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The Biggest Little City North of 60

The Biggest Little City North of 60

For four centuries, Kuukpak, located in the Western Arctic along the Mackenzie River, was the richest, busiest summer settlement around
By Tim Edwards
Nov 13
From the November 2015 Issue

Food was nearby and plentiful. There were plenty of bluffs to dig into, and driftwood to turn those holes into homes. For centuries, more than 40 houses occupied the largest known Inuvialuit settlement in the Canadian Arctic, until its inhabitants left and didn’t come back in the 1800s. And now this settlement, called Kuukpak, is getting smaller every year.

“The site is huge and not fully understood and eroding badly,” says archeologist Max Friesen, “so that’s why we’re back there.” Friesen and a team of technicians and researchers have been excavating the site since 2013, surveying the region one year in a helicopter and digging the next.

His team has found a remarkable array of tools—for hunting, fishing, cutting, sewing—inside the one driftwood home they’ve fully excavated. “Because [the Inuvialuit] didn’t have to move it around, they could just continue to build and acquire more material in order to make their lives more comfortable,” says Friesen, “and more and more specialized hunting and fishing equipment means you’re going to have a more secure economy.” And they ate well. The digs have turned up bones of caribou, seals, ducks, geese, fish, and the mainstay—as well as the likely reason the Inuvialuit chose this site—beluga whales. 

The water near Kuukpak is very shallow, and the community would balloon in the summer as nearby groups came to assist in the beluga hunt. “A line of kayakers [would form] behind the belugas and basically frighten them into the shallows where they were easily dispatched,” says Friesen.

But as it brought about Kuukpak’s beginning, the water also carried in its end. As European whalers and explorers came to the region in the 1800s, they brought with them diseases that wrought havoc upon the Inuvialuit population. The survivors left Kuukpak, where their families had lived for close to 400 years, and moved to a settlement near what is now Tuktoyaktuk. 

According to Friesen, the eroding Arctic coast at Kuukpak is reclaiming one house every five years. But as Friesen’s project will continue for another three years, and close to 26 homes remain, we’re bound to learn more about Kuukpak before it’s all gone.