The Return to Akpatok

Contents of Article:

Introduction

Excellant whale hunting

The drill site is enviromentally dirty

Trash other places on the island

The rest of the island is still pristine

The island is famous for its birds

And other animal life

Dorset Remains

Inuit Remains

Preservation of the island

Akpatok Island (60 25' N, 68 10' W in Ungava Bay, NE Canada) is famous for Walrus, Polar Bears, Thick-billed Murres, and scenery. The Island itself is of limestone. It is a flat plateau 14 miles (23 km) wide, 28 miles (45 km) long, and 500 feet (152 m) to 800 feet (244 m) high. The plateau is almost inaccessible except by air because it terminates in sheer cliffs reaching down to sea level. The cliffs are broken in a few places by ravines and these allow access. While it is often visited by the Inuit* to hunt Walrus, the hunters seldom climb to the heights above, being satisfied to dress their game and return home before the meat spoils (See Fig.1).

Akpatok is infamous for widespread cannibalism which lasted till 1900 when the inhabitants left the island and moved to the mainland. We visited the island in August of 1992**, 1993, and 1996*** to verify if possible, the existence of a massacre site.

Excellent hunting for whales

While the ice floes are still plentiful in Ungava Bay, the Walrus (Odobaenus rasmarus) stay close to the shores on Akpatok. When the ice disappears, the Walrus migrate northwest. While we were there, boats from Wakeham Bay, Quaqtaq, and Kuujjuac all took part in the hunt.

Our boat was accompanied by a photographer to film a documentary about the hunt. The technique is to shoot the Walrus as it lies on the ice. If the shot is not exact, the convulsions can roll the dying animal into the water where it will sink and be lost. They also can be harpooned. The attached float then allows the carcass to be recovered. If the animal is swimming close to shore in shallow water, it can be shot and the body recovered by snagging it with a drag line.

A knife makes a hole which starts near an eye and extends down alongside a tusk until it enters the mouth. A rope threaded through this hole is used to lift the carcass aboard the boat. All three crews were successful. Our crew killed three Walrus; one was lost. The hunt is dangerous

While Walrus are dangerous, wounded or not, the biggest danger is from the very ice-floes which attract the Walrus. During the hunt, the boat has to be right among the ice-floes, or it has no chance of getting Walrus. The wind, current, and tide can surround the boat with ice floes and crush it. The hunt along with the preparation of the meat requires two or three days. At night also, the anchored boat is at risk, as there are no good harbors on Akpatok. A common precaution is to beach the boat at high tide, especially if a storm is threatening. At the next high tide the exit may be blocked by the ice.

The 50 miles (80 km) trip from the Island to the mainland at Kangirsuk is so dangerous that the boats only navigate it during calm weather. As we crossed to the Island, we met a boat which had been delayed on the Island for three days awaiting good weather.

The drill site is enviromentally dirty

A convenient place to wait for good weather is at the site where an exploratory oil well was drilled in July 1971 (See Fig. 2). Besides a cove (Gregson Creek) where the boat can be safely beached, there are some dilapidated barracks in which to seek shelter. The area is littered with rusting equipment including drilling pipes, barrels, and even a crawler tractor. The barrels are full. Our guide suggested that they contain diesel fuel. I would like to see them removed before they contaminate the area. While the guide and crew are quick to blame the drilling company for not cleaning up the mess, when I suggested that we could at least do something about the leaking barrels, they apparently misunderstood by intentions and thought I wanted to save the oil. They answered that the fuel was probably not good after all these years.

Trash at other places on the island

The only other place where there was noticeable trash was in a valley near the south end (See Fig. 3). Polunin mentions this valley (pp. 138-140 in Isle of the Auks, published in 1932 by Edward Arnold & Co., London, England, UK:253 pp., illus.). This might also be the valley Montague refers to on pp. 181-184 and p. 195 in I Lived With the Eskimos, (Jarrolds, London, 1940, xiv+222 pp., illus.) and on pp. 221-222 in North to Adventure (Robert M. McBride & Co., New York, 1939, xiv+284 pp., illus.). Montague mentions finding scores of human skeletons in a valley in 1929. Polunin in 1931 makes no mention of skulls. But this could be explained because both entered the valley in the middle and Montague went upstream while Polunin went downstream. We traced the entire length of the valley and found no skulls or other human bones at all. We did find several eight-foot wooden beams, wine bottles, and a 12-volt lead storage battery. We have no knowledge of how they got there. Presumably they were flown in by helicopter. This trash was not mentioned by either Montague nor Polunin. There were two graves; we left them undisturbed.

