"Irimungniaqtunga." ("I am going to the mountain" in Inuvialuktun)
Not long after I arrived in Ivvavik National Park, a park guide pointed out a distant mountain and mentioned that it had only been climbed once, by four park employees who had named the peak Go Big or Go Home. Telling me this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The challenge to go big was on.
I'd travelled to Ivvavik last June precisely because I wanted to go hiking where few people have hiked before. The park is one of those Northern Canadian gems that hardly anyone visits. In fact, more people stand on Everest every year than travel here. The main reason for the low visitor numbers is simple: Ivvavik is hard to get to. It sits above the Arctic Circle at the extreme northern tip of the Yukon, a long, long way from the nearest road, which means you have to fly in from the closest major community – Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. And that means you have to deal with the hassle and expense of chartering a small plane for you or your group.
Or at least, it used to mean that. Fortunately for me, and for other like-minded adventurers, Parks Canada has started making it a lot easier to visit Ivvavik by offering special four- or five-day camping trips. You can now fly in from Inuvik and out of the park for as little as $1,400 a person – cheap, by Arctic standards – and once there, you stay at a campsite located beside the park's only warden station at Sheep Creek. The park provides tents, sleeping pads and camp stoves, plus a nice deck with a screened-in area for dining. There's also electricity to recharge your camera batteries and a refrigerator to keep your food cool. It's like an Arctic version of what's come to be called "glamping" – glamorous camping.
As you'd expect, the 75-minute Twin Otter flight into the park is an adventure in itself. Leaving from Inuvik, we first toured over one of the world's genuine natural wonders – the huge expanse of the intricately patterned Mackenzie Delta. Soon after, we were flying across the park's northern section, a bare coastal plain sloping gently toward the still ice-fringed Beaufort Sea. Down below, we could see hundreds of caribou, part of the massive Porcupine herd that migrates here during the calving season. (Ivvavik means "a place for giving birth, a nursery" in Inuvialuktun.) Then the plane swung south and flew into the heart of the British Mountains – a range of treeless, rounded peaks rising up to about 1,700 metres – before descending abruptly onto a short grassy runway. A sign welcomed us to "Sheep Creek International Airport." The campsite sat just below, near the spot where the fast-flowing Sheep Creek empties into the even-faster-flowing Firth River, the park's major waterway.
There were nine others in my group – six from Inuvik (including four who were at least partly Inuvialuk), two from Vancouver (a retired couple who were visiting national parks across Canada) and one from Calgary (a university student with an intense interest in gadgets). I was the token Torontonian. We were accompanied by two park guides whose jobs were to help us appreciate our new-found surroundings and to make sure we didn't get into any serious trouble.
After getting settled, we set out on a group hike, which started with a quick crossing of Sheep Creek. (The water was, as they say, refreshing.) About two minutes later, at the junction of Sheep Creek and the Firth River, someone spotted our first grizzly. It looked huge and a few of the people from Inuvik wondered if it might be a hybrid – half grizzly and half polar bear. (In winter, the park has polar bears along its northern coast.) Fortunately, the bear was on the other side of the deep Firth River canyon, so it wasn't concerned about us and we weren't concerned about it. It strolled along one side of the canyon while we strolled along the other, watching its progress.
The next day, a few other keeners and I set out for Go Big or Go Home, equipped with bear spray, a radio and a GPS. (The latter belonged to the gadget-loving university student, and proved to be very helpful.) The 10-kilometre approach was a pleasant hike across the gradually rising alpine tundra, but we didn't reach the base of the mountain until 4 p.m. Normally, that would be too late to attempt a summit, but not when you're in the land of the midnight sun in June.
It was a tough scramble upwards on loose rocks, and we had only gone a short way before the weather turned drizzly and cold. We thought of turning back, but in the end we pushed on. (Afterward a couple of people told me that if a Torontonian was going to make it to the top, they were going to make it, too.) Sadly, the view from the mist-shrouded summit wasn't great, so we were unable to see Alaska a short distance to the west.
Once we made it back down safely, we celebrated our achievement by sharing a package of Nerds and then started the long hike to camp. We'd managed to go big, but now it was time to go home.
IF YOU GO
Ivvavik National Park
Parks Canada is offering 10 camping trips to Ivvavik in June and July. Five will be self-catered, while the others include a cook from the nearby community of Aklavik. Prices range from $1,400 a person for a four-day uncatered trip to $2,150 for a five-day catered adventure. For more information: Inuvik.email@example.com, 867-777-8800.
Getting to Inuvik
Canadian North (canadiannorth.com) is the main airline flying into Inuvik, providing daily service from Edmonton. Air North (flyairnorth.com) and First Air (firstair.ca) also offer flights to Inuvik. You can also drive to Inuvik from Dawson along the infamous Dempster – Canada's northernmost highway.
Where to stay
The town has a number of comfortable hotels, including the Inuvik Capital Suites (capitalsuites.ca), located right on Mackenzie Road, the town's main street. For those who don't mind roughing it, the Happy Valley campground sits just a short walk from the downtown, and some sites provide a view of the Mackenzie River.
What to see
The main tourist attraction in this community of 3,500 is the somewhat-historic Igloo Church, but I was more interested in seeing the Midnight Sun Mosque, which made the national news when it arrived by barge a few years ago. Also worth a visit is the town's community greenhouse (open May through September), which extends the area's short growing season. If you like to run, try the trail around Boot Lake. If you're looking for something to eat, do what many of the locals do – go to the Twisted Ladle concession in the recreation centre and order a muskox burger. I had mine with poutine – a classic Canadian combo.
The writer was a guest of Parks Canada. The agency did not review or approve the story.