towel has been standing in for toilet paper, and the vast Koomiut Co-op has had a desperate, Soviet atmosphere, with metres of shelves empty but for a few tins of evaporated milk and pilot biscuits.

As soon as the barge touches the beach, forklifts move in to unload it, grabbing pallets teetering with wooden crates and scooting up the hill to drop them at the Co-op’s cargo bay, where they quickly stack up. Pried open with crowbars, they are emptied by a column of human haulers hired for the occasion. Kids crawl all over the crates and cheer when the thirty-three tonnes of pop arrive — they drink it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “It retails for three dollars a can, and it will be gone by January,” says Co-op manager Eric Baxter, “and then, until September, we fly it in.” Kugaaruk, like most of the territory, has an extreme sweet tooth; pop makes up as much as 80 percent of the town’s inbound cargo flights.

A forklift inches up the main dirt road, balancing the first of two pallets bound for the Rodnunsky household and then setting it down gently in the family’s rocky front yard. Their two adolescent kids, Sidney Jr. and Donna, help unpack and carry the 2,600 kilograms of groceries indoors, much of it to their unheated “sealift room” for storage. “It’s a family event,” says Sidney Sr. The overflow and the unfreezables — and there are plenty of those — are stashed throughout the home, mainly in the living room. “We just put tablecloths over boxes of canned food and use them as end tables,” he says.

Southerners (mostly teachers, nurses, and police staff) make the bulk of the orders; for those with the purchasing power, sealift is much cheaper than buying from the town store and offers more variety. Everyone who’s used the service has a sealift story — like ordering three jars of Cheez Whiz, only to have three boxes of the stuff arrive on the doorstep. It’s a town tradition to trade excess goods with other families, and in spring, yard sales are a common dumping ground for those stray case lots of hot dog relish and furniture polish.

But in these hectic, exciting days of early September, it’s a thrill to unpack goodies not seen in months. At the Co-op, women queue and chatter, babies tucked in their parka hoods, as they scoop up items the moment they hit the shelves. Then they walk home, slowly, weighed down with bulging shopping bags.