For more current information, please visit the Yukon Environment web site.

Herschel Island Territorial Park (Qikiqtaruk)

Welcome to our island park. Herschel Island received its English name on July 17, 1826 when arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, sighted it and named it after Sir John Herschel, noted British chemist and astronomer. The Inuvialuit of the area have always known it as Qikiqtaruk (kee keek ta ruk) or Qikiqtaryuk (Qi kiq daryuk), which means "it is island."

The island lies just off the north coast of the Yukon Territory in the Beaufort Sea. To the south, on the mainland, you can see the British Mountains. To the north lies the Arctic Ocean and, not far away, the permanent pack ice. Despite the cold and wind, you will find a surprising number of plants and animals on and around Qikiqtaruk. The Inuvialuit still come to Qikiqtaruk to hunt and fish and, like the explorers of old, many visitors come to see and experience this fascinating arctic island.

Haven in the ice pack

Permanent pack ice lies only 90 km north of the island. Except when affected by wind, it moves slowly in a clockwise direction due to the prevailing current called the Beaufort Gyre. Depending on the season and the wind, the ice can be pushed right in to the coastline.

Pauline Cove, on the southeast side of Herschel, is the only protective harbour between the Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories and Point Barrow, Alaska. The cove is deep enough to harbour modern, ocean-going vessels and has the added advantage of being protected from the prevailing northerly winds and drifting ice pack. Its role as a haven for ships made Herschel a key port during the last days of the oldtime whaling industry.

The waters around Herschel Island are also a haven for fish and marine mammals. Generally, arctic waters are less productive than the warmer oceans to the south. Near Qikiqtaruk, however, the Mackenzie River empties into the Beaufort Sea and its warmer, nutrient-rich waters drift westward along the shore as far as Herschel Island. Invertebrates and other tiny sea creatures feed on these nutrients and are in turn eaten by larger fish, seals and whales. Arctic cod, pacific herring, and arctic flounder are all found in this area. Arctic char migrate out of the coastal rivers to spend part of their lives feeding in the ocean before returning to the rivers to spawn.

The waters of the Mackenzie also bring wood from forested lands further south. The northern coast of the Yukon is barren of trees so this driftwood is the only local source of timber for building and burning.

Making an Island

During the last ice age, the oceans were approximately 140 metres lower than they are today. At that time, the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of North America. It made a push to the northwest early in the ice age, dredging up the bottom of the ocean and making a mound of land that formed the tip of a peninsula. Later, as the continental ice sheet melted, seas rose enough to flood the peninsula's lowlands, leaving Qikiqtaruk, "the island".

While there was a connection from the Island to the mainland they call them Nuvuraqmiut (the Point People). They call them that when the island was part of the mainland and Nunaluk. And after it became an island they called it Qikiqtaruk. Then, the Sigilit called them Qikiqtarukmiut (Island People).
-- Jean Tardiff, former resident of Qikiqtaruk

Ancient people

Inuvialuit oral tradition says there were people here to witness the making of Qikiqtaruk. Beginning at least as far back as 9,000 years ago, there have been several waves of people through the area.

It is thought the first peoples came across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. We do not know if these earliest hunters stayed on Qikiqtaruk although, on the mainland nearby, there is evidence that ancient bison were hunted by these people. Their villages may have disappeared because much of the island has washed into the sea.

About 1000 years ago, there was another major eastward migration of people into this part of the Arctic. These were the Thule people. Since food was fairly easy to obtain, they were able to stay in one place for most of the year. They had a highly developed culture and built large villages, some with over 2000 people.

They probably followed the bowhead whales to the Beaufort Sea when a period of climatic warming created more open water. With the increase in open water, whales were more accessible and easier to obtain. The Thule were expert in use of the kayak and umiak, making them excellent whale hunters.

Their houses were dug into the beach gravel and had driftwood walls covered with hides and sod. Remains of these houses still exist on Qikiqtaruk.

Sir John Franklin was the first European to visit Qikiqtaruk. When he arrived, the descendants of the Thule were living here. They were called the Qikiqtarukmiut or "island people" and had three villages on the island. The people of Qikiqtaruk belonged to a larger group of Inuvialuit called Sigilit. But, in less than a century, most of the Qikiqtarukmiut would be dead.

