10 Facts About Baffin Island

Rocks at the edge of the sea with a low cloud and turquoise blue waters in front

Baffin Island sits just above Canada’s great Hudson Bay, off the coast of the mainland of its territory, Nunavut, and also the coast of northern Quebec.

The Island also sits just 335 km (208 miles) across the Davis Strait from Greenland, giving you an idea of how far north it is.

Much of the Island is longitudinally more northern than Iceland and makes up part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, a group of 36,563 northern Canadian Islands that almost reach the centre of the Arctic Circle.

Baffin Island is a rugged place with awe-inspiring, and often record-breaking, sights for those who dare to venture out from the cities. With a deep history of local Inuit culture, and residents who will welcome you into their harsh climate with warm hospitality, a trip to Baffin Island is one you will never forget.

Here are 10 facts about Baffin Island.


1. Baffin Island is Canada’s Largest Island 

Baffin Island is the largest island in Canada, and with two very large islands flanking the country (Newfoundland and Vancouver Island) that is saying something.

In fact, Baffin Island is the fifth-largest island in all of the world.

It is larger than Spain, more than twice as big as the UK, and on top of that, its territory, Nunavut, would be the 15th largest country in the world overall.

Though as far as population goes, the Island is more in line with the small island nations of the south pacific at 13,150 (2016) inhabitants.


2. Baffin Island is Home to Nunavut’s Capital city Iqaluit, and 2 others. 

Visitors to the Nunavut territory (Canada’s newest territory, formed in 1999 as part of aboriginal land claim agreements) will find themselves arriving on Baffin Island.

The island is home to the territory’s capital city, Iqaluit, as well as a smaller hamlet called Pangnirtung and other much smaller communities of local Inuit peoples.

Baffin Island is also home to any winter lover’s paradise, the Auyuittuq National Park. Iqaluit is the main jumping-off point for those looking to explore the rest of the Island and there are great eateries, shops, and local artistry, as well as other things to see and do in the city, including a trendy brewery called Nu Brew.


3. There Are Only Two Places You Can Fly from to Visit Baffin Island

Unless you are travelling in the remote corners of Canada, specifically northern Quebec, your two options for flights to Iqaluit are from Canada’s capital, Ottawa, or the neighbouring city of Montreal.

There are no ferries to the island, either from neighbouring Quebec or from Greenland however, some Arctic cruises do offer stops in Iqaluit and other parts of Nunavut.

A bright yellow airport terminal of Iqaluit Airport
The brightly coloured airport terminal at Iqaluit

Once there, you likely won’t need a rental car as Iqaluit is small enough to walk around, and is not connected to anywhere else via road, and there are taxis available in the city. Canadian North Airlines offer direct flights to the Baffin region while First Air and their partners service all regions of Baffin Island.


4. Iqaluit’s First High School Served One-Seventh of all of Nunavut When Opened

Since the end of World War II there was much industrial activity in and around Baffin Island – Canadian and foreign military activities included.

With these projects and operations came many people to the city of Iqaluit and from there many services such as medical, food, and social services.

After a successful government incentive for Inuit peoples to move and stay on the Island, the first high school was opened in Iqaluit and served one-seventh of the entire Nunavut territory (remember the territory is larger than Spain!)

Since it opened in the 1970s the large school building has been used for many events including a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 2002.   


5. Baffin Island has Been Inhabited for Over 3000 Years

A hill covered in ice and snow, going at a steep angle from right to left. Three Caribou are in the middle of the frame heading towards the rising sun which is in the top left of the picture.

Around the time of the building of Egypt’s great pyramids, 7,500 kilometres away, early settlers on Baffin Island were discovering and learning how to survive in an environment so harsh that no foreigner has succeeded in colonizing it since.

For thousands of years, the local people have survived on fishing and game meats, such as caribou – still popular today, to nourish themselves and stay warm in one of the world’s most extreme climates.

The most popular and plentiful fishing area was in the enormous inlet now known as Frobisher Bay, the peak of which was known to the local people as Iqaluit, meaning “place of many fish”.


