To local Inuit the Thelon River is known simply as “Kuuk”, the river (“Kuup Paangani”: at the river mouth). Prehistoric hunters killed large numbers of southward-migrating caribou in the fall at river crossings such as this one, spearing the animals from kayaks. Our two major sites on this trail likely represent the homes of people who killed many caribou in the fall and continued to camp near stored meat into the winter months.
You will probably approach our trail from the river by boat. It is possible to walk to the trail from town but not advised except for the very hardy visitor (a round trip of 10 km from the airport to the trail). Visitors should be aware that Nirlu’naaq site may not emerge from its snowbank until early July.
Start your walk at the trail entrance sign and inukshuk near the shore. As you walk uphill to the second inukshuk you will see a small cache (#1), not very old, a few feet below the inukshuk. The hunter who left it was probably inexperienced – he cached his meat in the lee of this small ridge and when he returned to fetch it during the winter with his sled it was buried under the snow. Continue now west and slightly downhill to Sigyami Site (#2), which is a single tent ring. The rocks and vegetation near the centre of the tent ring probably indicate the central passage and hearth of a Paleo-Eskimo tent. The shoreline 3000 years ago would have been just below where this tent is located so we have named the site “Sigyami”; at the shore.
Now you’ll walk uphill to the inukshuk and sign just under the very top of the hill (“Nirlu’naaq”: the name of this hill). Here are the rock formations of at least 5 Thule homes (#3). Thule winter houses roofed with whalebone are well known in coastal areas throughout the Arctic but are rare inland; these must have had skin roofs supported by antler or driftwood. They show the usual floor-plan of a Thule house; they were dug several feet into the ground and had a sunken entryway to trap warm air within the house. A raised platform at the rear of the living area made a warm and comfortable bed when covered with brush and caribou skins. The soapstone blubber lamp, food, and cooking implements would have been to either side of the floor area at the front of the home. Most likely the structures were occupied during the fall and early winter; Inuit called such an autumn shelter a “qaqmaq”. Clearly this spot is a perfect camp for many reasons; this hilltop is a look-out for caribou, the brown skin-covered homes would have been hidden from view by the backdrop off the cliff, water is nearby at the small lake behind the hill, and the homes were sheltered from the prevailing north westerly winds.
Evening, early October, in the year 1602 A.D.
A woman sits on the bed preparing a caribou-skin parka. A small child sleeps beside her. She has already scraped the skins and cut the pieces with her stone scrapers and knife (“ulu”). Now she pierces the skin pieces with her pointed bone awl where the seams will be, so they will be ready for sewing with the bone needle and sinew. It is very dark with only the flame of the lamp to light her work but she continues hour after hour. The family must have their winter garments completed before they move on.
Tasiraq Site (#4) lies on the far side of the small lake (“tasiraq”) behind the hilltop. At present we think the site is probably Paloe-Eskimo (roughly 3000 years old); in particular, tent rings H6 and H7 appear to be very old.
The five larger tent rings H1-H5 all have a distinctive shape: rocks that supported the outer edges of the tent form a long oval, with the cooking and living area in the middle and sleeping areas to either side. Refuse that accumulated from cooking and daily life has provided soil nutrients for a thick growth of vegetation around the central hearth. Sleeping areas at either side would have been covered by skin bedding and have little vegetation; you may see a line of small rocks marking the edge of the bed.
Afternoon, November, in the year 1327 B.C.
The two men carried the kayak up the hill from shore. The river had frozen and the kayak had to be stripped of its skin covering and tied down firmly for the winter. Their uncle had led the band of 5 families far up the river that past spring to the lake where the trees grow. They had all helped to build the kayak and had taken other wood for tent poles, sled runners, and various tools and weapons. The journey had been long and hard; their old father had died and children sobbed at night from the pain of their aching legs. They had come to this place in time to kill many caribou crossing the river, and now they could stay a few months.
As you walk back down to shore, give some thought to how hard these people worked to stay alive – their only materials being stones, snow, a little wood, and the skins and bone of the animals they hunted. And yet they survived and their descendants populate the North.