Bathurst Island is located in the Queen Elizabeth group of islands, in Canada’s Western High Arctic Natural Region. The national park area includes the northern part of Bathurst Island (north of Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area) as well as smaller islands west and north of Bathurst Island. This area is also referred to as the Bathurst Island complex.
The geology of the Bathurst Island complex is composed primarily of sedimentary rocks such as limestone, sandstone and dolomite. Evidence of past glaciation includes landforms such as eskers, moraines and raised beaches. Various landscape features are present such as plateaus, hills, wetlands, lowlands as well as uplands with elevations up to 411 meters.
Bathurst Island is located in one of the harshest and driest regions in the world. Mean temperatures range from minus 35 degrees Celsius in January to 5 degrees Celsius in July and annual precipitation is less than 130 mm. This severe climate limits soil and nutrient development and as a result vegetation is extremely scarce. Vegetation that does exist such as purple saxifrage, dwarf willow, sedges, grasses, lichens and mosses is a precious food source for wildlife.
Given the high latitude and harsh conditions there is a surprising number of wildlife species in the Bathurst Island complex. Some of the terrestrial wildlife species adapted to this environment include: polar bear, arctic wolf, arctic fox, muskox and numerous bird species such as Snowy Owl, Snow Goose, King Eider, Jaeger as well as various gulls and shorebirds. Some of the marine species in the area include ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, bowhead whale, beluga whale and narwhal.
The national park encompasses key wildlife habitat including in particular: travel routes, calving grounds and wintering grounds for Peary caribou which were listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act in 2011. The Bathurst Island complex is also considered a very significant area for muskoxen in the Queen Elizabeth Islands.
...And the People
Archaeological studies in the Bathurst Island complex indicate occasional human use over the past 4500 years. Both prehistoric as well as historic Dorset and Thule Inuit cultures are known to have been present in the area. Human presence fluctuated with changes in climate, ice cover and the corresponding availability of wildlife for subsistence.
A series of nineteenth century British naval expeditions brought people in the vicinity of the Bathurst Island area beginning in 1819 with searches for the Northwest Passage. Many subsequent expeditions in the area included search parties for the Sir John Franklin ships and crews that went missing in 1845.
Other exploration in the Bathurst Island area continued into the twentieth century. Initially the expeditions had the goal of establishing Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic islands. Later there was a focus on observing and documenting: whaling and fishing activities; ice conditions and climate. Specialized expeditions were conducted in the area including: a land-based Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol; Royal Canadian Air Force magnetic pole research flights; photography over-flights; as well as surveys of wildlife, geology and hydrology. The 1960s and 1970s brought exploratory drilling for hydrocarbons and minerals to the area. Various research projects continue to this day, many affiliated with the Polar Continental Shelf Program.
The community of Resolute located on Cornwallis Island to the southeast of the national park, was established in 1953 and Inuit from the community still travel the land as well as the waters of the Bathurst Island area to hunt, fish and trap.