Historical Trails and Sites
Walking trails in the area provide an excellent introduction to the history of the area and to the Inuit Culture. These trails lead to several pre-contact summer camps. Printed guides explain sights along the way; ask at the Akumalik Visitor Centre for copies.
The trails vary in length, but plan on 2-6 hours for a hike. All are marked with directional inuksuit (stone cairns, "in the likeness of a man"). As you walk these trails, you will see stone kayak stands, tent rings, fox traps, and meat caches, all of which attest to the skills of the people in utilizing all the harsh land has to offer.
Take care not to disturb these valuable links to the past. Leave everything as it was, for the enjoyment and interest of others yet to come.
As you hike the trails or over the tundra near the community, watch for nesting tundra birds, including raptors like peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks. If you visit Baker Lake in May, you'll see incredible numbers of migrating snow buntings and Lapland longspurs, right in town.
Kuup Paangani Trail
To local Inuit the Thelon River is known simply as "Kuuk", the river ("Kuup Paangani": at the river mouth). Prehistoric hunters killed large numbers of southward-migrating caribou in the fall at river crossings such as this one, spearing the animals from kayaks. Our two major sites on this trail likely represent the homes of people who killed many caribou in the fall and continued to camp near stored meat into the winter months.
You will probably approach our trail from the river by boat. It is possible to walk to the trail from town but not advised except for the very hardy visitor (a round trip of 10 km from the airport to the trail). Visitors should be aware that Nirlu'naaq site may not emerge from its snowbank until early July.
Start your walk at the trail entrance sign and inukshuk near the shore. As you walk uphill to the second inukshuk you will see a small cache (#1), not very old, a few feet below the inukshuk. The hunter who left it was probably inexperienced – he cached his meat in the lee of this small ridge and when he returned to fetch it during the winter with his sled it was buried under the snow. Continue now west and slightly downhill to Sigyami Site (#2), which is a single tent ring. The rocks and vegetation near the centre of the tent ring probably indicate the central passage and hearth of a Paleo-Eskimo tent. The shoreline 3000 years ago would have been just below where this tent is located so we have named the site "Sigyami"; at the shore.
Now you'll walk uphill to the inukshuk and sign just under the very top of the hill ("Nirlu'naaq": the name of this hill). Here are the rock formations of at least 5 Thule homes (#3). Thule winter houses roofed with whalebone are well known in coastal areas throughout the Arctic but are rare inland; these must have had skin roofs supported by antler or driftwood. They show the usual floor-plan of a Thule house; they were dug several feet into the ground and had a sunken entryway to trap warm air within the house. A raised platform at the rear of the living area made a warm and comfortable bed when covered with brush and caribou skins. The soapstone blubber lamp, food, and cooking implements would have been to either side of the floor area at the front of the home. Most likely the structures were occupied during the fall and early winter; Inuit called such an autumn shelter a "qaqmaq". Clearly this spot is a perfect camp for many reasons; this hilltop is a look-out for caribou, the brown skin-covered homes would have been hidden from view by the backdrop off the cliff, water is nearby at the small lake behind the hill, and the homes were sheltered from the prevailing north westerly winds.
Evening, early October, in the year 1602 A.D.
A woman sits on the bed preparing a caribou-skin parka. A small child sleeps beside her. She has already scraped the skins and cut the pieces with her stone scrapers and knife ("ulu"). Now she pierces the skin pieces with her pointed bone awl where the seams will be, so they will be ready for sewing with the bone needle and sinew. It is very dark with only the flame of the lamp to light her work but she continues hour after hour. The family must have their winter garments completed before they move on.
Tasiraq Site (#4) lies on the far side of the small lake ("tasiraq") behind the hilltop. At present we think the site is probably Paloe-Eskimo (roughly 3000 years old); in particular, tent rings H6 and H7 appear to be very old.
