Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park is located about one kilometer (a 30 minute walk) from Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. The picturesque scenery is accented by the Sylvia Grinnell River that separates the park in two as it meanders through the tundra. The river is a great spot to catch an arctic char and the falls make for a beautiful spot to picnic. New interpretive hiking trails will tell you more about the area’s cultural and natural heritage.
The park hosts archaeological sites dating back to the Thule as well as a variety of plants such as the woodsia fern, one of the rarest plants in the country. Several species of wildlife can be viewed including caribou during winter and spring and arctic fox as well as 40 species of birds have been spotted in the area.
History of the Area
Martin Frobisher, a British explorer, entered the mouth of a large passage in 1576 that he named Frobisher Strait, thinking it was the Northwest Passage leading to the Orient. Frobisher reported his findings to his benefactor, Queen Elizabeth I, who laid claim to the lands Frobisher described. She named the land Meta Incognita, meaning, “of limits unknown”, reflecting her hope that this vast land would bear untold riches. Today, the southern peninsula of Baffin Island is still called Meta Incognita.
American explorer Charles Hall’s 1861 journey with Inuit brought him in the vicinity of the park. Hall was the first to record that Frobisher’s Strait was actually a Bay. Hall named a number of features in the upper bay after his financial backers. Among the place names attributed by Hall is the Sylvia Grinnell River. Sylvia Grinnell was the name of the daughter of C.F. Hall’s friend and benefactor, Henry Grinnell. The name was also given to the adopted daughter of two of Hall’s Inuk companions.
In the vicinity of the park, Inuit and European place names co-exist. Iqaluit, meaning “place of many fish”, is a reference to the park’s river and falls area that were bountiful for arctic char fishing. Although the park is called Sylvia Grinnell in English, in Inuktitut the park is called Iqaluit Kuunga (Iqaluit River).
The upper portion of the bay is called Tasiujarjuaq, meaning “shaped like a large lake”. This is an apt description because 56 km from here, a chain of islands runs the width of the bay, distinguishing its upper and lower portions. In Peterhead Inlet, just beyond the peninsula on the western shore of the river, there are two small islands called Pilavvik. These flat rocky islands were a good place for hunters to pull their kayaks out of the water to skin seals caught in the bay.
Qaummaarviit and Katannilik Territorial Parks are also located in this region of the bay. Qaummaarviit, which means a place that shines, is a small island on the western side of Peterhead Inlet. The park protects the remains of Pre-Dorset, Dorset and Thule cultures’ inhabitation. Katannilik Park stretches from the western shore of Frobisher Bay for over 120 kilometres south to the community of Kimmirut. Katannilik means “the place of waterfalls”, and as its name suggests, the park is full of waterfalls. Visits to these parks can be arranged through the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre.
Dorset and Thule Sites
Today, there are some stone cairns and archaeological ruins in the area of the park that indicate a long history of occupation along the coast of the upper bay. Within the park boundary there are no known sites indicating settlement, however the falls and basin below the falls would have been important locations for fishing during the seasons of upirngaaq (spring), aujaq (summer), and ukiassaaq (early fall). Tent rings and other indications of habitation near the falls would likely have been lost due to the annual flooding of the river. Archaeological sites can be found in the vicinity of the park and at Qaummaarviit Territorial Park. Occupation in the area of the park dates back over three millennia, demonstrating the enduring role of this coastal landscape to the Inuit culture.
One of the best sites, Crystal II, is just outside of the park boundary to the south of the falls on the east side of the river. This site is an important archaeological site of the Thule and Dorset cultures and is marked with a small plaque. This site contains three visible subterranean dwellings from the Thule culture, however excavations undertaken identified Dorset cultural artifacts, indicating the site was occupied over a longer period of time. This site was the first location to provide empirical evidence of the distinctions between the Dorset and Thule cultures. After the first occupation of the site by the Dorset people, the site was abandoned and vegetation grew over it. When the Thule later camped on the same spot, a layer of black soil containing refuse accumulated from their daily activities. The Thule then abandoned the site and it was again covered in vegetation – the layer that is visible today.
In the park reserve lands, the campsite of American Explorer Charles Francis Hall, dating from 1860-1862 is located close to Qaummaarviit on Peterhead Inlet. Hall’s exploration of the upper portion of Hudson’s Bay is documented in a volume entitled Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux (1865). In his writings are found the earliest recordings of archaeological sites in the upper bay area. During his exploration of this area, he describes evidence of human occupation at an old camp on the eastern shore of the Sylvia Grinnell River, presumably the Crystal II Thule site, and at Peale Point on the mainland adjacent to Qaummaarviit Island, presumably the Thule Site listed as KkDo-1.
Qaummaarviit Territorial Park shows evidence of Pre-Dorset, Dorset and Thule occupation. Two Thule winter dwellings were left visible following excavation and these dwellings are interpreted at the Territorial Park.
A third Thule site, listed as KkDo-3, is located at the head of Peterhead Inlet. This site is a large village consisting of approximately 90 features, 18 of which are Thule culture winter dwellings. This site is called Tungatsivvik by locals. There is evidence of occupation at this site for over 3,000 years.
The park’s landscape was formed by glaciation that last occurred in this area approximately 7100 years ago, with ice almost 1000 meters thick. Massive glaciers moved across the landscape from the northwest to the southeast, scouring uplands and leaving deposits on the southeastern side of ridges and escarpments. Looking up the left side of the river valley you can see the slopes of sand and gravel glacial deposits stretching down to the river.
The weight of glacial ice depressed the land so much that when the ice retreated, the sea level in this area was nearly 12 m higher than it is today. The land has rebounded over the past several thousand years, a process called isostatic rebound.
Freeze and thaw weathering continues to erode exposed granite bedrock. As you hike along the low cliff faces and rocky slopes of the park, you will witness the fractured boulders and rock fragments caused by this erosion. A viewing platform perched some 55 metres above the falls offers a commanding view of the work of glaciation in the area.
The River and Tides
The lower part of the river – from the falls to nearby Koojesse Inlet – is part of the tidal system of the inlet and only navigable at high tide. Tides in Frobisher Bay (Koojesse Inlet) are among the greatest in the world. They are diurnal (meaning they occur daily on a predictable cycle), and range up to 11 m (35 feet) at the head of the bay in the area of the park. You can see the impact of these tides on the river basin below the falls. The height of the falls can change from 3.7 m at low tide to almost 0 m at the highest tides, reducing the falls to a set of rapids. The tidal ranges and shallow depth of the upper portion of Frobisher Bay result in large tidal flats being exposed during low tide. Visible beyond the peninsula, on the opposite shore of the river, the vast tidal flats of Peterhead Inlet cover approximately 80 hectares. These large tidal fluctuations are interesting for their impact on the park landscape, but can be problematic for traveling by boat in the park area.
In the winter months, the river will freeze completely to the bottom. When the river thaw begins, the water begins to flow on the river before the sea ice on Frobisher Bay breaks up. This can result in water and ice jams that fill up the flood plain around the falls. The extent of the flood plain is visible between the bottom of this hill and the falls: it is the area that is void of vegetation and dominated by small boulders and sand.
In addition to being a favorite picnic site, Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park is also a popular fishing spot. In the past, the river had an abundance of large arctic char. Inuit have traditionally fished for char on the Sylvia Grinnell River, particularly in the area of the falls. Commercial fishing began in 1947 by the Shaw Steamship Company, and was continued in 1948 and 1950. Commercial fishing reopened in 1958 and from 1958-1962 the annual quota of 4,500 km was reached in only a few days. Declining fish catch and size after that resulted in the closure of the commercial fishing in 1965. Only subsistence and recreational fishing have taken place since then, but char populations have yet to recover though it remains a great place to catch smaller, pan-sized char. Fishing licenses are required and there are limitations on fishing methods, locations and catch. Currently there is a daily catch limit of one, and a possession limit of one for sport fishers. Fishers can acquire a fishing license at the local wildlife office, or at the Arctic Ventures store in town. Restrictions are posted annually by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in cooperation with the Hunters and Trappers Organization.
