KANGIQSUJUAQ, Quebec — For eight months a year, the flat bay about the village of Kangiqsujuaq in far northern Quebec freezes beneath a white expanse of ice and snow, leaving ravens and foxes as uncommon indicators of life, along with Inuit and their dogs. Throughout the winter the Inuit hunt seal and caribou, and they fish through the ice for arctic char.
But in the coldest months, when the ice is thickest, some venture beneath the ice to gather mussels. Every two weeks the pull of the moon combines with the geography of this area to create unusually big tides. The water falls as significantly as 55 feet in some areas, emptying the bay beneath the ice along the shore for an hour or much more. That’s when some Inuit climb aboard their snowmobiles and head out onto the bay.
Watch a 360 video of the mussel collecting mission.
One particular current day I joined two of them, Tiisi Qisiiq, 51, and Adami Alaku, 61, who identified a void and chopped a hole into the ice.
Underneath is a beautiful, eerie world of bending ice, glowing blue from the sunlight outdoors. The sound of trickling water fills the humid, salt-laced air. On my recent trip it was 20 degrees beneath zero (minus 29 degrees Celsius) but a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit ( degrees Celsius) beneath the ice.
The males lowered themselves through the hole to the bay floor. The ground was covered with kelp, the occasional crab and edible clumps of roe from the fourhorn sculpin, which the Inuit get in touch with the ugly fish. But Mr. Qisiiq and Mr. Alaku came for fat blue mussels that cling to the rocks. Utilizing lamps to light the way, they pulled the frigid mussels cost-free with their hands.
Just before lengthy, the sound of ticks and pops signaled the returning tide as it lifted the ice on the bay. Soon, the water would fill the caverns. The flood tide is deceiving, beginning gradually until it rises much more than a foot (30 centimeters) a minute. The males headed for the hole and climbed out into the clear, cold air.
I initial heard of mussel gathering under the ice when I lived in Shanghai and my son was provided a children’s book known as “Very Last 1st Time,” by the Canadian author Jan Andrews. It tells the enchanting tale of an Inuit girl’s initial time below the ice alone. Ever because, I’ve wanted to go under the ice myself. Now I have, and I saw the bay floor’s bounty brought to the surface.
The book’s drawings depict a colorful, cavernous space beneath the ice, far different from the cramped and narrow confines that I discovered. The colder the winter, the thicker and a lot more stable the ice and the bigger the spaces left by the ebbing tide.
Mr. Qisiiq’s mentor, Lukasi Nappaaluk, remembers gathering mussels as a kid in caverns of ice with ceilings 20 feet high. But international warming is making the ice less predictable and more prone to buckling. Warm water currents thin the ice from below, creating the snowmobile crossings increasingly unsafe.
The mussels are a welcome winter treat these days, but at a single time they had been a lifesaving source of meals in the course of the lean frozen months. Raw meat, with its abundance of vitamins, has allowed the Inuit to live for centuries on a diet regime nearly devoid of fruits and vegetables. The only preparation for the mussels is pulling off their beards, the strings of protein that mussels make to cling to rocks, and then rinsing them.
The Inuit nevertheless consume a lot of “country meals,” caribou and seal and whale and fish that they choose to eat raw while sitting on the floor.
Mussels are no exception. Mr. Qisiiq and his wife, Siasi Qisiiq, shucked the bivalves utilizing the edge of a shell. They scraped out the meat and squeezed it in their fist, wringing out the salty seawater, just before consuming them as is.
Ms. Qisiiq boiled some of the mussels for me. They were rich and meaty, salty with no seasoning, and steaming — welcome warmth following hours outside. I had some of the raw mussels, too, nevertheless chilled from the bay. They tasted a lot like raw oysters, but with a bitter finish. I would prefer them marinara style.