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On a Desolate Yukon Island, a Story of Nature and Culture Unfolds

caribou-Herschel-Island-Yukon

A lonely caribou wanders remote Herschel Island, a territorial park on the northwest coast of Yukon. (Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon)

Every April 22, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. More than 1 billion people take part in the day to create local, national, and global changes. For 2021, Vacay.ca features an intriguing island park off of Yukon’s coast that faces serious challenges because of climate change.

A Twin Otter — equipped with tundra tires and carrying eight of us — departed from a tiny Northwest Territories outpost for a wilderness landing strip that’s equal parts breathtaking and intimidating. After 90 minutes in the air, following the Mackenzie Delta to the Beaufort Sea while fretting that fog and fierce winds might arrive to scuttle our plans, we circled the runway as the pilots gauged side winds and debris before making a bumpy landing alongside a rocky beach strewn with driftwood logs.

We had made it to Herschel Island–Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, the ancient home of the Inuvialuit people and now a natural environment park in Yukon that tells a tale of human history and warns of oncoming calamity.

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The outhouse on Herschel Island is marked by this uniquely placed door not far from the landing strip. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Standing on the treeless Western Arctic island, it was easy to picture the Inuvialuit, and their Thule ancestors, coming to hunt, fish and whale for a thousand years. Bowhead and beluga whales, seals and Arctic char are drawn to the plankton-rich water. Muskoxen, grizzly bears, polar bears, and Porcupine caribou roam the unglaciated land.

What was harder to imagine was the look of the pristine land when it was occupied here at Pauline Cove (Ilutaq) by more than 1,500 fortune-seekers. American whalers over-wintered here from 1890 until 1907 as they hunted whales for their oil and baleen, a flexible mouth plate of keratin used to make buggy whips, parasol ribs, and corset stays. Then came the Anglican missionaries, the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, fur traders, North-West Mounted Police, and finally the RCMP, who bred sled dogs here near a bounty of seal meat until 1964.

The year I visited Herschel on a Parks Canada trip to Ivvavik’s base camp to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, there were 525 visitors. We were a mix of expedition cruise ship and private tourists, researchers, Inuvialuit from Canada and Inupiat from Alaska, private yachts and sailboats, government employees, military, coast guard, and parks staff. The number dropped to 107 in 2018 when there was too much ice for the cruise ships, rose to 657 in 2019 because of three cruise-ship visits, and plummeted to 17 in 2020 because of the global pandemic. The park is only staffed from April to September and permits to venture on land are required.

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Parks Canada’s Guy Thériault explores the pack ice on Herschel Island, home to one of Canada’s most remote parks. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Fog often wreaks havoc on people’s dreams of seeing Herschel Island, but Mother Nature gifted me with three precious hours to learn the island’s natural and cultural history and hear how climate change threatens its Arctic ecosystem.

The park was created in 1987 as a result of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement land claim of 1984 that protects the Yukon North Slope and its wildlife, habitat, and traditional Indigenous harvesting rights. It got its English name in 1826 from explorer Sir John Franklin in honour of a famous family of British astronomers and scientists. Its Inuvialuit name, Qikiqtaruk (pronounced “ke-keek-ta-ruk”) means “It is island.”

Together with Ivvavik National Park and Vuntut National Park, this little-known island is on Canada’s “Tentative List” for UNESCO World Heritage Site consideration because the collective has “outstanding universal value”, and showcases early human history and biological diversity.

Herschel is co-managed by the Inuvialuit and the Yukon government and so an Inuvialuit park ranger showed us around and served us tea. The island is divided into a “heritage zone” near Pauline Cove and a “wildland zone” that includes the rest of the island’s undisturbed natural landscape.

RCMP gravesite at Herschel Island Yukon

Visitors pay respects at the RCMP gravesite on Herschel Island, where explorers, whalers and officials lost their lives against the extreme conditions. (Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon)

A dozen structures in a historic settlement at Simpson Point speak to pre-contact times and the days of exploration, whaling, trading, policing, and the church. The Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s Bonehouse, a storehouse for baleen, became a courthouse — the first in the Arctic. Two Inuvialuit men were found guilty of murder in 1924 and hung from a tie beam that has thankfully been removed. There’s a store, shed and Canada Customs warehouse built by the Northern Whaling and Trading Company, and interpretive displays inside one of the buildings. There are the remains of semi-subterranean sod houses and mounds of earth that were once food caches.

