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Pangnirtung: The Mountain Hamlet

Pangnirtung: The Mountain Hamlet

At the edge of Auyuittuq National Park, Pangnirtung is set to become its own tourist draw
By Peter Worden
May 01
2015

Winter sees cerulean skies clear to the highest points in the Canadian Shield. The mountainscape off in the distance has some of the most iconic peaks on the planet—a twin-capped Mt. Asgard and Mt. Thor, famous for the largest vertical drop on Earth. Summer sees midnight sun glowing off glacial lakes and a fjord that you might not be able to tell up from down in a photo of the skyline. Just the boat or snowmobile ride to the gate of Auyuittuq National Park, 30 kilometres away, has got to be one of the most scenic excursions in the territory. Pangnirtung certainly has one thing going for it, above all else: stunning beauty.

Most commonly referred to as Pang, Pangnirtung is an anglicization of the Inuktitut placename Panniqtuuq (pronounce it PUNG-nak-too and you’ll be pretty close to correct), meaning “the place of bull caribou.” It sits in Cumberland Sound, on southern Baffin Island. The Hudson’s Bay Company established its trading post there in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the ‘60s that most of its Inuit arrived, after a severe distemper epidemic wiped out many sled dogs in the Cumberland Sound. Since then, the community has become renowned for its art, natural beauty and proximity to Auyuittuq National Park. And, with a booming local fishery, some people will tell you it has the best Arctic char in Nunavut. 

Pang hats, the ultimate Pangnirtung souvenir. Photo by Angela Gzowski

I was first in Pang two years ago, and recently went back for my second visit. While the winds were still strong, one thing had changed markedly since I was last in Pangnirtung: it now has money. Two years ago the hamlet was broke. About a million dollars in debt meant it was in serious no-frills mode. But for tourism it was business as usual. A new tourism committee sprung up in part to get cruise ship traffic. Three ships are confirmed this year. Tourism helps drive the local economy but only affects the hamlet in indirect ways—the municipal government doesn’t get paid by the ships. Pang remains in a deficit recovery program but officials aim to get back in the black by 2019. 

Until then, the focus is on increasing capacity for larger groups to visit and see all Pangnirtung has to offer. Its major shoreline revamp means they can now dock larger boats for larger groups who want to watch large animals. Next step: relocate the runway. It’s one of the shortest in the territory. Shawn Trépanier, the hamlet's senior administrative officer, has an earnest way of describing the need to relocate it: “I don’t want to say it’s a dangerous runway but it runs right through the middle of town.”

A big draw to the community is the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts. There, you can watch renowned Inuit printmakers and weavers busily working and chatting. Practice your Inuktitut (or maybe pick up a word or two) and take home a print, tapestry, or one of the signature crocheted and tassled “Pang hats” that get their name from the community and can be found all around the North (or on the heads of people who’ve visited this part of the country and want to boast about it).

The park is without a doubt the largest draw. Between 300 and 500 people traverse the mighty Pang Pass to or from Qikiqtarjuaq each year, through Auyuittuq.

Pang has history. Nunavut’s first premier, Paul Okalik, was born here. One of the Heritage Minute commercials (the Inukshuk one, where a young Inuk explains, “Now the people will know we were here.”) was shot in the community. And just over there, a downed plane that sank below the surface of the fjord some 55 years ago still rests. The community has character and characters. (Go to the Auyuittuq Lodge and introduce yourself to manager Chef Louis). Wind will blow the wrinkles out of your face, but they’ll also propel kite skis, making it a phenomenal location for adrenaline junkies. And Cumberland Sound is an ecological superhighway, so there’s all the fresh fish you can handle. 

For all Pangnirtung has to offer, the hamlet also has a lot to do to better facilitate tourism. The park is without a doubt the largest draw. Between 300 and 500 people traverse the mighty Pang Pass to or from Qikiqtarjuaq each year, through Auyuittuq. “But I see 40 or 50 of them, maybe,” says Chef Louis Robillard of his hotel’s clientele. “I welcome them for a big dinner when they get out of the park. They need to be taken care of.” However, with only 25 rooms at the lodge, it lacks the capacity to take on many people. Others avoid the cost and hassle and bring their own “hotel.” They arrive by cruise ship, or pitch a tent in a campsite with no  facilities, located just outside of town.

“That’s part of the problem,” says Trépanier, who asked the Government of Nunavut to help make it a permanent campsite. He says the hamlet will open up the arena for large groups to shower and decompress. “It is hard to trek back and forth to the park.” 

Trépanier and economic development officer Jason Harasimo, who have both recently joined the community, are confident in the financial upswing of the local economy, and are encouraging people to come to Pang.

Two carvings on display at the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts. Photo by Angela Gzowski

“I really see the potential for tourism here,” says Harasimo, listing points of interest the hamlet can capitalize on if it can only connect the dots. The hamlet has invested in attractions such as the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, whose website they paid to update, and the Qulliq Trail, which can be snowmobiled, walked or skied. And if ground skiing seems too passé, one can head out on the frozen fjord. The hamlet, capitalizing on all that wind, offers local kiteskiing instruction and gear you can try—“depending on the weather of course,” says Trépanier. “But, as you’re aware, we don’t have a problem getting a lot of wind down here.”

There are two ways to look at Pang as a destination: you could wait to visit the community until after it’s finessed its tourism programming, brought in another hotel and started regulating the campsite (and no doubt it will be a very fine place to visit once those investments are made). Or you could sneak in before those changes happen and revel in a place where you can still make your own adventure, if you’re bold enough to put yourself out there and meet people. The area is full of beauty, culture and mystery, and with a little drive you can find it without a brochure telling you what to do and where to go.