Wild and beautiful Muskox Way

A photographer goes wandering in northern Nunavut

T&C Eye Candy / Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut / Photo by Natalie Gillis

By Natalie Gillis

Way up north in the Canadian High Arctic lies a massive island which very few people have visited.

Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island is one of the last stops on the way to the North Pole. The island is separated from Greenland by a sliver of ice-choked water so narrow that on a clear summer’s day, you can easily see to the other side.

The mountains that form the spine of Ellesmere Island rise sharply from the Arctic Ocean and are divided by a storied valley system known as Muskox Way.

It’s a spectacular natural highway that snakes through the mountains, forming — for at least the last 4500 years — a migration route for the muskox, as well as for the people who (through the ages) have called this region of the Arctic home.

As muskox migrated through these valleys forging for the sparse and frozen roots of willows buried deep in the snow, people would follow, leaving behind meat caches, hunting blinds and tent rings as evidence of their relationship with the prehistoric animals.

The countless archeological sites left behind remain so untouched in the dry Arctic air, it’s almost as if the people who built them were here only yesterday.

Today, Muskox Way is part of Nunavut’s Quttinirpaaq National Park and the explorers who are fortunate enough to find themselves here will likely still encounter these remarkable animals.

I use the term “explorers” to describe individuals who make this journey north because they truly are venturing off the beaten path.

The trek to Quttinirpaaq National Park involves flights from Ottawa through Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Resolute Bay, followed by a refuelling stop at the Eureka Weather Station before finally stepping down from a small bush plane onto a gravel strip at 81º north.

I’ve made this journey to Ellesmere Island to guide self-supported hiking trips four times over recent years. It’s a place I’ll never grow tired of exploring. The desolate landscape provides an enormous amount of space in which to reflect on the natural world and humanity’s place in it.

While hiking on the land for several days or weeks at a time — enveloped by this uniquely cold and quiet wilderness — it’s easy to feel like you’re the last living thing on the planet. That is, until the moment a large muskox crests a hill just in front of you and gives you a stoic stare.

You’re reminded of, and impressed by, the determination to survive that has kept these creatures thriving since the Pleistocene (the last ice age.)

Being confronted by another breathing being in such a vast and silent place makes for a powerful encounter.

In the image above, I tried to capture this feeling — the sense that here, at what feels like the edges of the Earth, life remains stunningly, beautifully, wild.


About the author: Natalie Gillis is a landscape, wildlife and adventure photographer inspired by the spirit of exploration and the natural beauty found in cold, wild places. Check out our interview with Gillis in a more recent post called Northern Beauty — published on January 26, 2022 and featuring an exquisite photograph of a satiated polar bear.


Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is an award-winning Canadian travel blog. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.


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  1. Linda commented:

    A beautiful story and photograph of a magnificent animal. thank you Natalie Gillis!

    Readers may be interested in qiviut, the soft downy undercoat, that is shed by the musk ox. It can be woven or knitted into many beautiful things.


  2. Ingo Schulz commented:

    Greetings from The Rockies Natalie!
    Forty yr. ago, spent 2 straight years at Eureka, always conscious of how special the adventure was, experiential awareness made even more vibrant by the close proximity, at the time, of the wandering Magnetic North Pole and its palpably benign effect.
    All of the other appealing aspects of the location aside, the one quality that stood out for me was the possibility for interaction with WILDLIFE, from wolf to lemming, that knew no fear of the two-legged.
    Musk-ox, being cautious critters, would not foolishly expose themselves, of course, but nevertheless granted a 6m limit of territorial imperative, something I also learned to count on in order to enjoy their presence and individuality.
    The empathy of Arctic Hare provided invaluable lessons fundamental to interaction with Snowshoe Hare here, later, in the Rockies, the substantially larger Arctic off-shoot so astonishingly more of a powerful presence – those wizened faces!
    And to observe the patterned beauty of a Collared Lemming drying itself on the offered hand after swimming across a large (for the lemming) body of freezing water was very warming – for both of us 🙂
    But of all of the huge island’s characteristics, it is beauty itself that I found to be THE predominant and readily perceivable quality of all aspects of Ellesmere ecology, most likely because the “Natural State” is pristine, i.e. its energy not adulterated, at that time……
    I know you realize how precious that environment is, from a contemporary viewpoint, and am truly glad that you’re in a position to experience that unique world and wish you all the best in your endeavours and growth within it.


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