From Germany to Kuujjuaq, drawn by a name
“Pilot Big River” satisfies his curiosity
KUUJJUAQ — Joerg Kujack and girlfriend Sabine Warzel flew to Kuujjuaq from Baden-Baden, Germany armed with backpacks, camera and a plan: to see the Nunavik airport radar beacon that bears Kujack’s name.
Kujack, an airline pilot who flies an Airbus A 340 for the German airline Luftansa, first flew over the radar beacon that showed up on radar maps as a young pilot 24 years ago.
Later, as a captain with Condor, a Lufthansa charter subsidiary, he flew over the Kuujjuaq airport again.
This time he called the tower to talk.
“’Why are you calling?’ the operator asked me. I said ‘because Kujack is my name,’” tells Kujack.
The radio operator rushed out of the radio tower, Kujack said, to see if he could spot the aircraft’s contrail path in the sky — then he rushed back inside.
“I see you!” he told Kujack, then telling him about the meaning of Kuujjuaq (abbreviated for the radar beacon), which means “big river.”
“Pilot Big River” finally came to Kuujjuaq earlier this month, as a 55th birthday present from Warzel, who works for Lufthansa as a flight attendant.
Warzel said she knew Kujack had always wanted to visit his namesake, even more so because, as he tells it, Kujack, a Germanized name with Polish roots, is unique.
The two arrived along with a stretch of record-breaking warm temperatures and sunny skies, which lasted during their entire stay in the community.
While in Kuujjuaq, they went on a picnic, featuring smoked Arctic char, on a scenic plateau overlooking the Koksoak River, where they marvelled at ice floes melting in 25 C temps and the breeze that’s “cold and hot at the same time.”
And they were invited to a birthday party at the Kuujjuaq Inn where locals asked them many questions about Germany and spelled out Warzel’s first name — similar to the popular name Sapina in Nunavik — in syllabics.
During their four-day stay, Kujack and Warzel also visited the town hall, where they met Mayor Paul Parsons and went to Makivik Corp. to speak with Makivik president Jobie Tukkiapik, a former pilot.
They also got a personal tour of the Kuujjuaq airport — where Kujack got to see the “Kujack” radio beacon up close.
And they even managed to run into one of the few German-speakers in Kuujjuaq: Ingo Berendes, a German who has lived in Kuujjuaq for more than 30 years.
Before leaving, the two bought T-shirts with Kuujjuaq logos to wear with the sporty Kuujjuaq caps given to them by Parsons, who said he was delighted “to meet his community’s namesake.”
What Kujack didn’t get to do was to fish.
That was partly due to the timing of his visit — which meant going out on the river would be unsafe because of the ice — and due to the high cost of chartering a helicopter and the difficulty of getting a guide and fishing permits, all at the last minute.
The couple almost became homeless in the town, too, when the Kuujjuaq Inn filled up, although they were able to stay in a local home for their last night in town.
Among the big surprises? The many water and sewage trucks driving around town, the sky-high prices of food (“butter for more than four Euros!” — at least double the price of butter in Germany, Kujack said) and the fact that there was no alcohol sold in town outside the hotel restaurant and bar — so unlike Germany where “beer is food,” Kujack said.
They also learned the hard way that there’s a shortage of taxis in town.
There’s only one taxi in Kuujjuaq, which can be hard to contact.
That saw Kujack and Warzel obliged to hop onto a fuel delivery truck to get to their hotel from the airport after their arrival (usually visitors to Kuujjuaq are picked up at the airport by a staff vehicle because they’re travelling on business or they have family in town).
Tourists like Kujack and Warzel who decide to visit Nunavik on their own are rare birds indeed.
And Kujack said that he couldn’t find much information on the internet to let him know what to expect — except on Nunatsiaq News, which he contacted beforehand for help in finding a place to stay.
While many are trying to develop tourism in Nunavik, there’s a long way to go.
Since 1969, when the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau Québec started its Arctic Adventures, Nunavik has wanted to put itself on the tourism map.
Now, with the opening of provincial parks in Nunavik, more visitors are starting to come: in 2011, 144 to Pingualuit park and 48 to Kuururjuaq Park, with a few hundred more stopping by on cruises or in other groups to the parks’ visitor centres.
But independent tourists like Kujack, who arrive outside a group or with little lead time to set everything up, can find themselves on their own.
Still Kuujjuamiut proved they’re ready to bend overboard for visitors: Isabelle Dubois who works for Nunavik Tourism can’t book trips, but she linked Kujack and Warzel up with outfitters, offered to take them on a town tour, and even to loan them fishing rods if they needed them.
Nunavik has plans to make things ready for future visitors.
Over the past five years, the Kativik Regional Government has received money for training, leading 154 Nunavimmiut so far to become certified in kayaking, parks customer service, mountain biking, snow boarding, rock climbing and wilderness first aid. The KRG, which is finalizing new tourism agreements with Quebec, is poised to take the lead as the main partner in developing tourism, but the development focus will be on attracting adventure and cultural travellers, who have a lot of money to spend.
As for Kujack, except for not being able to fish, he wasn’t disappointed with his stay: he’s looking forward to his next trip, maybe to fish or perhaps to see the Puvirnituq Snow Festival.