The austere beauty of the Arctic Ocean has called to seafaring explorers for centuries, but since the opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in 2017, Canada’s only all-season road to the Arctic Ocean is now open year-round to anyone with a vehicle.
Modern-day explorers have more access than ever to the Northwest Territories’ Western Arctic Region, and it’s well worth the trip. The land is roamed by muskoxen, moose and bear, and the waters teem with enormous fish. It’s where December days are dark enough to see the noon moon, June sees 24-hour daylight, and traditional cultures persist, unchanged for hundreds of years.
“For me, it’s the vast, pristine, pure, peaceful, serene nature of the North,” said Minerva Ward, Regional Tourism Development Officer for the Government of the Northwest Territories, who’s based in Inuvik.
“There’s a certain magic about that.”
There are flights to Inuvik from Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Edmonton, but those who come overland along the Dempster Highway experience a unique adventure. The Dempster traverses rolling hills, flat plains and wide vistas, and skirts the watershed of the Mackenzie River, Canada’s longest river delta, leading travellers 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle.
The 740-km trip from Dawson, Yukon, to Inuvik can be managed as a comfortable two-day drive in an RV, truck, car – or even by motorcycle - with an overnight stop at Eagle Plains, Yukon. Although it’s wise to pack spare tires, repair equipment and perhaps an extra jerry can of fuel, the route is well travelled, and assistance is readily offered by fellow travellers.
“There’s a sense of community for people driving the highway, so people look out for one another,” said Ms. Ward.
The first settlement past Eagle Plains is Fort McPherson, the largest Gwich’in community in the Northwest Territories. A Hudson Bay Company trading post opened there in 1858, and the Fort McPherson Tent and Canvas workshop still offers durable canvas products for travellers, along with traditional crafts.
Next is the Gwich'in community of Tsiigehtchic, at the ferry crossing where the Arctic Red and mighty Mackenzie rivers join.
Inuvik celebrates the return of the sun after a month of darkness each year with the legendary Sunrise Festival and its bonfires, fireworks, igloos and drum dancing. With plenty of hotels and other amenities, the city also welcomes the world to April’s Muskrat Jamboree and July’s Great Northern Arts Festival.
Among the local icons is Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, nicknamed the Igloo Church for its unique design. In summer, the Inuvik Community Greenhouse gardens flourish under the 24-hour sunlight.
Inuvik also offers opportunities for every type of winter activity, including the only lighted cross-country ski trails above the Arctic Circle, dog mushing, ice fishing and snowmobiling.
Today, travellers continue from Inuvik via the new “Tuk Highway" to the Inuvialuit hub of Tuktoyaktuk, home to fewer than 1,000 people.
“It’s the only public highway to the Arctic Ocean in North America; it now connects Canada from sea to sea to sea,” said Ms. Ward, adding visitors can expect to encounter “a fairly isolated, untouched Aboriginal community whose way of life is a mix of modern comforts and Aboriginal traditions.”
Approaching Tuktoyaktuk, drivers will be able to see Pingos, strikingly incongruous frozen hills made of soil-covered ice rising high above the surrounding landscape, which were created by the sediment of drained lakes.
Originally a base for traditional caribou and beluga hunting, later a Hudson Bay trading post and a centre for Beaufort Sea oil and gas exploration, Tuktoyaktuk may have one foot in the 21st century, but it still offers an authentic taste of ancestral cultural practices, including traditional foods like muktuk, made from whale meat and blubber.
In this community, where people still practice traditional harvesting of whales, caribou and wild geese, local guides can arrange snowmobile and dogsled excursions, or even hunting trips. In town, a 50-year-old ice house, dug 30 feet down into the permafrost, still serves as a community freezer.
From Inuvik, smaller and more remote Indigenous communities are accessible by air, water or winter ice roads.
The tiny Inuvialuit community of Sachs Harbour, 319 kilometres northeast of Inuvik, is a wildlife-spotter’s mecca, where traditional crafts are made and sold from qiviut, the wool of the abundant local muskoxen.
Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island is the site of the world’s most northerly golf tournament. Residents of Aklavik, near the western foothills of the Richardson Mountains and Paulatuk, near the western mouth of the Northwest Passage, preserve ancient practices of hunting, trapping and fishing.
As the Tuk Highway grows busier and Tuktoyaktuk begins to welcome the world, the region may evolve, but for now, it’s an open road to a place that few eyes have ever seen.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.