Northwest Passage Territorial Trail is not a park in the conventional sense. Located in and around the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island, it is part of a larger goal to provide an informative tour about the quest by Europeans to find a Northwest Passage and the search for answers concerning the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition that failed to find the passage.
Your Northwest Passage Trail journey begins outside the Heritage Centre. This sign introduces the Nattilik Inuit before their encounter with Amundsen. Enjoy displays on Inuit culture and history during a visit to the Heritage Centre. From the Heritage Centre, walk to the Hamlet Centre to the Northwest Passage sign on the history of the passage, and visit the Amundsen display on the second floor of the Hamlet Centre. Walk along the beach to a rock lined path leading up to the cairn dedicated to Amundsen. At the bottom of the hill, read about the first encounter between Nattilik Inuit and Amundsen and once at the cairn, celebrate Amundsen’s achievements in exploration and the relationships he formed with Inuit at Gjoa Haven.
Many explorers of the past searched for a northern sea route that would take them from the Old World to the Orient. You may know them from the lands and waters that bear their names – Martin Frobisher and John Davis in the 16th century; Henry Hudson in the 17th century; Edward Parry, John Ross, John Franklin, Robert McClure and Richard Collinson of the 19th century. Despite terrible odds, these and other adventurers sailed into perilous waters, armed with the knowledge they’d gained from previous voyagers. Yet the successful navigation of the Northwest Passage occurred not only because of the contributions of these earlier expeditions, but because of the knowledge of the Inuit inhabitants of the North. Roald Amundsen was the first explorer to adopt some of the survival techniques of the Netsilik people on King William Island, such as hunting, fishing and toolmaking. He was also the first to traverse the Passage.
A key to Amundsen’s discovery of the Northwest Passage may have been in his finding what he called “the finest little harbor in the world.” On Sept. 9, 1903, the Gjøa entered a haven in this deep, narrow inlet that provided refuge from massive pack ice and stormy seas. Here, after their arduous journey, Amundsen and his crew found a peaceful place to pursue their scientific work and to learn about the land from the Netsilik.
Inuit Culture at the Northwest Passage
Your journey of discovery leads you through our community to learn about the past and culture, through stories of the 1903-1905 meeting between Inuit and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen as told through Elders who share their memories of the few short years that Amundsen and his crew lived in Gjoa Haven before sailing on to be the first Europeans to navigate through the famed Northwest Passage.
Start your journey with a visit to the Heritage Centre where you will experience the ingenuity of the Inuit culture. The Centre includes a miniature replica of Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa. Among the museum’s artifacts are traditional tools such as uluit (woman’s knives) and kakivait (spears), as well as caribou clothing and water containers, a kayak, and photos taken by one of Amundsen’s crew during his stay in Gjoa Haven. The centre also describes the history of explorers such as Franklin and Amundsen, plus that of the Netsilik people.
History of the Northwest Passage
Next, walk to the Hamlet Centre to the Northwest Passage sign on the history of the passage, and visit the Amundsen display on the second floor of the Hamlet Centre.
Long before Amundsen arrived in Gjoa Haven, Inuit travelled the coastline and waterways of the Arctic. As the region’s first explorers, Inuit navigated the land and sea, hunting food and seeking shelter. Inuit knowledge of the Arctic was learned through experience and passed down through oral tradition. It would take centuries of European exploration and failed voyages before Inuit knowledge would be applied to successfully navigate a European sailing ship through these polar seas. Europeans, who were trading with Asia as early as 300 BC, had been actively searching for a cheaper and safer navigable shipping route to Asia since 1492, long before the ship, Gjøa harboured in this bay. Maps of North America were unreliable and incomplete from the time of the earliest explorers. Over the course of three centuries of northern exploration, European mapping of the coastlines came together like pieces of a puzzle. Explorers such as Franklin, Back, Parry and Beechey mapped the continent’s northern coastline one small piece at a time. Fe explorers recorded Inuit knowledge of the coastline until Edward Parry befriended Inuit at Repulse Bay on his 1821-1823 voyage. Inuit maps created of the Melville Peninsula region first showed the possibility of a Northwest Passage.
