07 Aug, 2015 The Skull. . . And More Arctic History
Out for another boat trip today, this time it’s a half an hour ride to the Harbour Islands, south of Naujaat. Beyond them, the ice is still keeping us from reaching Ukkusilsalik National Park, but these islands contain fascinating whaling history, and I’m excited to explore them first hand.
The sky is blue, the temperature mild, and with the quiet waters it’s a beautiful boat ride to the islands. As we enter their sheltered waters, we find 3 swimming polar bears, a mother and 2 very large cubs. In the morning light, their creamy white coats glow against the rich blue waters, and David gently positions the boat for a great view so Ryan and I can film the scene. Soon they are up on one of the islands and out of sight. An exhilarating experience to see powerful polar bears in their natural environment, and a great way to begin our visit to the islands.
We reach another island and hike to its low apex. There, we find carvings in the rock from 1912/1913. A bowhead whale, an arrow and several names of ships in beautifully formed text. The whalers that wintered over obviously had time of their hand, and took pride in their work.
We boat over to the next island and start walking again. This time we are looking for 2 century old graves from the whaling era. As we come across a large piece of whale bone, I bend over to inspect it and say a little something to the camera. I barely wrap up and word comes that something even more interesting has turned up…. a human skull.
I walk over to find – sitting on the open grass and tucked against a short rock wall – a perfectly formed human skull. It looks to be about the same age as the whale bone, a hundred years or so, and has thin black lichen patches in places. A remarkable find, and though I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of skulls on this trip so far, they have all belonged to muskox, caribou and other animals… never another person. Inches away from my first human skull viewing are some coins, and some gun ammo. The 6 or 7 bullets range from very old to quite new, and are fully intact. We surmise that these have been left by the Inuit as a sign of respect when passing by. I try to imagine how this skull wound up here, out in the open, and about who it may have belonged to so many years ago.
I leave the solemn scene and we hike further in search of the grave sites we’d heard about. A few hundred yards later and we find 2 rock mounds sitting atop the island, with wooden headstones jutting out at odd angles. The graves. One has a weathered wooden casket poking through in places, the other is in a caved in pile of rocks with no wood at all. Connecting the dots, the skull we found around the corner may have come from here, and perhaps a polar bear raided the grave long ago leaving it out in the open. A 2 inch wide gap where the coffin’s wood lid meets the sides lures me in for a closer look. I lean in and as my eye adjusts to the darkness inside, another skull comes into focus, this one complete with hair, and attached to the rest of the skeleton.
As eerie as the view inside is, the scene outside is quite peaceful; the graves overlook Hudson Bay as ice floats by, and the sun is warming the ground. Add to this the fresh Arctic air and remote location, and it makes this one fine place to rest in.
I absorb it all, pull out my sketchbook, and commit the experience to paper.