The park is an excellent hiking location, featuring the abundant and varied flora and fauna that is typical of the eastern arctic. Hiking routes are available to suit the length of your stay and offers a variety of levels to suit your ability. The River Valley route is a well-travelled route of structured and unstructured sections passing through birding areas and the park’s coastal landscape. Hiking difficulty ranges from easy to challenging. The terrain variation includes uneven tundra, boulder fields, and a gravel roadway.
The Hilltops and Meadows route allows hikers to experience tundra meadows, bedrock outcrops and unobstructed views of the surrounding region from several highpoints in the park. This route is unstructured, meaning there is no formal trail. The route is considered a challenging hike over uneven ground with some steep elevations. The hiking route has been identified with trail markers to assist navigation around sensitive environments. Hikers are encouraged to take side trips from each of the main routes. Camping at the park is also quite common. Small plateaus on the riverbank provide some shelter for campers.
In Sylvia Grinnell Park, like most of Nunavut, the vastness of the arctic landscape above the tree line can be appreciated without obstruction. This landscape has often been described as “barren”; however a closer look beneath your feet reveals a remarkable tapestry of arctic vegetation, which includes the woodsia fern, one of the rarest plants in the country. The vegetation of the park is characterized as continuous dwarf, meaning its growth is generally less than 30 cm tall. The park landscape is dotted with tundra vegetation over shallow soils amongst exposed bedrock outcrops. The soil in the park is predominantly poorly developed with a low nutrient content. As you hike through the park you may notice that the south facing protected terraces and slopes of the river valley generally support more abundant vegetation than the hilltops and north-facing slopes. This is due to greater solar exposure and protection from prevailing winds.
- Plants were traditionally an important nutrient source for the Inuit, and edible plants that can be found in the park include:
• qunguliit (mountain sorrel)
• paurngait (crowberry)
• kigutangirnait (blueberry)
• kimminait (mountain cranberry)
• suputiit (arctic willow)
Inuit used certain plants as fuel, such as kanguujat (arctic cotton), which was used as a wicking material for the qulliq (stone oil lamp), and qijuktaaqpait (Labrador tea), used as firewood.
The park’s vegetation is primarily found in one of six identified habitats located in the park:
• The Bedrock Outcrop Habitat is found on exposed rock, commonly covered in lichens and sparse vegetation growth in cracks.
• The aggregate based Herb Tundra Habitat is dominated by drought-tolerant vegetation and dwarf shrubbery growing in shallow sand and gravel.
• The Heath Tundra Habitat is a continuous mat of heath shrubbery and sedge grasses and other herbaceous material growing on shallow, nutrient-poor soil.
• Dominated by grass and grass-like plants, the Sedge Tundra Habitat is usually rooted in wet soil, with occasional clumps of willow.
• The vegetated margins of shallow pools and river edges are called the Tundra Aquatic Habitat.
• View a prominent example of this habitat between the park road and airport runway.
• The Tidal Flats Habitat is the upper edge of the tidal zone, where individual plant species growth is limited to a few hours per day between tides.
Throughout the year, the park’s landscape changes in response to the climate and conditions. The Inuit calendar has six seasons: ukiuq (winter), upirngassaq (early spring), upirngaaq (spring), aujaq (summer), ukiassaaq (early fall), and ukiaq (fall). From upirngaaq to aujaq, the tundra is a succession of flowering plants, like the official flower of Nunavut, aupilattunnguat (purple mountain saxifrage), which blooms almost immediately following the melting snow. As the seasons progress, the tundra offers up a bounty of berries. By ukiassaaq, the plant foliage turns the tundra floor to a carpet of reds and gold, and with the arrival of ukiuq, the prevailing wind sculpts the hard-packed snow into beautiful forms.
Sightings of land or sea mammals are common in the park. The tuktu (caribou) is the largest of land mammals known to frequent the park. Tuktuit (multiple caribou) migrate between seasonal pasturelands, feeding primarily on lichens, grasses, and sedges. Tuktuit can occasionally be observed on the tidal flats feeding on seaweed and licking salt deposits. Although larger herds exist on the southern portion of Baffin Island, it is more common to see smaller groups of two or three animals in the park. Arctic fox dens are also located within the park, and Arctic Hare and other small mammals can be observed in the park. Tuugaaliit (narwhal), qilalugait (beluga), and aiviq (walrus) are not commonly seen in the upper part of the bay, but by hiring a local outfitter to take you for a boat trip you may see natsiq (ring seal) or qairuliit (harp seal) swimming in small groups in open water.
