Arctic Canadian community celebrates muskox-themed festival

This muskox made from recycled iron by young people at the Red Fish studio stands in the Cambridge Bay’s heritage park. The community’s spring festival honours the large animal. (Jane George/CBC)

Umingmak Frolics spring festival is back this year with snowmobile races, bingo, parade and more

The 2,000 or so residents of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut are set to enjoy above-average temperatures, non-stop sunlight and a host of outdoor activities this week during their Umingmak Frolics spring festival this month.

“The frolics are a big spring event that brings back the warm weather, to celebrate the return of the sun and getting together as Inuit, especially important this year because of COVID,” said Mayor Angulalik Pedersen.

The annual festivities got underway without pandemic-related disruptions this past weekend for the first time since 2019.

In 2020, COVID-19 restrictions forced organizers to cancel the festival, in place since the late 1960s. The following year the pandemic curtailed live events and the festival was moved online.

Cambridge Bay Mayor Anglulalik Pedersen says this year’s edition of the Umingmak Frolics comes as a relief for the 2,000 or so residents of his western Nunavut community who spent much of the past two years under COVID restrictions. (Jane George/CBC)

Bingo, a poker tournament, bazaar and a bus ride around town for children kicked off this year’s frolics.

The coming week will see snowmobile race trials on the river, and daily afternoon competitions outdoors for community teams.

Those teams will compete the “golden plunger” award, handed out at the end of the frolics to winning teams.

Next weekend’s events include a parade of floats, a talent show, fishing derby, seal hunt and snowmobile races.A talent show, fishing derby, seal hunt and snowmobile races are also on the schedule.

Ashlee Otokiak, a self-taught musician, plans to perform in the Umingmak Frolic’s talent show. (Jane George/CBC)

Ashlee Otokiak is a self-taught musician who is visually-impaired. He’s polishing up several guitar tunes, and said he’s excited for the talent show.

There will also be many appearances by the festival’s mascot, Ollie the Muskox, or Umingmak.

In past years Ollie has been snatched before the frolics as a prank, only to be returned at the last minute.

But municipal recreation staffers Melissa Logan and Tracey Jesso said this year, Ollie has been lying low in a safe place.

The towering muskox is known for his large horns, toothy smile and willingness to pose for selfies.

Muskox numbers dropping

But while Ollie is ever cheerful, the number of muskox around Victoria Island, where Cambridge Bay is located, has dropped over the decades: from an estimated 30,000 in the late 1990s, to about 10,000 on the Nunavut side of the island, according to a Government of Nunavut survey.

Climate change is among the reasons suggested for that decrease.

Is climate change making the muskoxen sick in Canada's High Arctic?

An Eye on the Arctic report looking at climate change’s affects on muskox health on Victoria Island in Arctic Canada:

The changing climate has also led to changes in the timing of the festival from year to year.

Recently, daytime temperatures have hovered above zero and as high as nine degrees above the normal range for this time of year.

There’s worry that ice melt on the sea ice could stop the popular ice races next weekend.

Umingmak Frolics runs from May 13 to 23.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Gathering science in the Arctic – Talking muskox health, Eye on the Arctic

Jane George, CBC News

Jane George is now a reporter-editor at CBC Nunavut. Prior to August 2021, George worked at Nunatsiaq News for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her stories.

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