Sirmilik National Park
Although the name ‘Sirmilik’ (pronounced ‘sir-mi-lik’) means the ‘place of glaciers’ in Inuktitut, this area could have just as easily been called the ‘place of many birds’ or the ‘place of abundant marine life’ because Sirmilik National Park, located at the northwest end of Baffin Island, is one of the most diverse areas in the arctic.
Representing the Northeastern Arctic Lowlands natural region and parts of the Lancaster Sound Marine region in the Parks Canada system, Sirmilik’s total 22,252 square kilometre (8,592 sq. mi.) dimension is comprised of four rugged land areas: Bylot Island, which is jointly managed with the Canadian Wildlife Service as a bird sanctuary, Borden Peninsula, Oliver Sound and Baillarge Bay, which is home to a large seabird colony. The opportunities for unique experiences here are as vast as the glaciers that flow into nearby Eclipse Sound. Depending on the season, visitors may take advantage of wildlife viewing, hiking, skiing, climbing, sea kayaking, tours of the floe edge and visits to archaeological sites.
Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay are the two gateway communities into Sirmilik National Park. Bylot Island is a 25-kilometre (16 mile) boat, ski or snowmobile trip from Pond Inlet. Bylot Island offers great coastal birdwatching and hiking. With sixteen glaciers and spectacular mountains, there are prime opportunities for ski-touring and mountaineering. The Borden Peninsula, characterized by plateaus and valleys, is another great hiking destination. Oliver Sound draws experienced kayakers and those travelling with a licensed tour outfitter. The Baillarge Bay Sea Bird Colony, located near the community of Arctic Bay, is another important migratory bird nesting area.
The inlets and sounds that separate these four park areas are a major part of any visit to Sirmilik. Navy Board Inlet, between Bylot Island and the Borden Peninsula, has long been a traditional hunting area for Inuit. It is an important wildlife area, with narwhals, caribou, polar bears and ringed seals. Eclipse Sound, separating Bylot Island from Baffin Island, is a migration route for harp, bearded and ringed seals, walruses, narwhals, belugas, killer whales and massive bowhead whales.
Ancient Pre-Dorset people (who preceded the Dorset, Thule and present-day Inuit) are believed to have travelled over the ice from Greenland to Baffin Island about 3,000 years ago. However, the earliest discovered archaeological evidence of human habitation in Sirmilik dates to the Thule culture, about 1,000 years ago.
The Inuit have been able to survive in this arctic climate because of their adaptation to it, their hunting skill and technology, plus their profound patience, perseverance and respect for the land. They allowed the seasons and the weather to dictate their activities and movements as they followed the migrating fish, marine mammals and land creatures that sustained them. In the coastal region near Sirmilik, abundant fish and marine life resources, including seals, narwhals and bowhead whales, as well as roaming herds of caribou continue to be an important food source for the local Inuit.
Hiking & Backpacking
The hiking and backpacking season lasts from late July until early September. There are no predetermined hiking routes through Sirmilik National Park, which lays the freedom to explore at a visitor’s feet! The Mala River Valley on the Borden Peninsula is one popular option, as are shorter hikes to the glaciers on Bylot Island.
The sunny, ski-touring season runs from mid-April to early June. The ‘place of glaciers’ is also the ‘place to ski!’ For the experienced skier, rugged mountains and glaciers await. Visitors travelling on glaciers must have the necessary gear and be knowledgeable in crevasse rescue.
Bylot Island is a nesting area for over 40 species of migratory birds, including murres, kittiwakes and fulmars. The wetlands provide sanctuary for the world’s largest population of greater snow geese in late summer, when over 50,000 birds nest here. Many visitors enjoy birdwatching from their kayaks, small powerboats and from the decks of passing cruise ships!
Floe Edge Tours
Floe edges develop in places where currents keep sea ice from reforming once it starts to break apart in the spring. They provide breathing areas for whales and seals, which become places to feed for polar bears and arctic birds. Visiting the floe edge will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see narwhals and beluga whales breach, or to watch a polar bear hunting for seals. Floe edge tours are done with licensed tour operators experienced in sea ice travel.
Sea kayaking is not recommended for novices, only for expert kayakers. Oliver Sound offers an excellent opportunity to contrast stark white icebergs — large, weather sculpted ice chunks that have calved from glaciers into the sea — against the brilliant blue Arctic Ocean waters.
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 MUST register and attend a mandatory orientation session in Pond Inlet prior to entering the park. It is also necessary to de-register with the park office upon exiting the park. Otherwise a very costly search will be initiated.
Sirmilik is a backcountry park with no maintained facilities. Visitors must be self-sufficient, as help is far away. Anything more arduous than a guided day trip should only be attempted by those visitors who are experienced with arctic wilderness travel, with highly practiced skills for their chosen activity.
Potential hazards include polar bear encounters, strong winds and rough water, thin ice, floe edge and iceberg dangers, hypothermia, frostbite, avalanches, plus ice falls and crevasse dangers associated with glaciers. Only visitors trained in glacier travel and crevasse rescue should plan expeditions that include traversing glaciers.
If a new visitor has little experience in arctic environments or in their chosen activity, they should only consider visiting Sirmilik with a licensed tour outfitter.
Contact the Sirmilik National Park office in Pond Inlet (listed below) in advance to book a mandatory orientation session with park staff. It is also necessary to read and familiarize oneself with our visitor information package before visiting the park.
Seasons & Climate
Situated at approximately 73°N latitude, Sirmilik’s polar marine climate means long cold winters and short cool summers. The best times to visit the park are from late April to early June for snow-related activities, and from late July to early September for summer activities. The park is inaccessible from about late June to late July during the annual sea ice break-up, when neither snowmobiles nor boats can safely arrive.
Access to the park from Pond Inlet or Arctic Bay is with a licensed tour operator by snowmobile, dog team, or boat, depending on the season. Pond Inlet is the main access point and the location of the park office. There is regular flight service between Pond Inlet and Iqaluit. First Air and Canadian North service Iqaluit, with regular flights from Ottawa, Montreal and Yellowknife via Rankin Inlet.
- A dry suit and marine safety equipment for kayaking trips: Some gear can be rented in Pond Inlet.
- A map and GPS: Due to its proximity to the magnetic north pole, compasses do not work accurately here or in other northern areas.
- An arctic bird guidebook!