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Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada

Cultural Heritage

Quttinirpaaq National Park and its surrounding region has a rich legacy of cultural resources that tell the story of human occupation of the area – a story that dates back thousands of years.

Micro blade © Christian Kimber

Pre-Contact History

It is believed that the Paleo-Eskimos of the Independence I culture (2000 – 4000 B.C.) were the first to arrive in Quttinirpaaq after crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia. Their campsites in the park, characterized by box-shaped hearths, tell us that their numbers were low and that they only occupied the area for 300 – 400 years. These people hunted muskox and caribou and survived the long dark arctic winters with very little that could be used to produce heat.

For many centuries afterward, it appears no humans lived on Quttinirpaaq. Then about 3000 years ago, a second wave of Paleo-Eskimo people, the Independence II culture (1000 – 500 B.C.) migrated across the arctic islands and reached Quttinirpaaq. A third distinct culture, the Dorset culture (A.D.800 – A.D.1000), endured on Quttinirpaaq until about a 1000 years ago. They in turn were supplanted by the Thule people who were skillful hunters of whales and other marine mammals. While the Thule culture survived elsewhere in the arctic, Quttinirpaaq was abandoned by the Thule as the climate became colder leading up to the Little Ice Age (A.D.1600 – 1850).

The Thule were or are the ancestors of modern Inuit.

Post-Contact History

Early Contact Period (1875 - 1935)

Northern Ellesmere Island was first visited by Europeans in 1875. In that year, the British Arctic Expedition sailed through the Nares Strait and established wintering quarters for the ship HMS Discovery in the sheltered harbour off Lady Franklin Bay. Its sister ship, the HMS Alert wintered 160 km to the north on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. In the spring of 1876 various sledging parties struck out from the ships to explore the northern terrain. The expedition was forced to return to England later that year when the explorers became ill with scurvy.

Five years later, in 1881, the United States Army’s Lady Franklin Bay Expedition arrived at the same site under the leadership of Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. The expedition was one of two staged by the United States to contribute to International Polar Year, an undertaking by twelve countries to establish scientific stations in regions bordering the North Pole. The expedition established a polar station for scientific research that they named Fort Conger. But the expedition, ill-prepared for the harsh conditions, was doomed to fail. When supply ships failed to reach the group in 1882 and 1883, the group retreated, only to become stranded on Pim Island on Ellesmere Island’s eastern coast. Only seven of the original party of 26 men survived.

Fort Conger © John Webster
In 1899, American explorer Robert Peary arrived at the abandoned Fort Conger, planning to use it as a base station from which to reach the North Pole. The Peary expedition was accompanied by Inughuit guides from north-western Greenland, used traditional knowledge, used fur and ate local food and was thus much better able to cope with the harsh conditions. Using a combination of European technology and Aboriginal traditional knowledge, the base camp structures were modified in ways that allowed them to function well within the cold arctic environment. Fort Conger was the base for Peary’s expeditions in 1900-01, and again in 1905-06 and 1908-09. After the Peary era, the site provided shelter to American, Norwegian, Danish, and British/Canadian expeditions in 1915, 1920, 1921, and 1935.

Today, the Fort Conger shelters have been designated as Classified Federal Heritage Buildings and are protected by Quttinirpaaq National Park as important cultural resources and a tangible reminder of the role of both Aboriginal people and Europeans in the history of this region.

The mid-Twentieth Century

Ellesmere Island has long been a focal point for Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. The main interests of the Canadian government in the high arctic have been (and continue to be) scientific research and military defense.

Between 1953 and the mid-1970’s, the Defense Research Board (DRB) of the Canadian Department of National Defense played a leading role in high arctic science. A Joint Canada-US Weather Station was established on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island at Alert in 1950. The weather station is still operated by the military today.

Ward Hunt Island DRB Camp

Ward Hunt © Vicki Sahanatien
In 1959, a research base camp was established on Ward Hunt Island as a cooperative initiative by the Terrestrial Sciences Laboratory of the United States Air Force, the Arctic Institute of North America, and Canada’s Defence Research Board. It was the height of the Cold War, and Canadian and American military planners wished to develop logistical capability for military operations in the region. The initial mission was to determine the suitability of the Ward Hunt Island Ice Shelf as a landing surface for aircraft. A meteorological station was also established on the ice shelf. Throughout the 1960’s, the Ward Hunt Island DRB Camp continued to be used for scientific research on ice shelf movements and climatic history of the region.

Lake Hazen DRB Camp

A research base camp was established by the DRB at Lake Hazen in 1957-58 as part of Canada’s contribution to International Geophysical Year. This initiative, sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions and supported by 67 countries, was an effort to gain an integrated picture of the world’s physical environment. Operation Hazen focussed on glaciological studies and was one of the most comprehensive scientific research projects ever to be carried out in the Canadian high arctic. The original DBR building still stands from 1958. Today Lake Hazen, with its base camp and surviving artifacts, is used as a Warden Station and air access point to Quttinirpaaq National Park.

Tanquary Fiord DRB Camp

Tanquary Warden Station © Tom Knight

Operation Tanquary was initiated by the DRB in 1962 with the establishment of another research base camp at Tanquary Fiord. From this base, the DRB coordinated a wide-ranging program of scientific research, for which studies were undertaken over much of northern Ellesmere Island. Much of the program focussed on sea ice research, but also included studies in meteorology, oceanography, glaciology, biology, and archaeology. While Operation Tanquary concluded in 1972, the Defence Research Establishment Pacific continued to sponsor research in the region into the 1990’s. Since 1973, the coordination of high arctic research has been carried out by the Polar Continental Shelf Project of Natural Resources Canada. Today, Tanquary Fiord base camp is used as a Warden Station and air access point to Quttinirpaaq National Park.