By Miche Genest
Underground, above ground, inside, outside — northerners have developed numerous ways of creating cold storage areas. Perhaps one of the simplest is the outdoor freezer: as soon as it’s cold enough, and barring a thaw, many northerners simply keep foods frozen by storing them outdoors.
In the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, there is a different solution. Katrina Cockney, Manager of Administration and Community Services, explains that as late as the 1980s individual families dug ice houses for their own use. But as the community grew in size and more houses were being built, that became less practical.
In the late 1960s, with the help of government funding, the community built a freezer deep in the permafrost, 30 feet below the surface. There are three main corridors down there, opening into 19 rooms. Access is via a steep ladder through a trap door in a small, locked shed. The contents of the freezer change according to the season — in summer there might be dry fish and muktuk, geese in the fall, and caribou and dog feed in the winter.
The freezer used to be accessible to tourists, but is no longer due to safety concerns. The hamlet is considering building a walk-in icehouse in order to show tourists the local technology. In more modern times, many households have one or more chest freezers for traditional foods. When the temperature is below freezing, they often move one freezer outside. But Katrina Cockney estimates there are still about six families who use the community freezer year-round.
There is another part to the story. Not only is the freezer practical, “It’s beautiful,” says Cockney. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a wall full of crystals.” Cold storage can be beautiful in more ways than one.