Toll Free: 1.800.690.7887 
t: 604.886.7300
info@toursexplore.com
Contact Us

Inuvik - Life on the Land with Gerry Kisoun

Inuvik Aurora @Jad Davenport Inuvik Aurora

By Kelly Kamo McHugh

Gerry Kisoun, an Inuvialuit and Gwich’in elder, was born and raised in the Mackenzie Delta area of the Northwest Territories. A former employee of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Parks Canada, Gerry now guides for an Inuvik company specializing in authentic Arctic experiences.

With this role, he is able to share his years of experience living on the land, traveling regionally, and provide traditional teachings to visitors. His knowledge of Inuvik, Herschel Island, and surrounding areas, as well as life on the land, makes for interesting and entertaining story telling.

Gerry Kisoun

“Everything’s a food source”, says Gerry, as he discusses the highly anticipated spring goose and duck hunting season in the Mackenzie Delta. Kisoun, the second eldest of eight children, fondly remembers this annual family tradition as the best time of the year while growing up. He tells a tale of when he was thirteen years old and traveled on the delta with his father to their family’s spring hunting camp in mid-May. They left at midnight with their team of six sled dogs pulling a komatik (sled) with an eighteen foot boat and five horsepower outboard motor on top of it, not arriving at his great uncle’s camp, located 155 mi (250 km) north of the Arctic Circle on Kipnik Channel, until around 10 am the next morning. Traveling overnight during the coldest part of the day ensured the dogs would not overheat, but wearing his caribou-skin hunting parky cover (a traditional Inuvialuit jacket) Kisoun remembers rarely being cold. At this time of year, this area of the western Canadian arctic experiences approximately twenty hours of sunlight each day, gaining more and more light until eventually reaching twenty-four hours of sunlight by the end of May. This period of midnight sun lasts just under sixty days until the end of July. After a couple of days taking advantage of the increased daylight, the Kisouns cleaned their kill before traveling further north to their main whaling camp on Autarvik Island. This island lies another 53 mi (85 km) north of Kipnik Channel just off the coast of Kendall Island in the Beaufort Sea. The Western Arctic hosts large populations of birds from the spring until fall including Lesser Snow Geese, Greater White-Fronted Geese and Tundra Swans. Once at their main camp, a highlight for Kisoun, his siblings and cousins were excursions to “Egg Island'' to collect eggs for cooking, especially to add to pancakes and to make hard boiled eggs. “We’re always looking for something to eat for the family”, says Kisoun. All summer long these eggs were stored in their ice house - a natural fridge dug into the permafrost (soil that remains frozen year-round) - along with their freshly caught waterfowl and other traditional foods such as muktuk (beluga whale skin). Exploring, hunting, and traveling on the land, especially by dog sled, were regular experiences for a young Kisoun. 

A life off the land and his deep appreciation for it is integrated into everything Kisoun knows. It was the end of February 1953 when he was born out on the trapline. His parents raised him in the vast and virtually untouched Mackenzie Delta until they eventually moved to the community of East Three (now known as Inuvik). Despite being one of the first families in East Three, living in town did not stop Kisoun from getting back to the delta. He and his dad often left with their dog team 49.7 mi (80 km) one way on a Friday evening and then back home again the next day. He would do that all winter long with his sled dogs - “the best friends that you could ever find in the world,” says Kisoun. The dog sledding season would always finish up with their annual spring geese and duck hunting trip. 

The most sought after geese and ducks are especially yellow and fat once they arrive in the spring after months of feeding down south. Because the birds coming back have so much fat on them, Kisoun “skins the ducks rather than plucks them”.  Kisoun’s favorite birds for eating are the Specklebelly and Mallard Ducks, saying they are “nice huge birds, half the size of a goose which is half the size of a swan”. “Make a pot of duck soup and a little bit of bannock - you can’t beat that”, Kisoun elaborates. Since swans mate for life, Kisoun says they only eat Tundra Swans every couple of years for a special dinner - similar to what one would eat for a holiday turkey dinner. “Heck, we can’t leave all of them for Queen Elizabeth!” Kisoun jokes. The geese and ducks were not just for eating - Kisoun’s family also saved all the feathers as his mother used them to make eiderdown feather blankets and down pullover hunting parkys. The eiderdowns especially came in hand during the winter months when temperatures would go down to -58°F (-50°C).

These days, during the winter, other than the ravens who caw and scavenge for food throughout the cold months, the loudest noise in Inuvik is the sound of snowmobiles going for a rip onto the frozen lakes and rivers that dot the delta. Other year round birds include Boreal Chickadees, Snowy Owls, Hoary Redpolls, Three-Toed Woodpecker, Canada Jays, Hawk Owls, Great Horned Owls, Gyrfalcon and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. Slowly but surely the sounds of other songbirds and the honks of waterfowl return, starting with the clucking of the ptarmigan who disappeared into the willows during the dark, cold winter months (Inuvik has over thirty days where the sun does not rise between December and January) and return with the brighter days. Next, the Snow Buntings show up in time for spring jamborees - community carnivals celebrating the return of spring. “[The Snow Buntings] give people a really nice feeling that spring is around the corner and the days are getting warmer and longer”, says Kisoun. He continues, “Those of us who hunt always wait for the gulls to show up, because when the seagulls show up at the end of April, we know the other birds aren’t too far behind”. After their spring migration, hundreds of thousands of birds use the Mackenzie Delta, bird sanctuaries, and coast to breed, lay eggs, and raise their families before heading out again in the fall time (GOC, 2019). While the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the Anderson River Migratory Bird Sanctuary breeding grounds within the Western Arctic are protected, as part of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA), Inuvialuit beneficiaries do not need a permit to carry out subsistence harvesting activities in migratory bird sanctuaries (GOC, 2019). In addition to the hunted species, these sanctuaries provide habitat for over 100 species of shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl (GOC, 2019). 

Herschel Island, another migratory bird nesting ground, lies 92.5 mi (148.9 km) west of Kendall Island off the Yukon coast. It is rich with Inuvialuit history as it was one of the first places settled by the ancestors of the Inuvialuit thousands of years ago (YG, 2019). It is also where the Inuvialuit first came into contact with Europeans in the early 1800s (YG, 2019). Today, the Inuvialuit still use the area for traveling and subsistence harvesting activities. Since it has been a significant area to the Inuvialuit people for thousands of years, this 44.8 mi² (116 km²) island was designated an official Yukon territorial park, ​​Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, in 1987 under the IFA (YG, 2022). Despite its short summer season, this island’s treeless, relatively undeveloped tundra supports a wide variety of arctic vegetation and wildlife, including an extraordinary number of migratory birds that make their way to the island come spring. Common Eider, Long-Tailed Jaeger, Greater White-Fronted Goose and Roughlegged Hawk are just some of the numerous birds that frequent the island (YG, 2015). Herschel also hosts the largest breeding colony of Black Guillemots in the Yukon Territory (Eckert, 2005). Wildlife seen on and from the island include muskox, caribou, polar bears and grizzly bears, beluga and bowhead whales, seals and occasionally a walrus (YG, 2019). The connections to Herschel Island run deep for Kisoun and his family - Kisoun’s father spent a lot of time hunting, fishing and traveling in the area and Kisoun’s wife was born on the island. Kisoun, himself, traveled to the island numerous times by boat, airplane and even by sled dogs.

