It’s late morning on a Sunday in spring and cars are parked on either side of the ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. People are standing on the tops of snow banks, waiting. Around lunchtime, their patience is rewarded as Canada’s only herd of semi-domesticated reindeer and their chief herder appear on the horizon. Murmurs of delight travel through the crowd as the reindeer get closer. Then the animals cross the road and disappear again; they’re on their way to their summer grazing area on a nearby island. It’s a moving experience, one of many on a journey through the Northwest Territories.
The N.W.T. sprawls between the Yukon and Nunavut but road access to the southern part of the territory is from British Columbia and Alberta. The landscape is marked by boreal forest in the south, to tundra north of the Arctic Circle, and the Mackenzie and Richardson mountains to the west. The Mackenzie River, North America’s second-longest river, runs through it like a spine. Great Slave Lake
is the continent’s deepest lake and Great Bear Lake is the territory’s largest lake.
The N.W.T.’s 33 communities are located in five regions: Inuvik region, Sahtu, North Slave, South Slave and Dehcho. Aboriginal people account for half the population—Dene, Métis or Inuvialuit. Although there are 11 official languages, most people speak English.
A TASTE OF THE NORTH
There are many culinary treats visitors relish in the Northwest Territories. During the warmth of long and sunny summer days, buy fresh whitefish and local produce at the Fisherman’s Wharf market in Hay River, Yellowknife’s Farmers’ Market and the Arctic Market in Inuvik. Bite into a muskox burger, enjoy fresh whitefish, pickerel and Arctic char at a restaurant in Yellowknife or Inuvik. Toss a line into one of the lakes and rivers that dot the territory’s landscape and fish for Arctic grayling or lake trout and whitefish. Or have a shore lunch that your host has prepared for you (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/fishing/fishing-day-trips
From the tangled channels of the Mackenzie Delta to the adrenaline rush of Class 5 whitewater on the Slave River, follow the watery trails that explorers and fur traders once pursued. Paddle or raft through the deep canyons of the South Nahanni River in Nahanni National Park Reserve (www.pc.gc.ca/nahanni). Travel along the Thelon River as it flows through the Barrenlands and the Thelon Game Sanctuary. Try the meandering Thomsen River in Aulavik National Park (www.pc.gc.ca/aulavik
). The Coppermine is a challenging river that offers experienced paddlers plenty of whitewater. Licenced outfitters offer multi-day packages (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/summer-adventure/canoeing-kayaking-rafting
The territory’s wildlife has a schedule all its own. But with luck and patience, perhaps you will see some. Look for nesting pelicans on rocky outcrops in the rapids near Fort Smith. Keep an eye out for free-roaming bison in Wood Buffalo National Park and the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary near Fort Providence. Dall sheep and mountain goats travel on the craggy slopes of the Mackenzie Mountains. Prehistoric-looking muskox roam around Banks Island. Black bears, moose, caribou and grizzly bears also call the N.W.T. home.
During the summer, eat locally sourced reindeer dishes and fish and chips cooked inside a converted school bus at Alestine’s and served on a terrace overlooking the Mackenzie River in Inuvik north of the Arctic Circle. Or, in summer, eat local fare at the newly renovated historic Wildcat Café in Yellowknife’s Old Town.
Travel along the edge of scenic Yellowknife Bay in a 12-person voyageur canoe, for a Floating Dinner Theatre experience in the summer with Narwal Northern Adventures. Feast on a traditional meal of soup and bannock, accompanied by lively entertainment (www.narwal.ca/tours
Old Town Paddle & Co. offers stand-up paddle boarding, another way to experience the water on local rivers and lakes near Yellowknife (www.oldtownpaddle.com
Learn about local geology and medicinal plants during interpretive hikes around Yellowknife with Strong Interpretation (www.experienceyellowknife.com
Explore Yellowknife, the territorial capital, on foot or see it from the water (www.visityellowknife.com
). The top of Bush Pilots’ Monument offers a 360-degree view of Yellowknife Bay and surrounding Old Town. The bay is home to the most northerly houseboat community in North America and local operators offer boat tours. Take a workshop at Old Town Glassworks and bring home a glass with a northern motif sandblasted on it (www.oldtownglassworks.com
Downtown, the Yellowknife Farmers’ Market is held weekly throughout the summer. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre provides a peek into northern culture (www.pwnhc.ca
). Next door, the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly offers guided and audio tours (www.assembly.gov.nt.ca/visitors
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Enjoy the territory’s wild places from the land and the water. Hike and camp in the five national parks and 34 territorial parks of the N.W.T. (www.nwtparks.ca
). Choose from front-country hikes, backcountry day hikes, and epic three-week backcountry experiences— such as the very remote, extremely rugged and challenging historic Canol Heritage Trail near Norman Wells (www.normanwellsmuseum.com/the-sathu/canol-heritage-trail
From the meandering Thomsen River, the most northerly navigable river on the continent, to world-renowned whitewater on the Slave River, there are many opportunities for guided or self-guided paddling and rafting trips along one of the N.W.T.’s historic rivers. Troll the waters of Great Bear Lake, home of trophy-sized lake trout, or fly to magical Little Doctor Lake near Fort Simpson with legendary pilot Ted Grant. Outfitters offer half-day trips to multi-day packaged lodge experiences that also afford other opportunities to encounter the pristine wilderness. Look for wildlife wherever you are, from bison to birds. See peregrine falcons, eagles and gryfalcons—the official N.W.T. bird. You’ll never know when they may appear on your journey—and theirs.
