Lake * [pop: about 1500]
by Darren Keith
I'm on my way to Baker Lake. I know this because of
my growing excitement, and because I am glued to the window of the plane searching for
familiar landforms. The source of my excitement is the sheer vastness of the barren lands
that surround me, and the opportunity to meet people who belong in that landscape.
Warning. The power of this land can become a passion that will bring you back again and
Our flight path from Rankin Inlet has brought us
over the great expanse of Baker Lake or Qamani'tuaq, meaning "a huge widening
of a river." Out the window to the south, I can see the serpentine form of the Kazan
River stretching from the horizon to its mouth at Baker Lake, where it ends its
850-kilometre journey through the heart of the barren lands. I wonder at the skill and
knowledge of the Inuit whose lives have depended on the Kazan River for centuries. The
abundant archeological sites along the river testify to the people's prosperity and
hardship. In historic times, the river was used by explorers like Joseph Tyrrell, and the
members of the Fifth Thule Expedition. Recently, the river has become one of the premier
routes for experienced wilderness paddlers. The Kazan well deserves its designation as a
Canadian heritage river.
As we descend into Baker Lake, I look to the
northeast and see the area's other Canadian heritage river, the Thelon River, curving out
of the Half-Way hills in the distance. The Thelon River is also steeped in history. It was
home to Inuit from its mouth up to the Beverly Lake area in what is now the Thelon
Wildlife Sanctuary. Joseph Tyrrell also explored this river in 1893, followed by David
Hanbury in 1899 and 1901 to 1902. Many other modern-day explorers paddle the river each
Out the other window, I can see the community of
Baker Lake. The sight of the community perched on the edge of this huge lake, surrounded
on all sides by hundreds of kilometres of tundra, reinforces how remote this village is at
the geographical centre of Canada. Nowhere else can one have such a deep experience of the
barren lands and its people. My travels on water, snow and ice with Inuit friends have
given me a glimpse into their world. To them, these are not "barren" lands, but
named and understood places, where they and their ancestors have struggled and flourished
as an integral part of this unique landscape. Their claim to this place as their homeland
has been hard-earned. Their profound sense of belonging here is evident in their faces and
their easy movement through the landscape.
At the tiny Baker Lake airport, we walk from the
plane into a crowd of smiling faces. A proud family has come out to greet a mother and her
newborn child. An elder addresses the child as "my mother," due to its name.
Although born in Southern Canada, this child's soul in the Inuit belief system
has always lived here among them. Still bathed in the warmth of this scene, I meet
an elderly friend and shake his hand. "Tunngahugit," he says. Welcome to
Baker Lake. I feel it, and you will, too.
When Captain William Christopher of the Hudson's Bay
Co. sailed through Chesterfield Inlet in 1761 and gave Qamani'tuaq its English
name, Baker Lake, the area had already been known to Inuit for centuries. In the channels
of Chesterfield Inlet, today's visitor can see an abundance of inuksuit, tent rings
and other archeological evidence of Inuit occupation.
The community of Baker Lake is very young. Until the
mid-1950s, most Inuit still lived on the land in areas surrounding Baker Lake. The Utkuhiksalingmiut
came from the Back River; the Hanningajurmiut from the Garry Lake area; the Akilinirmiut
from the Thelon River area around Beverly Lake; the Qairnirmiut from the lower
Thelon River, Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet; and the Harvaqtuurmiut from the
Kazan River area. All these groups share a history of life lived almost exclusively
inland. They all relied on the resources of the barren lands, mainly caribou and fish.
With the exception of the Back River, the area
surrounding Baker Lake has only recently become known to European Canadians. In 1834,
George Back descended the river that today bears his name. It was not until 1893 that the
Thelon was descended by Joseph and James Tyrrell of the Geological Survey of Canada, via
the Dubawnt River. The two brothers carried on through Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet
and south along Hudson Bay to Churchill. James Tyrrell continued exploring the next year
by descending the Kazan River to a short distance below Yathkyed Lake, and then east via
the Ferguson River to Hudson Bay and Churchill.
In 1899, British explorer David Hanbury travelled by
dogteam up the coast of Hudson Bay and through Chesterfield Inlet. From Chesterfield
Inlet, Hanbury travelled by boat through Baker Lake and up the Thelon River, gaining
access to Great Slave Lake via the Hanbury River and Artillery Lake. Hanbury returned
again between 1901 and 1902, spending much time in the area between Chesterfield Inlet and
Beverly Lake on the Thelon River, where he befriended many Inuit.
In the spring of 1922, anthropologists Kaj
Birket-Smith and Knud Rasmussen travelled up the Kazan River to Yathkyed Lake and met with
Harvaqtuurmiut and Paallirmiut. Their report stands as the earliest and most descriptive
study of historic Inuit life in the area.
European Canadians didn't establish a permanent
presence at Baker Lake until the Hudson's Bay Co. post was built at Uqpiktujuq, or Big
Hips Island, in 1916. Competition arrived in the form of the Revillion Frères in 1924,
who set up a trading post at the mouth of the Thelon River. In 1926, the Hudson's Bay Co.
also moved to the mouth of the Thelon near the present location of Baker Lake. Two men
from Chesterfield Inlet, Naittuq and Singiittuq, played an important role in piloting
supply ships through the narrows of Chesterfield Inlet and into Baker Lake using their
knowledge of the depth changes in the inlet. After years of competition, the Hudson's Bay
Co. bought out the Revillion Frères in 1936 and moved the operation into their building.
The original building is now the Vera Akumalik Visitors Centre.
In the fall of 1927, both the Anglican and Roman
Catholic missions arrived to begin the competition for the souls of the Inuit. The
original Anglican mission, St. Aiden's, was built in 1930 and still stands today.
Government arrived in force during the 1950s and
'60s. The nursing station (or health centre) was built in 1956 and the Federal School in
1957. Children were brought into town to go to school. This, in combination with some hard
years of starvation, brought Inuit into the settlement to stay. In 1962, houses were built
for Inuit by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. Although some
Inuit families were still on the land in the '60s, it was only a matter of time before
everyone lived in town.
Baker Lake: Its Land and Wildlife
The barren lands surrounding Baker Lake offer many
and varied landscapes to explore. Many of these areas have been recognized as Canadian
treasures through assorted designations.
In the west, in the area of the upper Thelon River,
is the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. The Thelon, and Baker Lake's other major river, the
Kazan, are Canadian heritage rivers, recognized for their rich natural and cultural
heritage. A section of the Kazan River between Thirty Mile Lake and Kazan Falls has also
been designated a national historic site. The Fall Caribou Crossing National Historic Site
commemorates the historic fall caribou hunt. From their qajait (kayaks), hunters
lanced migrating caribou as they swam across the river. The success of this hunt
determined the survival of Inuit over the long winter.
To the north of Baker Lake, the splendor of Wager
Bay boasts populations of polar bears, seals, beluga whales, wolves, caribou and other
wildlife. Negotiations are currently under way to turn the Wager Bay area into a national
ALSO SEE About Printmaking
*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook