Cambridge Bay commercial muskox hunt gets underway

Kitikmeot Foods hopes to catch at least 200 animals


Kitikmeot Foods Ltd. plans to harvest about 200 muskox over the next three weeks. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GN)

Kitikmeot Foods Ltd. plans to harvest about 200 muskox over the next three weeks. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GN)

CAMBRIDGE BAY — When Cambridge Bay’s commercial muskox hunt opens Feb. 17, hunters are set to leave on their snowmobiles at dawn for Anderson Bay about 40 kilometres from the community.

That’s where hunters have already spotted muskox.

And if the hunters are lucky, by mid-morning the first of the 200 or so muskox that Kitikmeot Foods Ltd. hopes to harvest in 2012 should arrive back in town.

Getting the huge “omingmaks” back quickly is no easy feat.

Muskox haulers like Leonard Wingnek says it’s not that bad transporting up to three, 200-pound muskox strapped on his kamotik — as long as he drives slowly and carefully, he adds.

Haulers bring back about 30 animals a day in two batches, depending on weather and hunting success.

Their goal: to get the muskox back to the plant in Cambridge Bay before they’re frozen.

If the muskox freeze — their exposed feet can turn to popsicles quickly in sub-zero temperatures — federal inspectors will reject the carcasses immediately, said Kitikmeot Foods manager Stéphane Lacasse.

Kitikmeot Foods operates inside an unused fish plant in Cambridge Bay, which was transformed into a meat slaughterhouse in 2005 to meet tough Canadian Food Inspection Agency standards.

Once the muskox arrive, workers remove the animals’ heads, which are examined by federal inspectors for signs of ill health.

Then, muskox are ready to be skinned, split and frozen — not in a freezer, but in an unheated space.

So, the colder the temperatures fall, the better things go for the slaughterhouse workers, Lacasse and office manager Denise LeBleu said.

While last week’s temperatures in Cambridge Bay were at least 10 degrees above the normal -27 C high and -37 C low for this time of year, temperatures are now set to dip to -53 C on Friday night. Bring on the cold, the two managers say.

Before the frozen muskox sides are processed, they must pass scrutiny again before being thawed out, then butchered and packaged into cuts that include roasts, tenderloins and popular ground muskox.

Altogether, the 200 muskox harvested this year stand to produce about 36,000 pounds of meat, all of which will be shipped out to specialty retailers, high-end restaurants and even to Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, where muskox often takes finds a place on menus for official dinners.

“We’re always sold out,” said Lacasse.

That success means Kitikmeot Foods was the only one of the Nunavut Development Corp.‘s subsidiaries to show a profit in 2011.

Sales at the Arctic char and muskox food processor were down from $670,000 in 2009-10 to $567,760 in 2010-2011, but the plant managed to show a profit of $88,500 and employ about 11 people.

That workforce expands to more than 30 during the intense, three-week muskox hunt.

There’s no lack of local workers willing to work during the hunt: six husky young men show up over a 30-minute period seeking jobs as haulers and processors.

And there’s plenty of muskox around, too.

An estimated 30,000 muskox roam near Cambridge Bay, and biologists say the roughly 400 tags that the Ikaluktutiak Hunters and Trappers Organization hands out every year for the commercial and sports hunts barely touch the population’s robust numbers.

The muskox hunt itself is straightforward. Hunters, who work in a range from about 10 to 40 kilometres from Cambridge Bay, use .243 or larger rifles to shoot the muskox, aiming for the head or throat and avoiding young animals and large bulls.

The commercial muskox hunt is done in a traditional way, with hunters going out on the land to find the animals.

The hide, fur and horns go to the hunter and trappers association to reduce waste.

And, after the hunt ends and the work wraps up some time in March, Kitikmeot Foods shares in its successful hunt by providing muskox for a community feast in Cambridge Bay, donating packages of ground muskox to the local wellness centre, and sending other shipments of muskox meat to neighbouring communities.

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