Whalers & Other Newcomers

Their heads, that was all they hunted whales for, those people... when they killed a whale, they would hang it on along side of boat, cut the head off, put them in the ship and let go the rest of whale.
-- Albert Oliver, Mackenzie Delta elder relating a story told by his ancestors

Before fossil fuels were widely available, people often used whale oil for light, heat and lubricants. The bowhead and it's close cousin, the right whale, were easy to hunt and an excellent source of this precious oil. American whalers hunted the bowhead as well as other species and, by the 1800s, there were very few whales remaining in the south. The whalers sailed northward into the Bering Sea and eastward into the Beaufort where they found bowhead to still be plentiful.

Since the sailing season was so short and their home ports were so far away, the whalers wanted to overwinter to be close to the hunting area when the ice broke up. They began to winter here in 1890, with up to 1,500 people on Herschel Island during those first years.

The whaling companies built houses and warehouses at Pauline Cove, though most of the crews lived aboard the ships. These people required a great deal of food and firewood through the long winter. They quickly used up the local supply of driftwood and had to bring their own coal with them. The Inuvialuit supplied food and clothing for the whalers in return for manufactured goods and southern food stuffs like tea and sugar.

Shortly after the whalers' arrival in the Beaufort, a change in the fashion industry created a demand for more than the bowhead's oil. The commodity was baleen, and bowheads had the longest ‘whalebone' of any whale. Due to its strength and flexibility, it was used as a component for making ladies' corsets. This great demand for such a valuable commodity almost led to the species' extinction and to a very wasteful practice: that of taking baleen only. The inuvialuit made use of the wasted sections when they appeared and if they were still good.

New problems...

You know that time when they first started to come, they had no priest... they started drinking, they try to kill each other, fought, drank. Their wives, they lost them to those white people... When that preacher came, just like that, all the bad people stopped. Bishop Stringer, yeah!
-- Peter Thrasher, Aklavik elder

Along with the arrival of the whalers came alcohol and new diseases – two things to which the Inuvialuit had not been previously exposed. Many of the Inuvialuit on and around the island died. Sailors, as well, sometimes did not survive the rigours and dangers of whaling in the Arctic. Headboards and graves near Pauline Cove mark the final resting places of both whalers and Inuvialuit.

Reports of the whalers' bad influence on the Inuvialuit at Herschel Island soon brought Anglican missionaries, then later, the North-West Mounted Police. Missionary Isaac Stringer first visited here in 1893. He came back with his wife in 1897 to establish a mission. Their presence helped to stave off the worst influences of the whalers.

The police arrived in 1903. They too prevented the whalers from abusing the Inuvialuit, but they also made sure the whalers knew Herschel Island was Canadian territory. Oddly enough, the police had to rely on whalers to get around as they did not have their own patrol ship.

By 1907, the whaling era was over. The mission was used less often after that but the police continued to use the island as their area headquarters for many years. Boats and dogsleds left here to patrol the northern Yukon and western Northwest Territories. The police bred sled dogs on the island for a few years preceding 1964 when the post closed permanently.

Wildlife of Qikiqtaruk

In this part of the Arctic, ringed seals are the most common marine mammals. They feed on fish along the edges of the ice during the summer months. In winter, the seals live under the ice using breathing holes.

Aside from humans, the natural enemy of the ringed seal is the polar bear. In the summer, these great hunters live across the open water, along the edges of the pack ice. During the winter, a few female bears den on Qikiqtaruk's northern slopes.

Arctic fox follow the polar bears and feed on the leavings from their kills. Herschel Island is an important denning site for these foxes. At one time, their pelts were so valuable that Inuvialuit hunters could buy their own "schooners" with the fox pelts they traded.

Because the ocean freezes in winter, land mammals from the nearby mainland can walk to the island. They also swim across during ice-free times. Caribou, muskoxen and even grizzly bears are occasionally seen on Herschel Island. Smaller mammals include lemmings, tundra voles, and arctic shrews, to name a few.

Whales travel past Herschel Island on their seasonal migration. In spring, they are usually well out from shore using leads in the fracturing pack ice as they move eastward.

Despite their near-extinction by early commercial whalers, bowhead whales are still seen from Herschel Island. These huge creatures grow to 20 m in length and are most often seen as they migrate westward to the Bering Sea in September. They feed close to the surface on tiny zooplankton known as krill. The snow-white beluga whales often accompany bowheads in the spring. But instead of staying in deep, krill-rich waters, they congregate in large numbers near the estuary of the Mackenzie River. They are also seen off Herschel at various times during the open water period.

