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Located about 12 kilometers southwest of Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital city, Qaummaarviit (pronounced cow-mar-veet) looks like a barren island. Surrounded by the icy waters of Frobisher Bay, the one-quarter-square-kilometer islet appears inhospitable to life, but people have lived here periodically from AD 1000 to 1800.

Reading interpretive plaque
Reading interpretive plaque
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

How do you get to Qaummaarviit Territorial Park? The Unikkaarvik Visitors Centre in Iqaluit can give you a list of outfitters offering transportation by boat in summer and by snowmobile, dog sled and skis during the colder seasons. It also sells a Qaummaarviit Park guidebook.

Walking trail

Qaummaarviit has no park rangers or visitor center. Interpretive signs and plaques provide fascinating information about its significant sites.

As we started walking along the self-guided boardwalk trail, a small herd of caribou darted by, heading towards the north end of the island. Caribou provided the early inhabitants with skins for clothing and shelter.

Sea mammals were a source of meat for food, blubber for fuel and ivory for tools. To utilize this bounty, the ancient Inuit developed tools and perfected their hunting skills. A huge whale could feed the entire settlement (estimated at 25 families) for a year.

Inuit ancestors

On the south end of the narrow island, a rock cairn with a trilingual sign in English, French and Inuktitut reveals the history of Qaummaarviit: "One thousand years ago, the Thule ancestors of today's Inuit spread eastward out of Alaska to settle along Canada's Arctic coasts.

Following boardwalk to rock cairn on Qaummaarviit
Following boardwalk to rock cairn on Qaummaarviit
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Experts in the hunting of sea mammals, they succeeded earlier Eskimo populations within a few generations. The ingenuity and skill of the Inuit enabled them to thrive in one of the world's harshest climates.

"Qaummaarviit, 'the place that shines,' has been occupied periodically by Inuit groups for 750 years. Here the remains of winter houses, summer tents and other features, attest to the enduring nature of Inuit culture."

Kayaks & boats

Farther along the trail, we viewed a meter-high kayak rack. The Thule people stored their kayaks this way, so animals wouldn't devoir the sealskin covers. (They used kayaks to hunt game along the coasts in summer and at the sea ice edge in winter.)

The innovative Thule also designed and built umiaq, large skin boats traditionally paddled by women, to carry entire families and their belongings.

Examining a Thule winter home
Examining a Thule winter home
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Winter homes

We later spotted the remnants of one of the 11 winter houses on the island. With walls of rock boulders, rafters of whalebone and roofs of sod and animal skins, these semi-subterranean homes enabled Thule families to spend long Arctic winters in relative comfort.

Crouching in front, we could see how the sunken entrance trapped warmer air inside. Tiny white star chickweed blossoms brightened the grass now covering the elevated sleeping platform.

Interpretive signs helped us visualize life in the winter camps. Indoor games, storytelling and religious rituals filled the social calendar. Men manufactured and repaired hunting equipment, while women prepared food, made clothing and tended stone oil lamps to heat and brighten their homes.

When the snow began to melt, the Thule people abandoned their winter houses and sedentary ways for skin tents and a more nomadic lifestyle. Over the summer they hunted caribou, fished in rivers, trapped birds along shorelines and pursued seals, walrus and whales near the coasts, stockpiling the meat for the winter freeze.

Viewing a rock grave
Viewing a rock grave
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We examined stone circles left where summer homes once stood. Nearby, we spotted a meat cache. (The permafrost prevented spoilage.)

Archeological findings

Several graves cluster near the coasts. In one, a small skull looked up at us with hollow eyes.

Archeologists have found more than 20,000 bones and 3,000 tools on this site. Most of the bones were from ringed and harp seals, caribou, foxes, wolves, dogs, birds, bowhead and beluga whales.

Among the tools, they discovered a fishhook, a harpoon, a snow knife handle, a dog harness buckle, a lampstand and a doll. The large numbers of caribou scrapers suggest that Thule women spent much of their time making winter clothing.

Birdwatching on Qaummaarviit
Birdwatching on Qaummaarviit
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Arctic birds

Cawing raven cries drew our attention to a bluff where the black birds were devouring a caribou carcass. Through our binoculars, we gazed at a rough-legged hawk soaring overhead.

We couldn't help but wonder why the Thules, who successfully survived here for nearly eight centuries, vanished at the end of the 18th century. Anthropologists speculate that the AD 900 warming trend, which allowed them to migrate to the island, reversed.

A "little ice age," which began in AD 1400, made whaling difficult and forced people to leave their winter pit homes for temporary snow house villages on the sea ice.


Qaummaarviit Territorial Park

More things to see & do in Nunavut:

Nunavut - Birding, Wildlife and Whale Watching

Inuit Culture, Games and Tools

Nunavut - What to See & Do on Arctic Vacations

Arctic Cruise to Nunavut