A Walk on the Tundra

You will have to dress warmly to visit the tundra. It is one of the coldest ecosystems on earth. During the winter the average temperature is -34 degrees Celsius although it can get much colder. The best time to visit may be in the summer when it averages 3-12 degrees Celsius, but keep in mind that the temperature only stays above freezing for about 50-60 days.

Tundra Swan

Photo by Don Faulkner (flickr)

When the snow melts in the spring, the water cannot sink down deep into the earth because only a few inches of the surface thaws. This creates ponds and marshes that provide food and shelter for millions of insects, birds and other creatures.


The ground is covered with bumps and cracks because of the constant freezing and thawing. These are called polygons.

Ibyuk - Canada's Tallest Pingo - Viewed from Cessna 172 - Outside Tuktoyaktuk - Northwest Territories - Canada

Photo by Adam Jones (flickr)

In some places, water collects in pools underground, and when this freezes it pushes the earth up over and over again until low round hills are formed with ice centres. These are called pingos.


Photo by NASA ICE (flickr)

The ground below the active layer (the top metre or less) is always frozen. It is called permafrost. For this reason, tall plants are not as likely to grow here because they cannot root deep enough. Instead plants tend to grow outwards. The season is also very short, which means that plants must grow, flower, and spread their seeds in just a few weeks.

This is cotton grass. Although it may seem unlikely in such an environment, over 1700 species of plants live on the tundra. They must be suited to little precipitation, strong winds and extreme temperatures.

Lemming and Snow Bunting

Photo by Fiona Hunt (flickr)

There are many animals that live in the tundra. Here is a snow bunting, a brave little arctic bird, and a lemming. Lemmings stay awake all through the long, cold winter, tunneling under the snow to find food: mosses, lichens, bark and some grasses.

Although it may seem bleak and barren, the tundra is very much a living ecosystem. However, since growth is slow in this part of the world, it also recovers much more slowly from damage such as oil spills or vehicles traffic. The climate seems to be warming as well, which is melting permafrost and changing the landscape as hillsides slide away and land collapses as the ice holding it up disappears. The melting permafrost is thought to be releasing large amounts of methane gas which contributes to climate change.

Activity: What are some actions that you could take to stop contributing to climate change?


Art of Northern Canada


Saila, Pauta, 1964-1965, CD 1964/65-054 Photo © CMC

The Inuit have been expert carvers for generations, carving tools and weapons as well as small decorative items from stone, bone, ivory and wood. Today, carving in stone (usually serpentine) is most popular. However, the stone has to be quarried in places that are usually far from settlements, and then carried by hand, sled and boat back to town.

In 1957, James Houston, began an experiment in Cape Dorset with a group of Inuit artists. He opened a craft shop and they started making prints using stencils and relief carved into floor tiles. They turned out to be very popular when sent south for display.

James then went to Japan to study printmaking and used this knowledge to teach them to further develop their own style of carving into stone and making beautiful prints. This cooperative still exists and each years produces a collection of various types of prints.

Kenojuak Ashevak was one of the original artists, contributing to every Cape Dorset collection until her death in 2013. She was born in 1927, and lived in the traditional Inuit lifestyle growing up. Inuit art tells the story of the traditional Inuit way of life and of the Arctic birds, animals and sea mammals that they co-exist with. As well, their own myths and legends are woven into their work.

Activity: Try your own hand a printmaking with this lesson from Leah Jay Art.

More information: Mining in Nunavut; Dorset Fine Arts

Polar Bears

Polar Bear from pexels.com

The polar bear is one of the largest animals in the world. Although they look white, their fur is actually clear, hollow hairs that trap air next to its body which helps to keep it warm. Their skin is actually black which allows them to absorb the heat from the sun. They have a thick layer of blubber which helps them to keep warm even when swimming in the icy water.

Their favourite food is ringed seal, but they have to wait very patiently at their breathing holes in the ice in order to catch them when they pop up to get a breath of air or catch them in their winter dens.

Polar bears are protected because at one time they were a popular target of sport hunting and became endangered.

Download a fact sheet from WWF Canada.

Activity: Make a polar bear out clay. Here are some instructions from That Artist Woman.

How to keep warm Inuit-style


The climate in the far north of Canada is cold. The average temperature in Iqaluit is -10 degrees Celsius. It may get up to 12 degrees Celsius during the three months of summer, but winter is down in the -30s. How did they keep warm before central heating and down-filled jackets?

A basic principle to keeping warm is that air is not a good conductor of heat. This is because the molecules in air are far apart and cannot as easily transfer to one another. So, igloos were warm because snow is full of air and once the air inside the igloo is warmed up by fire, it does not easily transfer to the outside.

The same principle works with clothing. Their clothing was made to fit loosely so that body heat would stay inside, and of animal skin with hair which captured air. But it was very important to not sweat, as this would lead to frozen clothing that no longer held heat.

Clothing in the Arctic was made from various animals such as caribou, seal, waterfowl, polar bear, and even the intestines of sea mammals. We will just look at the process of making a living caribou into some nice warm clothes.

First, the caribou had to hunted and killed. Hunting caribou was usually done from August to October as their coats were nice and thick at this time. To make clothing for a family of five, one would need about thirty caribou.

Caribou from unsplash.com

The skin of the caribou had to be scraped clean, dried, stretched, rescraped, then chewed to make it soft and pliable. Hours went into the preparation of each skin.

The threads to sew it with also came from the caribou. The dorsal tendons from along the vertebrae were best for sewing. They had to be scraped clean, then washed and partly dried. They needed to be kept cool and not allowed to dry out completely. The tendons were split into sinews using the teeth or thumbnail.

Each person needed a parka with a hood, a pair of trousers, and mitts to wear on the outside, as well as a second pair of trousers and footwear underneath. Boots were often made of sealskin because it was waterproof. Small children were carried around in the hood of their mother’s parka until they were too big, and then they wore an all-in-one combination suit.

The caribou skin was cut with a razor-sharp ulu, being careful to cut just the skin and not the hair. Then it was sewed together carefully with a bone needle. Fringes were often added to the bottom of the parka to keep the wind out.

Enfants Inuits 1925

By Captain George E. Mack [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Activity: The making of clothing was grown-up work, but the availability of sinew or thongs from sealskin also provided entertainment. Stories could be told with a piece of string as it was made into pictures of animals and birds and kayaks or sledges. Here is a string game called “Cat’s Cradle” which you can learn.