Herschel Island

Herschel Island

Photo from Herschel Island

Herschel Island

Herschel Island / Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park covers all of Herschel Island. It is an area of about 116 square kilometres with elevations up to 182 metres.

This treeless, wind-swept land is rich in biological resources. Over fifty species of birds have been sighted and nearly 100 different plants grow here. The predominant land species include caribou, bears, muskoxen, Arctic and Red Fox, voles and lemmings. An abundance of aquatic mammals and fish live in the surrounding waters. For over a thousand years, ancestors of the Inuvialuit have hunted and fished in sheltered areas along Herschel Island’s coastline.

Sir John Franklin was on his second arctic expedition (1825-1827) when he landed on the island and named it Herschel to honour a prominent family of scientists and astronomers. Inuvialuit were living in three settlements on the island at the time.

American ships of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company over-wintered here in 1890 to get an early start on the short ice-free season. The whalers brought materials to build warehouses and living quarters and for the next ten years Herschel Island had a winter colony at Pauline Cove of up to fifteen ships and 500 people.

The whalers’ presence severely impacted the Inuvialuit who came to barter furs and fresh meat for manufactured goods. Alcohol and disease reduced the population of the region from 2,000 to a few hundred. Responding to reports of an illegal liquor trade, Anglican missionary Reverend I.O. Stringer first visited the island in 1893 and then returned to establish a mission and a school.

In 1903, the North-West Mounted Police came to enforce Canadian laws in the mostly American winter community. By that time, Herschel Island’s heyday was nearly over and the whalers were hunting farther east. The market for whalebone plummeted in 1907 but the fur trade continued to flourish. The Hudson’s Bay Company opened a post here in 1915.

In the early 20th century, Herschel Island became an important supply centre for explorers and scientists. A small satellite station of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals was established in 1930. Most residents moved to the Mackenzie Delta in the 1930s and the church and the traders abandoned the island soon after. After being the Western Arctic administrative headquarters for more than twenty years, the Mounted Police reduced their presence and finally closed the detachment in 1964.

In 1987, Herschel Island was designated as a Territorial Park in accordance with the Inuvialuit Final Agreement land claim.