Expedition Basecamp

January 12, 2008
By: Baffin Island Basecamp

Arctic Char


Back at Steger’s Minnesota homestead when we were packing our expedition food, we wondered, “Will the Inuit team members want to eat oatmeal for breakfast?” We contacted Theo to ask. His reply: “I would prefer to eat char.”

Arctic char, the northernmost species of freshwater fish, is a mainstay of the Inuit diet. A member of the Salmonidae family, its flesh is pink like salmon but has a more mild taste. Some populations of char stay in freshwater lakes for their whole lives while others migrate to the sea in the summer to feed.

The Inuit members of the Global Warming 101 Expedition Team eat char not only in the mornings, but anytime during the day when they need nourishment and energy. When the dog-sleds pause during the day, we Minnesota team members eat dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and chunks of frozen cheese out of plastic bags. The Inuit members, on the other hand, pull a 15 pound frozen Arctic char from a wooden crate on the back of their komatiq sled.

With a sharp knife the Inuit expertly cut slivers of the flesh and pop the frozen morsels into their mouths. It’s the Arctic version of sashimi. At first we Minnesota members joked that we would like some wasabi and pickled ginger to accompany the raw char. We have now, however, come to appreciate the flavor and texture of the char.

As the climate changes and water warms, Arctic char increase their rates of respiration. This increases the amount of heavy metals that build up in their flesh. These heavy metals can then accumulate in the bodies of animals and people who eat the char. Heavy metals are especially worrisome in children and in women of childbearing age. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause birth defects, learning disabilities and other health problems. To the Inuit, for whom a large portion of their diet comes from char and marine mammals, mercury contamination is a serious threat.

When our energy is low and our stomachs are rumbling with hunger pains, however, the threat of mercury is far from our minds. We pause for a snack break, enjoy the delicious char, and share in a cultural tradition that is thousands of years old.

Elizabeth Andre

(Source: ACIA, 2004)