Growing up on the land, Kisoun’s knowledge of the Western Arctic area is unparalleled. He used his knowledge and his natural knack for storytelling while working for Parks Canada’s visitor experiences. After his retirement from Parks Canada in 2013, Kisoun was asked to become a guide for Tundra North Tours, his nephew Kylik Kisoun Taylor’s company. One of Kisoun’s favorite memories from guiding has been working with the sled dogs and taking tourists for dog sled rides in the Delta. When they ran dog sled trips together, the uncle and nephew pair had a one of a kind tour called “The 18 Day Arctic Expedition” - an eighteen day excursion to and from Herschel Island. Despite always traveling during the end of March when the days were sunny and not too cold, out of the five times attempting this expedition they succeeded only once. They often got caught in coastal storms or whiteouts, not being able to travel for about a week. On their successful attempt, beautiful weather all the way through paved the way and they did make it to Herschel Island! When traveling in the North, you never know what the weather will bring, especially when traveling the distance to Herschel which is 155.3 mi (250 km) aerial view from Inuvik.

Inuvik kids playing

While he no longer has any sled dogs of his own, Kisoun hopes to one day get back into it with Kisoun Taylor and his new sled dog team that is being trained at Kisoun Taylor’s Okpik Arctic Village, an eco-village located 9.9 mi (16 km) northwest of Inuvik. It is important for Kisoun and Kisoun Taylor to ensure the next generations of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people have a connection to the natural and cultural way of life in the North. In order to contribute to this, Tundra North Tours, will be hiring four Indigenous summer students to come and work at Okpik Arctic Village. Located off grid 9.9 mi (16 km) north of Inuvik, NWT, they will work alongside area residents to produce, harvest and hunt local food, build cabins, and learn traditional skills. These students will also have the opportunity to take part in tour guiding internships with a focus on birding and photography, and with the opportunity to take part in on the land excursions in order to learn from others and further their interests and skill set. At the village, the summer students will get to practice and implement these new skills within their day-to-day job in the hopes this work will further their education, interests, and traditional knowledge.

These days Kisoun still looks forward to hunting season - this time sharing his traditions with his own descendents. He especially looks forward to spring hunting in May with his children and grandkids at Husky Lakes, an interconnecting saline lake system located in between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk that can be seen from the recently constructed Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway. Bonding over hunting, cleaning their kill, and bringing it home to share with their family, Kisoun happily passes on his knowledge and experience. Kisoun says his children and grandchildren are already returning the favor, telling him come springtime, “Hey [Dad], jump on the skidoo, we’re going hunting!”. Maybe one day that annual spring hunt will even include another sled dog team of their own. 

Acknowledgements 

A huge thank you, mahsi cho, quana, quyanainni to Gerry Kisoun for sharing his stories and knowledge. 

for travel ideas to the Northwest look at our feature tours to Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk and Herschel Island

References

Eckert, C. 2005. Monitoring Black Guillemot population and nesting success at Herschel Island, Yukon Territory – 2005. 

[GOC] Government of Canada. 2019. Anderson River Delta Migratory Bird Sanctuary. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-bird-sanctuaries/locations/anderson-river-delta.html 

[GOC] Government of Canada. 2019. Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-bird-sanctuaries/locations/kendall-island.html

[YG] Yukon Government. 2015. Checklist of the Birds of Herschel Island - Qikiqtaruk. https://yukon.ca/sites/yukon.ca/files/env/env-checklist-birds-herschel-island-qikiqtaruk.pdf 

[YG] Yukon Government. 2019. Herschel Island - Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park Management Plan 2019. https://yukon.ca/sites/yukon.ca/files/env/env-herschel-island-qikiqtaruk-territorial-park-management_plan.pdf

[YG] Yukon Government. 2022. Herschel Island - Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park. Website: https://yukon.ca/en/outdoor-recreation-and-wildlife/parks-and-protected-areas/herschel-island-qikiqtaruk-territorial

×
Stay Informed

When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.

Four great train trips in Canada!
Scotland - A Dear Green Place
 

Contact Us

Toll Free: 1.800.690.7887
or 604.886.7300

BC Registration 3401

1114 Cartwright Road
Gibsons BC, V0N 1V1, Canada

Contact Us