Kekerten Park is a reminder of the European and American Arctic whaling days of long ago. Located on Kekerten Island, about 50 kilometres south of Pangnirtung, the park area was first used as a whaling station after the island was charted by Scottish whaler William Penny in 1840. Soon after, Kekerten and the surrounding Cumberland Sound became a major location for whaling by both the British and the Americans. Knowledge of whales, the area and of Arctic survival made the Inuit people essential allies in the arctic commercial whaling industry.
Today, a three hour boat ride will take you to Kekerten Park where you will find the remnants of this bygone era described by signage along an interpretive trail. Among the many features of the site are the foundations of three storehouses built in 1857 by Scottish whalers, large cast-iron pots once used for rendering whale oil, blubber-hauling pins and the remains of a whaleboat ship.
Whaling at Kekerten
Commercial whaling did not enter Canadian Arctic waters until 1820, when British whalers ventured north from their traditional territory off southeast Greenland into the area around Pond Inlet and Lancaster Sound. They were not disappointed. These untested waters were rich with their principal quarry, the bowhead whale, and for the next two decades became the primary destination of the British whaling fleet. Indeed, the new-found region proved so rich that between 1820 and 1840, more than 13,000 whales were hunted here.
But for all its profitability, bowhead whaling was an uncertain undertaking. During these two decades, the ravages of arctic weather took a heavy toll on the whalers, resulting in hundreds of deaths and dozens of lost ships. In 1830 alone, 19 ships were lost and myriad others damaged.
As a result of these dangerous conditions – as well as a rapidly decreasing bowhead population in the immediate area – the whalers were forced to consider alternative methods of performing their livelihood. The prevailing sentiment was that a permanent whaling settlement in more southerly waters would provide the refuge so badly needed by both men and ships.
For years, whalers had heard tales of a large southerly bay that not only abounded with bowheads, but was also free of ice until well into January. Inuit called this place Tenudiackbik. In the spring of 1840, Scottish whaler William Penny decided to find the legendary body of water. He elicited the aid of a young Inuk named Eenoolooapik, who directed the whaler into the mouth of what is now known as Cumberland Sound. British whaling was resuscitated. Within a few years, both British and American whaling ships were visiting the sound with increasing regularity.
In 1852, a group of American whalers aboard the vessel McLellan became the first group to spend the winter in Cumberland Sound, setting a precedent that was soon to become standard practice for most whalers in the region. Five years later, Penny established a permanent station in the sound when he erected a station house at Kekerten for the Arctic Aberdeen Company. The Americans soon followed suit. The establishment of these wintering stations created a permanent foundation for contact and trade between Inuit and non-Inuit; neither group would ever be the same.
Inuit at the Whaling Stations
Attracted by a culture rich with material items of which they were enamoured, Inuit flocked to the whaling stations to perform services that would get them the items they so desired. Among other things, Inuit transported blubber between the floe edge and the harbour, rendered whale oil, and worked as whaleboat crews. They also supplied the whalers with fresh meat and fur clothing. In exchange, the whalers gave Inuit a host of manufactured items, including rifles, telescopes, knives, needles and kettles. Inuit also got dry goods such as biscuits and tobacco.
And while much good came of the relationship that was forged between the two cultures, Inuit suffered desperately from their newly found ties with the whalers. Inuit were highly susceptible to the diseases of the Europeans and Americans, and viruses ravaged native settlements. By 1857, some 17 years after their initial contact with the whalers, the 1,000-strong Inuit of Cumberland Sound had seen their population reduced to less than 350. To exacerbate the problem, working with whalers drastically altered traditional Inuit subsistence patterns, and many failed to cache adequate food stores for times of shortage, often resulting in needless starvation.
The late 1850s and early 1860s were the golden years for bowhead whaling in Cumberland Sound. As many as 30 ships visited the area each autumn; about a dozen regularly spent the winter in the vicinity of Kekerten, or Penny’s Harbour as it was known to the whalers. By 1860, stations at Blacklead Island (on the south shore of the sound) and Cape Haven (near the mouth of the sound) joined Kekerten as permanent whaling posts.
The Decline of Whaling in Cumberland Sound
It was in this same year, however, that American whaling ships first ventured into Hudson Bay and discovered it to be a fertile whaling area. Most of the American fleet would concentrate on the area for a number of years, spending summers there and wintering in Cumberland Sound. It would only take five years for bowhead stocks in these new waters to shrink precipitously, so ships began returning to the sound.
They were met with a similar situation. Cumberland Sound was yielding fewer whales each year, the result of two decades of intense exploitation. The Arctic Aberdeen Company sold its stations, effectively ending William Penny’s participation in the whale fishery. After 1864, the “discoverer” of Cumberland Sound never set foot in the Arctic again.
By 1870, the number of ships visiting the sound had declined to only half that of the decade earlier. But despite the relative dearth of whales, Cumberland Sound was still the location of choice for the dwindling industry. A few ships from each nation wintered there until the late 1870s. By 1882, American involvement in Eastern Arctic whaling was practically nil. The only permanent station still operating was at Kekerten.
