The crossing place
Imagine a place frozen in time, where you can see animals found only in the Arctic, you can stand on prehistoric seabeds and experience a landscape that some of the first people who came to North America would have seen. Aulavik National Park whose name means “place where people travel” is still travelled today. It has spectacular views, stunning wildlife, incredible history and is home to the most northern navigable river in North America.
Aulavik National Park is located on Ikaahuk “the crossing place” in Inuvialuktun (Banks Island) almost 800 km north of the Arctic Circle. Parks Canada manages this site cooperatively with Inuvialuit, protecting a 12,200 km2 conservation area on the north end of the island for present and future generations.
Aulavik has a vast oceanic prehistory that can be observed from the land, including ancient coral reefs dating over 350 million years and shark teeth over 50 million years old. When the island emerged as a landmass a vast forest grew. The forest existed until about 5 million years ago and there are mummified firs within Aulavik that Inuvialuit have used as fuel.
This “place where people travel” has over 4,000 years of archaeological evidence dating to the Pre-Dorset era through to historic times. Pre-Dorset stone tools are small, which may have given rise to Inuvialuit stories of the Inugarullit, or ‘little people’. In Aulavik there are archaeological sites in the park dating to 2,000 years ago that show that Thule people also inhabited this place. Some sites in Aulavik can be attributed to historically documented groups of Inuvialuit and Inuinnait.
More recently, Aulavik National Park made history when the HMS Investigator was mapped by Parks Canada in Mercy Bay just outside the Park in 2010. The Investigator was a Royal Navy merchant ship that set off from England looking for the lost Franklin Voyage and had hopes of finding the Northwest Passage but got stuck in the ice and was abandoned in 1853. After the ship was abandoned, local Inuvialuit and Inuinnait groups from Victoria Island made seasonal trips to salvage the ship for materials like wood and metal.
Conservation and monitoring
How can Parks Canada conserve a place that is larger than Cape Breton? By cooperatively managing it with Inuvialuit of course. By using consensus-based decision making, Parks Canada and Inuvialuit have developed a strategy to monitor the ecological integrity of Aulavik. The two main conservation projects that are being studied are water quality and permafrost. Water quality measures show the health of the river systems that are important for the fish and waterfowl that call this park home and are also a crucial part of Inuvialuit culture because of their value as food staples. For the water quality measurements, Parks Canada staff travel north on the Thomsen River from Green Cabin where they measure benthic invertebrates and overall quality at all the streams and creeks flowing into the river. Parks Canada also monitors permafrost slumping in Aulavik. The permafrost on Banks Island has high amounts of ground ice in it, making it more likely to thaw and degrade quickly. This makes it an interesting and important place to study and monitor and can show scientists the effects of climate change on a local scale within the Park.
What visitors can expect
Getting to Aulavik National Park is an adventure all on its own, as visitors will need to fly on a Twin Otter for three hours from Inuvik over the Arctic Ocean to Green Cabin in the heart of the Park just to start the 150-kilometre journey down the Thomsen River. Once there they can expect otherworldly views of the tundra. Aulavik National Park is flat, has limited vegetation and the weather can be unpredictable. Even in a summer storm there is beauty in the remoteness that can be felt when in Aulavik and when the sun comes out it really comes to life.
There are over 150 species of plants, and the highest concentration of muskox in the world. As you are paddling down the river you can often spot the grazing muskox on grassy hills all around you and if you look closely, you can sometimes see wolves following them. Overhead and in the water, there are endless geese and waterfowl.
When the paddling is done for the day, there are compelling cultural sites in the Park spanning the last 4,000 years, including caches, tent rings, complex campsites and large muskox kill sites.
With only a handful of visitors every year Aulavik National Park is sure to make any adventurer’s bucket list. Please visit https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/nt/aulavik for more information.