Herschel Island (Inuktitut: Qikiqtaruk; French: Île d'Herschel), in the Beaufort Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean), lies 5 km (3.1 mi) off the coast of Yukon in Canada. It is Yukon's only offshore island. The island is home to Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, which makes up the entire 116 km2 (45 sq mi) of Herschel Island.
The park protects important natural and human heritage. Its dry polar climate is home to an array of arctic plants, animals and sea life, including the largest colony of Black Guillemots in the Western Arctic.
This park is the home of the Inuvialuit, who have used the site for thousands of years. Inuvialuit families use the area for traditional activities and researchers come from around the world to study the island's changing wildlife, geomorphology and climate.
Park rangers offer interpretive assistance at Pauline Cove. The staff includes local rangers who can provide insight into Inuvialuit culture and history.
The earliest evidence of human occupation unearthed so far by archaeological investigations is that of the Thule culture, dating to approximately 1000 years ago. These people are the ancestors of the present-day Inuvialuit. They call Herschel Island "Qikiqtaruk", which simply means "island".
In the late 19th century, whalers discovered that the Beaufort Sea was one of the last refuges of the depleted bowhead whale. Commercial bowhead hunting in the area began in 1889. In order for the short Arctic whaling season to be profitable, it was necessary to overwinter in the area. Herschel Island was found to have a good harbour for large whaling ships.
In 1893, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company (PSW Co.) constructed a building called the Community House at Pauline Cove. With a recreation room, an office for the manager and storekeeper, and storage facilities, the Community House became the most prominent building on the island. In 1896 the company offered the house to the Anglican church, who used the building until 1906.
In 1903, Francis Joseph Fitzgerald was the first North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) officer assigned to the area, who later died in the famous "Lost Patrol".
In 1905, Roald Amundsen wintered here, while on his first traverse of the Northwestern Passage.
In 1911, the Royal North-West Mounted Police purchased all Herschel Island assets of the PSW Co. for $1,500. The Community House still stands, and is believed to be the oldest frame building in Yukon. It remains in excellent condition, and is now used as a park office and visitor centre.
Flora and fauna
At least 94 bird species have been counted on Herschel Island, 40 of which breed there. The island hosts the largest colony of black guillemots (Cepphus grylle) in the western Arctic, nesting in the old Anglican mission house. Arctic terns, American golden plovers, and red-necked phalaropes make use of the tundra ponds and shingle beaches. Other birds that breed on the island include the common eider, rough-legged hawk, snow bunting, Lapland bunting, and redpoll.
Herschel Island's Arctic climate is characterized by long, cold winters followed by short, but intense summers. From November to early June, Herschel Island is locked in ice.
Herschel Island enjoys continuous daylight every year between May 19 and July 24. The sun does not appear above the horizon from November 29 to January 14, but significant twilight is experienced for a few hours in the late morning and early afternoon during the latter period.
The park is open from mid-June to mid-September. You can charter a boat or aircraft. Aircraft can be chartered from Inuvik, NWT. Boat charters operate from various Mackenzie Delta communities.
If you are rafting or kayaking the Firth River on the Yukon mainland, you can end your trip at Herschel Island–Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park. However, you must make prior arrangements for return travel.
Fees and permits
You are required to get a park permit to land aircraft on the island.
You must also get a permit for any recreational activities, such as hiking, canoeing, photography, or sport fishing. Complete the application, and submit it by
- ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org,
- in person to Yukon Parks offices in Dawson, Inuvik, or Whitehorse,
- by fax +1-867-393-6223, or
- by mail to: Government of Yukon, Parks Branch (V-4), Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6.
You must provide your own means of transportation.
Several historic Pacific Steam Whaling Company structures are still standing at Pauline Cove. The Community House (1893) has interpretive displays.
Signs of their old Inuvialuit dwellings are still visible on the island.
Hike, ski, focus on staying alive in this empty land, and ponder your own mortality. And of course, luxuriate in being alone in nature in an unspoiled land.
Park rangers offer guided tours, and there are designated routes through the tundra.
Eat, drink, and sleep
Independent camping is the only accommodation available. You must bring all the equipment necessary for independent camping in an Arctic environment.
There are driftwood windbreak shelters for tenting, fire rings and driftwood, outhouses and a limited supply of fresh water that you must boil before drinking.
Overnight camping on the island costs $12 per tent per night. Permits are available from the park rangers. Find out more on the Herschel Island–Qikiqtaruk backcountry camping page.
The island is often shrouded in fog, particularly in late summer, which can delay flights for hours or even days. Be prepared with sufficient gear and food.