Alexandra Fiord – A High Arctic Oasis

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    Dryas integrifolia covers the tundra in the lowlands with a layer of white as it blooms in the summer. © Katriina O’Kane

    In the extreme environment of the High Arctic, life congregates around resources. A moist lowland, a sheltered warm valley, an open water polynya. Little oases spring up across the otherwise barren landscape, where plants bloom and animals gather. This abundance draws settlers century after century, who build their lives upon layers of history.

    Alexandra Fiord and the surrounding Bache peninsula region on the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island is one such oasis. Nestled between two major ice-fields, lush lowlands surround a network of deep fiords and polynyas. For thousands of years, the oasis has seen the arrival and departure of people from different cultures. She has listened to their stories and felt their footsteps. This is the story of her people.

    2500 B.C. – 1700 A.D.: Paleo- and Neo-cultures

    The first pioneers to arrive at Alexandra Fiord were part of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, migrating across the High Arctic from Alaska around 2500 B.C. They arrived in small groups of one or two extended families, and stayed because of good hunting around the polynyas. In the summers they lived in tents, cooking around fires fuelled by driftwood and animal bones. They hunted seals and other small sea mammals from their skin boats using harpoons, but would also occasionally feast on muskoxen, caribou, or any other small land animals that wandered near their camp.

    Steep cliffs plunge towards an iceberg-filled Alexandra Fiord. © Katriina O’Kane
    Steep cliffs plunge towards an iceberg-filled Alexandra Fiord. © Katriina O’Kane

    Around 800 B.C. Alexandra Fiord was abandoned. Perhaps due to a deterioration in climate, the lowlands remained void of new settlements for the next 1,200 years. When humans finally ventured North again, their culture had evolved significantly. These people from the Late-Dorset culture built huge communal living structures, the largest found in the region housing up to 120 people. In their spare time they would carve beautiful ivory figurines of polar bears, humans, and other animals in their world.

    The most prolific culture in the area was that of the Thule whale hunters. Migrating from Alaska around 1200 A.D. in dog sleds and skin boats, they rapidly settled across the entire High Arctic. The new Thule culture was impressive; their livelihood centred around whale hunting. Using ivory harpoons and lances, hunters would pursue 50,000-kilogram bowhead whales. Bringing in a whale of this size would feed a village and their dogs for a long time, and provide oil for their lamps to light the endless winter nights. This security enabled the Thule to build villages of 30 to 40 people, each family with their own comfortable sod house. But by the time 19th century explorers began visiting Ellesmere Island, no one was there to greet them.

    What happened remains a mystery. The Little Ice Age could’ve been the culprit, beginning around 1650. But the Thule adjusted to colder temperatures, changing their hunting and living patterns to centre around small sea mammals. They may have moved south, or east to Greenland. Or it may have been more tragic. Archeologist Peter Schledermann suggests the Thule in the High Arctic may have suffered from the same tragedy as other First Nations across the Americas — exposure to disease against which they had no immunity.

    1926-1963: The RCMP

    In 1926, an RCMP detachment was opened on Bache Peninsula. Since acquiring the Arctic Archipelago from Britain in 1880, Canada’s government had paid little attention to it. But interest from American and Norwegian explorers provoked the government to react in the name of sovereignty. For seven years the post was active, and officers from the south learned from the Greenland Inughuit how to patrol on dogsled.

    When questions of sovereignty arose again in the 1950s, the government decided to reopen its detachment, and also relocate Canadian Inuit to live there permanently. So in the summer of 1953, two ships made their way North. Icebreaker D’Iberville headed straight for Alexandra Fiord, while C.D. Howe made stops in Inukjuak and Pond Inlet to pick up Inuit families. The families were to be relocated to Resolute, Grise Fiord and Alexandra Fiord to serve as guarantors of Canada’s claim to the High Arctic.

    These families were often taken against their will, and no arrangements in housing or other assistance was made before their arrival. Vibrant communities are now found in Resolute and Grise Fiord, an attestation to the resilience and strength of the relocated families. But Alexandra Fiord never became a community. By the time a ship carrying four Inuit families bound for Alexandra Fiord made it to Smith Sound it was already early September, and the ice conditions were too heavy to allow passage.

    For the next 10 years, successive Constables from the south and Inuit Special Constables and their families lived at the isolated outpost. Four times a year they would be re-supplied, but otherwise lived in each other’s company. They’d spend the long and dark winter days in their cabins, building model airplanes, and the endless summers patrolling and hunting and learning to paint oil colour paintings. The Alexandra Fiord RCMP detachment closed September 3, 1963.

    1979 – present: Researchers

    Over a decade later in the summer of 1979, ecologists Josef Svoboda and Bill Freedman make an emergency landing at Alexandra Fiord. They are on their way to Lake Hazen further north, in search of a new research site. But the sky started closing in, making landing in mountainous environments impossible. The pilots drop them off in front of the abandoned blue and white cabins of the RCMP.

    Josef Svoboda and Bill Freedman measure long wave radiation across the lowland in July 1981. © Greg Henry
    Josef Svoboda and Bill Freedman measure long wave radiation across the lowland in July 1981. © Greg Henry

    Four weeks pass before they get picked up again. In that time, they discover a gentle sloping glacial lowland, rich with vegetation and birds, but manageable in its size — a perfect site for their new research project. And so begins a new era of occupation. For the first four years, ecologists, biologists, ornithologists, geologists, and all other forms of natural scientists survey the lowland behind the RCMP cabins — a comprehensive study of the ecosystem. Small groups of young adventurous students live and work together for months at a time. One of the students, Greg Henry, becomes an assistant professor and continues returning, starting new projects and bringing new students. In 1992, he starts the Inter­national Tundra Experiment, using miniature greenhouses to warm plants and observe their response to warmer temper­atures. Over the years, dozens of studies are undertaken.

    But there is something else that draws this group of southern summer migrators to the oasis. You can hear it in their stories. It’s the wilderness, the remoteness, the quiet and beauty of the purple mountains and iceberg-filled fiord. It’s the tight knit group of friends that forms from living and working together day and night. It’s the admiration of the environment that comes from being part of it every day. “It’s an oasis of the mind, the heart, the spirit,” as Henry says.

    In four years Henry will retire, and yearly visits to Alexandra Fiord will come to an end. Once again the fiords will be void of human voices. But the oasis will endure. Every summer the tundra will continue exploding with saxifrage and Dryas and poppies, and the symphony of migrating birds that arrive every spring will continue to echo in the fiords. And sometime in the future, someone will be back again, drawn by the abundance of resources and beauty that have attracted people over all these years.