Trade and Commerce
From the Hamlet Centre, walk to the Northern Store and see the old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post, the first permanent building in the community. The sign at this location discusses trade and commerce. Trade was slow to develop between Europeans and Inuit because the earliest European explorers made little effort to interact with the Inuit, focusing only on their ultimate goal of reaching Asia. In time, encounters between Europeans and Inuit increased, and trade began as each group saw that the other had materials of value. Wood and metal were highly valued by the Inuit who supplied Amundsen with meat and furs in exchange. Amundsen maintained an active trading relationship with the Inuit during the two years he and his crew spent in this harbour. Following the departure of the Gjøa, the Inuit returned to their traditional lifestyle until 1927, when trade the Hudson’s Bay Company and then the Can-Alaska Trading Company established trading posts on this spot. Today’s community of Gjoa Haven grew from this Hudson’s Bay Company trading post.
From this location, a walk along the beach to the rock-lined path will lead you to the cairn dedicated to Amundsen, and celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of his successful navigation of the Northwest Passage. The Amundsen cairn houses the bronze memorial plaque and describes the life of Roald Amundsen, his ship the Gjøa and the journey from Norway to the harbour at Gjoa Haven. Visitors will also learn about the important scientific contributions made by Amundsen and his crew, specifically on the magnetic north pole. To fund his voyage, he committed to undertake scientific research during his journey. The only evidence remaining today of Amundsen’s temporary buildings are the earth mounds from his subterranean construction methods. The sites of these buildings can be visited today by consulting the Northwest Passage Trail brochure.
Importantly, too, the cairn illustrates the importance of Inuit knowledge and the role of local Inuit in the success of Roald Amundsen’s time in Gjoa Haven. Amundsen’s journals are filled with praise on the superiority of Inuit skills for survival in polar regions – skills such as hunting, and building shelters from local Inuit helped Amundsen immeasurably in his later first successful journey to the South Pole on December 14, 1911, 21 days ahead of English explorer Robert Scott.
Touring the Trail
In addition to the signed trail, visitors can pick up a copy of the Interpretive Brochure and take a self-guided tour of five other interesting locations in the community to discover more about the history of Gjoa Haven.
This includes the location of the magnetic observatory (the ‘magnet’) used by Amundsen to document his findings on the magnetic north pole. In 1903, the Pole was about 90 kilometres north of Gjoa Haven. The magnets and other instruments that Amundsen used here are on display in a museum in Norway. To help him in this work, the explorer and his men constructed the shelter from packing crates filled with sand and covered with sailcloth. (Driftwood is a rare commodity in the North!) In their construction, they had to take care not to use copper nails in the crates, as these would interfere with magnetic observations. The crates also offered a space where crewmen could pursue leisure activities during long, dark winter months. Two crewmen stayed in this shelter, while the others lived aboard the icebound Gjøa.
You’ll also see the foundations of the variation house – where Amundsen studied the changing position of the magnetic north pole. In this refuge made of sailcloth, he spent many hours documenting his findings on the North Magnetic Pole. Perhaps, too, he reflected on his teacher and mentor, George Von Neumayer, for before leaving Gjoa Haven, Amundsen erected a cairn here to honor him. Below the cairn was a marble slab that supported Amundsen’s scientific instruments. Years later, the Hudson’s Bay Co. rebuilt the cairn – the marble slab remains intact to this day.
The foundations of the crew house are also included in the self-guided tour of the community.
Today, ancestors of Roald Amundsen continue to live in the community, linking the past and the future of the Northwest Passage. Given its strategic location, Gjoa Haven continues to be a focal point along this legendary shipping route.
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 community of Gjoa Haven can be accessed by air from Cambridge Bay and Yellowknife. First Air operates flights from Yellowknife to Gjoa Haven on Monday to Friday. Kenn Borek Air flies from Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven, via Taloyoak and Kugaaruk regularly. Please check with the airlines for schedules and schedule changes.
The more adventurous can also travel by ship along the famed Northwest Passage!
Where To Stay
Amundsen Hotel – Inns North
Toll Free: 1-888-866-6784
Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers Organization can provide local information about the land, country foods, and arrange for local outfitting.
The Northwest Passage Museum/Heritage Centre includes a miniature replica of Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, as well as traditional tools such as uluit (woman’s knives) and kakivait (spears), caribou clothing and water containers, a kayak, and photos taken by one of Amundsen’s crew during his stay in Gjoa Haven. The centre also describes the history of explorers such as Franklin and Amundsen, plus that of the Netsilik people.
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.
Northwest Passage Trail Editorial [.pdf – 856KB] – This four page editorial offers information on the Northwest Passage Trail
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.