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Parks Canada 2010 Arctic Surveys

Challenges of Working in an Arctic Climate

Working in an Arctic climate poses interesting challenges for Parks Canada’s survey teams. Climate, travel to distant locations, and lack of amenities in the Arctic must be carefully considered and certainly put Park Canada staff to the test as they conduct their day-to-day work. While McClure’s Cache site is located within Aulavik National Park, the vessel was thought to be lost in the waters of Mercy Bay, just outside the park boundaries.

Parks Canada Base Camp Setting up the Parks Canada base camp
© Parks Canada


The climate of Aulavik National Park is typically Arctic. The tundra is frozen and snow-covered from September until June. In the area where our team will be working, summers are brief and cool, with temperatures ranging from -2°C to 12°C with a daily average of 8°C, but it is not uncommon for it to snow even in July. While the sun does not set between mid May and late July, and there is never true darkness from late April until late August, Mercy Bay is prone to heavy fog and rain. Learn more about the climate of Aulavik National Park.

For the marine-based searches, Parks Canada continuously monitors the ice thickness in the Arctic regions where they plan to search by utilizing information and maps managed by the Canadian Ice Service (CIS) of Environment Canada. Without free-flowing water, these searches cannot be conducted.

Location, Travel and Amenities

The survey of McClure’s Cache and the search for HMS Investigator was conducted from Aulavik National Park, which is located on the northern Banks Island, the most westerly island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Aulavik lies 250 kilometres northeast of the tiny community of Sachs Harbour and 750 kilometres northeast of the town of Inuvik.

Helicopter landing in Aulavik Helicopter landing in Aulavik National Park
© Parks Canada

Aulavik is an isolated wilderness park with no facilities, campgrounds, developed trails or road access. Chartering an aircraft equipped with tundra tires is presently the most common and practical means of accessing the park. Our survey teams reached the Mercy Bay base camp in two stages. First they boarded a de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft from Inuvik to Sachs Harbour, re-fuelled after this two-hour flight, then continued for another hour to Polar Bear Cabin, just east of Castel Bay. From there, the crew and equipment were ferried by Bell 206L helicopter for the half hour it takes to get from Polar Bear Cabin to the Mercy Bay base camp. Because Mercy Bay empties into the sea, the water there is not drinkable, so freshwater has to be acquired from a nearby pond or river, and then slung by helicopter to the base camp. After being dropped off in the park, our survey teams were on their own until the helicopter returned to pick them up to take them to Polar Bear Cabin, and from there to Inuvik via Twin Otter. Poor weather can easily prevent the helicopter or Twin Otter from returning on schedule, so extra supplies and a plan for at least two extra days in the park were necessary in case of a delayed flight.

Twin Otter Twin Otter in Aulavik National Park
© Parks Canada

Due to aircraft weight restrictions (1134 kg for a Twin Otter and up to 408 kg for helicopter sling), the team was limited in how much survey equipment, personal gear, and fresh food they could bring. Everyone had their own tent, but there were also communal tents for cooking and eating. Since the camp was in polar bear country, safe camp practices were strictly followed to lessen the risk of attracting bears. To maintain the park’s wilderness integrity, all food and human waste had to be shipped out at the end of the project, ideally leaving little evidence that the camp ever existed by the time the crew boarded their outgoing helicopter.