In a land called Nunavut, it's 'Toonik Tyme'

It's springtime in Nunavut - a season for snow, spotting the guy in caribou skins, and building an Arctic bungalow in 90 minutes.

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You can tell when it's spring in the Arctic: It gets warm enough to snow. The last few days here have seen a brilliant sunshine filtered by light snowfalls.

But it is nonetheless spring in Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, nearly 770,00 square miles in the eastern Arctic hived off from the former Northwest Territories just a little over a year ago.

And here in Iqaluit, the capital city, they're celebrating Toonik Tyme, a springtime festival with a distinctly northern flavor.

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The Inuit, who make up about 85 percent of the population here, were early inhabitants of Greenland as well as what is now Nunavut, and are renowned in legend for their superhuman strength.

Now that spring has set in, Iqaluit is a happening place. The big thing in town, these days, is "Spot the Tuniq" contest. In traditional folklore, the Tuniq heralds spring, and he is a sort of Arctic Easter Bunny, dressed in caribou skins. Those who glimpse him around town during the festival are encouraged to report their sighting on a special Toonik Tyme Hotline in order to enter the "Spot the Tuniq" contest and be eligible to win prizes.

Toonik Tyme is being celebrated for the 37th time, which makes it fairly ancient in the annals of a community that got its start only during World War II, as a military air base.

The festival program includes a range of activities reflecting a mix of traditional Inuit culture as well as mainstream North American culture - drum dancing and throat singing on one hand, and a production of the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which was staged by the Iqaluit Music Society.

The fascinating throat singing is hard to describe to anyone who hasn't heard it. It is a kind of rhythmic nonverbal singing that comes from the throat rather than through the mouth. It involves all kinds of resonances and reverberations, including some at a much lower pitch than the singers - generally female - would seem able to reach. Typically pairs of singers face off in competition; the winner is the one who can get her opponent to collapse into giggles first.

Saturday's festival activities included traditional hunting events - rabbit, ptarmigan, and seal - followed by a seal-skinning contest. This was not for the faint of heart. For a visitor from "the South," however, as the Inuit refer to people from places like Toronto and Montreal, watching Sunday afternoon's igloo-building contest seemed a more appealing way to connect with local traditions.

The contest site was on a windy hillside, completely covered in thick snow, not far from the center of town. The breezes whipping the snow around were stiff enough to knock some small children and others off balance as they trudged up the hill.

Volunteer officials assigned each contestant a spot on which to build, and a circumference within which to cut blocks of snow. The first one to build an igloo sturdy enough to support the weight of a man standing on top of it is declared the winner.

Contestants used both traditional knives and the sort of wood-handled handsaws found in suburban garages across North America to cut the chilled blocks.

Aside from being able to work quickly - the fastest build their igloos within about 90 minutes - a critical skill is being able to get the rounding right, knowing at just how much of an angle each new rectangular block of snow must be set into the blocks already in place to make a perfect circle. Then there's the art of filling in the little chinks between the blocks of snow to make the igloo windproof.

The contest is open to both Inuit and non-Inuit, but the winners have always been an Inuk. "The Inuit are the ones with the life experience to be able to build these," says a volunteer. The first-prize winner got a $500 gift certificate from the Arctic outfitting shop that sponsored the contest.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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