Monday, 11 May 2015

Somerset Island, Nunavut, Canada
- stunning arctic wilderness

Somerset Island is a large, uninhabited island in the Arctic Canada region of Nunavut.

William Edward Parry was the first European to sight the island in 1819.

In 1848, James Clark Ross, commanding two ships, landed at Port Leopold, on the northeastern coast, to winter there during his search for the unfortunate Franklin expedition.

The quest for the Northwest Passage also passed around the island, either by South (Bellot Strait) or by North (Barrow Strait).

But since around 1000 AD, the north coast of Somerset Island was inhabited by the Thule people, as evidenced by whale bones, tunnels and stone ruins like a Thule house near Cape Anne.

Coordinates : 73° 15′ N, 93° 30′ W

Temporary occupation: at Arctic Watch camp and Fort Ross cabins.

Somerset Island is under an ice cap in the cold season, but in springtime the melting of ice uncovers deep canyons all across the land.

Port Leopold

The relatively quiet bay where James Clark Ross wintered would later become the site for a Hudson Bay company outpost for the fur trade.

The Hudson Bay Co. outpost at Port Leopold.

Port Leopold also served as a shelter for whaling ships.

The presently abandoned outpost was built in 1920 and was occupied then until the 1930s.

Fort Ross
at 72° 00′ N, 94°14′ W

The Fort Ross trading post, established in 1937, was run for 11 years by the Hudson's Bay Company, until 1948.

On the shore of Bellot Strait, at the southeastern end of Somerset Island, Fort Ross was the last trading post built by the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada's Arctic.

Rising out of the vast Arctic wilderness, Fort Ross had two buildings - a manager's house and a store - and was also home to a number of Inuit families.

When it was closed, people and goods were moved some 250 kilometers south to Taloyoak (on the mainland) and the island was left uninhabited except for occasional Inuit caribou hunters.

The Northwest passage

Ship wintering at Bellot Strait

Hudson Bay Company's Aklavik is the first known to have transited the Bellot Strait passage between Somerset Island and the Melville Peninsula in 1937, piloted by Scotty Gall. Maybe Viking sailors had accomplished the same centuries before.

Bellot Strait, a narrow 32 km passage separating the northernmost tip of North America from Somerset Island, is covered for several months with packed ice.

Henry Larsen transited the passage, in the St. Roch in the second successful transit in 1943. But he found this route, though shorter,  was dangerously icebound, and too shallow for regular commercial ships; most of the traffic sails by the northern waters of Barrow Strait.

Today, the local tourist camp organizes walks along the Passage, and even an yearly Marathon !

But the most stunning geological features in the island are its deep canyons and high waterfalls, at least after most of the ice has melt.

The meandering Cunningham river.

The Gull canyon in Cunningham river.

Rafting or kayaking in Cunningham river is also part of the tourist activities.

The Triple Falls.

The Arctic Watch tourism camp

Arctic Watch Lodge, installed since 1992, is located at Cunningham Inlet, on the northern coast, 800 km north of the Arctic Circle.

The transport is mostly provided by charter plane from Yellowknife, since a flat private airstrip has been built.

The complex has lodging capacity for 45 persons and provides all necessary equipment and meals.

Starting the Northwest Passage Marathon.

Somerset's Arctic fauna and flora.

For such a desolate territory, much animal life would not be expected on land. But though marine mammals are the real stars, the usual arctic land fauna is also present:

White rabbits. And where there are rabbits, there are...

White arctic foxes.

Polar bears are also frequent visitors, as marine mammals ashore are an easy prey.

Musk Ox, several herds.

Birds like arctic owls are also present, but the main animal attraction, though, seems to be perm whales, that come by hundreds to the Cunningham Inlet waters, just nearby the Arctic Watch lodge.

Purple Saxifrage, the inevitable and most famous Arctic flowering plant.


Note: I'd just like to disclaim any interest in advertising 'Arctic Watch lodge', which is referred only because it is in fact the only regular human presence on the island.