The plane veered sharply to the right. As we were making our first flight over the runway – or rather, the small piece of rough terrain in the Arctic tundra that would serve as the runway – an alarm went off, the red lights above the emergency exits went on. the sound of the plane’s engines restarting pervaded the main cabin. My stomach tightened.
It was an exciting introduction to the far north of Quebec, Canada, an area known as Nunavik.
Covering the upper third of the Canadian province (larger than the US state of California and twice the size of Great Britain), which the Ungava Peninsula is a part of, this region is unknown to most people. But that wasn’t always the case.
To read in particular on BBC Africa:
In 1950 this area was printed in newspapers around the world and considered the eighth wonder of the world.
Not for its wild nature, nor for its man-made structures, but for the distinctive feature of the terrain, I was now flying over another landing attempt on the runway: the Pingualuit crater.
“The name in Inuktitut means the spots or pimples on the skin caused by extreme cold,” explains Isabelle Dubois, project coordinator for Nunavik Tourism, who had previously only visited the crater in winter, when the landscape was covered with snow.
I looked out the airplane window to distract myself on our second landing attempt and thought it was an appropriate nickname.
The tundra here is marked by cracks, crevices and depressions filled with small pockets of water.
However, among the many recesses, the homonymous crater clearly stands out.
With a diameter of around 3.5 km and a circumference of well over 10 km, it is not only its size that sets it apart, but also its symmetry.
Almost perfectly circular and filled with water, the crater looked like a compact mirror on the ground, now reflected in our tiny Twin Otter plane, which looked like nothing more than a tiny speck of dust.
After a few bumps, more alarms and a sudden and dramatic stop, we finally landed, a few miles from the edge of this crater.
We stayed at Camp Manarsulik, a conglomeration of five solar-powered huts that is the official base camp for anyone venturing into Pingualuit National Park, one of the country’s most remote national parks.
As we unload the plane (no porters or staff here) and settle into the warm huts, I speak to Pierre Philie, a French cultural geographer who is very interested in anthropology and who lives in Kangiqsujuaq (the northernmost village of Nunavik and the gateway this geographical wonder).
He was reluctantly sent to this part of Quebec 40 years ago, but he fell in love with it and fell in love with it and never left.
Philie showed me a copy of a black and white aerial photograph of Pingualuit. It was taken on June 20, 1943 by one of the US Air Force officers who spotted it.
As I wondered what the officer must have been doing at the time, Philie began to explain the crater a little more to me.
“It was first discovered by someone in the Western world that year, during World War II, when fighter pilots spotted it and used it as a navigational aid. But they didn’t share it with the rest of the world only when the war finished, “he explains.
When they did, in 1950, one of the first people to be fascinated by this discovery was an Ontario gold digger named Fred W Chubb. He was convinced that the crater was caused by a volcano, which probably meant there were diamonds inside.
He sought advice from the director of the Ontario Museum at the time, Dr. Meen, who, equally fascinated by the idea, went there with Chubb to investigate (so for a short time the Pingualuits were known as Chubb Crater) – but the volcano theory was finally rejected.
“We now know without a shadow of a doubt that this is a meteor crater,” says Philie, as the sun begins to set over Lake Manarsulik, located about 2.5 km away. des Pingualuit, leaving the edge of the crater inconspicuous as a watermark on the magnificent pink horizon.
“Tomorrow we will see it.”
The next day began at dawn with a walk among large rock fragments.
Some, Philie explained, were large chunks of granite and fractured rock (relics of glaciation during the last ice age); others were examples of impacts, formed as a result of melting during the impact.
These were black and covered with small holes, evidence of the minerals inside liquefying and gurgling from the heat and pressure of the collision.
“The impact happened 1.4 million years ago,” confirms Philie as we climb onto its ledge.
“If we consider the width and depth of the crater [environ 400 m]its impact is estimated to be 8,500 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
But finally getting to the edge of the Pingualuit and looking into that gaping hole, where the lake glistened for two-thirds of encrusted ice – even though it was July – was even more startling.
“Of course, the Inuit knew (the crater) before Westerners came in search of diamonds,” notes Markusie Qisiiq, director and guide of Pingualuit park.
“They called it the Crystal Eye of Nunavik.”
From where I was, under an incredibly blue sky dotted with as many clouds as there are “patches” of the tundra, this name seemed the most appropriate of all.
As we walked over the rough terrain, circling the lake, Philie got more and more excited.
He talked about the clarity of the water there – fed only by rain and considered the second purest water in the world (only Lake Mashu in Japan is more transparent); of the mystery of the fish that live there – that scientists have yet to agree on how they got there, as there is no flow of water in or out, and that they have turned to cannibalism to ensure their own survival; and evidence showing that, like the Inuit, other people also walked here at least 1000 years before them.
“The landscape is a living book”, he concludes. “There is a lot we can learn if we take the time to read it.”
In recent years, people have come here to do just that.
In 2007, a team of researchers from Laval University in Quebec, led by Professor Reinhard Pienitz, traveled there during the winter to take underwater samples.
At the time, Pienitz described the crater as a “scientific time capsule” and said that if we continue to learn more about it, it could reveal clues to past episodes of climate change and how ecosystems have adapted under pressure. .
I went to the seashore, where Philie picked up a stone and dropped it on the frozen surface.
The silent air was instantly filled with a melodious sound as the ice fragments bounced off each other and fell into the water.
After filling our bottles to taste this pure water, we returned to the camp. We only stopped once, to let a huge herd of reindeer pass – there were so many you couldn’t even count them.
Watching this spectacle of wild animals migrating along a crater as large as the one found on the moon, my stomach clenched once again.
But this time it wasn’t due to a hard landing.
But rather the realization that although there are no diamonds here, there are a myriad of scientific stories and revelations waiting to be discovered just meters from the surface.