The lost trail: Study finds Inuit losing access to old paths

Hunter, researchers say passing on of knowledge of the land is critical as effects of climate change hit

Jayko Kubalik is pictured dogsledding by himself on the Kimmirut trail. Ice is one of three trail modes studied by researchers looking at how trail access will decline over the next 80 years. (Photo by Jovan Simic)

By Meral Jamal

Iqaluit Mayor Solomon Awa is shown building an igloo in Iqaluit in 2022. Awa said the passing of knowledge plays a critical role in how Inuit access the land. (File photo)

Access to long-used trails across Inuit Nunangat could decline sharply over the next 80 years, researchers are warning.

Those findings are based on interviews with more than 270 people who travel across land, sea and ice by all-terrain vehicle, boat, snowmobile, and foot to hunt, and paired with climate data such as sea-ice projections.

The resulting study was published in the science journal Nature on Feb. 3.

There are currently 249 days each year when these trails are accessible. That number could to about 236 days per year by 2050, and to about 209 days per year by 2100, the study says.

This could make it harder for hunters to harvest traditional foods, which could in turn impact nutrition levels for Inuit. As well, unsafe trail conditions could lead to more search-and-rescue missions per year.

Iqaluit Mayor Solomon Awa is an avid hunter with a lifetime of experience on the land. He said he doesn’t believe there has been a decline or loss in trails around Nunavut yet. But to ensure Inuit continue to access the land safely, he said the passing of knowledge from the old to the young needs to take place.

Awa remembers one of the first times he went on a trail by himself, almost 50 years ago. His father had told him about the route, but Awa wasn’t sure of the exact direction he was supposed to take.

“I didn’t even know where to go, so I just went straight,” he recalled.

“This is the teaching of a young person — how to navigate the area. They need to make a mistake. I did make a mistake, and that was my learning experience.”

Dylan Clark, a senior research associate at the Canadian Climate Institute who worked on this study, said his main goal is to help “governments and policymakers who frequently do need numbers.”

“We know that many elders and knowledge holders have been observing these changes and don’t really need numbers to tell them what the future holds,” he told Nunatsiaq News.

“[But] this research is another reminder that climate change will continue to have huge impacts on people’s health, food security and culture unless there are policies for adapting to the environments.”

Dylan Clark is part of a team of researchers who found the number of days each year where at least one mode of trail use is possible in Inuit Nunangat— via land, water and ice — could shrink by 17 to 40 days per year by 2100. (Photo courtesy of Dylan Clark)

He said Inuit traditional knowledge, especially of the land, will be critical to ensuring people across the Arctic are able to keep accessing trails. A big part of this will be young hunters’ programs and other programming that brings people across generations together.

“We found that if a fairly inexperienced individual was able to gain experience and confidence in the equipment to bring them to the average level, then their access could increase by one to three times even with climate change,” he said.

“I think this points to the importance of youth on the land programming, and certainly hunter support programs to help with equipment costs.”

Awa said that whether or not the trails change, adapting to changing land and ice conditions is part of being Inuk.

Even adapting itself is a learning process, and Awa said this too needs to be passed on from one generation to the next.

“To gain that knowledge, you have to follow the elders or the knowledgeable people when they’re going out … so you’ll be able to go alone there the next time,” he said.

Share This Story

(5) Comments:

  1. Posted by Edward on

    Beginning in 2000 from Igloolik, Claudio Aporta made a comprehensive record of Inuk trails, he compiled his interviews and delivered in conjunction with Senator Charlie what about 6 years ago. Quite substantial detail

  2. Posted by Fact Check on

    Dear Nunatsiaq, I’m almost certain the name of the fellow in the top picture is Jayko Kilabuk (not Kubalik)

  3. Posted by Also on

    Also when the Hamlet clear snow off the road they always block traditional inuit land access routes for snowmobile . They should only be allowed to have inuit do this job because they put the snow somewhere else

    • Posted by Putting this out there on

      well i agree with the first part that hamlets always pile the snow in the worst locations, but this is done by the majority of the drivers (Inuk or not). there some drivers that will atleas knock down some of the edges so we can go over the hill, but not many.

  4. Posted by Wally on

    Traditional knowledge is being lost primarily because it is increasingly less relevant to “new” generations. With fewer people interested in living on the land, the need and want of the old skills fade. For +90% of the Nunavut population, traditional life is, at best, a hobby. Much like knot-tying and cursive writing, old skills diminish in parallel to their usage – we cannot expect levels of expertise to be maintained. Climate change is real but, as a cause for traditional knowledge loss, it is a small factor.

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *