Polar Bear Blog – Onwards to Ulukhaktok

On my way to Ulukhaktok for a couple weeks to look for polar bears and wolves and stuff, pretty excited about it. Ulukhaktok, roughly translating as ‘way harder to pronounce than Holman’, is one of my favourite arctic places.

Ulukhaktok, formerly called Holman, is a small community (maybe 300 people?) on the southwest corner of Victoria Island. The name actually translates to ‘place where material for Ulus is found’ but I think that’s actually the name of the three hills overlooking the town. Its all very confusing.

It is one of two communities on Victoria Island, the other being Cambridge Bay, a fairly popular Northwest Passage stop and government hub for the Central Arctic. Victoria Island, itself, is the giant ‘maple leaf’ shaped island in the western Arctic. It kind of gets a bit over-shadowed by Baffin Island and Ellesmere but Victoria is really one of the most amazing places in the arctic.

With so few people, wildlife dominates the island. Gyrfalcons and arctic hare hang out on the edge of town, a bit further out you can find arctic wolves, muskox and the diminutive peary caribou, even a bit further out on the sea ice there are polar bears and sometimes grizzlies. The combination of Victoria and neighbouring Banks Island have probably the highest concentration of terrestrial wildlife in the arctic. There’s stuff happening here.

Ulukhaktok is a pretty young community, first ‘founded’ about a hundred years ago and only really starting to grow in the 1960s. A Danish whaler named Charles Klengenberg along with his Inuvialuit (western Inuit) wife, Qimniq, as well as some other Inuvialuit families wintered here and trapped in this general area in 1905-06.

As with most arctic stories, there are a couple versions of how Ulukhaktok (Holman) got its start. Klengenberg was actually in charge of a schooner, Olga, travelling from Baillie Island west to Herschel Island, the whaling and trading hub of that time. He claimed that during this trip, a storm blew in and pushed him back east, eventually finding a harbour near present day Ulukhaktok. If it pushed him back east, it was WAY east as Victoria Island is about the same distance away from Baillie as Herschel except in the complete opposite direction.

Of course, when you compare Victoria Island to the barren landscape and chaotic community on Herschel Island, there probably was not a whole lot of effort made to sail west again. Through that winter they trapped but also traded the ships goods with the few Copper Inuit of the region. At that time, Banks Island was essentially deserted and Victoria Island was mostly populated in the east, with just a handful scattered across the rest of it. This was truly ‘uncharted territory’, be it European or Inuvialuit.

These resident people were amazed by the ‘white man’ goods that the small party had, including matches, pipes and, of course, guns. Naturally, Klengenberg and his crew did their fair share of impressing and intimidating. The Copper Inuit eventually decided that they were probably related to the newcomers as their people had come from the west as well (time is kind of a relative thing in the north – this could have been a hundred or a thousand years before…).

The next spring, Klengenberg returned to Herschel and was promptly arrested. Four of his crew had died under suspicious circumstances and he was charged with murder. While he was acquitted, there were some people, including explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson – a pretty controversial guy himself – who remained convinced of his guilt. One might also think that the bounty of furs the Klengenberg and crew returned with mitigated some of the anger at being AWOL for about a year as well.

Either way, Klengenberg soon returned to Victoria Island and with his large family and built a very successful life in the fur trade. As white fox prices skyrocketed in the early 1900s, he established a trading post at present-day Kugluktuk, formerly Coppermine in 1916 and then later near the Ulukhaktok area. He pretty much ran Victoria Island for a good chunk of the 20th century.

Fortunate adventurer, savvy trader, murdering scoundrel, visionary, community leader, family man, thug… hard to say, maybe all of the above; really it depends which story you hear first. One thing is for sure, Klengenberg and his crew picked a pretty nice part of the north to trap, trade and settle down.

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