Plant life

From late June to early August, Herschel witnesses an explosion of color. Its humid maritime climate during the growing season fosters a lush growth of tundra flowers. The variety is tremendous for such a small island – nearly 200 vascular plant species – and includes a profusion of flowers such as vetches, louseworts, arctic lupines, arnicas, forget-me-nots, and many others.

The rich variety and luxuriant growth is especially noteworthy around the many fox dens. The combination of warm, sandy soil and fertilizing droppings encourages plant vigour and diversity. Mounds in the tussock tundra that serve as bird perches provide similar conditions.

Despite its luxuriant carpet of plantlife, the Herschel landscape is rapidly eroding on its edges. Waves, pack ice, and sun work on the steep slopes, melting permafrost and massive lenses of pure ice, washing the muck into the sea.

Birder's Paradise

Perhaps the most noteworthy of birds to live on Herschel is the colony of black guillemots, the largest in the Western Arctic. If you want to see the largest colony of black guillemots in the Western Arctic, visit the old Anglican mission house. They have taken over the abandoned building, nesting in the rafters. To keep their eggs from rolling away and to help preserve the historic structure, government biologists have built nest boxes on the roof for the birds.

Many other birds summer on Herschel Island but they nest in more natural sites. Tundra, ponds and shingle beaches attract birds such as arctic terns, golden plovers, sandpipers and red-necked phalaropes. They may have flown from as far away as South America or the Antarctic.

Jaegers and glaucous gulls sweep the beaches and tundra searching for unprotected eggs, ducklings and other tender morsels. Eider ducks nest in the tufts of grass and among driftwood logs of the beaches. One of the most productive breeding populations of rough-legged hawks in North America lives in the cliffs and gullies of Herschel Island.

In nearby Workboat Passage, thousands of oldsquaw ducks and surf scoters gather in July for the annual moult. They stage here again in the fall before migrating south. You may also see rare birds such as yellow-billed loons, black bellied plovers, sanderlings and longbilled dowitchers.

Please do be careful when you are walking around the buildings or on the beaches and tundra. Many birds hide their nests by camouflaging them to look like the surrounding stones and grasses. They are hard to see and easy to step on.

Other birds to watch for...

  • semipalmated plover
  • phalarope
  • harrier
  • Lapland longspur
  • hoary redpoll
  • tundra swan
  • sandhill crane
  • red throated loon
  • peregrine falcon
  • snowy owl
  • short-eared owl

Past Remains

The dry, cold climate of Herschel Island preserves wood longer than the warmer, moister weather of the south. As a result, the original Pacific Steam Whaling Company house, built in 1893, still stands and is in remarkably good condition. Two of the old warehouses and many of the whalers' tiny cabins survive as well. The Anglican Mission house stands by itself to the north of the other buildings, home now to the guillemots.

Just across the cove from the settlement area are ice houses dug into the frozen soil. These were used to keep meat frozen through the summer. Nearby are the graves of the Inuvialuit, whalers and police. At various sites on the island are signs of earlier peoples, including the remains of Thule houses.

The Weather

A polar desert

Most southern visitors find Qikiqtaruk's weather to be cool, dry and windy. The sea and nearby pack ice influence the climate.

The summer on Qikiqtaruk is short but intense. Beginning in May, the sun shines day and night. With twenty-four hours of daylight, plants grow very rapidly and Qikiqtaruk is bright with wildflowers during the milder months.

January temperatures average -27° to -30° C. While the sun does not come up at all during the middle of winter, the ice and snow reflect light and make the daytime quite bright.

There is little snow here, as we are in a "polar desert", but the wind can whip that snow into fierce, blinding blizzards. The whalers used to string ropes between the buildings and ships to keep from being lost in the polar dark and snowstorms. Despite these precautions, a group of Inuvialuit and sailors were caught by a blizzard while playing baseball out on the bay. Before they could scramble for shelter, five lost their way and froze to death.

Visitor's Information

Can I hunt here?

Herschel Island became the Yukon's first territorial park in July 1987 through the settlement of Inuvialuit land claims. The park protects the natural and human heritage of Qikiqtaruk. Part of that human heritage is the Inuvialuit's right to continue subsistence hunting. They are the only people allowed to hunt here.

How do I get to Herschel?