Oddly, it’s the outhouse that makes the strongest impression. I had to climb five steps to get to it because it is built on permafrost and elevated over a catch barrel. The waste is burned every few days and the ash flown to Inuvik.

As I strolled down to the ocean, aiming my zoom lens at ringed seals and standing on pieces of sea ice close to shore, I heard how climate change impacts the park. The weather is more extreme and unpredictable, there is an increasing loss of sea ice, longer ice-free seasons, warmer summers, thawing permafrost, more surface and coastal erosion, shifting vegetation communities and rising sea levels. Longer seasons of open waters could mean more cruise ships and marine traffic to manage in coming years.

Senior park ranger Richard R Gordon Government of Yukon

Senior park ranger Richard Gordon is a rare expert on the ecology and landscape of Herschel Island. (Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon)

Richard Gordon, the senior park ranger, told me later that they used to take 25 cruise-ship visitors at a time on interpretive walks in a single-file line, but after assessing the impact on the island’s fragile vegetation, they now ask people to fan out. People aren’t allowed to wander too far from the settlement on their own, lest they encounter wildlife that could turn dangerous, forcing a ranger to shoot an animal in order to protect “somebody that just wants to take a picture.”

Gravestones at Herschel Island Government of Yukon

Gravestones tell the grim history of Herschel Island. Visitors can explore the park and learn how the community and authorities overseeing it hope for its future against the challenges of climate change. (Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon)

Getting people to Herschel is always a challenge. You can bring a tent and camp, but most people only stay a few hours. High water levels can flood the landing strip and make the ground spongy. Helicopters and planes with tundra tires can land, but floatplane operators have had trouble getting enough clients. Everyone wonders whether the new road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, near the top of the Northwest Territories, will spark demand for more trips to Herschel or give travellers a more accessible way to dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean.

“Ice and weather conditions change everything,” says Gordon. “That’s the challenge that we have with Herschel Island in the coming years.”

Born and raised in Aklavik, a hamlet near Inuvik, he has been inspired by the beautiful, barren land ever since coming here with elders and hearing their stories. “It is very important to protect Herschel as best I can,” says Gordon, “and to keep it in its natural state.”

buildings at Herschel Island Government of Yukon

All of Herschel Island has a connection to the past, including the buildings created by whaling communities and the government. (Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon)

On the June day that I visited Herschel Island, only a few Arctic wildflowers had bloomed. I yearned to see my first muskox and four historic graveyards — two for Inuvialuit, one for police, and one for whalers that includes a memorial marker for the Triton, a sailing vessel that sank in Pauline Cove. But Herschel is too big to explore quickly — it’s 116 square kilometres — and our pilot was anxious to press on before the weather changed, putting us at risk of being stranded.

I held my breath as the Twin Otter rattled down the airstrip, and then once again stared down at the sea in awe for a five-kilometre jaunt over the Workboat Passage until we were back over the mainland and mountains replaced ocean.

More About Visiting Herschel Island

Where to stay: While Herschel Island is in Yukon, the closest community is Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Capital Suites Inuvik is a three-storey, smoke-free hotel. Standard rooms have a mini-fridge, microwave, plates, cups, sinks, and tea towels. Suites have full kitchens and dining tables. A lobby shop sells everything from milk, eggs, cereal, and bacon to frozen dinners.

Address: 198 MacKenzie Road, Inuvik, NWT (see map below)

Room rates: A recent search of the hotel’s website showed that standard rooms start at $184 and suites with one or two bedrooms run from $224 to $369.

Other options: Parks Canada is taking reservations for its guided and catered trips to Ivvavik National Park’s fly-in base camp in Yukon in 2022. The five-day trips include return airs charters from Inuvik, and two of them (June 28 to July 2, and July 2-6) include two-hour stopovers in Herschel Island and cost $6,050 per adult. Since the stop depends on weather and coastal water levels, customers will get a $900 refund if the plane can’t land.

COVID-19 considerations: The Northwest Territories’ borders are closed to all non-essential travel. For potential future travels, consult the Government of Northwest Territories’ website for the latest updates and adhere to both territorial and federal travel advisories, as well as those from Yukon.

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Jennifer Bain is a flag-waving Canadian journalist who gravitates to cold climates and has proudly visited all 10 provinces and three territories. She lives with her family in Toronto but has a retreat on Fogo Island in Newfoundland and an obsession with the Arctic. Jennifer is a recovering newspaper travel and food editor, cookbook author and author of 111 Places in Calgary That You Must Not Miss. She freelances for magazines, newspapers and online publications.

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