Northern Exploration

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

Night after night, brilliant pink and green aurora borealis light up the sky as ptarmigan rustle through the underbrush. In the distance one night, you see a large shape that must be a polar bear. As you enter a nearby building constructed on stilts, you hear the guttural croak of a raven in the woods while two women in embroidered parkas hold a conversation in Inuktitut. Your visit to Canada’s north has begun, but will you really have an experience like this one?

All of these sights and sounds are part of life in the north, but they are only part of the story. Handmade embroidered parkas are available, but you are more likely to see people dressed in nylon ski jackets than these more expensive items. In towns like Inuvik, you will see houses built on stilts to prevent the buildings’ heat from melting the frozen ground and turning it into swampland, and the town’s above-ground utilidor pipelines are reminders of how much of a difference permafrost makes. You are likely to hear the croak of ravens quite often, but wildlife is quite scarce in many northern communities, and it is possible to live there for a long time without ever seeing a polar bear. The northern lights, the aurora borealis, are much brighter and more frequent than in the south, however, reminding visitors of how close they are to the North Pole. The towns and cities in the north may not seem much different from their counterparts in the south, but a closer look reveals characteristics that make northern Canada memorable.

Visiting the north requires planning and a large travel budget. Everything there is expensive, from the high-priced plane fare to the costly food and accommodation. Flying is often the best travel choice, although other options can be more enjoyable. Some northern destinations are accessible by car in summer, and many people prefer to travel on roads like the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories rather than flying. Train service to Churchill, Manitoba may be the best method of reaching the town, while Iqaluit’s location on Baffin Island in Nunavut makes plane travel the main means of transportation.

Choosing the best time to visit the north is important. Winters tend to be very cold, but warm jackets, boots, and gloves can help mediate the climate. Summers can be as warm as in the south, and the beauties of the seashore or the rivers in warm sunshine are among the north’s attractions. However, insects can be a problem in spring and summer. Mosquitoes and blackflies are often worse than in other parts of Canada, and travellers should remember to pack insect repellant.

Seasonal factors are especially important north of the Arctic Circle, where the midnight sun in summer and the month of darkness in winter lend a unique flavour to life. The communities in summer are alive with activities, from cultural festivals and organized excursions to casual gatherings of friends in the restaurants, but in winter, people tend to stay indoors. Even cross-country skiers wait until the weather has warmed up in March before beginning their sporting season. Winter has its benefits, however. Have you ever celebrated a sunrise by gathering on a river to set off fireworks? If you visit Inuvik in early January, you can experience the excitement as the townspeople drive their cars and trucks onto the frozen Mackenzie River and watch as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Festivals are a large part of northern life. The Sunrise Festival in Inuvik celebrates the first few minutes of real daylight after weeks of darkness, and the Muskrat Jamboree in March helps to break up the long-delayed spring with snowmobile races, ice sculpture contests, and an array of food to try. Most of the festivals, however, are in summer when the weather is warmer. The Great Northern Arts Festival held in Inuvik every July is a good chance to see soapstone carvings and to participate in drum workshops or craft lessons with artists from across the Arctic. Whitehorse celebrates the Klondike Harvest Fair in August, and the Circumpolar Banquet is another attraction for locals and tourists. Festivals are important ways to celebrate the culture and lifestyle near the Arctic Circle and to enjoy community together.

Visiting the north is different from seeing the cathedrals of Europe or touring a big city like Vancouver. Much of the sightseeing is low-key, more about getting the flavour of a place rather than rushing from one tourist venue to another. Among Inuvik’s main attractions, for instance, are the “igloo church,” built in the traditional shape of a snow house, the brightly painted row houses scattered around the town, and the Mackenzie River, Canada’s second longest river at 4241 kilometres. Yellowknife’s attractions are mainly in the architecture, the gold rush history, and the scenery, while Iqaluit is a good place to see the igloo-shaped Anglican Church or the Nunatta Sunakkuttangit Museum. Churchill’s main attractions are in the landscape and animal life; the town remains one of the most likely places to see a polar bear outside a zoo.

Visiting the north requires preparation, but a trip need not be uncomfortable. Many towns have several hotels, and the food may be expensive but it is normally good. Arctic char, caribou, and musk ox are only a few of the special foods available, and festivals are often good chances to eat other northern delicacies. With restaurants, special eating places, and comfortable hotels, visiting the north can be as relaxing as seeing any other part of the world.

Northern Canada is not a very common travel destination, but it offers good opportunities for visitors to see the rich history of exploration, a culture that combines old and new, and spectacular natural sights. Whether for a short excursion or a longer trip, the north is a special and fascinating place to visit.

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