NATURE

Eco Explorer: Arctic Oasis

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Imagine an area 8 times the size of the United Kingdom where the sun may never set in June and never rise in December. At 708,434 square miles, this is Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory.

In Inuktitut, the language of the native Inuit, Nunavut means "our land." But until 1999, the region was governed from Ottawa as part of Canada's Northwest Territory. Today, Nunavut is a self-governing territory -- the first within North America to be governed primarily by native peoples.

Nunavut is the largest political unit in Canada and constitutes 20 percent of Canada's total landmass. Nearly half of this vast Arctic region lies on the Canadian mainland. The rest is distributed throughout an archipelago of islands -- among them, Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest in the world. The North Pole forms the territory's northern tip, the province of Manitoba its southern border. The distance between its easternmost point, Cape Dyer on Baffin Island, and its westernmost point is roughly equivalent to the distance between London and Istanbul.

Even in the midst of this polar wilderness, towns exists. According to the 2001 census, Nanuvut's population is just under 27,000 and is Canada's youngest and one of its fastest growing. (See People)

Iqaluit, the territory's capital city of 5,236 people on Baffin Island, and Rankin Inlet, a coastal town on the mainland, are the main travel gateways. Iqualit, as its name ("place of many fish") indicates, offers superb fishing opportunities, as well as a range of Inuit art galleries and the Canadian Arctic's largest airport.

At Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island's northern coast, polar bears and a vast array of migratory seabirds are the main attractions for visitors. Seabirds and sea mammals -- particularly, walrus, seals, and whales -- are among the wildlife found at Sirmilik, Nunavut's newest national park, and one whose remote setting makes it more popular with scientists than tourists.

For those who want to push their arctic skills to the limit, the town of Grise Fjord is Canada's northernmost human settlement with a population of 163 people, as of 2001.

On Southampton Island, site of NATURE's ARCTIC OASIS eco-tourists have just one town as their base: Coral Harbor, whose Inuktitut name, "Salliq," means "a large flat island off a mainland." Polar bears, caribou, and migratory birds are common here, and the waters off Southampton Island teem with seals, walrus, and beluga whales. In fact, in the 19th century European and U.S. whaling ships regularly prowled the waters off the island hunting for bowhead whales. Strangely enough, coral, fossilized remnants of a warmer era, can also be found in the waters off Coral Harbor.

Though the area's whaling industry collapsed by the 1920s, one poignant reminder of the whalers' impact on this island remains. Native Point, 40 miles to the southeast of Coral Harbor, contains the remnants of a village once inhabited by the Sallirmiut, an early Nunavut people. In 1903, a gastrointestinal infection transmitted by workers at a Scottish whaling station south of Coral Harbor, wiped out nearly the entire village. Only one woman and four children survived to be taken in by local Inuit families.

An aircraft base not far from Coral Harbor is another remnant of days past. During World War II, the base served as a halfway point for American planes en route to Europe. Later, it acted as a construction depot for a defensive ring of radar stations established in Nunavut's north at Cambridge Bay during the Cold War. Built along a 3,000-mile perimeter from Alaska to Baffin Island, the 58 stations in the ring, known as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, were built by the U.S. from 1954 to 1956 to provide advance warning of an attack by Soviet aircraft.

South of Coral Harbor lies Coats Island, the destination of choice for walrus watchers. Much further north, at Repulse Bay, lies one of the Arctic's most significant whale habitats.

Though Southampton Island does contain 2 migratory bird sanctuaries -- the East Bay Migratory Bird Sanctuary (about 44 miles east of Coral Harbor) and the Harry Gibbons Migratory Bird Sanctuary (87 miles to the southwest) -- Nunavut's prime bird resort lies within the Arctic Circle itself. The Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary, located 47 miles to the northwest of Cambridge Bay, boasts the world's second largest collection of migratory birds.

Closer to the North Pole than any human settlement lies Quttinirpaaq National Park, with 15,000 sq. miles of polar desert. The park is home to many animals -- from caribou and arctic wolves to lemmings and muskox.

The Arctic has attracted many explorers. Numerous islands throughout Nunavut contain the remains of failed European and American expeditions to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. One of the most notable is Beechey Island. In 1847, British explorer Sir John Franklin anchored his ship at this desolate strip of land before sailing further north and disappearing forever on a hunt for the Pacific Ocean.


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