From early July to late September, Herschel Island is accessible by boat and float plane on a charter basis. You can charter aircraft out of Inuvik, NWT (250 km southeast) or Dawson City, Yukon (620 km south). Boat charters may be operating out of various Mackenzie Delta communities. If you plan to raft or kayak the Firth River on the Yukon mainland, you can end your trip at Herschel Island.

The island is often shrouded in fog, particularly in late summer, and flights can be delayed for hours or even days. Be prepared with sufficient gear and food.

What services are available?

Be Prepared! This is arctic wilderness so you should bring all the equipment necessary for independent camping in an arctic environment, including water. The sun is up twenty-four hours a day during the summer months, allowing you to roam the island on your own schedule. Cool temperatures, overcast weather, and steady winds are the norm, so be prepared with well-insulated, windproof clothing including protective hand and head wear. Mosquito repellent is essential for the calm, warm days.

Basic facilities include...

  • driftwood windbreak shelters for tenting
  • fire rings and driftwood
  • outhouses
  • a limited supply of potable water

Park rangers

Park rangers help maintain the facilities and, when time permits, offer interpretive assistance at Pauline Cove. They maintain the site, monitor wildlife and assist in scientific studies in the park. The staff includes local rangers who can provide insight into Inuvialuit culture and history.

For further information

You may obtain more information about Herschel Island Territorial Park by contacting:
Parks and Outdoor Recreation Branch
Department of Renewable Resources
Yukon Government
Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6
Phone (403) 667- 5648

For information on historic resources, please contact:

Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism
Yukon Government
Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6
Phone (403) 667-5386

Some pointers for park users

Qikiqtaruk's wildlife, vegetation and historic resources are sensitive to human disturbance. You can help protect the island by following these simple guidelines:
  • Camping permits are available from the park rangers free of charge. The permit outlines some of the rules and regulations in the park.
  • Respect the fragility of historic structures and environmentally sensitive areas. Park rangers will let you know which areas are particularly delicate or out of bounds. Please follow their directions.
  • The buildings on the island are not available for accommodation and are used only in cases of emergency.
  • Please leave the artifacts where they are for everyone to enjoy. Yukon Archaeological Site Regulations apply to all artifacts, above and below ground.
  • Grave sites should be respected. Please refrain from disturbing them.
  • Use telephoto lenses and binoculars or spotting scopes to avoid disturbing wildlife. Occupied bird nests and fox dens are particularly vulnerable. Please keep dogs and cats on a leash.
  • Keep moving when travelling in the back country. Ground-nesting birds, which you may not see, will leave their nests as you approach and return as you leave.
  • Use the fire rings provided in the settlement area. Enjoy the warmth of your driftwood fire, but don't overdo it. The supply is limited, and driftwood piles are nesting habitat for eider ducks and other birds. When travelling outside the settlement area, you must use a camp stove.
  • If your group is larger than four people, please check the availability of campsites ahead of time. This will help to avoid crowding and overuse.
  • Please practice low-impact camping and travelling techniques. They will add to your enjoyment and the enjoyment of those who follow.

Coal River Springs Territorial Park

The Fragile Beauty of Coal River Springs

Throughout centuries of hunting, fishing and trapping on the Coal River drainage, the Kaska Dene people admired the fragile beauty of Coal River Springs without damaging their delicate mineral formations. Still relatively untouched, the springs' dramatic formations resemble a staircase of dripping colour. A descending series of limestone terraces, framed by lush green vegetation, embraces overflowing pools of rich, icy blue water (these are cool springs, not hotsprings).

Because of these unusual and extensive formations, Coal River Springs has been rated among the top five thermal springs in Canada. On September 17, 1990, the springs were officially dedicated as the Yukon's second Territorial Park and first Ecological Reserve. Coal River Springs Territorial Park was created through the combined efforts of the Yukon Government, the Liard First Nations and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Unique Formations

The mountains above Coal River Springs are outcrops of limestone (calcium carbonate). As groundwater percolates through the cracks in the rock, it gradually dissolves them. When the calcium-enriched water emerges from the earth at the foot of the mountains, a change begins to occur. It is thought that mosses and other vegetation change the acidity of the water as they absorb carbon dioxide. As the pH level changes and the icy water warms, its ability to retain the rich supply of dissolved calcium is reduced. The calcium then combines with dissolved carbon dioxide and separates from the water as a precipitate.

This precipitate, known as tufa or travertine, is deposited on the surface of any object in contact with the water. Twigs, leaves, whole trees and even animal carcasses eventually become covered in the rock-like tufa. Living mosses that rim the pools are literally turned to stone. The continual build-up of tufa, at a rate of two to three centimetres a year, has created the terraced formations surrounding the springs.

