Qausuittuq National Park (Bathurst Island, Nunavut)

Backgrounder

Qausuittuq National Park on Bathurst Island, is part of the Queen Elizabeth group of islands, located north of Canada’s Northwest Passage. This national park represents the Western High Arctic Natural Region of Canada’s world-class national parks system. 

Qausuittuq (pronounced: Kow-soo-ee-took) means “place where the sun doesn't rise” in Inuktitut, in reference to the fact that the sun stays below the horizon for several months in the winter at this latitude.

The approximately 11,000 square kilometres of Arctic lands and waters protected in Qausuittuq National Park include the northern part of Bathurst Island as well as the Governor General Islands to the west, and smaller islands west and north of Bathurst Island. Seymour Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary is to the north, while the southern boundary of Qausuittuq National Park borders on Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area.

The national park includes marine areas in May and Young Inlets, and land that rises from the sea in impressive bluffs. Landscape features range from wetlands and lowlands to plateaux, hills and uplands with elevations up to 411 metres. Underlain by sedimentary rocks such as limestone, sandstone and dolomite, the land shows evidence of past glaciations in landforms such as eskers, moraines, and raised beaches.

At 76˚ north latitude, Bathurst Island is located in one of the coldest and driest regions in the world with temperatures averaging minus 32˚ C in January and only 5˚ in July. Annual precipitation is less than 130 mm. This severe climate limits soil development and vegetation is sparse. Patches of purple saxifrage, dwarf willow, sedges, grasses, lichens and mosses provide a precious food source for wildlife.

In spite of the high latitude and harsh conditions, there is a surprising number of species of wildlife inhabiting the area. Qausuittuq National Park protects key wildlife habitat including travel routes, calving grounds and wintering grounds for the endangered Peary caribou. The park is also a significant area for muskoxen. Other species adapted to this environment include polar bear, arctic wolf, arctic fox, and numerous birds such as snowy owl, snow goose, king eider, jaegers, gulls and shorebirds. Some of the marine species in the area include ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, bowhead whale, beluga whale, and narwhal.

Archaeological studies have found evidence of human use on Bathurst Island dating back 4,500 years. Pre-Dorset, Dorset, and Thule Inuit cultures were present in the area, although most sites are to the south or the east of the national park. Within Qausuittuq National Park, there are several archaeological sites relating to the Late Dorset culture (ca. 500 to 1200 AD) along Bracebridge Inlet.

Beginning in 1819, a series of British naval expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage explored in the Bathurst Island area. Later expeditions came searching for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Sir John Franklin’s ships that disappeared after 1845. Between 1850 and 1854, naval search parties put up cairns and supply depots on the islands north of Bathurst Island, within Qausuittuq National Park, including an impressive cairn on Helena Island.

Exploration in the Bathurst Island area continued into the twentieth century. Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier led three expeditions between 1906 and 1911 with the goal of establishing Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic islands. Other Canadian government expeditions followed, including RCMP patrols, RCAF magnetic pole research flights; photography over-flights; as well as surveys of wildlife, geology and hydrology. The 1960s and 1970s brought exploratory drilling for oil and gas and minerals to the area. Various research projects continue to this day, many supported by the Polar Continental Shelf Program.

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