Banks Island

Banks Island is the westernmost island of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The fifth largest island in Canada, the island's area covers over 70,000 km2. In late summer, the southern coasts are accessible by sea, although McClure Strait on the north is usually blocked by thick ice.

At the south end of Banks Island is a small plateau of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, from which the bold cliffs of Nelson Head rise to 425 m. In the north, a larger plateau rises sharply from the northeast coast as limestone cliffs. Between the two plateaus sits a vast rolling land that rises along the east coast to about 300 m and then slopes gradually to the west coast. Three major rivers flowing west from the watershed dissect this lowland. Sand bars and braided river mouths characterize the low west coast of Banks Island. The largest river, the Thomsen, flows north to McClure Strait. The few large lakes are all located on the east side of the island, and the west side of Banks Island was never glaciated.

Approximately 40,000 muskoxen populate Banks Island, which boasts an abundant wildlife. Peary caribou, however, are in decline and considered a threatened species. Polar bears commonly thrive along the coasts and Arctic foxes live throughout the island. Huge flocks of lesser snow geese nest and molt on the western side. Rough-legged hawks, brant, and eider ducks are among the many birds that breed on the island. Trout, Arctic char, and whitefish inhabit the rivers. Although archaeological sites representing several different cultural groups are located throughout Banks Island, historians have found no indications of permanent settlements.

In 1820, Sir William Parry named "Banksland" for Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), explorer and head of the Royal Society of London. During the search for Sir John Franklin's lost expedition, Robert McClure, commander of HMS Investigator, charted most of the Banks' coastline. McClure sailed up the west coast to Mercy Bay in 1851, but abandoned the ship when it locked with the ice. Inuit from Victoria Island (of the Arctic Archipelago) later found the Investigator and used it as a source of wood and iron for many years.

The Canadian Arctic Expedition—led by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, aided by local and Alaskan Inuit, and supported by expedition schooners Mary Sachs and North Star—explored much of Banks Island between 1915 and 1917. After 1917, the trapping of Arctic foxes drew people to Banksland. The 1930s and 1940s were known as "The Schooner Days," during which families traveled to Banks Island to spend the winter trapping at camps along the coasts. By the early 1950s, a store and houses were established at Sachs Harbour on the south coast, the lone settlement on the island.

The 1950s witnessed an increase in scientific and military exploration on Banks Island. In the 1970s, seismic exploration in the northern part resulted in the drilling of several wells. Fox trapping, fishing, and hunting over much of the island remain an important part of life for Bankslanders. The establishment of Aulavik National Park on northern Banks in 1992 led to increased tourism that continues today.

David R. Gray

See also Beaufort Sea; McClure, Sir Robert; Northwest Territories; Sachs Harbour

Further Reading

Dunbar, Moira & Keith R. Greenaway, Arctic Canada From the

Air, Ottawa: Defence Research Board, 1956 Gray, David R. & Bea Alt, The Natural and Cultural Resources of Aulavik National Park, Metcalfe: Prepared for Parks Canada by Grayhound Information Services, 1997 Harington, C. Richard (editor), Canada's Missing Dimension: Science and History in the Canadian Arctic Islands, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature Parks Canada, New Parks North, Newsletter No. 10, 2001, 36pp Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, The Friendly Arctic, New York:

MacMillan, 1921 Taylor, Andrew, Geographical Discovery and Exploration in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Ottawa: Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, 1955 Usher, Peter J., The Bankslanders: Economy and Ecology of a Frontier Trapping Community, Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1970

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