7 astonishing things to do in Canada’s Arctic
The Western Arctic in Northwestern Canada is a massive sparsely populated place that evokes powerful reactions. People make their way up here just to check something off their bucket list: swim in the Arctic Ocean, sleep in an igloo, experience 24-hour daylight, drive an ice road, or drive to the end of the road, Tuktoyaktuk.
Inuvik is in Northwest Territories on the Mackenzie Delta, but Yukon Territory is just to the West, and the Arctic Ocean not far to the North. Though places are spread far apart, air access is good, and Inuvik is a proven base to explore from year-round.
Indigenous experiences take in the Gwich’in First Nations or Inuit culture in Aklavik, and some may argue that spending time learning from Indigenous peoples may be one of the most astonishing things to do in Canada’s Western Arctic, if not all of Canada. Nature experiences fill the soul and include everything from viewing northern lights to exploring natural features such the world’s second largest pingo or the Mackenzie Delta, which drains Canada’s longest river system.
Love seeing northern animals? Witness the crossing of a 3000-strong reindeer herd. Out in the Beaufort Sea, Herschel Island offers muskox and whaling history. Dawson City, Whitehorse, Yellowknife are all drivable or flyable to pick up more unique history and great northern festivals.
With Tundra North Tours, these experiences in the vast, stark beauty of Canada’s Arctic celebrate what’s different about the North and each and every experience is enriched by friendly and knowledgeable Indigenous and Inuit leaders eager to share their stories and lifestyles. Read on for 7 astonishing things to do in Canada’s Arctic.
The Great Northern Arts Festival celebrates art and culture in the North in Inuvik for 10 richly-scheduled days in July. The sun sets in early December and doesn’t rise until more than 30 days later, when the entire community of Inuvik comes out to celebrate the return of the sun at the annual Sunrise Festival in January. In April, the Inuvik Muskrat Jamboree celebrates the return of spring. For something different, harpoon throwing goes on in Tuktoyaktuk at the Beluga Jamboree. June 21st is Aboriginal Day and the Summer Solstice when Inuvik and many communities celebrate. Further afield: Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, Whitehorse; Dawson City Music Festival, Dawson City; Folk on the Rocks Festival, Yellowknife.
2. Gaze at the Northern Lights
Shocking greens, heavenly purples and soft yellows glow in shifting curtains of light move across the sky just about every clear night in the winter. The aurora borealis, or northern lights, something the North is known and revered for, can be seen during the dark months in many places in the northern hemisphere. Locals in Inuvik say they are so far north that they have to look south to see the northern lights!
Tundra North Tours builds an Aurora Igloo Village for guests to overnight in a cozy fashion (see Overnight in Arctic Style in this post.) Visitors are often awakened in the middle of the night for the show.
Or, if you’re driving the Dempster Highway at night, simply pull over. The Dempster Highway is Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8 starting out of Dawson City, Yukon and ending in Inuvik, NWT.
3. Herd a few reindeer
During winter and spring this massive 3000-strong herd of reindeer migrates through the Mackenzie Delta to its summer breeding grounds. Jump on a snowmobile and ride along with the herd as part of a multi-day package called the Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature Package. If you’re short of time, learning about this thundering herd of domestic reindeer uniquely adapted to northern climates is an option with a day trip.
4. Drive on an ice road
Ice roads are everywhere in the North. A wide blue stretch of ice road joins Inuvik and Aklavik, where one can experience Inuit culture.
In summer, some of us just like driving, whether it’s to truly experience a place, to haul your “house” with you, or for a reflective retreat. With plenty of space and few people, we guarantee miles and miles of long, but stunning, stretches for an extended road trip. The Dempster Highway, Canada’s northernmost highway, takes travelling motorists across the Arctic Circle to its end in the town of Inuvik.
If you fly into Inuvik, you can experience Canada’s “new” highway, opened in 2017, that stretches 140 kilometres from Inuvik to the dynamic Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk, situated on the wild Arctic coast.
Here, you will see pingos, rounded hills that are formed by frost pushing up from the ground. A wide swath of this part of the world holds more than 1000 of these unique landforms. Trust me, none of your friends will have heard of a pingo. Check!
5. Overnight in Arctic style
Some of us tuck into a snow bank with the aurora borealis as a night light. But, most of us prefer a roof over our heads. Just a few kilometres out of Inuvik, Tundra North Tours has Aurora Igloo Village set up for winter travellers to safely overnight with super-warm sleeping bags, caribou hides, and ambient lighting to keep everyone happy. In the summer, stays are in big canvas camp tents out on Herschel Island or in Parks Canada’s cozy floored tents in Ivvavik National Park.
6. Go sledding
What’s the best way to see expansive views of the Dempster Highway and the Mackenzie Delta? In winter, which can last from October to May, the snowmobile is a common form of transport up here, but for visitors who have never been on one, it’s an epic experience to head out to a high point and look down on the delta’s maze beyond.
Or, go old school. Instead of jumping on a snowmobile, travel the traditional way, by dog sled. Get lessons and take a tour with one of the many guides in the NWT who love their dogs and will allow you to get to know them.
7. Propel yourself
For a much quieter outing in winter, slip into snowshoes and follow marked paths or blaze trail into the snowy landscape. The groomed three-km loop that is Boot Lake Trail in Inuvik is accessible year round, ideal for biking, walking, as well as skiing and snowshoeing. The trail winds through mixed spruce and birch forest, and has a lookout with expansive views of the Mackenzie Delta and Richardson Mountains, as well as Inuvik.
Keep an eye out for fox and snowshoe hare. Listen for various birds. Boot Lake Trail is Inuvik’s contribution to The Great Trail, 24,000 kilometres of completed trail across Canada. Beyond that, hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park along the Highway or flying into Ivvavik National Park for hiking in summer is super special. Green therapy if not white therapy.
Whether you’re interested in nature, history or Indigenous culture, Canada’s authentic Arctic has it in droves. Come on up winter, spring, summer or fall!