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
Attending community events, like the Midway Lake Festival, is a good way to experience local music and culture such as jigging, drumming and drum dancing. Purchase Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis crafts at visitor centres, museums and shops. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in Inuvik has a good selection of locally made moccasins, carvings, jewellery, crafts and some traditional food. The Acho Dene Craft store in Fort Liard offers a wide selection of locally made birchbark baskets. Learn to make your own crafts during artist-led workshops at Inuvik’s renowned Great Northern Arts Festival (www.gnaf.org) or at Fort Simpson’s Open Sky Festival. Visit the Norman Wells Historical Centre (www.normanwellsmuseum.com/visitor-centre
), the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre (www.nlmcc.ca) and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, to learn more about local history.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
In spring, watch some 3,000 semi-domesticated reindeer being herded across the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk ice road to their summer grazing grounds.
Climb aboard a vintage Buffalo Airways DC-3 that stars in History Television’s Ice Pilots NWT
reality show, and fly between Hay River and Yellowknife on the airline’s only scheduled route (www.buffaloairways.com
Marvel at the celestial dance of the aurora borealis (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/aurora
Taste local cuisine including muskox, reindeer, fresh whitefish, pickerel or Arctic char. Dig into “Eskimo doughnuts” or bannock. Buy some birch syrup to take home.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape during a flightseeing tour along the legendary South Nahanni River (www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/nt/nahanni/visit/visit3.aspx#air
Be one of the last people to drive the 185-km (115-mi.) winter road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk before it is replaced with an all-weather road in 2018. It is open from late December to late April and links the isolated community of Tuktoyaktuk to the Dempster Highway. Drive it yourself or travel with a local operator (www.arcticchalet.com
The iconic Dempster Highway, from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, is particularly stunning in late summer when the fall colours begin to emerge. Along the way it travels through two mountain ranges, crosses the Arctic Circle once and the Continental Divide three times (www.travelyukon.com/Plan/Itineraries/Iconic-Drives/Drive-the-Dempster
Drive into the N.W.T. along the Deh Cho Travel Connection, an 1,800-km (1,120-mi.) loop that travels through northern Alberta, southern N.W.T. and northern British Columbia as it links the Mackenzie, Liard and Alaska highways (www.dehchotravel.ca). Information on road conditions is available on-line (www.dot.gov.nt.ca/highways/highway-conditions
Pitch a tent in a territorial park and enjoy frolicking at the beach (www.nwtparks.ca
). Join in the Circus of Science’s interactive activities for kids, watch model rockets being launched, participate in practical workshops and science experiments and, once the sun sets, gaze at the stars in the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve, during the annual Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival in late August (www.tawbas.ca
PARK PICK: WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK
At 44,807 sq. km (17,300 sq. mi.), Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest national park and the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. It is home to nesting whooping cranes, which are North America’s tallest bird, and wood bison, the continent’s largest land mammal. Drive to Fort Smith, the gateway to the park. Walk barefoot on the Salt Plains and gaze over the landscape from the comfort of a pair of red chairs. Squish your toes in the clay at Grosbeak Lake as your eyes wander over the moonscape around you. Go for a swim in the aquamarine waters of Pine Lake (www.pc.gc.ca/woodbuffalo
More info on National Parks and Historic Sites: www.pc.gc.ca