The five larger tent rings H1-H5 all have a distinctive shape: rocks that supported the outer edges of the tent form a long oval, with the cooking and living area in the middle and sleeping areas to either side. Refuse that accumulated from cooking and daily life has provided soil nutrients for a thick growth of vegetation around the central hearth. Sleeping areas at either side would have been covered by skin bedding and have little vegetation; you may see a line of small rocks marking the edge of the bed.
Afternoon, November, in the year 1327 B.C.
The two men carried the kayak up the hill from shore. The river had frozen and the kayak had to be stripped of its skin covering and tied down firmly for the winter. Their uncle had led the band of 5 families far up the river that past spring to the lake where the trees grow. They had all helped to build the kayak and had taken other wood for tent poles, sled runners, and various tools and weapons. The journey had been long and hard; their old father had died and children sobbed at night from the pain of their aching legs. They had come to this place in time to kill many caribou crossing the river, and now they could stay a few months.
As you walk back down to shore, give some thought to how hard these people worked to stay alive – their only materials being stones, snow, a little wood, and the skins and bone of the animals they hunted. And yet they survived and their descendants populate the North.
Akilasaaryuk Trail is at the mouth of Prince River, about 8 miles east of town. For local residents, Prince River is a place of fishing and recreation in the spring and summer. You'll travel here by boat in summer or by a combination of snowmobile, sled, and boat in May or June. The archaeological remains are of the historic Caribou Eskimo period (1700-1900 A.D.). There are a wide variety of things to see and do (remember your fishing gear!) and we know you'll enjoy your day.
The trail starts at the sign and inukshuk on the western shore of the river mouth. From there you walk to the nearest hilltop, where there are stone structures which were used for fax traps, cooking areas, and food and caribou-skin storage. The site is named after its "sirluaq", the open conical structure at the centre of the hilltop. It was used in the summer to store dried meat or fish while the family and their dogs lived inland and carried all their belongings from place to place. The sirluaq would be covered with large stones and the food inside would remain safe from predators, to be picked up in the winter and used to trap foxes, which could not climb out once inside. A smaller box-trap on this hilltop operated by dropping a stone to block the exit.
As you have noticed, the view from this hilltop is magnificent. The rapids are below you and Akilasaaryuk Hill is across the river. You can see Nunareaq Island to the south, and Okpiktuyoq (Big Hips) Island is probably just visible behind and to the left of Nunareaq. Okpiktuyoq Island was the site of the first Hudson's Bay Post at Baker Lake, built in 1916.
Morning, November, in the year 1810.
A middle-aged man packed a frozen fox onto his sled. Back at camp he would thaw the fox inside the iglu and prepare the skin to be traded. He and his family with their two dogs would begin a journey to the white traders at Churchill later in the spring when the days lengthened. He had been making such trips since he was a young man and now did the trading for many of his relatives along the way. He hoped to have enough foxes for a rifle and maybe some needles for his wife.
Now walk to the next hill to the south. At its nearer (north) side you'll see the remains of a "qaqmaq" shelter. The historic Caribou Eskimo and modern Inuit sometimes used these small shelters made of stones, snow blocks, or ice with a tent roof. A "qaqmaq" would most often be used in the fall until the snow was deep enough to build snow-houses. Or a hunter might sleep in a tiny structure like this with a caribou skin over the top if away from home without a tent. On the southern end of the hilltop is the "kuviaqarvik", a small square pit about 1 foot across. When lined with the skin of a freshly-killed caribou, hot caribou fat from a pot of cooked meat would have been ladled into the pit to harden. The cooking area is nearby.
Evening, July, in the year 1898.
A woman knelt by the outdoor hearth feeding willow branches into a fire under her enamel cooking pot. When they had cooked long enough she placed the pieces of ribs and cooked meat onto a wooden tray to cool. Then she carried the pot to the kuviaqarvik nearby and lined the pit with the newly-killed caribou skin. Using a musk-ox horn ladle, she skimmed off the hot fat and ladled it into the pit. Once the fat hardened, it could be eaten with their dried meat or saved to burn in the lamp during winter. That done, she called her family to come eat.