As bowhead populations shrank, whaling companies looked to other mammals to fill the void in their pocketbooks. As early as 1872, an American company was netting beluga whales at the head of the sound. More attention was paid to seals, however, which boasted enormous populations in the sound. The 1870s saw increasing trade for sealskins and seal blubber.
As a result of this novel demand for seal products, Inuit returned to preferred sealing grounds across the sound, where they would await the arrival of whaling companies and the products for which they traded. Within 20 years, the seal population had been thoroughly decimated, leaving local Inuit with little food sources to see them through the winter. This probably caused many Inuit to move back to the stations in large numbers in the late 1800s. By the waning months of the 19th century, both Blacklead and Kekerten were home to a few hundred Inuit and a handful of non-Inuit whalers.
When the price of whalebone dropped 17¢ per kilogram in 1912, the fate of the bowhead fishery was sealed. After 1913, no whaling ships left for the Arctic. Nonetheless, Inuit at Blacklead and Kekerten continued to hunt whales there for five more years; by this time the whale fishery had become an important part of their culture. Both Kekerten and Blacklead served intermittently as trading posts, but were abandoned in the mid-1920s and late 1930s, respectively; and today whaling is but a fading memory in the minds of a few Pangnirtung elders.
A walkway through the park links various historic elements, each of which has its own interpretive sign. Stay on the walkway while touring the stations, whaler’s graveyard, and whale spotting lookouts. Nunavut laws, and common sense require that artifacts, rocks, vegetation, or antlers and wildlife parts; or human remains not be removed or disturbed. Guides, and staff at the Angmarlik Visitor Centre will be able to respond to questions. Visitors may also want to purchase the Kekerten Historic Park Guide, which is available at the Angmarlik Visitor Centre in Pangnirtung. The Guide describes the history behind the site, and the features at the Park in more detail.
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
First Air and Canadian North both fly regular daily schedules to Iqaluit from four main southern airline ‘hubs’: Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton (via Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet). Flights from Winnipeg (via Churchill and Rankin Inlet) are also available.
The simplest way is to take a scheduled flight with First Air or Kenn Borek to Pangnirtung, which both fly regular schedules during the week throughout the year. It is always best to confirm these flight schedules before arrival.
In late spring (early May to mid-June) the best way to reach Kekerten from Pangnirtung is by snowmobile, although cross-country skiing is also a great way to get there. Regardless of the mode of transportation, visitors should always prepare for unexpectedly cold temperatures and winds that eat through several layers of clothing. Visitors should also be aware that ice conditions can be very uncertain during the latter weeks of June and early July, and are best left to Inuit who are well versed in pre-breakup travel.
Summer travel to Kekerten is usually by Lake Winnipeg boat or freighter canoe, but should not be planned for earlier than July 15 since ice often lingers this late in the year. Once the ice clears, boat trips to the park are possible until late September, when the waters slowly begin to ice up again. Even on the warmest of summer days, warm and waterproof clothing, including rubber boots should be carried. Local licensed guides or outfitters will provide a survival suit for boat travel, and carry proper survival gear.
If travelling without an outfitter, rent a survival suit somewhere in town. Check with the local Angmarlik Visitor Centre in Pangnirtung for information on the tides in Pangnirtung Fiord which are tremendous and will dictate your departure and arrival times.
Aside from ski excursions, which will take more time, a round-trip to Kekerten – with time out to enjoy the park – takes about 12 hours. Camping is not permitted in the historic site, but there is camping available outside the historic size area. There is also a cabin at the park for shelter in an emergency.
In Pangnirtung, you can camp at the Pisuktinu Tunngavik Territorial Park which offers tent platforms, outhouse and other facilities. Check with the Angmarlik Visitor Centre in Pangnirtung for information.
Where To Stay
There is a couple options for staying in Pangnirtung. Pisuktinu Tunngavik Territorial Park also provides new campsite facilities including picnic tables, firepit and washrooms.
Trips to Kekerten are best arranged in Pangnirtung through the Angmarlik Visitor Centre in Pangnirtung – the best source of information to help you make the most of your visit. The Centre will also direct you to the different outfitters and services offered.
Kullualik Outfitting and Fishing Camp
Peter’s Expediting & Outfitting Services
Arts & Crafts
Visit the Uqqurmiut Centre to see vibrant arts and crafts from the community, or watch local carving and printmaking at the gallery or throughout the hamlet.
The Angmarlik Visitor’s Centre provides interpretation for Kekerten Territorial Park, the HBC Blubber Station, and the history of whaling in and around Kimmirut. Staff at the centre will also direct you to guides/outfitters, arrange walking tours of the town, and set up home-stays.
Angmarlik Visitor’s Centre
Nunavut Parks publishes a wide range of documents and reports on the work it does for each park – ranging from master plans, management plans, maps, brochures and other reports and publications. Many of these resources are available here.
Kekerten Territorial Park Editorial – [.pdf – 870KB] This four page editorial offers information on Kekerten Territorial Park.
Visitor information is available from the Visitor Information section of the website, and at relevant visitor and information centres throughout Nunavut. Contact Nunavut Parks for any additional information you may be looking for.