6. Most Place Names on Baffin Island Are in Inuit Languages

The Inuit people of Baffin Island have been there for thousands of years and have successfully lived off the land from the beginning, hunting caribou and other lands animals and fishing at sea.

Inuit peoples still make up over 70% of the local population on the island and their truly fascinating history and culture are celebrated with annual festivals and events, as well as regular art showcases, including their world-renowned soapstone carvings, films, books, and other media.

The main Inuit language used on the Island, Inuktitut (which the below place names are in), as with many dialects even has different accents as you move from the north to the south of the island. 

Here are some examples of place names on Baffin Island and their translation:

  • Iqaluit (capital city) – “place of many fish”
  • Pangnirtung (hamlet) – “place of the bull caribou”
  • Auyuittuq (national park) – “the land that never melts”
  • Katannilik (territorial park) – “place of waterfalls”
  • Sirmilik (national park) – “place of glaciers”
  • Qikiqtaaluk (the Inuit name for Baffin Island) – roughly meaning “big island”

7. Baffin Island is Believed to be the Birth of the Last Ice Age

An ice field with a mountain in the distance

Surrounded by deep fjords and glacial valleys in Auyuittuq National Park is the Penny Ice Cap which is a remaining piece of, and as some would believe, the birthplace of the last ice age.

Covering 6000 square kilometres today the Penny Ice Cap has been receding in recent decades which has produced (or unfrozen) mosses and small plants that haven’t been seen on earth since the Middle Ages when global temperatures were around what they are today.

This certainly makes it a key part, and perhaps the cause, of the “Little Ice Age” from roughly 1300 to 1850.

As far as the actual last ice age, millions of years ago, Baffin Island would have contributed hugely to the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered likely all of Canada and the northeastern United States however, there is much dispute about the birthplace. 


8. Baffin Island is and Was the Starting Point of the Great Northwest Passage

From the late 15th century, European explorers and navigators have tried to successfully pass through a northern waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean via the Canadian north and the Arctic famously named the Northwest Passage.

An old wooden boat sitting in front of an Iceberg

However, the famed passageway was not fully traversed by sea until 1906 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (famous for beating Robert Scott to the South Pole) reached the Pacific coast of Alaska. You can now take an iceberg and wildlife watching cruise through these historic waters from Iqaluit, Toronto, or Greenland. 

Among the many that attempted the passage were Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) founder of Quebec, Henry Hudson (1565 – 1611) the namesake of Canada’s great Hudson Bay, and another English Navigator, William Baffin (1585 – 1622) for whom the Island was named.  


9. The Island’s Highest Peak is Named for the Norse God, Odin

Norse explorers reached Baffin Island around the 11th century and their presence is felt in the name of the Island’s highest peak, Odin.

Standing at 2,147m (7,044 ft.) it is pretty modest by Canadian standards though is 7th overall when it comes to Canada’s isolated summits.

In the same national park as Odin, you will find the world’s highest vertical cliff of aptly named, Mount Thor.

Baffin Island also boasts one of the world’s largest Fjords, the Admiralty Inlet, and two of Canada’s largest national parks, Sirmilik and Auyuittuq, both slightly larger than El Salvador or Israel.


10. Baffin Island is likely the “Helluland” of the Viking Sagas

As the great Icelandic Viking, Leif Erikson (c. 970 – 1020) courageously crossed the unruly northern Atlantic in search of new lands, it was the third land he encountered that they named Helluland, meaning “Stone-slab Land”.

A Viking warrior with sword standing in front of a wooden Viking longboat

It was noted in The Saga of The Greenlanders in the 14th century as: “[having] no grass, but large glaciers covered the highlands, and the land was like a single flat slab of rock from the glaciers to the sea. This land seemed…of little use.]

As with all of the “Skræling” (people) they encountered in the Sagas, the adventurers likely met the Thule people, ancestors of all modern Inuit people.

Helluland is also mentioned in “The Saga of Erik the Red”, “The Saga of Halfdan Eysteinsson”, and in other earlier works.

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