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Welcome to Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island

To get here, you probably chartered a bush plane or a helicopter from Inuvik, the nearest major town in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Or perhaps you navigated the sinuous meanderings of the Mackenzie River Delta and braved the waves of the Beaufort Sea to arrive by boat. If you are lucky, you may have spotted a pod of beluga whales - not to be confused with debris of floating sea ice - on your final approach.

Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island is a territorial park off the north coast of the Yukon Territory in the Canadian Arctic. Just around one hundred square kilometers in extent, the island is nonetheless home to a rich Arctic fauna and flora. And for a remote place without any permanent settlement, the island also has a fascinating history of human occupancy.

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Natural history of Qikiqtaruk

Qikiqtaruk is made from frozen sediments that were once pushed and piled up by an ice sheet. After the Ice Age, the sea level rose, breaking the connection to the mainland and creating the island. A 3-km wide strait separates Qikiqtaruk from the Yukon north coast, which means that good swimmers like bears and caribou can go back and forth as they please, although other animals such as muskoxen can only get to the island while there is sea ice. This means that the island’s population fluctuate from year to year depending on how many animals get stranded there in the summer!

The shallow, nutrient-rich waters around the island attract marine wildlife such as beluga and bowhead whales, several species of seals, and sea birds like black guillemots and eider ducks. Visit the Wildlife gallery to meet more of the inhabitants of the island!

Human heritage

The territorial park of Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island was established in 1987 by the Yukon Government to preserve the island’s natural environment and significant cultural heritage.

The island lies within the traditional grounds of the Inuvialuit, whose presence dates back at least a thousand years. “Qikiqtaruk” simply means “island” in Inuvialuktun. Today, the park is still a hunting ground for the Inuvialuit, and a place to teach youth traditional customs.

Qikiqtaruk was first described to the European world in 1826 by the famously ill-fated Admiral Franklin during one of his Arctic exploration trips. Franklin named the island Herschel after the scientists and astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline.

At the end of the 19th century, American and European whalers came to Qikiqtaruk to hunt for bowhead whales, and the population of the island rose to 1,500 - 2,000 people for a brief period. However, the unsustainable harvest of whales meant that the trade went down quickly, and a decade later most whalers had left. Around that time, the Canadian Mounted Police established a station to increase the national presence in the Arctic. The fur trade continued for a while, but this dwindled down, too, and the Hudson Bay Company left in 1937. The police left in 1964, putting an end to year-round occupation of the island. Nowadays, the island receives small groups of Inuvialuit, park conservation officers, tourists, and scientists, mostly in the summer. Visit the Camp gallery for a tour!

 
The Pauline Cove settlement on Qikiqtaruk often gets flooded when sea level rises during a storm.

The Pauline Cove settlement on Qikiqtaruk often gets flooded when sea level rises during a storm.

A changing island

The environment of Qikiqtaruk is changing rapidly: the Arctic is warming around twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and consequences are already felt there. The rich wildlife, varied habitat types, and special geomorphology of the island make it a prime location to study environmental change. Qikiqtaruk is a living laboratory where researchers, in collaboration with the parks rangers and the Yukon government, monitor long-term changes in the landscape, from shifts in the abundance of certain plants to rates of coastal erosion.

Climate change also threatens the human heritage of the site. Some of the historical buildings have already been moved to prevent them being lost at sea. The Inuvialuit and whalers grave sites on the coast are also at risk.