The rest of the island is still pristine

We walked over a good portion of the Island south of Harp Cove. The only places with significant trash were mentioned above. There is an occasional rusty can or other beach trash in the coves where there are breaks in the cliffs. On the plateau there was no trash at all (See Figs. 4 & 5). The lakes, which are for the most part just shallow ponds, are crystal clear. The streams are also clear. The guide insisted that the water everywhere was ok to drink, and we had no trouble from drinking it. The Inuit complained that the water made their tea appear dark, even though it did not disturb the taste.

We found two very old cairns covered by lichens at the southern most point of the Island. We also found three fairly modern cairns. Two were near the the top of the cliff and could be seen from the south east coast. The third seemed to be a warning marker. It was built in an hazardous area of sinkholes (60 16.04' N,68 16.68' W *). These sinkholes were not just shallow pits with porous rock bottoms. They were cracks a few feet (less than 2 m.) wide and 50 feet (c. 15 m) to 100 feet (c. 30 m) long. We estimated that they were from 16 feet (c. 5 m) to 64 feet (c. 20 m) deep. Except for these cairns we saw no marks of human activity on the top of the plateau.

The island is famous for its birds

Akpatok was named after the Akpat, the Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia), which live by the thousands at the north and south ends where the sedimentary layers of the limestone cliffs have allowed tiny ledges to form on which the birds lay their eggs. We could look over the edge and see birds nesting in every available place (See Fig. 6). Their eggs are shaped conically, so they tend to roll in a circle which gives them some protection from rolling off the narrow ledges. The birds are roughly the size of a small chicken. We tried eating them but they were too tough to eat. Their eggs, which are the size of chicken eggs, formed an important part of the diet of the Island's original inhabitants.

And other animal life

We saw several Glaucous Gulls (Larus hyperboreus). A Peregrin Falcon (Falco peregrinus) was nesting about a mile north of the drill site. The principal mammal which inhabits the island is the Polar Bear (Thalarctos maritimus). While there is plenty of ice, the Polar Bears stay out at sea and feast on Seals. After the ice disappears, they come ashore and fast. The guide assured us as we slept in a tent on the Island, that the Polar Bears would not bother us. He said, "They have plenty of Seal to eat. What would they want you for?"

For anything that happens on the Island, the Inuit seem to explain it by attributing it to Polar Bears. Whenever we found Walrus or Seal bones inland, the guide explained that they were carried there by a Polar Bear. I asked how this could be when a Walrus is able to kill a Polar Bear. The answer was that the Inuit kill the Walrus leaving the unused parts on the beach. The Polar Bear salvages them and carries them inland. This seemed reasonable as the Walrus skulls we found never had their ivory left on them.

North-west of Harp Cove, we noticed two parallel furrows running down the loose scree walls from the top to the bottom. We were told that Polar Bears would slide down for fun. We wondered about this, since this same type of loose scree had cut the tires of the Honda all-terrain vehicle we had brought along and laboriously raised to the top of the Island at Umiak Cove. The tires lasted about six hours. We brought the vehicle back with two flat tires. These same rocks destroy tennis shoes in one day's travel. We were also told that Polar Bear attack and destroy cairns left on the Island.

At night we heard a Wolf howl, and we did see Wolf (Canis lupus) and Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus ungavus) tracks in Bell Cove, as well as Polar Bear tracks and dens. We found an ancient Caribou (Rangifer arcticus) or (Rangifer caribou) antler on the bottom of one of the shallow clear lakes (60 16.787' N, 68 14.529' W). In 1993 we actually saw a Fox on the narrow beach on the South-east side of the Island, and we saw a Caribou in the Valley at the South end of the Island.

Dorset Remains

At high tide the sea touches the bottom of the cliffs all the way around the island, except at the very Southern tip. Here between the cliffs and the sea is an expanse of Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia sp.). There also are the remains of four Dorset houses. The Dorset culture and people, which presumably emanated from the vicinity of Cape Dorset in Southwestern Baffin Island, was earlier and distinct from the current Inuit. The remains are the foundation stones which presumably lined a shallow basement over which the Dorsets would erect some sort of a tent. There is also a winding ditch from the cliff to the sea

(See Fig 7). In the middle of this ditch is apparently a dam made with rocks, probably to form a pool of drinking water. The ditch was dry when we visited the island.

Inuit Remains

We found Seal and Walrus bones in Umiak Cove and Harp Cove as mentioned in Isle of Auks p. 82 and p. 92. We were not able to find the inland site mentioned by Cox as "a mile inland and about 1/2 mile East of the ravine reaching the South coast just east of longitude o 68 W" (I Cox, Eskimo remains on Akpatok Island. North-East Canada, Man, vol 33, no. 63, pp. 57-61). Inland sites probably result from permanent settlements, rather than just the slaughter sites of Walrus hunts. The other inland site was just south of the drill site near Langley Creek. Our guide said there were at least 6 skulls, broken off cleanly to form bowls. We went there and were only able to find two. The others had disappeared. We were also told about a Polar Bear den located in the Umiak Cove ravine that contained human skulls, but we heard about this too late to check it out.

Preservation of the island

As we approached the Island on our third visit, the guide said that Inuit folklore states that a long while ago, the Island simply emerged from the sea. From a distance, its profile makes it look as through it could have done so. Four years ago, when we tried to explain about fossils, it seem that the Inuit suspected us of joking. This year, our guide talked about the fossils he found as evidence supporting the beliefs of the Ancients. The Island has been viewed as a sinister, forbidden place (possibly because of the cannibalism that had occurred there), to a hauntingly beautiful place because the limestone formations there are unlike the granitic formations of the Canadian shield.

The Inuit were very careful to take their trash back off the Island. This is a change from four years ago. Then we carefully brought back our trash and when the boat crew found the trash, they tossed it overboard. The crew are now wondering aloud how they can get the drilling company to remove the trash it left. But they do not seem to recognize that they themselves could at least get those oil barrels off the Island now.

The Island itself is considered a priority site for protection by the Canadian Wildlife Service as a sanctuary for Polar Bears and Akpats.* The Inuit are waiting till they have a comprehensive offshore island plan to put into effect. They want to avoid making early and separate arrangements for Akpatok which may be a problem later on.

The Inuit are very concerned about preserving their way of life. They are very concerned about a sustained harvest of Walrus. On the main land the hunting of Caribou as a source of food is almost over. The cost of shipped-in meat is less than the cost of going after the Caribou, at least in the traditional manner using a rifle to kill the animal and a snowmobile or Honda to bring the kill home.

There is no fur market anymore, and the value to the economy of selling the rights to shoot Caribou to sportsmen from down South is worth far more than the value of the Caribou as Caribou meat. Walrus hunting, however, seems still to have tremendous psychological value. Each Inuit young man attaches importance to killing his first Walrus and keeps the penis bone of the animal as a souvenir. The difficulty of getting the Honda up the cliffs and the short life of the tires on the plateau proper probably means that the island will be protected from all terrain vehicles as well.

*From a personal letter from V. Johnston, Habitat Biologist, Northern Conservation Branch, Canadian Wildlife Service.

* Obtained through a Garmin GPS TM Personal Navigator TM.

* The preferred modern name now is Inuit, rather than Eskimos (Inuit is

plural and means "the people").

** See Akpatok Island Revisited, Environmental Conservation, Vol.19, Nr 4, Winter 1992, pp. 361-363. The author wishes to thank Professor N. Polunin, the Reviews Editor for editing this manuscript.

*** The members of the 1996 expedition were Professor Irvin Roy Hentzel, Robert Hentzel, Dr. Normand Tremblay, and Jusipi Keleutak (guide). On the boat were Putulik Kulula (captain), Johnny Angnatuk, David Oovaut, Raoul Jonphe (cameraman), Bob Deer (outfitter). We spent 9-14 August, 1996 on the Island.


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