The edges of the springs' pools slowly grow inward and upward so they are suspended over the layer below. If left undisturbed, the pool walls would eventually close at the top like a dome. New pools would begin to form over the old pool chambers. Several of these chambers are likely hidden below the pools we see today.

Constant Change

Natural forces are constantly changing the direction of water flow and resultant buildup of the tufa. As mosses grow and calcify, old drainage channels are blocked and new ones created. Moose foraging in the wetlands along the base of the formations often walk on the mounds, occasionally breaking off pieces of tufa thus changing the watercourses.

In 1984, beaver diverted the flow away from the main formations. As a result, they dried up and lost their colour. Cracks also developed and, when the flow of water returned, it took a few years before they self-sealed and refilled with water. A few parts of the main terraces remain dry today.

When walking through the surrounding forest, you may observe evidence of past development and change. Ancient tufa can be found tangled in the roots of fallen trees. Walls of tufa from old dry pools stand like fortresses guarding secret courtyard gardens. Large, healthy trees thrive within these bastions, their roots solidly anchored.

Naturally induced changes are characteristic of the springs. Changes made by visitors walking on the formations are not. A single footprint can result in dramatic changes; so please step carefully.

Rich Plant Life

Favourable conditions at the springs help to support an abundance and rich diversity of plant life. The main source pool averages 11 degress C throughout the year despite the mean annual air temperature of only 3 degrees C. Due to this locally moderated climate and constant, ice-free water supply, there are a number of species uncommon to the rest of the region.

Bluegrass (Poa ammophilla), a species mainly of the north coast of the Yukon and NWT, grows here. Wild sarsasparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), red and white baneberry (Actaea rubra), knotweed (Polygonum viviparum) and water milfoil (Myriophyllum verticillatum) are also present.

Summer brings a cavalcade of colour to this site. Bright yellow monkey-flowers (Mimulus guttatus) nod their heads along the edge of the pools as if admiring themselves on the mirror-like surfaces. Tall purple larkspur (Delphinium glaucum) grace the lower wetlands that drain into the Coal River. Paintbrush flowers (Castilleja spp.) add splashes of salmon pink to the lower meadow.


Wildlife populations in the Coal River region are relatively unaffected by human activity. Black and grizzly bears have been observed within the present park boundaries. A wolf pack maintains at least one denning site nearby. The constant flow of water attracts beaver that have, from time to time, dammed the system and created extensive wetlands along the foot of the terraces. Fed by the temperate waters, the wetlands produce early-season aquatic vegetation which attracts moose in the spring. As many as six moose have been observed sharing these small wetlands for a brief period in May.

The boreal toad and the northern wood frog are also found in these wetlands. Dolly varden inhabit the Coal River beside the springs and tiny sculpins swim in some of the terraced pools high on the bluff.


Coal River Springs Park was established as an ecological reserve to protect its fragile tufa formations. These features cannot survive heavy use. For this reason, there are no plans to improve the present difficult and normally expensive access.

Visitors are usually whitewater canoeists or rafters who have lined upstream on the Coal from tributary streams and lakes accessed by floatplane from Watson Lake. Once on the river, boaters are committed to a week-long trip with grade III-IV rapids further downstream. Take-out is at the Alaska Highway where it crosses the Coal.

A few people have bushwhacked from a rough mining exploration/logging road to the banks of the Coal River. To do this, they must negotiate a hilly, two kilometre maze of large diametre, windthrown, fire-killed trees. At this point they are usually blocked by the river. It is fordable only in the low water of late summer and, even then, may be dangerous.

The only other access is by helicopter from Watson Lake. This is usually a one hour return flight.

Guidlines for Visitors

The spring formations are extremely vulnerable to the activities of park visitors. Please follow these simple rules:

  • The springs are cold, not hot, as one might have mistakenly anticipated by the term thermal springs. Any type of bathing or swimming will damage the delicate chemistry of the water and its biological components. Please avoid any contact with the water.
  • Stay on designated trails and avoid walking on the formations.
  • Keep a clean camp by using the facilities located 200 metres east of the main formations.
  • Take all your garbage out with you when you leave.
  • Use a camera or sketch pad to capture memories of your visit and leave the flowers and tufa for others to enjoy.

Source: Yukon Government

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