Ukkusiksalik National Park is a tundra and coastal mudflat region extending south of the Arctic Circle and the hamlet of Repulse Bay, from Hudson Bay's Roes Welcome Sound towards the western Barrenlands and the source of Brown River. The park surrounds Wager Bay, a long inlet on the Hudson Bay. Although the smallest of Nunavut's four national parks, it is the sixth largest in Canada. Its name relates to steatite found there: Ukkusiksalik means "where there is material for the stone pot" (from ukkusik, meaning pot or saucepan like qulliq).
In addition to a reversing waterfall and 500 archeological sites, including an old Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) trading post, the region is home to such species as polar bears, grizzly bears, the Arctic Wolf, caribou, seals and Peregrine Falcons. Vegetation in the park is typical low tundra, with dwarf birch, willow and mountain avens. Scattered patches of boreal forest can be encountered in river valleys.
The park is uninhabited now, but the Inuit lived there from 1000s to the 1960s. Remains of fox traps, tent rings, and food caches have been discovered in the area. The HBC had an operating trading post in the area from 1925 to 1947.
Little is known about Wager Bay's early history, as until the 19th century the area was inhabited by Inuit who traditionally passed down their history by word-of-mouth.
There is, however, a remarkable quantity of stone relics, mainly tent rings from Thule people, inuksuit, caches and shelters which give evidence that the coast of Wager Bay was inhabited since thousands of years. About 500 archaeological sites have been identified within the last years as well from Dorset culture (500 BC - 1000 AD), as from Thule culture (1000 - 1800) and the last two centuries.
Barrenland Inuit (or Caribou Inuit) were not a homogeneous tribe, but families of quite diverse groups:
He named the bay after Sir Charles Wager, First Lord of the British Admiralty, and an inlet where he anchored Douglas Harbour after James and Henry Douglas, sponsors of his expedition. The Savage Islands nearby he named after "savage Eskimos" (wild Eskimos) he met there.
Middleton was not successful in his search for the Northwest Passage, and neither was William Moore with his sloop Discovery five years later. As the region was too far away from Europe and considered to be "useless", the bay was not mentioned or visited by outsiders for more than 100 years. In the 1860s, American explorer Charles Francis Hall's in a two-masted ship, Monticello, while searching for John Franklin's lost Northwest Passage expedition of 1845, reached Roes Welcome Sound in 1864 and had to overwinter at the mouth of Wager Bay.
In 1879, another American expedition led by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka searching for John Franklin passed nearby Wager Bay by land. The region eventually became recognized when the fur trade started there at the end of 19th century.
At nearly the same time, in 1900, the American whaler George G. Cleveland, working alone, established a whaling station near the entrance of the bay, that operated for the next four years. Despite his closure of the station, Scottish whalers for some time tried their luck to hunt marine mammals in the Wager area. Large iron harpoon heads and other remnants are still found on the Savage Islands.
In 1910, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP, precursor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) set up a police post at Wager Bay coast, near Savage Islands. A police boat wreck, in a small inlet on the south-east shore of Wager Bay is testimony to the brief presence of police there.
In 1915, George Cleveland set up a temporary, and the region's first, trading post near the mouth of Wager Bay. In 1919, Cleveland now working for the HBC, again set up a trading post in the mouth of Wager Bay. It was transferring building materials for the establishment of the Repulse Bay HBC post. Situated at a favorable place at the northern end of Roes Welcome Sound this post became important for the company's intention to expand their business towards the north.
Alongside these local activities, the Hudson's Bay Company, during the first years of the 20th century, made great effort to get the fur trade under control. They started to build up a large and dense network of posts from the barrenlands of northwest Hudson Bay to the northern coast of the continent. According to those plans, a post at the outermost edge of Wager Bay should play a key role. That new post was meant to include the Ukkusiksalingmiut area to the Back River estuary, to the northwest, into the company's strategy, thereby, if ever possible, preventing commercial activities of competitors, Revillon Frères, operating from their Baker Lake base. In the late summer of 1925, the two-masted schooner Fort Chesterfield entered the channel, and, following the advice of local Inuit, found a well protected inlet in Tusjujak (now Ford Lake, named after J. L. Ford, post manager in 1929) to establish their strategic station.
During the first years, things went quite well. Besides offering usual supply goods, the post supported the Inuit in general, and gave, as far as possible, medical assistance. Thus, it became a meeting point that allowed Inuit from distant camps to exchange news as well. In December 1929, twenty-two Inuit families were counted, 107 persons in total, camping in their igloos nearby. Soon later, fur trade stopped booming. Hudson's Bay Company changed their major post into an outpost in 1933 and entrusted an Inuk, Iqungajuq (Wager-Dick), with its management. He thereby got the chance to start his own business in the fur trade. Wager-Dick and his family lived in the post buildings and ran the outpost until 1946. The company was eventually successful with its strategy towards its competitor and bought Revillon Frères in 1936.
