People and the Landscape of Wapusk National Park

An Archaeological Expedition in Wapusk

David Hems
Cultural Resource Manager, Manitoba Field Unit, Parks Canada

Wapusk News - Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 2011

An historic Inuit-style 3-stone hearth, called an Igaviit, at the 20K26 site An historic Inuit-style 3-stone hearth, called an Igaviit, at the 20K26 site
© Parks Canada

Wapusk National Park (NP) is renowned for its biological diversity. It is perhaps because of this that it is also a landscape that has been travelled and made use of by people for thousands of years.

Parks Canada protects and presents cultural resources in National Parks and National Historic Sites across the country, and Wapusk NP is no exception. Key to this challenge is finding and studying the cultural resources that are found in the park. As Parks Canada explores the introduction of new visitor facilities and activities in Wapusk NP, it is important that its cultural resources are identified, that they are protected if potentially threatened and that the stories surrounding these reminders of the past are told.

As part of this effort, in July, 2011, Parks Canada archaeologists conducted a research expedition into Wapusk NP to add to our knowledge of the park’s cultural resources.

A major focus of the expedition was to record and map in greater detail the largest archaeological site that has been discovered in the park so far – known as 20K26. This site is located on a beach ridge and contains a range of cultural feature such as cairns (markers on the landscape), caches (places where stores of supplies for travellers were buried), hunting blinds (small rock walls to conceal hunters from animals), stone hearths (places where fires were made) and tent rings (circles of stones that held down the walls of a tent). Cultural remnants such as these can give us an understanding of past human use in relation to the breathtaking landscape of Wapusk NP.

A stone hunting blind, 3 metres long at the 20K26 site A stone hunting blind, 3 metres long, at the 20K26 site
© Parks Canada

While working at the 20K26 site in 2011, we were able to identify many tent rings which had not been discovered before. In addition, we found traces of an entirely different human habitation on a lower elevation ridge to the north of the main study area, adding to our knowledge of past site use.

The differences between the main site and the newly-discovered portion of the site were striking. Parks Canada Arctic archaeologist Margaret Bertulli, who led the project, reasons that, based on the size of the tent rings in the main site, many of these habitations were made after the arrival of Europeans. However, the portion of the site at lower elevation may well be from an earlier period.

Interestingly, to further demonstrate the importance of the beach ridges as travel corridors through various time periods, evidence of use by Canadian and American military during the years from 1946 to 1957 is also present at the 20K26 site. These remains include mortar flights and a vehicle trail extending to the south end of the ridge. Along this trail, a tire from a military vehicle can still be seen.

A mortar flight (part of a small military explosive) at the 20K26 site A mortar flight (part of a small military explosive) at the 20K26 site
© Parks Canada

During our 2011 expedition, we visited 24 archaeological sites in Wapusk NP representing a range of human occupations and site types. All of these sites were located along beach ridges. Besides studying 20K26, we visited areas between Klohn and Napper Lakes, along more ancient inland ridges covered in forest and moss, where we searched for early stone tools. We also recorded in detail a site near the recently-constructed Broad River fenced compound which may provide future opportunities for visitors to experience first-hand the cultural resources of Wapusk NP. Throughout the expedition, we examined a range of cultural resources, from older archaeological sites to more recent hunting and trapping cabins and research locations. All of these sites and the stories they tell are helping Parks Canada tie together ancient and modern use of the Wapusk National Park landscape by people – understanding the past as we plan for the future.

Beach Ridges as Ancient Travel Ways

Satellite image SPOT satellite image showing beach ridges in Wapusk NP (vertical pink bands)
© 2008 CNES, Licensed by Iunctus Geomatics Corp.,

Of great importance to past human inhabitants of Wapusk NP are the beach ridges that run roughly parallel to the coast of Hudson Bay. The gradual rising of the Hudson Bay Lowlands (60 cm-1 m per century), coupled with the low elevation of the region, has left noticeable beach ridges along the eastern shore of Wapusk National Park from Cape Churchill to Broad River. As the land has slowly risen, freed from the weight of glaciers following the last ice age, wind, storms and waves have built ridges along the high tide line each year.

These beach ridges are sparsely vegetated and often have ponds in the low areas between them. It is easy to imagine how these well-drained, easily travelled elevated ridges, with adjacent supplies of fresh water, would serve as important corridors for both animals and people. Another attractive feature is that many of the small rocks that make up the beach ridges contain chert, a type of quartz which was often used to make stone tools by past travellers through Wapusk NP. Adding it all up, it’s no surprise that most of the park’s archaeological sites have been found on beach ridges.

Global Positioning Systems Then and Now

Before the advent of the modern GPS (Global Positioning System) that researchers use now, archaeologists in Wapusk NP used a variety of methods to mark the locations of their discoveries. Some of these methods were less than accurate, making it difficult for us to find these sites today.

Fortunately for us, in a land so flat and devoid of vegetation, previous inhabitants had devised their own very effective method of marking and locating important sites. A number of the larger places of past human use contain cairns or markers that aided greatly in finding them. In other cases, natural land formations served the same purpose. Although not particularly large or high, these markers stand out in the environment and served as site location aids to our research team in much the same way as they must have done in the past.

A human-made cairn on the landscape; Natural mounds near a site of past human use. A human-made cairn on the landscape; Natural mounds near a site of past human use.
© Parks Canada