In the northernmost part of Canada, in Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut State, stands the northernmost national park in the world, Quttinirpaaq National Park. The park is placed within Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in the world, containing the northernmost human settlements in the planet. And northernmost by northernmost, we would never finish. The northernmost musk ox population, the northernmost caribou, the northernmost mountain range… and if you bring there an octopus disguise it will be the northernmost octopus disguise in the world, surely, and you could feel like the northernmost stupid man on Earth. Here everything is the northernmost, just because we are in the damn northernmost part of the world. And by this time you may know which the main challenge of going there is.
Ellesmere Island is part of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and comprises an area of about 200.000 km2, more or less the size of Senegal. Even if you consider it to be tundra or a polar desert –and most likely both- the nature is imposing, less snowed and with more vegetation than you could imagine for its latitude. The distances are enormous; huge extensions of nothing expand until the horizon line, while the perpetual ices of never-ending glaciers show up their ends between the mountains slopes. And yes, there are some mountains there: Barbeau Peak, with its 2,616 m, is the highest mountain in Nunavut region, and the British Empire Range, the most northern mountain range in the world.
Quttinirpaaq National Park
In Inuktitut language, Quttinirpaaq means “top of the world”. It has an extension of 38.000 km2, being the second largest park in Canada, just after Wood Buffalo National Park. The main attractions of the park are the numerous glaciers and the glacial landscape at one side, and the arctic flora and fauna on the other side, as well as the ice blocks and icebergs that can be seen floating in the surrounding calmed sea waters.
The park is often visited within the region comprised by the Tanquary Fiord, part of the bigger Greely Fiord and where there’s a human settlement, the Lake Hazen (the world’s largest lake north of the Arctic Circle by volume), Turnabout Lake and the Garfield Range, acting as a barrier to reach the higher peaks of the British Empire Range and the United States Range. To the northwest, there are other camps is in Hare Fiord and Otto Fiord, but for now we’ll focus on what you can find around Lake Hazen and Tanquary Fiord, with a bigger concentration of wildlife due to its milder climate in comparison to the surrounding ice cap-covered mountains and valleys.
Just arriving to the Tanquary landing strip you will notice the impressive “Hand of God”, the foot of Gull Glacier with a shape that reminds a hand descending the narrow valley between the mountain slopes. Maybe then you’ll focus on the aspect of the camp: a few can-like tents in the middle of a truly inhospitable environment and the immensity extending all around.
But just a few meters away you’ll be able to see what you was looking for. Bad smelling musk oxen wander around eating the scarce short grass that grows in this desolated land, fearless arctic hares run through the rocky terrain while arctic wolves are hidden somewhere waiting to chase a lemming. The small population of caribou will be probably more difficult to see, as well as the most majestic animal in those latitudes: the polar bear.
Listed as an endangered specie, the largest carnivore on Earth is a beloved and mystified creature. Their huge territorial needs and the ice melt due to climate change is threatening their habitat, so the difficulties for them are getting strong. In the most visited region of Quttinirpaaq National Park it’s not common to see polar bears, but as it’s within their habitat, you can never discard an encounter.
Easier to see is the gyrfalcon (or gerfalcon), the arctic kind of falcon and the biggest falcon of all kinds, as well as other species of arctic and migratory birds like semipalmated plovers, arctic terns, red knots and long-tailed jaegers. The flora is composed by dwarf willow, arctic cotton, grasses and lichens.
Hiking is the main activity for visitors, as the nature is stunning and there’s not much more to do. The hike to Lake Hazen from Tanquary Fiord base camp, rounding through Air Force Glacier, is about 250 km, which can be easily made in 10 days. The animals here are fearless of humans, which is one of the most amazing things in the trip. Arctic hares and wolves (not dangerous for an adult) will come to see you, and musk oxen will wander around. Don’t disturb them as they can be aggressively defensive.
Built in 1881, Fort Conger was a military and scientific post in the eastern shore of the Ellesmere Island, in Quttinirpaaq National Park, now designated as Classified Federal Heritage Buildings.
In Discovery Harbour there was a base camp used by the British Arctic Expedition in 1875 that was reused and rebuilt as Fort Conger by USA as a research base. At its highest occupation point it rounded the 50 inhabitants, but the research lasted only for two years. Being used later by several expeditions, some of them heading to the North Pole, some said it was “grotesque in its utter unfitness and unsuitableness for polar winter quarters” and probably that’s why it was left abandoned until the Canadian authorities protected it as a Heritage Building.
Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. It lies outside of the Quttinirpaaq National Park, some 12 km from the Cape Sheridan, on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, on the shore of the ice-covered Lincoln Sea. It lies just 817 km from the North Pole and has been, together with Ward Hunt Island, the most popular stop for adventurers and explorers heading to North Pole.
With a low temperature record of -50 ºC, an average of -18 ºC during the year and 5,9 ºC in the warmest month -July-, it was established as a weather station in 1950 and a military post came in 1958. But it takes the name from a British ship named HMS Alert, which wintered here during a failed attempt to reach the North Pole in 1875.
The census in 2006 reported to have 5 permanent inhabitants, workers of the Canadian Forces’ radio station, the weather station and Alert Airport.
Meaning “Land of Musk Ox” in Inuit Language, Ellesmere is the most mountainous island in Canada and the third in size (world’s tenth). The Arctic Cordillera mountain system extends over most of the island, and a permanent ice cap lays over it, now threatened by the fierce climate change.
Treasured by geologists for its numerous and various deposits, it was firstly inhabited by hunting tribes about 2000 years ago, mostly living from the meat of caribou and musk oxen. After it had been abandoned, it’s believed to be reached by Vikings from the Greenland colonies for hunting and trading purposes (with Inuit), though there wasn’t any permanent settlement. Nowadays, the island houses some 150 permanent inhabitants: 145 people in Grise Fiord, 0 in Eureka (with no permanent inhabitants but a temporary population) and 5 in the northern Alert.
Although Alert is the northernmost base in Ellesmere Island, Eureka is the most cold of all, with an average temperature of -19ºC, and only 5ºC in the warmer month, July. The lowest temperature recorded arrive to – 55º C, still not as cold as the Pole of Cold (the coldest inhabited place in Earth).
Grise Fiord, meaning “pig inlet” in Norwegian and “the place that never thaws” in Inuktitut, stays on the southern shore of the island, being the biggest human settlement in the island, and the northernmost civilian settlement in Canada. Created during the Cold War in order to reaffirm Canada’s claims to Ellesmere Island, it’s now inhabited mostly by Inuit people.
The principal entrance point in Ellesmere Island is the airport at Grise Fiord, as for Quttinirpaaq National Park the airport placed in Tanquary Fiord does the work. The only connection for both is from Resolute Bay airport. For Grise Fiord there are some scheduled flights, but for Quttinirpaaq only charter flights that have to be hired by travelers are flying there. So this is not going to be cheap. Every year an average rounding the 100 travelers are heading to the park, so contacting other expeditions going there is a crucial factor in order to make expenses lower. Unlike Antarctica, if you thought about getting there by sea, you better forget it.
By this time, you may suppose which are the two main risk factors in Ellesmere Island: climate and remoteness. Although it’s obvious that someone who plans a trip there is not going with a pair of shorts, some t-shirt and a straw-hat, everyone who writes about this must put some emphasis in the gear question. And I’m not saying this only for cold isolation. Fall in the water can be a mere accident in any other part of the world, but here it can be fatal if you have nothing for dry yourself. Absence of vegetation means you’ll not be able to start a fire, so warming up yourself will be a difficult task. And as we said with climate, we can say for isolation. Overrating your physical capacity in another part of the world can result in a broken leg. Overrating your physical capacity in Quttinirpaaq National Park and Ellesmere Island can easily suppose death.
As close to the North Pole as Quttinirpaaq National Park is, the compass does not work; GPS will work better for your orientation. Satellite phones are also a good idea if their action range cover those latitudes (check this as most of them don’t), because otherwise you’ll be completely isolated. And finally, Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are a must to access the park. You have to rent or buy one at Resolute Bay before heading to Quttinirpaaq National Park, together with your mandatory registration. In case of some life-or-death emergency, you can activate the PLB and Canadian Armed Forces will come to rescue you if the weather conditions allow it.
As said, Hazen Lake and Tanquary Fiord are not a common place for polar bears, which prefer to stay at the shoreline, but sometimes they can be seen there. Read the advice of the Parks Canada authorities for more information about encounters with polar bears.
And I’ll say again: remember that you are in an extremely remote place with extreme weather conditions, so act always with precaution as any little accident can turn to a fatal one.
Stay safe and enjoy the northernmost part of the world!