The seasonal hunting schedule enhances the risk. Nain’s residents are most likely to fish or hunt seals in spring and fall when enough snow covers the ice for easy transport, yet temperatures are still relatively moderate. But in 2009, half of the surveyed villagers had to use alternative travel routes for fishing, hunting, collecting firewood, or trading goods. For a culture struggling to maintain its connection to traditional practices, thinning ice is an additional force keeping its people from the land. “We’re known as the Sikumiut, which means people of the sea ice,” says Ron Webb, a Nain hunter and entrepreneur. “Maybe not anymore.”
On a clear Monday morning in February, through the window of a Twin Otter propeller plane, Nain materializes on the horizon. The tiny community is the largest in Newfoundland and Labrador’s self-governing Nunatsiavut territory. The village sits on the Atlantic Ocean, amid a marbled collage of snow-covered icy rivers, lakes, and pine trees. I’m driven two minutes by snowmobile to the door of the town’s one motel. Like other northern towns, the village purposely accumulates snow on its streets for use by its 1,400 residents, who get around primarily by snowmobile. These frozen arteries flow smoothly in and out of the settlement, weaving the town into the surrounding icy wilderness.
Nain is among the places where water, the basis of life, is as familiar solid and frozen as it is fluid and aqueous. Subsisting at the margins between land and sea, and between ice and ocean, hunters and fishermen have always risked their lives on thin ice in Nain. For example, hunting on the coastal ice for migratory harp seals, prized for their pelts and meat, once meant late-autumn danger even for skillful hunters. “A lot of the older people used to go out sealing on the new ice, when it was still dangerous,” says Andersen. To mitigate those risks, hunters would drive their harpoons into the ice to test its thickness and if they fell in, use the tool to try to haul themselves out. Many didn’t make it; the hazards of ice travel are an integral part of Inuit culture.
Today, the risks are compounded. The overall geographic extent of the sea ice is plummeting: summer sea ice near Nain has declined by as much as 18 percent per decade. The period between breakup of the ice in the spring and ice-up in the fall is lengthening at a rate of one week per decade. The local impact is stark: ice-up used to be a sure thing by Christmas, but now residents can wait weeks into January before their watery environs are solid enough for snowmobiles. The spring and fall seasons, when conditions waver dangerously between frozen and ice free are longer too.
The people feel the ice regime changing under their snowmobiles. Meltwater pools on top of the ice are known as “rattles,” and they are particularly dangerous when they mask new, thin ice below. “The rattles are a lot bigger than they used to be,” Nain hunter Jacko Merkuratsuk told me. Double ice is another risk that’s common nowadays and one particularly difficult for hunters to spot from a distance. It forms when a rattle, say half a meter deep, freezes on top, creating a layer of water below a delicate top layer of ice. To avoid the hazards, hunters look for clues to potential dangers. These include winds heading offshore, which can break up sea ice near the coast, potentially dooming a hunter to the icy depths.