The Snowy, Barren Arctic Actually Contains a Sophisticated Network of Inuit Trails

Compiled from accounts over the past 200 years, a new atlas documents a network of trails stretching across the Arctic

Inuit Trail
Jerry Kobalenko/All Canada Photos/Corbis

Back before 19th century explorers came to the Arctic with their fancy equipment, Inuit trails crossed the treacherous landscape. These trails connected communities—by boat, by foot, by sled—with each other and with the resources they needed to survive. Now, researchers have put together a database of trails from all over the Arctic, pulling together historical notes and maps from the 19th and 20th centuries into an atlas

Pan Inuit Trails explains:

This Atlas focuses on historical written evidence of Inuit presence in most of the Canadian Arctic. It contains a selection of material obtained from hundreds of published and unpublished documents produced by explorers, ethnographers and other visitors who were in contact with Inuit during the early contact period or shortly before Inuit moved to permanent settlements. A very significant proportion of those trails and place names are still used today.

The resulting trails look a bit like pink silly-string sprayed onto the Arctic, but they're hugely important. In the past, they kept people alive. "Where migration routes are involved, being at the right place on the right day could be critical for hunting and survival," the atlas points out. Today, they also provide a record showing how people have long settled in this area.

The researchers have included not only the trails, but geographic features and place names, and even images of the maps that they pulled the information from. Still, the atlas isn’t intended to be used for navigation. Instead, the database is meant to show how the Inuit people remained connected from Greenland to Alaska, in some of the harshest conditions on earth. Its creators note that the original maps that they used to build the atlas weren’t always to scale. So, don’t head up to Canada and try to follow the paths.

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