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Northern People, Northern Knowledge - 
The Story Of The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913 - 1918
New Lands: Explorations of the Northern Party




Banks Island, also known as Banksland, is the westernmost island of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. With an area of over 70,000 square km, it is the fifth largest island in Canada. In late summer the southern coasts are accessible by sea, though 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 is a vast rolling land that rises along the east coast to about 300 m, then slopes gradually to the west coast. This lowland features three major rivers flowing west from the watershed. Sand bars and braided river mouths characterize the low west coast. The largest river, the Thomsen River – named for Charles [Karl] Thomsen, who died during the CAE – flows north to McClure Strait. The few large lakes are all on the east side. The largest one was unofficially named Gonzales Lake by members of the CAE.

Muskoxen, with a population of about 40,000, are the most striking of the abundant wildlife on Banks Island, but none was seen on the island during the CAE. Peary caribou, abundant during the CAE, are now in decline and considered a threatened species. Polar bears are common along the coasts and Arctic foxes are numerous throughout the Island. Huge flocks of lesser snow geese nest and moult on the western side. Archaeological sites of different cultural groups are abundant throughout Banks Island.

In 1820, Sir William Parry named "Banksland" for Sir Joseph Banks, explorer and head of the British Royal Society. During the search for Franklin's lost expedition, Robert McClure, commander of HMS Investigator, charted most of the coastline. McClure sailed up the west coast and over to Mercy Bay in 1851, but the ship was abandoned when it was locked into the ice. Investigator was later visited by Inuit from Victoria Island and used for years as a source of wood and iron.

After the exploration of Banks Island between 1915 and 1917 by members of the CAE, aided by local and Alaskan Inuit, and supported by the Expedition schooners Mary Sachs and North Star, the trapping of Arctic foxes drew people to Banksland. During the 1930s and 1940s, known as "The Schooner Days," families travelled from the Mackenzie Delta to Banks Island by schooner to spend the winter trapping at camps along the coasts. Sachs Harbour, on the south coast, the only permanent settlement on the Island, was established as a seasonal trapping village in the early 1950s.

The 1950s saw an increase in scientific and military exploration on Banks Island, and in the 1970s seismic exploration in the northern part resulted in the drilling of several wells. Fox trapping, fishing, and hunting over much of Banks Island remain an important part of life for Bankslanders. Tourism is growing in importance since the establishment of Aulavik National Park on northern Banks Island in 1992. Aulavik means "place where people travel," a reference to both the history and the future of Banks Island.