Great Canadian Parks / Nunavut

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The Parks / Nunavut / Ellesmere Island National Park


Many of the arctic creatures that inhabit the island are part of a fragile eco-system under the park's protection. The muskox, once brought to the brink of extinction, now roam in winter herds of 60 or more. Weighing up to 700 pounds, with short legs, humped shoulders, and characteristic down-curving horns, this relative of the goat has keen senses that serve it well in the fight for survival. Usually moving at a slow deliberate pace, it can, when pressed, run and climb with unexpected agility. During the relentless winter, their ability to see well in near-darkness and their inner wool coat beneath their matted shaggy hair make endurance possible. When a frozen crust hardens over two feet of snow covering the meager vegetation, or a pack of wolves, their only predator, descends upon them, only their amazing will to survive sustains them where other species would surely perish.


Like the muskox, the Peary caribou and Arctic wolf populations are closely monitored and studied by Canadian Wildlife Services. The most northerly nesting sites of the rare gyr-falcon, which winters as far south as Virginia, can be found on the ledges around Lake Hazen and fox, ermine, lemmings, polar bears and arctic hare may approach a hiker with a disconcerting lack of fear. Walrus, beluga and narwhal whales can be spotted off the shores of the park and over 30 species of birds including long-tailed jaegers, terns, geese, snowy owls, loons and ducks regularly nest within the reserve.


With an annual precipitation of only 6 centimetres, about the same as generally falls on the Sahara desert, Ellesmere Island is truly a polar wasteland where willow sedges barely stand above ground level. Only the thermal effect around such areas as Lake Hazen provides an environment that can support sufficient vegetation to furnish food for the muskox, caribou and hares, as well as nesting sites for the many species of migrating birds. Although they cover less than 2% of the land, by the end of July, the landscape is carpeted with yellow arctic poppies, white mountain avens, and red moss campions above a mat of lichens and moss. The effect is of a red, white and charcoal grey mosaic of harmonious colour and breath-taking beauty.

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