Arctic Immersion (reindeer herding included)
By Margo Pfeiff
Thousands of reindeer are gathered on a frozen lake in the middle of the wild Northwest Territory tundra, their antlers a dark brown tangle against the blue Arctic sky and their breaths white clouds of steam. Our snowmobile cruises slowly around their perimeter as my driver and guide, Kylik Kisoun Taylor, scouts the snow for fresh wolf and grizzly tracks. When we come across a cluster of 100 or so reindeer grazing among low bushes, Kisoun Taylor swings around behind them, gently sending them trotting toward the main herd. “They’re more vulnerable when they’re split up,” he shouts over the engine, “and the lake is safer because predators are easier to spot.”
I hop off the snowmobile and walk slowly toward the herd. Gently clicking hooves, soft grunting and a muffled crunching of snow is all I can hear. Butterflies in my stomach, I stop 25 metres away and watch them. They watch me back.
“My first time I was overwhelmed,” Kisoun Taylor had told me. “I just sat down.” One curious calf approached. Kisoun Taylor petted him while another curled up alongside him. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and I’m a Northerner,” he says. “I knew I had to share my culture and land with the world because it would blow people’s minds and only we can tell our own story authentically.”
Sharing transformational experiences, such as wrangling reindeer, building your own igloo then sleeping in it, and smashing stereotypes by personally getting to know the North’s locals, is Kisoun Taylor’s passion and the reason behind his indigenous company, Tundra North Tours.
In March, I headed to Inuvik for the company’s Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature Package, a whirlwind four-day Northern immersion. Five of us are met at the airport by 33-year-old Kisoun Taylor. One-quarter Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit), one-quarter Gwich’in (a northwestern First Nation) and one-half Ontarian of European descent, he is a tall, dynamic presence, handsomely clad in a traditional ring-seal parka and wolf-fur gloves made by his mother.
Within an hour we’re whizzing in a van along the northern arm of the Mackenzie River past the surreal sight of barges, tugs and a Coast Guard vessel frozen in place until spring. After travelling 117 kilometres of ice road – groomed and graded with a posted speed limit of 70 km per hour – we arrive in Aklavik (population 800). We visit Kisoun Taylor’s friend, traditional artist Annie C. Gordon, for a much-needed cup of tea and warm homemade biscuits with jam. We chat about her life in a remote community with only winter road access, and check out her homemade mitts, parkas and exquisitely beaded mukluks.
She tells us about her husband, Danny C. Gordon, who’s working his trapline that day, and shows off the snow goggles and caribou-handled knives he’s made and the women’s curved ulus, which are used for food preparation and cleaning animal pelts.
At sunset we trek from the road to our base camp on a frozen lake 16 km outside Inuvik, a cluster of tepees and igloos Kisoun Taylor calls Aurora Igloo Village. We hear our cook, retired teacher Judy Francey, before we even meet her, belting out an Inuvialuit gospel song while skinning a rabbit for dinner in the wood-stove-heated trapper’s tent that is our communal kitchen and living room.
Afterward, I scramble into my shared igloo, candlelit and cozy, and slide into a warm sleeping bag atop a snow bed with reindeer pelts and a heated mattress pad that makes this iconic Arctic experience luxurious. When Kisoun Taylor wakes me after midnight I scurry outside to watch the sky swirl with shimmering sheets of green and yellow Northern Lights until my fingers go numb.
In the morning he’s cutting blocks of packed snow to build another igloo and we all join in, lining up blocks on an angle like a snail’s shell to make it strong. Kisoun Taylor had to teach himself igloo building since locals had lost the skill half a century ago. Now he’s passing his traditional knowledge back, even to elders, with the hope of creating a way for fellow Northerners to learn, practise and make a living from their culture through tourism.
By afternoon we’ve mastered the essential Northern skill of operating a snowmobile and follow Kisoun Taylor across snowy lakes and winding through low alpine forests to check out a traditional trapline. In the evening we settle onto reindeer pelts inside an illuminated ice igloo for an Arctic smorgasbord of reindeer, moose and beluga jerky, muktaq – whale blubber – smoked whitefish, dried char as well as char sashimi, raw and frozen, called quak.
On our last day we travel by van and snowmobile to track down the highlight of our trip – Canada’s only free-range herd of reindeer. Originally imported by the Canadian government from northern Russia via Alaska in the 1930s as a potential food source for Inuit, it is now privately owned. We meet Tony Lalong, a pro reindeer wrangler who spends his days keeping the herd together and protected from predators. In spring he shepherds them 60 km to their calving grounds. Though virtually identical to indigenous, wild protected caribou, reindeer are docile and can be trained to pull sleds, as they are by the northern Scandinavian Sami people.
By late afternoon we’re heading north on the new $300-million, year-round, 138-km road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean, which opened in late 2017. The Inuvialuit hamlet of 900 is surrounded by the world’s biggest concentration of pingos, conical tundra frost heaves with ice cores rising like mini-pyramids from the flat tundra.
Before crashing at a B&B we have a traditional Inuvialuit dinner in the home of Maureen Pokiak, a Saskatchewan teacher who came north for a year in the 1970s and never left after marrying a traditional hunter and trapper. Our multicourse meal is a leisurely and spirited discussion about the quirks of Northern life and it finishes – most appropriately on this day – with a big bowl of Maureen’s delicious reindeer soup.
How to get there
Where to stay
Tundra North Tours’ four-day Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature adventure can be booked mid-February to early April. The package includes all meals, hotel, B&B and igloo accommodation and on-tour transportation. From $5,200 per person.
What to bring
In early spring, temperatures are still well below freezing. Bring warm layers, long underwear and windproof gear. Tundra North can also supply heavy winter boots, parkas and snowmobile/ski pants on arrival.
Post and images by Montreal-based writer Margo Pfeiff, whose award-winning work has appeared in enRoute, explore, Canadian Geographic, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and many more.