Exploring Kekerten whaling station

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Wed 25 Aug 2010 02:42
It was pretty foggy this morning - so much so that we could hardly see the shore from Saxon Blue - but we decided to go and have a look around the old whaling station. We started at the far end and discovered that the rocks where we moored the tender had holes drilled through them by the old whalers for securing their boats in the same place. The whaling station is now part of a National Park and somebody had obviously had a lot of funding for making it more "visitor friendly". Their half-finished additions are incongruous in such a remote place. The first thing we came up to was a massive sign in the three Nunavut languages which was frankly an eyesore. From there, we could walk on well-made boardwalks around the site and look at the interpretation boards which were well done with some great old pictures on so it wasn't all bad.

Kekerten was used by both American and Scottish whalers and they had separate bases. The hunt took place in the autumn and I think the whalers then over-wintered here to save them from the dangerous passage home through the ice at such a rough time of year. They built some large buildings but they were completely dismantled by the Inuit once the base was abandoned in the 1920s. There's a very odd modern reproduction of the Scottish whaler's barracks made from bolted steel but only the skeleton of the building is there. I'm not quite sure what they were trying to achieve with it. Around and about, though, there are loads of fascinating relics of the work that went on. Three try-pots shaped like giant witch's cauldrons still sit on top of their brick fire pits. A pile of hundreds of barrel hoops sits near abandoned tackles used to winch carcasses up the beach. There's a row of riveted tanks taken from a wrecked trading vessel - apparently there are five wrecked ships in the bay. Near a steep beach, there are hundreds of yards of hand-made anchor chain and an Admiralty pattern anchor that would hold a fair sized ship. All around the European style remains there are the stone rings and foundations of Inuit buildings giving evidence of the local workers who came here to work or trade and often ended up dying of foreign diseases.

One of the interpretation boards showed and old photograph of Penny's Harbour taken from the exact spot where the board is now placed. You could see the buildings, the shoal patches in the harbour and the distant hills. In the middle of the harbour, there are 3 whaling ships anchored up in exactly the same spot as we anchored Saxon Blue. I mean exactly - to the nearest yard, I should think. I took a photo of the old photo and another of the view and it's spooky but fantastic to see our boat sitting there where these old mariners anchored. It made the hairs stand up on my neck.

On the shoreline of the station, there's a Bowhead whale skull - a complete one this time. I think it's the whale that the Inuit killed a few years back as part of their Aboriginal Whaling quota. They killed it using an Aboriginal outboard engine on the back of an Aboriginal aluminium boat and fired an Aboriginal exploding harpoon from an Aboriginal bazooka. There's a museum in Pangnirtung (the local town) that I'm hoping to visit tomorrow and I've been told it's got some artefacts of the old-time Inuit Bowhead hunting so I'll be interested to see that. Anyway, however the whale was "harvested" (local euphemism), the skull is truly amazing. It's sitting on the rocks, resting on the place where the jaw would have attached and, at the front, on the end of the palate. The whole thing is three Kali's long so around 6 meters or nearly 20 feet. The palate arches upwards making the whole thing look like some alien tripod and bears no relationship atall to the shape of the animal that once surrounded it. It's so big and so heavy that it's hard to imagine it as part of a creature that moved and swam on this Earth - much less one that still does so and that we saw so many of last week. Truly, we are in the presence of aliens.

All around the whaling site are graves. We were told by the local guys on the fishing boat that the Inuit are buried on top of the ground and the Europeans under the ground. The Inuit graves are very close to the perimeter of the site - just as they're so close to the houses in the other places that we've visited - but here they show distinct European influence in that most of them are in coffins. Some had wooden boxes - tiny ones sometimes so perhaps they were children - and one was buried in a seaman's chest. Many were buried inside an elongated barrel. All these wooden coffins were then covered with stones but not as many as the plain stone cairns that we've seen elsewhere.

By the time we'd looked at that lot, we were starving so headed back to Saxon Blue for lunch followed by a long planning meeting on what we're going to do for the next few weeks. We have over 1500 miles to get south to Halifax by the middle of September so we decided to get going soon and do the first 1000 or so down to Belle Isle in one go, if possible. Then we can relax a bit and explore Newfoundland before dropping Magnus off for his flight back to the UK. By the time we'd agreed on that, the fog had cleared so Magnus, Andrea and I went back ashore to go and find the European graves.

We took our cameras to make good use of the amazing Arctic sunlight and got some good pictures of the whale skull and Saxon Blue. We'd seen what we thought were the graves on the ridge about a mile outside the whaling station so we headed up there. The landscape alternated between rocks, bog and finally a gradual slope completely covered in lichen. On the top of the slope, there were the graves. Four of them surrounded by a low wall of rocks, one with an eroded wooden plaque that was unreadable now after a century of gales. The view down over the harbour was stunning in the red light. We spent a while just taking it all in before setting out for our tender. As we walked back, the mist began to return and it was completely foggy again by the time we'd raised the tender onto the davits.

It was a truly stunning day. A real reminder of why we came all this way. It's easy to get a bit fed up with the fog when it feels so cold and it's impossible to see the landscape. Then it clears away and suddenly a whole pristine world emerges. We're really going to miss the Arctic and I'll be sad to leave here in a few days. After our long trip south, it's going to be back to civilisation again. That's going to be really interesting in its own right but it's so magical here and we've had such a great time exploring it.


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