Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park is located about a kilometre (two thirds of a mile) from Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital. The Sylvia Grinnell River meanders through the tundra valley of this picturesque park. The river is a great spot to catch arctic char and the waterfalls make for a beautiful spot to picnic. Hiking trails with informative signage explain to visitors the area’s natural history and cultural heritage.
The coastal area near the park features archaeological sites of the ancient Dorset and Thule peoples. The park contains unique plant life varieties such as the woodsia fern, one of the rarest plants in the country. Several kinds of arctic wildlife can be viewed in the park, including caribou in the winter and spring, arctic hares, arctic foxes, plus dozens of different species of birds.
The American explorer Charles Hall journeyed into this area with Inuit assistance in 1861. Hall was the first non-indigenous person to realize that Frobisher’s Strait was actually a bay — and not a Northwest Passage route to China. Hall named a number of features in the upper bay area after his financial backers, including the Sylvia Grinnell River. Sylvia Grinnell was the name of a daughter of Hall’s friend and benefactor, Henry Grinnell.
In the vicinity of the park, Inuit and English place names co-exist. Iqaluit — which means ‘place of many fish’ in Inuktitut — is a reference to the park’s river and waterfalls area, which is bountiful for fishing arctic char. Although the park is called Sylvia Grinnell in English, in Inuktitut the park is called Iqaluit Kuunga (Iqaluit River).
Stone cairns and ancient ruins located near the park indicate a long history of occupation. The falls and the basin below the falls have long been important fishing locations. Any indications of habitation immediately adjacent to the falls have been lost due to the annual flooding of the river, but archaeological sites have been discovered in the vicinity of the park and at the nearby island of Qaummaarviit. Occupation dates back over three millennia, demonstrating the enduring importance of this coastal landscape to the Inuit culture.
Pre-Dorset Culture ('Saqqaq'): 2500 BC to 500 BC
Dorset Culture ('Tuniit' or 'Sivullirmiut'): 500 BC to 1500 AD
Thule Culture (Proto-Inuit): 1000 AD to 1600 AD
Inuit Culture (Eskimo): 1600 AD to present-day
One of the best archaeological sites (Crystall II) is located just outside of the park boundary to the south of the falls on the east side of the river. This important site of both Thule and Dorset cultures is marked with a small plaque. It contains three visible subterranean dwellings dated to the Thule culture and excavations also identified Dorset cultural artifacts, indicating that is was occupied over a much longer period of time. This site was the first location to provide empirical evidence of the distinctions between the Dorset and Thule cultures. The first occupation of the site by the Dorset people 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 subsequently abandoned the site and it was once again covered in vegetation to the surface layer that is visible today.
The park’s landscape was formed by ice age glaciation that last occurred in this area approximately 7,100 years ago, covering it with an ice sheet 1,000 metres (3,281 ft.) thick. Massive glaciers moved across the landscape from the northwest to the southeast, scouring the uplands and leaving deposits on the southeastern side of ridges and escarpments. All along the river valley, visitors can see these slopes of sand and gravel glacial deposits.
The massive weight of glacial ice compressed the land so much that when the ice retreated, the sea level in this area was nearly 12 metres (39 ft.) 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 the granite bedrock. Visitors hiking along the low cliff faces and rocky slopes of the park encounter fractured boulders and rock fragments caused by this erosion. A viewing platform perched 55 metres (180 ft.) above the falls offers a commanding view of the work of glaciation in the area.
The lower reaches of the river — from the falls to nearby Koojesse Inlet — is part of the tidal system of Frobisher Bay and is only navigable at high tide. The tides in Frobisher Bay are among the greatest in the world. Visitors can see the impact of these tides on the river basin below the falls. The height of the falls changes from 3.7 metres (12 ft.) at low tide to 30 centimetres (12 in.) at the highest tides, reducing the falls to a set of rapids. The shallow depth of the upper portion of Frobisher Bay results in large tidal flats being exposed during low tide. The vast tidal flats of nearby Peterhead Inlet cover approximately 80 hectares. These large tidal fluctuations can be problematic for boating in the park area.
In the winter months, the river freezes completely to the bottom. When the late spring thaw begins, water flows down the river before the sea ice on Frobisher Bay completely breaks up. This results in ice jams and flooding. The full extent of the flood plain is clearly visible as a large area devoid of vegetation that is dominated by small boulders and sand.
In addition to being a popular picnic site, Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park is also a very popular fishing spot. Note that a Sport Fishing License is required by everyone except Inuit residents of Nunavut. There are also limitations on fishing methods, locations and catch.
The park is an excellent hiking location for viewing the beautiful scenery, wildlife and flora of the eastern arctic region. Hiking routes through the park vary in length and level of difficulty, from easy to challenging. The well-travelled River Valley route passes through birding areas and the park’s coastal landscape. The terrain varies from gravel roadway to uneven tundra and boulder fields. 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 considered a challenging hike over uneven ground with some steep elevations. It has trail markers to aid in navigation around sensitive environments. Hikers are encouraged to take side trips from each of the main routes. Camping at the park is very popular. Small plateaus along the riverbank provide shelter for campers.
Throughout the year, the park’s conditions change with the weather. The Inuit calendar has six seasons: ‘ukiuq’ (winter), ‘upirngassaq’ (early spring), ‘upirngaaq’ (spring), ‘aujaq’ (summer), ‘ukiassaaq’ (early fall) and ‘ukiaq’ (fall). From spring to summer the tundra displays a succession of flowering plants, including the official flower of Nunavut — ‘aupilattunnguat’ (purple mountain saxifrage) which blooms almost immediately following the melting snow. As the seasons progress, the tundra provides a bounty of berries. By early fall, the plant foliage turns the tundra floor to a carpet of reds and gold. With the arrival of fall, the prevailing wind sculpts the hard-packed snow into beautiful forms.
The ‘tuktu’ (caribou) is the most important animal seen in the park. ‘Tuktuit’ (multiple caribou) migrate between seasonal pasture areas, feeding on lichens, grasses and sedges. They can occasionally be observed on the tidal flats feeding on seaweed and licking salt deposits. Although large herds exist on southern Baffin Island, it is more common to see smaller groups of two or three animals inside the park. Arctic foxes, arctic hares and other small mammals can often be observed. Although sightings are very infrequent, polar bears have been reported in the area, so park visitors are warned to be alert and exercise caution.
Sylvia Grinnell Park is also an area of major bird activity during the late spring and summer with 40 avian species — including ringed plovers, lesser golden plovers, Lapland longspurs, horned larks, snow buntings, northern wheatears, semi-palmated sandpipers, red-throated loons, gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons.
The Sylvia Grinnell Park Pavilion is available for rental for a variety of events. Contact the Sylvia Grinnell Park Operations Office in Iqaluit for more information about renting the pavilion.
Both First Air and Canadian North offer regular service to Iqaluit from Ottawa and Rankin Inlet. First Air also offers service from Montreal.
Getting to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park
From the centre 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 stop sign until you see the sign for Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Turn right and follow the indications. This route will pass some interesting local attractions, including an area near a stream where a local dog team is kept for the summer. A cab ride to the park costs $6 per person. There are no telephones in the park and cellular coverage is spotty so if you a need taxi to return, make arrangements to be picked up later at a designated time.
For more information, check the Nunavut Parks website.