GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut - Betty Kogvik must have one of the most unusual jobs in all Nunavut. In a land of naked rock and treeless tundra, she's a gardener.
"I never grew plants before in my life," she said from her home in Gjoa Haven, high above the Arctic Circle.
"It's so relaxing."
Kogvik and her husband, Sammy, are helping run Naurvik, a project jointly funded by the federal government and the Arctic Research Foundation. Naurvik — Inuktut for "growing place" — consists of two sea cans outfitted to grow vegetables that proponents hope will help ease northern food costs.
"The idea is to work with the community and train local technicians in the many different ways of growing plants in this system," said foundation head Adrian Schimnowski.
It also addresses questions far beyond anything on Earth. One of the partners in the program is the Canadian Space Agency, which is using it to study how food can be grown in closed conditions and how people can best work together in those situations.
"How can people work in a small, very tight environment and produce food and live and interact with each other?" Schimnowski asked.
Naurvik, so far, is two windowless sea cans outfitted with hydroponics and full-spectrum lights.
Between a windmill and a solar array, it's about three-quarters powered by renewable electricity even during the Arctic night. Schimnowski said the power will be completely green once the days get longer.
Fresh food in the North is a long-running issue. With the exception of "country food" harvested from the land, everything has to be flown in. That makes it expensive and, often, old.
Naurvik is a step toward addressing that. The program has already had two harvests of lettuce, which were delivered to local elders.
"They were so happy and excited," Kogvik said. "They said things were so fresh. They really enjoyed them."
A crop of cherry tomatoes is on the way in about two weeks, she added.
It's a small start, Schimnowski said.
But sea cans are widely available across the North. Naurvik uses a large amount of scavenged local material.
Once the program is running smoothly, it could easily be scaled up and instituted elsewhere. It could make a real contribution to food security, Schimnowski said.
"The potential is there and it's welcomed by the community. It's about scalability. It could be very quickly that we could provide more.
"Gjoa Haven is one of those places where people are open to new ideas."
The program has so far cost about $800,000.
Elders are also being consulted about what kinds of foods should be grown.
Blueberries and cloudberries, both traditional crops, are front-runners. So are plants used for traditional teas and medicines.
Schimnowski said the Gjoa Haven project should be fully operational by 2025. Four people in Gjoa Haven are now tending it.
Schimnowski said the project is an example of northern research that addresses community needs and involves local people both in designing and running it.
For Kogvik, the memory of that first lettuce crop is enough to keep her tending the garden.
"It was so crisp," she said. "Really fresh and tasty."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960