Muskoxen on the Thomsen by Ted Johnson
One of the extraordinary features we observed on the Thomsen River was the prevalence of massive herds of Muskoxen. Some had upwards of thirty animals.
It wasn’t always so.
In September 1851 HMS Investigator, a British naval ship involved in the search for the lost Franklin expedition, took shelter in Mercy Bay (originally named by the terrified crew ‘Bay of God’s Mercy’ after a perilous night among moving pack ice), close to the mouth of the Thomsen River on the north coast of Banks Island. The temperature immediately dropped precipitously, and the Investigator was solidly frozen in.
Over the next year and a half the ice-locked and probably bored crew undertook the overland exploration of their surroundings. Returning from overland foot and sled expeditions, they reported an abundance of muskoxen on the island.
In the spring of 1853, Captain Robert McClure and his crew of sixty gave up hope of being freed from the ice. In one of the most dramatic but little-known episodes in the exploration of Canada, they were preparing to abandon ship and begin an almost certain death-march to the south and east when they were found and rescued by an officer from another Franklin Search ship wintering at Melville Island, 300 kilometres to the north-east.
The Investigator was abandoned, and probably remained ice-bound for years before she sank. (She was ‘found’ by Parks Canada in the summer of 2010 on the bottom of Mercy Bay in some ten metres of water firmly anchored where she’d been abandoned.)
Six decades later the explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson and his expedition visited the Western Arctic. Significantly, they reported that there were almost no muskoxen on Banks and Victoria Islands.
The theory is that Inuit of the region had had found the Investigator, and before she sank had ‘mined’ her for wood, copper and other metals for spears, spear tips and arrowheads. It is thought that this technological change led to the wiping out of the muskox in the area.
Corroborative evidence remains – bits of carved wood can still be found on Mahogany Point near the mouth of the Thomsen. We spotted a long, twisted piece of iron – possibly a brace from a mast, or a barrel stave – lying on a sandbar about fifty kilometres upstream from the sea.
Shortly after Stefanson reported back, the Government of Canada imposed a ban on hunting muskox on Banks and Western Victoria Island, and went to the trouble of re-seeding the area with some animals from other parts of the Arctic. The result was a veritable explosion in the population, and the consequent healthy herds we encountered some sixty years later.