Although sightings are infrequent, polar bears have been reported in the area, and park visitors are warned to be alert and exercise caution.
Southern Baffin Island is also an area of major bird activity during the summer, and as many as 40 species can be sited in the park in the summer. The area is the most southerly breeding ground of the elusive Common Ringed Plover. Other commonly sighted species include the Lapland longspur and the snow bunting. The Northern Wheatear, rarely seen in North America south of the Labrador coast, nests in the park before its winter migration to Africa and India. Although less commonly sighted, the coastal environment and rocky outcrops are attractive habitats for other birds, including the Red-throated Loon, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon, Lesser Golden Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Horned Lark.
Canada 150 Improvements
As part of the Government of Canada’s celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program was created. Through investments in community infrastructure, the Government of Canada will invest in projects that seek to renovate, expand and improve existing community infrastructure, with a focus on recreational facilities, projects that advance a clean growth economy, and projects with a positive impact on Indigenous communities. We are pleased to announce that Nunavut Parks was awarded funding as part of this Program.
The funding was used to update and improve interpretive signage at Sylvia Grinnell and Qaummaarviit Territorial Parks, near Iqaluit. The interpretive sign program is very important to Nunavut Parks – our signs are used to inform and guide visitors through our parks. We tell the history and Inuit culture of the area through pictures, maps, and stories from our Elders.
Be sure to visit Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park to see our informative new signs!
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
Canadian North flys a regular daily schedule 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.
From the center of Iqaluit, it’s an easy 30-minute walk to the park. From the three-way stop by the gas station, proceed north to the Aeroplex Building, number 1084. Turn left and continue past the yield sign, until you see the sign for Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Turn right and follow the signs. This route will pass some interesting local attractions, including an area near a stream where a local dogteam is kept for the summer. A cab ride to the park is $8 per person, but there are no phones in the park, so make arrangements to be picked up later. Cell service is possible, but not always guaranteed.
Facilities in the park include a parking area with comfort station, barbecue pits and a recently constructed viewing platform. There is no fee for either day use or camping. The Park Pavilion which overlooks the falls is available for rental. Contact the Nunavut Parks Office for information on this. The park is open year round, however winter conditions and blowing snow may make park roads impassable to vehicles. The park pavilion and comfort station facilities are closed from October until June. ATV access to the river valley is strictly prohibited and all vehicular traffic in the park is required to stay on park roads.
Where To Stay
There are several options in Iqaluit including hotels and bed and breakfasts.
Discovery Lodge Hotel
Aqsarniit Hotel & Conference Centre
OPENING FALL 2020
Accommodations by the Sea Bed and Breakfast
Alt Tel: 867-979-6074
Apex Bed and Breakfast
Beaches Bed and Breakfast
Outfitted trips from Iqaluit offer boat or dogsled trips to Qaummaarviit Territorial Park from Iqaluit.
Tel: 416-322-7066 / 888-737-6818
NorthWinds Arctic Adventure (Iqaluit)
Email NorthWinds Arctic
Arts & Crafts
The Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum features Inuit artifacts and art, interpretive displays and hosts travelling exhibits and other local and territorial events. The Museum also houses a retail outlet for Inuit art and related items.
Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum
Email Nunatta Sunakkutaangit
The Unikaarvik Visitor Centre in Iqaluit is a great place to start your trip to Qaummaarviit. The Centre provides interpretation for the Territory, local attractions including Katannilik, Sylvia Grinnell and Qaummaarviit Territorial Parks.
Unikaarvik Visitor 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.
Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park Editorial – [.pdf – 871KB] This four page editorial offers information on Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park.
Sylvia Grinnell Park Pavilion Rental Form – [.pdf – 147 KB] Fill out this form and submit to the parks email address if you have a function or event that you would like to host at the pavilion.
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 © Curtis Jones, 2015