The Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site is one of the most remote Parks Canada places in Canada. Learn how Inuit Guardians have used Inuit Knowledge and ingenuity to reach camps at both wreck sites each year since the program began in 2017. In addition to protecting and monitoring these important sites, Inuit Guardians pass on their invaluable knowledge of the area and their skills in traditional harvesting practices to new generations of guardians.

Inuit Guardians at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site
Parks Canada

Each fall, the shallow waters around the wreck of HMS Erebus roll and toss from the persistent cold wind, marking the end of summer in the Western Arctic. The region where the ship sank over 160 years ago, nestled between a group of islands in Nunavut’s Queen Maud Gulf, remains one of the most remote and inaccessible places in Canada.

Inuit and their descendants have thrived in this area for thousands of years. Inuit oral histories from the Netsilik region record tantalizing details of the Franklin expedition after the ships and crew were lost to the British Admiralty. These same stories contributed to the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014. Two years later, in 2016, the HMS Terror was also found. 

Now, Inuit guardians from the nearby community of Gjoa Haven are charged with protecting and monitoring these wrecks. The guardians have used Inuit Knowledge and ingenuity to reach camps at both wreck sites each year since the program began in 2017.

Guardian crews in Gjoa Haven prepare for departure to camps near HMS Erebus and HMS Terror shortly before their departure in 2018. From left to right: Jonathan Puqiqnak, Adam Ukugtunnunangat, Dennis Qirqqut, Paul Oogak, Trevor Tulurialik, Leon Komangat, Mark Ullikataq. Front: Chris Kikoak. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA – STEVE DUCHARME)

Their presence near the wrecks is invaluable. It remains difficult for southern teams to reliably reach the site in any given year. In 2018, encroaching ice packs reduced six-weeks of work to uncover artifacts at the HMS Erebus to only two, very rushed, days of field work by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team. 

Weather and conditions remain fickle. Just a year later, researchers collected over 350 new Franklin artifacts from HMS Erebus over several weeks, marking the most successful year to date since the discovery of the wrecks.

Former Guardian, Jonathan Puqiqnak, worked with Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team during the recovery of over 350 artifacts from the wreck of HMS Erebus in 2019. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA)

And that same year, the first tourist experience took place near HMS Erebus. The guardians took on a new role as on-site interpreters, welcoming cruise ship passengers who arrived at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, after several unsuccessful attempts to visit due to ice in past seasons. 

Following the discovery of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Parks Canada has prioritized working with Inuit to conserve the wrecks, and to tell the story of the Franklin Expedition in the context of the Inuit lands where the wrecks now rest. This has resulted in programs and initiatives like the Guardian program to ensure that Inuit and Gjoa Haven, the nearest Nunavut community to the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, benefit economically from their proximity to the Franklin vessels and to be leaders in the site’s protection and future interpretation.  

Guardians from Gjoa Haven travel to base camps near each Franklin wreck during the open-water season. The HMS Terror rests about 100-kilometers to the west of Gjoa Haven, in the waters of Terror Bay off the coast of King William Island. HMS Erebus is about 100-kilometers to the south of Gjoa Haven, in the Queen Maud Gulf.

Guardians Brandon Qirqqut and Mark Ullikataq clean a fox at dusk during the 2017 Guardian mission to Erebus base camp. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA – THIERRY BOYER)

At both camps, Guardian duties include environmental and ship monitoring. No unauthorized vessels are allowed to approach the wreck sites. The daily work of the guardians includes regular patrols and observation of the area around the wrecks. This is an important front-line service to protect and conserve the Franklin wrecks, and is one component in a suite of monitoring approaches by the Government of Canada to ensure the site is protected 24-7. Guardians are also trained to report any archaeological discoveries they find on the land or during patrol. 

Beyond the regular scope of their duties to monitor the wreck sites, guardians practice traditional harvesting skills on the land to supplement life at the base camps, including hunting caribou, trapping fox or fishing for arctic char. In the years since the program began, time at the camp sites serves as a platform for skilled guardians to mentor and train other guardians in hunting and other traditional practices.

“Inuit Elders told us in initial consultations during the program’s design that it would be an excellent opportunity to pass knowledge to new generations. We’re proud to see that happening now that the Guardian program is underway,” said Aaron Skoblenick, site manager for the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site.

For the guardians, passing on their knowledge about the region is an important component to stewardship of the wrecks. Since 2018, they have served as emcees and storytellers at home during Gjoa Haven’s annual Umiyaqtutt Festival. In 2019, they had a chance to do that on location with the first tourists to successfully reach the HMS Erebus aboard the Adventure Canada cruise ship, Ocean Endeavour.

Guardians supplement their base camp supplies with traditional country food. Pictured above, hunter and Guardian Brandon Qirqqut cleans a fresh catch at Erebus base camp in 2017. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA – RUSS HEPBURN)

On Sept. 5, 2019, guardians accompanied Gjoa Haven Elders Tommy Tavalok and Jacob Keanik aboard the Ocean Endeavour to introduce passengers to Inuit and the Netsilik region. “Netsilik” is the regional name for the Inuit homeland where the wrecks now rest. Tavalok brought with him traditional Inuit caribou-hide clothing that protects hunters while on the land in the bitterly cold winters, as well as traditional tools for hunting like a “kakivak”, or fish spear. Keanik, who helped bless HMS Erebus after it was discovered with the late-historian, Louie Kamookak, also shared experiences on the sea and land around King William Island and his first visit to HMS Erebus.

“It is a priority for Parks Canada to tell the Franklin story in the context of the greater Inuit lands where the wrecks now rest,” said Skoblenick. Skoblenick helped facilitate the cruise ship visit into the site, including a visitor tour of the Parks Canada excavation support barge, Qiniqtirjuaq. The barge is moored above HMS Erebus during the research season. Along with the Parks Canada vessel David Thompson, the barge serves as a base of operations for Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology team as they continue excavating the ship.

In time, as further infrastructure is developed at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, and in Gjoa Haven, it is expected that the Inuit Guardians will continue to play a role as ambassadors as well as protectors, when they welcome more visitors to the wrecks and their community in the coming years. They will also continue to use their time at the camp sites to teach and practice traditional skills with new Guardian members.

Gjoa Haven Elder, Tommy Tavalok (far right) sits with Inuit Guardians aboard the Adventure Canada cruise ship, Ocean Endeavour, during a lecture to visitors at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site in September 2019. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA – BARB OKPIK)
Parks Canada is currently evaluating the successes and lessons learned from the Adventure Canada visit to HMS Erebus. This will contribute to a finalized visitor experience for the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site, created in consultation with the Franklin Interim Advisory Committee, Inuit co-owners of the Franklin artifacts, and the Nattilik Heritage Society in Gjoa Haven. Since 2018, the Government of Canada and Inuit Heritage Trust have co-owned all artifacts recovered from the wrecks to date.

As Canada continues to address the ongoing pandemic in 2020, Parks Canada cancelled all on-site research at the Franklin wrecks to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable Nunavut communities. But like other seasons when circumstance prevented visitation to the site by researchers, the Guardians again traveled to their camps near the wrecks – ensuring their protection and conservation for another season.

HMS Erebus can be seen below the Parks Canada support barge, Qiniqtirjuaq, during its excavation of the ship in 2019. (PHOTO PARKS CANADA – THIERRY BOYER)

This article was made possible with support from Parks Canada. To learn more about Parks Canada places in Nunavut, please contact Parks Canada at pc.infonunavut-nunavutinfo.pc@canada.ca

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