Kugluk Territorial Park in the central Arctic is one of Nunavut’s few parks with a shared history between the Inuit and the Dene Indians. Unfortunately, this history has not always been friendly. In fact, the falls got their English name, Bloody Falls, in 1771, when European explorer Samuel Hearne witnessed the massacre of unsuspecting Inuit by a group of Chipewyan Indians with whom he was traveling.
Located on the west side of the Coppermine River, 13 km from the community of Kugluktuk, Kugluk Territorial Park covers an 8.5 square-kilometre area. The park is centered on the falls, where the broad, swift-flowing Coppermine River is forced into a narrow channel of vigorously boiling rapids and twisting eddies. Inuit refer to the campsite below the falls as Onoagahiovik, the place where you “stay all night,” a name that refers to fishing, which even today is an integral part of their lives.
Geography of Kugluk Falls
The park landscape is typical of the area, with rolling tundra occasionally interrupted by escarpments and rocky outcrops. Closer to the river, steep cliffs and sandy hills descend in plateaus to the valley below. From the park’s highest hill, you can just make out the community of Kugluktuk and the Arctic Ocean, about 13 kilometers to the north.
The focal point of the park is the falls, where the rock and cliffs force the river into a boiling, rushing torrent. Above and below the falls, where the river widens, the rugged tundra climbs up from the river to the surrounding hills and plateaus. Winter ice breaks up and floods the land around the falls. In summer, the land is covered by lush tundra vegetation including an impressive show of wildflowers.
Above the falls, the river spreads over a much wider expanse where the surrounding surficial materials are less resistant. The Community of Kugluktuk shares a strong interest in preserving the park landscape, which has remained relatively unchanged despite its occupation for thousands of years.
The golden eagles that soar above the river throughout the summer nest along the steep cliffs at the falls, as well as other locations along the river. Also watch for rough-legged hawks, peregrine falcons, and gyrfalcons. Other avian cliff dwellers include countless swallows, which nest under rock ledges at the falls.
Watch for animal tracks as you walk along the muddy shore above and below the falls. Barren-ground caribou migrate nearby in spring and autumn. Caribou have also been known to occasionally appear within the park or along the trail from Kugluktuk in summer.
The barren lands, a general reference to the tundra, are also home to barren-ground grizzly bears and caution must be taken. When camping, store food well away from your tent, pack out all garbage when you leave the park, and keep fire pits clean and free of food. For more information on bears, contact the Department of Environment, Wildlife Office in Kugluktuk.
Wildflowers jump into bloom in late June, dotting the tundra with bright colours for three to four weeks. One of the more interesting plants found at Kugluk Falls is the black-tipped groundsel, which was described here in 1821 by John Richardson, a surgeon-naturalist on the Franklin expedition up the Coppermine River to locate the Northwest Passage. The plant’s black tips inspired Richardson to name it senecio lugens, derived from the Latin word lugeo (“to mourn”), a name that recalls the massacre that once occurred at the site. By late August, the bright greens of summer give way to golden yellow, the tundra’s last hurrah before winter begins.
History of Kugluk Falls
The ancestors of both the Inuit and Dene fished and hunted at Kugluk Falls – remnants of their winter houses used more than 500 years ago by people of the Thule culture can still be found here. Other archaeological evidence indicates earlier inhabitants, the Pre-Dorset, camped at the falls more than 3,500 years ago. The remains of early caribou-hunting camps dating back some 1,500 years have also been found in the park and are linked with the Taltheilei tradition, a prehistoric Dene people. These camps are scattered on sand plateaus along the west bank, downstream from the falls, but may be difficult to spot since they have been somewhat obscured by blowing sand.
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
Canadian North is the sole airline of the north and 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.
Canadian North operates flights to Kugluktuk from Yellowknife, and Kenn Borek flies from Cambridge Bay to Kugluktuk regularly. Please check with the airlines for schedule changes.
Licensed outfitters will also take you on a 45-minute trip to the park by motorboat. Trips cost around $70 per person, slightly less per person for groups of up to four people. Bring a picnic lunch if your guide isn’t supplying one. Note that the river is sometimes shallow, especially in August and September, so you may have to hike the last one or two kilometers to Kugluk Falls.
The park can also be visited in winter, although it is highly recommended you do so with an outfitter who is familiar with the area, since blowing snow can obliterate landmarks in a frighteningly brief period of time. The falls and the river will be frozen, although water continues to run below the ice.
Where To Stay
There are two hotels in Kugluktuk in addition to a community campground.
Arctic Vision B&B
Adjun Adventure Outfitting
Visit the Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre (open year-round) for a fascinating introduction to the area’s culture. Here you will find exhibits featuring everything from traditional tools and hunting methods to displays of caribou and sealskin clothing. You may also arrange for a guided interpretive walking tour of the community, or a cultural demonstration featuring traditional skills/pastimes of the Copper Inuit.
The Centre’s gift shop offers an opportunity to view or purchase a variety of locally-crafted items such as stone carvings, jewellery, paintings, wall hangings, traditional clothing, and dolls complete with traditional caribou skin attire.
Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre
Email Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre
Tel: (867) 982-3570
Fax: (867) 982-3573
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.
Kugluk Falls Territorial Park Editorial [.pdf – 917KB] – This four page editorial offers information on Kugluk 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.
Header photo by David Ho, 2013