Herschel Island, Yukon, on the Canadian north shore near the Alaskan border by Steven Luitjens

Herschel Island was named by John (later Sir John) Franklin when he passed here during his second arctic exploration expedition (1825-27).   Of course it was used long before by the native Inuit who call this place Qikiqtaruk.  This island of about 100 km2, roughly 10 by 10 km, is the only one along an otherwise relatively straight coastline between the Mackenzie delta to the east and well into Alaska to the west.  The coast has a fairly narrow coastal plane followed by hills and further inland there are the higher mountains of the Brooks range with snow covered peaks and up to 2700 m elevation.  Herschel island itself is composed of sand, silt, clay and peat (in short mud), but due to permafrost it is solid and able to withstand erosion until it thaws, which is happening on its cliffs along the shores.  Due to climate warming which thaws permafrost there is enhanced slumping near the shores, which in certain spots is working its way inland, causing a sort of badlands.  Apart from the recent mudslides the whole island is undulating hills with small valleys and covered in thick tundra vegetation.  There are no trees taller than 1 m.  The shore cliffs are mostly more than 20 m in height and the maximum elevation on the island is 182 m.


Qikiqtaruk and its surrounding region have abundant and varied fauna and flora.  More than 50 different types of birds have been recorded and over 100 different plants.  On the mainland the north shore caribou herd, which in summer grazes on the northern coastal plain of Alaska, migrates north of the mountains of the Brooks ranges over the coastal plain to the boreal forests of Canada.  Similarly elk migrate on the coastal plain.  On the island there is a small herd of about 30 Muskox, which live here permanently.  Other mammals that frequent the island are grizzly and polar bears, arctic foxes, arctic hare, wolves and small mammals like voles and lemmings.  In the waters surrounding the island there are beluga whale, ring seal and bearded seal, bowhead whale and fish like arctic char, trout and salmon.  The salmon have lately increased significantly, the park ranger told us, most likely as a consequence of global warming.  With so many food resouces the island was an important place to stay for the Inuit before european influence.   This comparatively rich arctic environment has attracted local nomadic Inuit for well over 1,000 years as a significant resource, where they would spend part of the year.  The original Inuit used to have 3 settlements on the island.

On the eastern side of the island lies a sand and gravel bank (Simpson Point), which envelopes a protected bay (Pauline Cove, or Ilutag), where the settlement is located.  When approaching from the east a group of friendly looking houses appears to rise out of the sea.    Coming closer the houses are surrounded by a low sand and gravel bank which is littered with a massive amount of driftwood, that originates from the large Mackenzie river whose delta lies 100 miles to the east.  Before whalers established their buildings at the sand/gravel bank of Simpson Point next to Pauline Cove.  The reason for building on the low sandbank is that this location is not underlain by permafrost, which would cause buildings elsewhere on the island to have become unstable. 

After the visit by the Franklin expedition initially no other Europeans came past, but in the late 19th century things changed markedly.  By 1890 American whalers stayed for winter at Pauline Cove so that they could commence whaling as soon as the whales arrived, without the need to get ships first through the Bering strait and icebound waters north of Alaska.  From 1893 onwards the Pacific Whaling Company established a post at Simpson Point with warehouses and crew quarters.  Up to fifteen whaling ships and 500 crew would spend winter here.  This activity also attracted local Inuit to build their peat-snow shelters nearby and trade with the whalers.  Conseqences were disastrous for the Inuit, of a total district population of about 2000 (not all at Herschel Island, but at least affected by the newcomers) after a number of years only a couple of hundred were left.  Causes for Inuit deaths are mentioned as disease and alcohol.  By 1893 anglican reverend I.O. Stringer visited and set up a mission and in 1903 the Northwest Mounted Police set up a post to enforce Canadian law.  The RCMP remained until 1964 and the post at Herschel Island was for some time the Western Arctic regional headquarters for RCMP.  The whaling era did not last long, after afew years whales became scarcer and in 1907 a collapse in the price of whalebone made whaling uneconomic, and the non native population dwindled rapidly.  Only services (mission, RCMP, trading post) remained.  Fur trading flourished until the 1930’s, but then population and trade moved to places in the Mackenzie delta.  In 1987 a territorial park covering the island and the nearby sea was established with the dual aim of providing the Inuit population (via a committee with elders and active users) with a say in affairs concerning the island and to preserve both its natural assets and cultural heritage.  Management of the island is carried out by park rangers employed by the Yukon government, who maintain presence on the island from June until mid-September.  They arrange provisions for their own maintenance, make inspection tours on the island and surrounding waters, support visiting scientists and guide visitors.  Maintaining buildings, the airstrip, heritage collection, counting wildlife and chasing off polar bears that approach the settlement are all part of regular duties.  During the remaining 8 months the general accommodation building remains open to visitors, mainly Inuit on hunting trips, with strict advice to keep the place neat and tidy and to dispose of slaughter offal well away from the settlement area.  

Our shore party received a warm welcome from the park rangers and senior ranger Richard, who is of Inuit descent, gave an informative and personal tour of the facilities.  When we arrived unannounced Richard was busy filletting salmon that had been caught earlier in the day.  He interupted this work for our group and spent the next oneandhalf hour providing us with stories of wildlife, local history and his personal involvement with managing the park and how his Inuit knowledge came from his exposure to Inuit elders.  He showed us several of the buildings, including the Northern Whaling and Trading Company store shed, the Canada Customs Bonded Warehouse and the Pacific Whaling Company Community House, now museum and park offices.  This building he told us dated from around 1893 and that my exploration-hero Roald Amundsen had stayed here during his stay in 1906.  He also told us to be careful and not stray too far on the island, because two days previous a polar bear had been near the settlement and had to be scared away by firing a gun.   The australians in our group agreed that Herschel Island is the true Canadian outback.  A beautiful and unique place, which presented us with a memorable last highlight of the Canadian arctic, before we sailed on into Alaska the next day.

The information provide here is sourced from:

-Herschel Island Park ranger Richard

-Yukon Government Cultural Services Branch -Yukon Bird Club brochure:  Checklist of Birds of Herschel island – Qikiqtaruk -Yukon Parks

By Steven

Comments are closed.