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'Crystal Eye of Nunavik' bares an ancient planet

Pingualuit Crater in Quebec's Nunavik region, one of the youngest and best preserved craters on the planet, is 2.1 miles across, a quarter mile deep, and rises 175 yards above the tundra.
Pingualuit Crater in Quebec's Nunavik region, one of the youngest and best preserved craters on the planet, is 2.1 miles across, a quarter mile deep, and rises 175 yards above the tundra. (Robert Fréchette/Kativik Regional Government)
By Lawrence Millman
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2008
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KANGIQSUJUAQ, Quebec - A meteorite nearly 400 feet in diameter falls through the atmosphere in a fiery flash. Traveling at 20 miles per second, it slams into the earth, sending boulder-sized rocks flying in all directions and carving a gaping hole in the planet's crust.

About 1.4 million years later, I am seated in a Twin Otter aircraft flying over Quebec's Nunavik region, looking out the window at endless tundra. All of a sudden I see a blue eye three miles wide and perfectly circular staring up at me: the meteorite's crater, now filled with water. Transfixed by its gaze, I nearly forget to take a picture.

I wasn't the first to be amazed by Pingualuit Crater. A Toronto newspaper correspondent on a 1950 expedition called it "the eighth wonder of the world." Inuit from Kangiqsujuaq, the nearest village, describe the crater as "nunavingmi pikkuminartuq," "the place where one is revitalized." And it's the chief attraction of the province's newest national park, Parc national des Pingualuit.

The park was created last year, so when my plane landed, I felt like a visitor to Yellowstone might have felt in 1873, the year after it became a national park. One of the Inuit wardens, a man named Yakaa, greeted me on the landing strip. So, too, did thousands of mosquitoes. After Yakaa showed me to my cabin, he invited me to join him and the other Inuit wardens for a meal in the main cabin.

Rather than hike immediately to the crater, I spent my first full day exploring the area around it. This included the shore of Manoqsulik (Big Fish) Lake, so named because an Inuk once saw a fish here that was longer than his freighter canoe, which are typically 22 feet long. I didn't see this perhaps apocryphal fish, but instead something just as remarkable - pristine habitat.

Even in remote areas of Alaska, I've come across empty beer cans, tissue paper, and the treadmarks of ATVs. But not here. Apart from a few Inuit fox traps a hundred or more years old, I saw no evidence that my species had ever been here. This doubtless explains why the mosquitoes so delighted in my presence: Warm-blooded opportunities like me were scarce.

The lake had a beach devoid of beachgoers (unless you count a single arctic hare), and I relaxed for a while on its glistening sand. If I had been on the moon, I might have felt a greater sense of solitude, but I doubt it. At one point, a caribou calf approached me. I figured that it had never seen a human before, or it would have been more wary.

That evening Yakaa showed me a rock perforated with holes, a so-called impactite. The meteorite had caused all the minerals in the area to liquefy, and the holes had once been bubbles in this geologic stew.

The next day I was ready for a much bigger hole: Pingualuit Crater. While not the world's largest impact crater, Pingualuit is still nearly three times larger than the considerably more famous Meteor Crater in Arizona. And it's by far the biggest one in the Canadian Arctic.

Starting at the cabins, Yakaa and I were soon climbing over the field of granite boulders surrounding the crater. Many of these rocks had been ejected in the original impact. Each seemed to boast a different lichen pattern, making our climb feel like a trip through a vast gallery of abstract art.

We saw rock ptarmigan, snow buntings, a pair of ravens, and a flock of snow geese. We also saw several more lone caribou calves, and I asked Yakaa what would happen to them. "They will die," he replied. Increasingly warmer weather had spawned more mosquitoes and other biting insects than ever before, he said, with the result that many caribou cows were too distracted to pay attention to their newborns. In the past, they could escape with those calves to snow patches, but not anymore. The warmer weather has melted them.

After a little more than an hour, we were standing at the crater's rim, and I looked down on the huge circular lake I had observed from the air. The water was the bluest blue and the clearest I have ever seen.

"We call this lake the Crystal Eye of Nunavik," Yakaa said, "and it's probably the second clearest lake in the world, after Lake Masyu in Japan. There's no algae growing in it because it has such a low oxygen level."

"How does the water taste?" I asked.

"Why don't you find out for yourself?" he said.

We walked around the edge to a spot where the slope to the lake was not too steep. As we hiked down, I heard what sounded like an incredibly loud maniacal laugh, followed by an explosion. The inside of the crater is like a vast amphitheater, and its walls amplify any sound inside it. What I was hearing turned out to be a couple of loons on the lake, calling to each other and diving for fish. The splashes from their dives were the explosions.

When we reached the bottom, I cupped my hands in the lake, then raised them to my mouth. I tasted a rich, full flavor - the essence of water. It made all the other water I had ever drunk, even the more rarified bottled varieties, seem tacky.

"The Inuit could make a fortune marketing this water," I told Yakaa. "Maybe," he said, "but we would rather keep it here."

Once we hiked back to the rim, I took one last look at the Crystal Eye of Nunavik and found myself again transfixed. So transfixed, in fact, that I ignored the mosquitoes who were feasting on me. They were a small price to pay to experience one of the wonders of the world.

Lawrence Millman can be reached at l.millman@comcast.net.

If You Go

How to get there

First Air flies from Montreal to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, and Air Inuit flies from there to the Inuit community of Kangiqsujuaq. Air Inuit also flies charters from Kangiqsujuaq to Parc national des Pingualuit.

Where to stay

Auberge Kuujjuaq Inn

Kuujjuaq

819-964-2903, 2904

Doubles $214.

Kangiqsujuaq Inn

803 Sianitia Road

Kangiqsujuaq

819-338-3232

Doubles $280-$305.

Parc national des Pingualuit

www.nunavikparks.com

Camp or stay in a cabin.

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