Catholic missionaries, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who passed by in those years set up a small mission on one of Savage Islands, but never had great success and withdrew, when the activities of Hudson's Bay Company ended by mid-1940s and the Inuit had migrated into communities.
Some 30 years later, from 1979 to 1981, Inuit from Rankin Inlet tried to revive their former homeland, but without success.
In the autumn of 1986 and the spring of 1987, descendants of Inuit from the area built Sila Lodge at Wager Bay’s north coast. The lodge was only opened for a few weeks during the summertime to allow nature enthusiasts to stay in the area, which was in fact untouched for the rest of the year. Due to the high expenses of the flights, the owners could not maintain the lodge after 2002.
At Hudson Bay’s northwest corner, some northeast of Chesterfield Inlet, near the Capes Fullerton and Kendall, is the entrance of Roes Welcome Sound, which extends northwards between the Barrenlands of the Kivalliq Region (meaning: border of the land) and Southampton Island to Repulse Bay, where there is a settlement of that name, situated at the Arctic circle. Wager Bay is an inlet of Roes Welcome Sound, pretty much in its geographical center, near Cape Dobbs.
Wager Bay is the core of the national park. Its entrance is a rather narrow bottleneck, it is more than long and approximately wide at its narrowest spot. The tides rise and fall up to and currents are extraordinary and cause large accumulations of ice masses during most of the year, often preventing the passage of watercraft. During early summer the rising flood water washes large quantities of drifting ice and icebergs into the bay. These accumulate during ebb tide, close the bottleneck like a cork and may stay for hours or even days.
In some places, Wager Bay is more than deep. The fjord is up to wide and almost long, extending northwest into Kivalliq-Barrenlands. It reaches latitude 66°, therefore some from the Arctic Circle.
Even at its western end, tides are impressive, between Wager Bay and the wide Ford Lake (Tusjujak in Inuktitut), so-called Reversing Falls occur. In Canada, only three of those phenomena are known, Reversing Falls in New Brunswick and Barrier Inlet, Hudson Strait, Nunavut are the others. The strongest ones are in Norway, east of Bodø, Nordland. They are called Saltstraumen and considered world’s strongest tidal currents.
The soil of the area is characteristic of the Canadian Shield.
A remarkable feature is that at the south shore of Wager Bay a steep mountain range, gorged by former glaciers, strongly influences the weather. Due to its proximity to Hudson Bay, drops in temperature and strong fog are normal during summertime, as blizzards are during early autumn. The bay is not completely free of ice before the end of July, although temperatures may range from cool to very warm between May and September.
According to actual zoological research, there live sixteen species of mammals in the park. At Wager Bay’s south shore is a large polar bear denning area. Therefore in July and at the beginning of August, polar bears can be observed, from a boat, on floes, on islands or swimming from close up. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and curious Arctic Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus parryii) come close to Sila Lodge. More rarely to be seen are the shy lemmings (Lemmus sibiricus). Due to their camouflage, Arctic Foxes (Alopex lagopus) and Arctic Hares (Lepus arcticus), are not easily spotted but are most likely seen when fleeing. Other animals seen occasionally include the Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos), the muskox (Ovibos moschatus), the Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) and the wolverine (Gulo gulo).
Several species of marine mammals can be seen in the park’s area: Ringed Seals (Phoca hispida) and Bearded Seals (Erignathus barbatus) live here in large numbers, and from time to time a walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), a Common Seal (Harbour Seal, Phoca vitulina), a beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) or a narwhal (Monodon monoceros) may appear in Wager Bay.
Only four species of fish have been reported up to now: Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) and ninespine stickleback (Pungitius pungitius).
Birders are able to observe up to forty species, including:
Usually, the park can only visited during a very few summer weeks, from the beginning of July until the beginning of August. Before that, Wager Bay has too much ice to be visited by boat, and in the autumn the Inuit say: "During summertime, you may watch polar bears. Afterwards, they will watch you!"
The place can almost only be reached by a hired plane – usually one would depart from Baker Lake, about away, where scheduled flights arrive from Rankin Inlet. Information can be obtained at Rankin Inlet's "Baker Lake Lodge". One might also approach by motorboat from Repulse Bay, where Parks Canada runs a station, but due to possible problems with ice this might take longer and therefore will only be considered by explorers or movie teams who have to bring a lot of equipment.
From Sila Lodge, guided tours were offered, for instance boating tours to the Wager Bay islands, or to Ford Lake across the reversing falls, to the former Hudson's Bay Company outpost, or walks to the surrounding area, where one would find impressive relics of earlier settlements, such as tent rings, qarmait (sod house) and Inuksuit, along with relics of the Hudson's Bay Company and Roman Catholic missions.