Before you go back to town, we hope you have a chance to try fishing under the rapids or at the sand bars at the river's mouth. The best time is June or early July, but it's worth a try anytime!
Kinnga'tuaq and Siuraqtarvik Sites
Baker Lake has two archaeological sites that are accessible by road and within walking distance of town. Anyone with an hour or two of free time could visit either of these for a glimpse into our distant past as well as a superb hilltop view of the town of Baker Lake and its setting. Kinnga'tuaq Site is the nearer of the two (and the more interesting) and can be reached in a short 15-minute walk from the Hamlet Building. Siuraqtarvik Site is past the airport near the top of Blueberry Hill, overlooking the mouth of the Thelon River.
The Kinnga'tuaq Site lies along the top of a small hill known locally as M.O.T. Hill or "Kinnga'tuaq". The Upper Air Meteorological Station, VHF Directional Finder, and Telesat Satellite Dish are also located on this hill. You can walk to the site from the new Hamlet Building. Follow the road east past the Community Hall and M.O.T. houses. The hill will be on your left, and the easiest route to the top is to continue on the same road to the side road leading left and uphill toward the satellite dish.
Most of the archaeological features you will see are tent rings made of heavy boulders. The archaeologist who excavated tent rings 5 and 12 in 1958 found tools such as a red slate ulu blade which was left there by Thule people approximately 400-800 years ago. The Thule cache is worth a close look; you'll be impressed by the size of the boulders used in its construction. A bear would have to go to some trouble to get food stored in this cache.
Afternoon, July, in the year 1498.
It is a warm day; the horizon dances in shimmering heat waves. A woman carrying a small baby on her back paces the hilltop, trying to move away from the clouds of mosquitoes that hover around her. The baby inside her caribou amaut is very hot and cries continually. She stops to start a small fire of brush and then sits downwind in the smoke, enjoying a short rest from the mosquitoes, and takes her baby out.
This hill was also home to a Paleo-Eskimo family who were here long before the Thule people, maybe 3000 years ago. The remains of their tent-like shelter were completely excavated by two archaeologists in 1955 and 1958, so there is nothing left of it except the barren rectangular excavation and a pile of rocks at its northernmost corner (#4). The archaeologists found an 11 x 20 ft. rectangle of rocks which had held down the edges of a skin tent, once possibly banked with sod. The cooking place had been in the middle of the structure: ashes and blackened stones were found there as well as many small bits of quartzite rock which had been used as knives and scrapers.
As you stand near the Paleo-Eskimo excavation, your view encompasses 3000 years; the Paleo-Eskimo home stood near an ancient shore, when the waters of the lake covered the present townsite. About 500 years ago Thule people camped along the hilltop to catch the summer breezes. Today you see the town, roads, and technology of our times. There is a lesson we can all learn at this site. Evidence of our heritage is easily destroyed through carelessness and ignorance: when the road was built along this hilltop, ancient tent rings were bulldozed. Once destroyed, these reminders of the past can never be repaired.
This site ("gravel pit" site) is located uphill from the airstrip (A) near the top of Blueberry Hill (B). You can drive to the site by taxi or Honda, or otherwise it is a round trip walk of about 10 kilometers from town. As you near the airport on the main road, turn right on the access road which takes you around and uphill from the airport and on through the gravel pits (the public is not allowed to cross the airstrip to reach Blueberry Hill). Once past the gravel pits (G), take the upper-most Honda trail near the top of the hill. The site (X) is roughly 15 meters to the left of the rail and marked with a sign and a garbage can for picnickers.
Here you'll see four tent rings that lie just below a small rocky ridge. The site is thought to be a Thule site (400-800 years old) because there are so many piled-up rocks that held down the edges of the tents. The third tent ring from the road is the largest, maybe because people played traditional games of strength and dexterity inside it. The people who lived in these tents undoubtedly camped here for the view: they could spot caribou at the river mouth, shoreline, or surrounding hills. They must have used the top of Blueberry Hill as a look-out to see inland as well. If you have the time to go on, you would also enjoy the view from the top of Blueberry Hill.