Quttinirpaaq National Park
Featuring wilderness and isolation at its most extreme, Quttinirpaaq (pronounced ‘koo-tin-ir-pa-ak’), as the Inuktitut name suggests, really is the ‘top of the world.’ Located at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic, it is a vast landscape that offers thrilling adventure to those who are rugged enough to explore it. A mere 720 kilometres (447 miles) from the North Pole, Ward Hunt Island along the park’s northern coast is a jumping off point for North Pole adventurers.
Even if a North Pole expedition is not on a park visitor’s itinerary, Quttinirpaaq’s imposing mountains, ice caps, glaciers and valleys offer unlimited opportunities. Visitors can backpack, ski or climb under 24-hour daylight and feel like a mere speck in this sprawling landscape. At 37,775 square kilometres (14,585 sq. mi.) in size, Quttinirpaaq represents the eastern High Arctic natural region in the Parks Canada system. Despite it being the most northerly landmass in Canada, hardy plants like arctic willow, arctic poppy, purple saxifrage, plus numerous mosses and lichens persevere here during the short arctic summer. Plants are especially abundant in the thermal oasis ecosystem around Lake Hazen.
Catching a glimpse of some of Quttinirpaaq’s wildlife species, which have had little contact with humans so are often curious and unafraid, will be one of the most rewarding aspects of any visit. Park visitors may encounter the rare Peary caribou, a herd of muskoxen, or arctic wolves. There are also several species of migratory birds, including arctic terns that fly more than 18,000 kilometres (11,185 miles) from Antarctica to summer here, as well as other avian species that winter in Europe and Africa.
Ancient indigenous people have a long history on Ellesmere Island, starting with the arrival of the Paleo-Eskimos about 4,500 years ago, followed by the Dorset culture and then the Thule people who arrived during the past thousand years. Archaeological sites give testimony to the resiliency of these peoples and their ability to survive in this extreme northern climate.
Ellesmere Island has been a staging point for northern exploration and North Pole attempts since the late nineteenth century. It has also been the focus of various scientific studies over the years, including the extensive projects organized by the Defence Research Board between 1953 and the 1970s.
Hiking & Backpacking
Listening for whispers from the land, being patient and looking for tracks, visitors may be rewarded by unique wildlife encounters. Arctic wolves, arctic hares, muskoxen, Peary caribou and ptarmigan — the only resident bird that winters here — may all be spotted.
There are no designated trails in the park, however there are many possible backpacking routes. Tanquary Fiord and Lake Hazen are the most popular access points into the park. A base camp can be set up from either of these locations for day hikes. It is also possible to backpack between Tanquary Fiord and Lake Hazen following the MacDonald River and Very River valleys. These valleys are broad yet the hiking is rugged. This trek will require 8-12 days, depending on time allotted for side trips and inclement weather. Another exciting backpacking option is to embark on a 7-10 day loop from Tanquary Fiord around the Ad Astra and Viking Ice Caps.
Ski-Touring, Mountaineering & Climbing
As might be expected in a park of this size, Quttinirpaaq offers thousands of miles of skiing terrain for those with a suitably high level of skill and experience. Although skiers won’t get powder snow ‘face-shots,’ in Quttinirpaaq, they won’t be skiing in anyone else’s tracks either! The snow here is windblown and shallow, but the small number of skiing groups who venture into Quttinirpaaq can choose from a multitude of breathtaking routes, traverses and climbs without seeing any other people. Some peaks still remain unclimbed. In a land dominated by ice, it’s no surprise that glaciers flowing from ice caps are everywhere in Quttinirpaaq. Although the dangers of crevasses or icefalls are lower here than in southern locations due to the slower movement of polar glaciers, all visitors travelling on glaciers must have experience in glacier travel and in crevasse rescue techniques.
Visitors can tour historic Fort Conger, located on the eastern park boundary near Archer Fiord with special permission. Park staff must accompany all groups to this site. Fort Conger was first established by Lieutenant Greely in 1881 as part of polar year expeditions.
Before & After Visiting the Park: Important Safety Information
All visitors MUST register and attend a mandatory orientation session before entering the park, and de-register after leaving.
All visitors to Quttinirpaaq National Park MUST register and attend a mandatory orientation session with park staff in Tanquary Fiord prior to entering the park. Advance notice is required so that park staff can be present at the entry point when visitors arrive. Visitors must also de-register upon exiting the park. Parks Canada staff people spend three months here each summer from approximately mid-May to mid-August.
Quttinirpaaq is one of the most remote wilderness areas in Canada. In case of emergency, help may be far away and, depending on weather conditions, could take several days to reach any people in trouble. Apart from the park camps at Tanquary Fiord and Lake Hazen, there are no other facilities. Visitors must be completely self-reliant and those who choose to visit Quttinirpaaq should only do so if they are experienced wilderness travellers with highly practiced skills in their chosen activity. Most visitors only travel to Quttinirpaaq as part of a guided group excursion.
Potential hazards include river crossings, rock falls, extreme weather that can cause hypothermia, snow blindness or frostbite and also, depending on the season and activity, avalanches. Visitors should not travel on glaciers unless trained in glacier travel and crevasse rescue. Polar bear encounters are rare yet still possible.
Contact the park office (at one of the two locations listed below) well in advance to book a mandatory orientation session and to coordinate charter flights in and out of the park. It is also necessary to read and familiarize oneself with our visitor information package before entering Quttinirpaaq National Park.
Seasons & Climate
Charter aircraft will not fly to the park between September and March due to the extreme cold and darkness. Quttinirpaaq is a polar desert, which means it is a cold region with little precipitation. Summers, though short, can be surprisingly warm. Weather extremes are common however and visitors must be prepared for cold, wintry weather at all times of the year. The average daily high at Tanquary Fiord in July is 6.1°C. Coastal areas are cooler than inland areas.
Resolute Bay, Nunavut, is the launching point for trips into Quttinirpaaq National Park.
To Get to Resolute Bay:
First Air Ltd. flies to Resolute Bay from Ottawa, via Iqaluit.
To Get to Quttinirpaaq National Park:
Experience the Top of the World: A Northern Iconic Experience (http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/nu/quttinirpaaq/activ/activ6.aspx)
Book one of nine seats on a Parks Canada charter from Resolute to Tanquary Fiord. Join a 14-day hike with Black Feather wilderness guides or create your own adventure in Canada’s most northern national park.
When to Visit
The ski season is in May and June. The hiking and climbing season runs from July to mid-August. There may be park closures between mid-July and early August when high water levels can cause river crossings to become extremely hazardous or even impassable. Visitors should contact the park office early to help plan their trip.
Resolute and Grise Fiord are the two Nunavut communities associated with Quttinirpaaq. Although chartered flights to Quttinirpaaq depart from Resolute, park visitors should also consider a side trip to Grise Fiord, which is Canada’s most northern community. It is a picturesque hamlet with a population of just 141 people (95% Inuit). Both Resolute and Grise Fiord offer unparalleled opportunities to experience traditional Inuit culture. Transportation to Grise Fiord is possible by chartered aircraft from Resolute (360 kilometres; 224 miles). Accommodations and outfitting services are available.
An eye mask and a watch: 24 hours of continual daylight won’t tell your body when to sleep. A camera and extra batteries: Although the landscape is unforgettable, you’ll want to share it with your friends and family after!
A map and GPS: due to its proximity to the magnetic north pole, compasses do not work accurately on Ellesmere Island or many other parts of the north.