Gjoa Haven * [pop: under 500]
by Michael P. Ellsworth
Gjoa Haven was dubbed “the finest little harbor in the world” by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and that probably explains why this inlet, nestled on the southeast coast of King William Island on the Northwest Passage, also became the namesake of the wooden ship that Amundsen sailed through the Northwest Passage between 1903-1905 – the Gjoa.
To local residents, the community is called Uqsuaqtuuq, “the place of plenty of fat,” a reference to the fattened fish in the nearby waters.
On Aug. 28, 1903, Amundsen, with his crew of six, arrived here aboard the Gjoa in a quest to find the Passage and to gain information on the Magnetic North Pole. The deep narrow harbor offered a safe haven from the treacherous pack ice so common in this area. Amundsen’s successful navigation of the route may have been partly due to his willingness to adopt some of the traditional ways of the Nattilik people here, such as their methods of hunting, fishing and travelling. Amundsen and his crew also fathered a few children during his time here; many local people trace their ancestry to the Norwegians.
Today, Gjoa Haven [ Gjoa is pronounced as “Joe’ ] is one of the fastest growing communities in the Kitikmeot , with a population creeping towards 1000. [In 1961, only 100 people lived here.] In recent years, families from Back River [Utkuhiksalingmiut], Cambridge Bay, Parry bay, and Spence Bay – now called Taloyoak – moved to the settlement for schooling, trading, health care, housing and other services. Although the Nattilik seem to lead a modern lifestyle, they are very traditional people. Families spend a month or two out on the land each summer. any still travel by dogteam. They hold drum dances often, enjoy throat singing, and frequently wear traditional caribou clothing.
Many elders in Gjoa Haven are living histories of the time qallunaat came in their tall ships. Over a cup of tea, they may eagerly tell you stories they heard from their grandparents of starving explorers such as Franklin’s men, who are believed to have deserted their ice-locked ships in Terror bay. That was in 1847, the year summer never came to the North. Those desperate men walked for miles pulling sleds filled not with supplies, but with books and fine china. You may even hear rumors that people here know the location of Franklin’s grave. Out of respect for the dead, however, they refuse to tell outsiders.
Elders may also recall encounters with Amundsen and with Catholic and Anglican missionaries. They’ll tell you about the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post. Back in 1927, the Hudson’s Bay Co. took advantage of Gjoa Haven;’s excellent harbor by establishing a trading post here. White fox were abundant on the island then, and many Nattilik traveled far to trade. Although people forget the first manager’s real name some elders still think of him as Putuguittuq or No Big-Toe. The Hudson’s Bay Co. here was one of the last to use round aluminum tokens in trading of furs. Store manager George Porter used tokens as late as the a1960’s because local people didn’t yet trust Canadian currency.
Gjoa Haven: Its Land and Wildlife
Gjoa Haven is built on sand and boulders covering limestone bedrock. In spring and summer, the rolling tundra outside the settlement blooms with a variety of lichen, moss, and arctic willow that cover the island. You’ll find many lakes and ponds with water so pure you can drink directly from them. In fact, the community’s water supply comes from Water Lake, about two kilometres northwest of the town.
Although you may spot caribou, muskox, wolf, or snowy owl on the tundra, the local people often have to travel far to hunt wildlife to supplement their diet. Other wildlife found here are geese, swans, falcons, eider ducks and arctic hares, There is also arctic char, found in the bay in June and July, as well as seal, trout, and cod, used mainly as dog food. In spring, many families go to Back River for the whitefish that are plentiful there. When the char leave Gjoa Haven in early August, local people travel, as they have for generations, to Iqalungmiut, to fish in the Kativakturvik River, a traditional weir 45 kilomtres northeast of the settlement.
*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook