Week 08 Brains and Blubber

Date Posted: 4.13.2009
Location: 66º08'N 65º41'W
Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada
Weather Conditions: Cloudy 8°F (-12°C)
It might be that it’s the Arctic Char and Turbot that is so popular that Pangnirtung Fisheries send ton after ton half-way around the globe to end up as fish dinner in China; but as far as the Polar Huskies are concerned—they love the seal meat around here! On Thursday night Hanna’s brother Billy taught us how to skin a seal that he hunted on the Cumberland Sound in February. It was completely frozen, so it was not easy to skin and cut up, but it was amazing to watch. Skinning and
butchering is an art, just like it is to hunt the seal!

Watch Billy explain when the seal has the most blubber!

Billy and Mikkel in action skinning the seal

Watch Billy share what seal is more smelly!

It will not be long before the seals will be found, for the greater part of the day, basking on the ice in the sun. However, in February when the sun does not give off heat and it is cold and dark, they must be hunted when they come up to a breathing hole in the ice to catch a breath of air. The hunter must be completely still and wait, sometimes for hours and hours for the seal to come up. That’s how the Inuit have done it around here for a couple of thousands years, and it is still how they do it today. It takes lots of patience. It can’t be said that the Polar Huskies have much patience with getting their portion of seal meat. They are grazed with their fatty power snacks!


    Delicious Arctic Char and Turbot by Louis at
  the Auyuttuq Lodge.
None of us had ever had Turbot before and we were a surprised by how fatty the cooked fish is compared to Arctic Char. Maybe that’s why it a favorite for not only people in Asia, but also the Greenland Shark! This is one wild animal. The Greenlandic shark is mostly found swimming at the bottom of the sea, sometimes as deep as 3000 feet (or about 1000 meters). It does not have big teeth, but it has hundreds of little razor sharp ones. Although no one has any idea just how old they really get, they can get up to 20 feet long (or 6 meters long) and is the largest shark in the Canadian waters. That’s why Bailey McMeans from Windsor University, and her partner Kevini Coghill, are in Pang—working on just that; with a loving smile on their face they explained to us that they think the sharks are really big and goofy, not your typical ‘scary shark.’ Actually, Bailey is now looking at the stomach content and tissue samples of sharks to investigate the amount of mercury in these huge creatures.


Walking around town you see lots of polar bear skins strung out to be dried so they can be used later.

Not that there is any mercury around here; but there is lots of mercury in what comes out of the smoke stacks from coal plants when we make energy.  Like cell phones being thrown away laying in the landfill, vapors of mercury escape to travel here to the Arctic where it gets into the food chain. This is because bacteria in the water gobbles it up and then changes the mercury to be the dangerous methylmercury! Bailey explained to us that with 6 micrograms of mercury in their bodies, the Greenlandic shark is right up there with Polar Bears as being the most polluted with mercury.


Watch what the samples from a sharks stomach look like (frozen)

  Watch how the shark samples are tested for mercury
Speaking of cell phones... Are you having a cell phone campaign at your school? If so, make sure to share about it in the Culture Zone! You don’t even need to arrange for a whole campaign to make a difference, if you are somewhere in North America and have an old cell phone laying around - or know of someone that does - you can bring it to a Best Buy Store for recycling. They will pay you $5 and support GoNorth! If you vote that is! And that anyone in the world can do – go to http://www.at15.com/events_activities/green_at15, cast your vote for GoNorth! as your favorite online program ☺.  If we get enough votes, Best Buy will give us as much as 30% of what has been paid out to people bringing in cell phones for recycling!!! Get it? The more cell phones Best Buy collects, the more Polar Husky biscuits (and seal blubber!). No, we will not use the funds all for biscuits and seal blubber, but they would be used for making sure we keep bringing you adventure learning expeditions from the Arctic. More importantly though – for every cell phone brought in for recycling to Best Buy, less mercury makes its way into our environment and here to the Arctic. Make sure to join the chat with Dr. Toscano who heads up Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday, April 22 at 10 AM CT, to talk about our use of world resources and how we need to consider our health in our every day choices!

Snow mobiles pulling komatek sleds with a big container and all their supplies is how the local transport the fish they catch to the fish plant  
Fortunately, the locals here do not get mercury poisoning from greenland shark as they don’t eat them! Actually, this shark is not very popular around here. Inuit have no tradition of hunting or eating shark and it maybe because the meat is believed to be poisonous. Lately, the shark has become a pest. The local fisherman say it steals the turbot off the fishing hooks on the long lines they put out under the ice. During winter time, like the seals, both the Arctic Char and the turbot are fished through a hole in the ice.  A long line of maybe 300 feet (100 meter) with hooks spaced a yard apart or so (about one meter) is sunk to the bottom or guided under the ice. The long line sits for some hours under the ice before it is then pulled up through the hole with the catch. To keep it from freezing (!) and to transport it back to the fish plant in Pang, the fish is then stored on the komatek sled in a big container filled with water right there from the Arctic Ocean. Once the container is full, the komatek sled is pulled back to town on the snowmobile to the local fish factory Pangnirtung Fisheries!


    On the fish line at Pangnirtung Fisheries
The company, Pangnirtung Fisheries, is owned by the community and more than twenty-two people work for the factory. Most of the fish is cleaned and sent immediately to China and other Asian countries!  Don Cunningham who manages the factory, explained to us that it is actually cheaper to send the fish over seas than, for example, to southern Canada or the United States. Shipping fish with cargo ships to China costs 35 cents a kilogram. The only way to get fish down south is by plane and that can cost more than $1 a kg! Making sure that there are jobs for the locals is an important part of the fish factory. Besides from the fishermen that bring in the fish, another important part is making fish fillets! However, most of the fish they catch around here is simply too large to fit in the fillet machine! The turbot fish is not a traditional fish that is eat by the locals, but with the beautiful filets that are coming out of the factory, even the locals are starting to eat it a great deal!

Listen to Don Cunningham the manager of the plant explain the details of the fishery.

Watch how the fish make it through the line at the fish plant
Watch the cleaning of some delicious Arctic Char!


(Side) Traditionally, every bit of the seal is used: the skin, blubber, bones, intestines, blubber, meat, and even the film that sits on the meat! It is scraped off the meat with an ulu knife to be dried. After it dries it is pealed in threads which are used for sewing clothing such as mukluks (kamiks). The thread is called sinew and it is still the best to use because it is actually waterproof!

    Houses in Pang sit lifted
  above the ground so that
  the warmth from heating
  does not melt the permafrost
  in the ground below (then it
  would all collapse!)

The ‘fishing industry’ is actually how Pang came to be. The Inuit people have lived on the land as nomads in the area for more than 4,000 years—but the community of Pang began with whaling! At the end of the Pangnirtung Fiord is the Cumberland Sound where big whaling ships from down south and far away places like Scotland arrived for whaling in the 1820’s. This was often the first contact that the Inuit in Nunavut would have had with the outside world. The whales were being caught to make oil from their blubber and it was BIG business back then, which is why whales were basically fished to extinction.  Because of the incredible hunting and survival skills of the Inuit, the whaling crews would try to hire the locals as part of their crews. About a hundred years later, the Hudson Bay company set up in the area of Pang with a trading post where the locals would bring their furs to sale. Then in the early 1960’s, there was a church, a school and a government office and people were asked to move into the community of Pangnirtung by the government.

Watch how water and sewage gets in and out of the houses since pipes can't be run in the permafrost
ground to each house in Pang!

Caribou brain!  

Pangnirtung is not really the name that the locals gave to this place—it is actually supposed to be ‘Panniqtuuq,’ which means ‘the place of the caribou bull’ in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. “I think I have a whole new meaning to the community being named for its caribou,” grins Mille. “I will always remember Pang as the place where I saw my first caribou brain!” The 12th grade students at the high school have been studying the brain and what affects our brains, so Mille went there to talk about mercury in our diets and how that can damage our brains! As it turned out, Ms. Schop who teaches the class, had been able to get a caribou head from a local hunter. He cut it in half and let us take a very close look at the brain! Pretty exciting!

Explore inside the high school!
What can you find that you probably would not find in the place where you live?
Watch students dissecting the caribou head and find out what part is a traditional food delicacy!
Watch and learn about the brain with Ms. Schop!

    Polar Husky Superstar Xena
Excited does not begin to describe Chris setting out on the journey to Nunavut. Departing from Minnesota on Saturday, this year’s teacher explorer and Aaron are on their way to meet the rest of us! We are excited for them to get here! Though, the Polar Huskies are quite happy hanging out and eating lots of seal blubber around here—even if they have to steal it! To keep the seal meat from the huge ravens around here, Mikkel put it with the rest of our dog food in a huge grave he dug to cover it with snow. Well, this week’s Polar Husky Superstar, Xena, is as sweet as can be, but she is also very smart - and she likes blubber!  When Mikkel came around last night, Xena who normally jumps around to greet you in her hyperactive jump-all-over kind of way, was lying very innocently curled up looking at Mikkel the entire time; including when he realized that someone had been in the cache! He immediately turned to Nazca. Being the veteran she is, Nazca likes to not be tied up and just hang out with the rest of the dogs. Mikkel was quite upset that she abused her privileges and stole the meat. A little later walking by Xena, who still had not moved, Mikkel thought there was something sticking out underneath her in the snow. Sure enough! Xena was lying on top of ‘her’ huge chunk of seal meat, which she was too full to eat! Yes, Xena is very smart. She has all the brains of being a lead dog and has a great deal of drive to go. However, she is not always so confident and she is frankly a bit of a trickster ☺

Watch the Polar Huskies get their first seal blubber treat!


Polar Husky Superstar Trigger

Watch some ‘Polar Husky hanging-out’...

This week’s other Polar Husky Superstar, Trigger, is also a trickster. Trigger is very intelligent with a strong mind. Since he was just a tiny puppy we actually thought that Trigger was going to be a great lead dog one day – and he still just might! He is extremely affectionate and is a hunter by heart. He is always on the look out for what is around the next corner and at the same time he is also very powerful with a great technique to dig in. These are all the great characteristics for a lead dog! However, right now Trigger runs in point and team and even sometimes in wheel with his brother Goodie or Mom Rubi, which are really the only two dogs that Trigger will not mess around with when he gets distracted. And that’s the thing – Trigger likes for new things to happen all the time and gets bored very easily. Who knows, maybe on this expedition fueled by some fatty blubber, this is the year for Trigger to put that powerful brain of his to use!