Baker 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 again.
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 year.
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 park.
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*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook