Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie, National Geographic
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Black-legged kittiwake gulls nest on a cliff in Sirmilik National Park.
Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie, National Geographic

Sirmilik National Park

Location: Nunavut
Date Established: 2001
Size: 5,485,739 acres

Sirmilik National Park is home not only to breathtaking views of the sea, mountains, and broad valley vistas, but also to an amazing variety of marine and avian wildlife. One of Canada’s most accessible high Arctic parks, Sirmilik is truly a jewel in Canada’s celebrated national parks network. Bylot Island offers stunning sights: deep, navy blue waters setting off the glistening white glaciers and icebergs that rise out of them, tinged with turquoise. Visitors may also catch a glimpse of some of the hundreds of narwhals and seals that inhabit the park.

Park Facts

Inuit Influence For thousands of years, right up to the present, the rich diversity of Arctic wildlife in the park supported the nomadic Inuit people. For centuries, they centered their existence on the demands of the land and its weather; their survival depended on it. When the wind blew and the temperature plummeted, the Inuit stopped and found shelter, and continued on only when the weather eased. Their culture and history is well documented today in Sirmilik National Park.

Place of Glaciers Sirmilik (pronounced Siir-milick) means “place of glaciers” in Inuktitut. The park covers much of the north tip of Baffin Island and is bordered by the communities of Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet. Established as a national park as the result of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement in February 2001, Sirmilik is still a fairly unknown expanse of land.

Bird Life The park encompasses the Bylot Island Bird Sanctuary, jointly managed by Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service, where greater snow goose research has been conducted for more than three decades. Bylot Island is the nesting site for more than 40 species of migratory birds.

How to Get There

From Iqaluit, travel to Pond Inlet (one of the two gateway communities into Sirmilik National Park) is possible in six or seven days with either First Air or Canadian Northern airlines. First Air also offers flights that will take you to the other, smaller gateway community of Arctic Bay. Air travel between Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet is possible only via Iqaluit, although spring travel by snowmobile and summer travel by boat can also get you from one to the other.

From Pond Inlet or Arctic Bay, hire a snowmobile (called a snow machine here) for transport, or engage an outfitter or guide to lead you into the park, preferably in spring when the ice is still safe to traverse. You can also ski across the ice of Eclipse Sound—approximately 16 miles from Pond Inlet—in spring to get to the park. Floe edge tours from the sea ice are also available in the spring.

If traveling with the comfort of modern conveniences appeals to you, you can visit the park in summer as a passenger on one of the many expedition cruise ships that spend up to two days sailing the sounds and inlets around Sirmilik. Depending on the itinerary of the cruises, passengers may be able to go ashore for some exploration within the park. In summer, you can also hire a kayak guide to lead you on a trip into the waters of the park.

When to Go

Sirmilik is in the high Arctic wilderness, so the best time to go is in spring or summer, which in this region means May through September—when the sun is shining for the better part of 24 hours. July is ice breakup month and the park is not accessible, as the ice will no longer support ski or snowmobile travel. Boats and ships can’t travel the waters around this time either, because of the hazards posed by the breaking ice. August to mid-September is the best season for boating and hiking in the park. From late September to late March, Sirmilik’s weather turns harsh and stormy. The dark season, during which the sun is hardly in evidence at all, lasts for two solid months around the time of the winter solstice.

How to Visit

Sirmilik offers a variety of activities for hardy travelers eager to learn about the park’s geology and wildlife. If you’re willing to put forth some effort, you can get a close-up look at glaciers, icebergs, and the marine life residing off the floe edge. The park’s population of Arctic seabirds make it a wonderful destination for the avid bird-watcher. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can dive under the sea ice for intimate encounters with the marine life living in the waters, including narwhals, beluga whales, and walruses. Summer is the best time to meet Inuit residents and learn about their culture, ancient and modern. Watch craftsmen at work, and take in Inuit art and performances in either Pond Inlet or Arctic Bay.

To ensure your safety on kayak, boat, ski, or hiking expeditions, rely on the skills of outfitters and guides to arrange your visit into the park. As in all national parks in Nunavut, Sirmilik expeditions are backcountry adventures and are generally not suitable for small children or elderly travelers. As this is still a relatively new park, it doesn’t yet have established routes for you to follow through the park. However, by the same token, Sirmilik offers you the opportunity to blaze your own trails, depending on what you wish to see and how skilled a hiker you are. Make sure you bring a good camera with you: The beauty and awesome vastness of Sirmilik National Park afford visitors a wealth of photo opportunities.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada