Although much of Canada still has the flavour of the “last frontier”, it’s only when you set off north to the Yukon, Northwest Territories or to Nunavut that you know for certain you’ve left mainstream North American life behind. In the popular imagination, the North figures as a perpetually frozen wasteland blasted by ferocious gloomy winters, inhabited – if at all – by hardened characters living outside the bounds of civilization. In truth, it’s a region where months of summer sunshine offer almost limitless opportunities for outdoor activities and an incredible profusion of flora and fauna; a country within a country, the character of whose settlements has often been forged by the mingling of white settlers and Aboriginal peoples. The indigenous hunters of the North are as varied as in the South, but two groups predominate: the Dene, people of the northern forests who traditionally occupied the Mackenzie River region from the Alberta border to the river’s delta at the Beaufort Sea; and the Inuit (literally “the people”) of Nunavut.
The North is as much a state of mind as a place. People “north of 60” – the 60th Parallel – claim the right to be called Northerners, and maintain a kinship with Alaskans, but those north of the Arctic Circle – the 66th Parallel – look with light-hearted disdain on these “Southerners”. All mock the inhabitants of the northernmost corners of Alberta and such areas of the so-called Northwest, who, after all, live with the luxury of being able to get around their backcountry by road. Yet to any outsider – in terms of landscape and overall spirit – the North begins well south of the 60th Parallel. Accordingly, this chapter includes not just the territories of the “true North” – Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut – but also northern British Columbia and Alberta, regions of both provinces that are considerably starker and more remote than areas further south.
The two roads into the Yukon strike through northern British Columbia: the Alaska Highway heads up from the eastern side of the province, connecting Dawson Creek to Fairbanks in Alaska, and to the west is the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, from near Prince Rupertthrough to Watson Lake, on the Yukon border. Though the Stewart-Cassiar’s passage through the Coast Mountains offers perhaps the better landscapes, it’s the Alaska Hwy – serviced by daily Greyhound buses and plentiful motels and campsites – that is more travelled. While the scenery is superb, most towns on both roads are battered and perfunctory places built around lumber mills, oil and gas plants and mining camps, though increasingly they are spawning motels and restaurants to serve the surge of summer visitors out to capture the thrill of driving the frontier highways. Equally popular are the sea journeys offered along northern BC’s coast, among the most breathtaking trips in Canada. Prince Rupert, linked by ferry to Vancouver Island, is the springboard for boats to the magnificent Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) and a vital way-station for boats plying the Inside Passage up to Alaska.
The Stewart-Cassiar and Alaska highways converge at Watson Lake, marking the entrance to the Yukon Territory. This exhilarating and varied region is truly bear country: 34,000 people live in the Yukon alongside ten thousand black bears and seven thousand grizzlies. It boasts the highest mountains in Canada, wild sweeps of boreal forest and tundra, and the fascinating nineteenth-century relic of Dawson City. The focus of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson City was also the territory’s capital until 1952 when that role shifted south to Whitehorse, a city doing well on tourism, federal jobs and the exploitation of the Yukon’s vast mineral resources. From here, the Klondike Highway strikes north to link Whitehorse with Dawson City. North of Dawson the Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle, offering a direct approach to several remote communities in the Northwest Territories. The Yukon’s other major road is the short spur linking the Alaskan port of Skagway to Whitehorse, which shadows the Chilkoot Trail, a popular long-distance footpath. If you’re planning a wilderness trip in the Yukon, pick up a copy of Into the Yukon Wilderness at any tourist office or download a copy at w env.gov.yk.ca.
Combining coastal ferries with the Chilkoot Trail makes an especially fine itinerary. Following the old gold-rush trail, the route begins at Skagway – reached by ferry from Prince Rupert – then follows the Chilkoot to Whitehorse, before heading north to Dawson City. From there you could continue up the Dempster Highway, or travel on the equally majestic Top of the World Highway into the heart of Alaska. Alternatively, many people coming up from Skagway or plying the mainland routes from BC head to Alaska directly on the Alaska Hwy to enjoy views of the extraordinary and largely inaccessible mountain vastness of Kluane National Park, which contains Canada’s highest peaks and most extensive glacial wilderness.
If the Yukon is the far North at its most accessible, the Northwest Territories (NWT) is the region at its most uncompromising. Just three roads nibble at the edges of this almost unimaginably vast area, which occupies a third of Canada’s landmass – about the size of India – but contains only forty-one thousand people, almost half of whom live in or around Yellowknife, the territories’ colourful capital. Unless you’re taking the adventurous and rewarding Dempster Highway from Dawson City across the tundra to Inuvik, Yellowknife will probably feature on any trip to the NWT, as it’s the hub of the (expensive given the remoteness of the region) flight network servicing the area’s widely dispersed communities.
Otherwise, most visitors come to the NWT to fish, canoe, hunt, hike, watch wildlife or to experience Aboriginal cultures and ethereal landscapes. After years of negotiations, the Inuit of the eastern NWT finally realized their dream of administering their land with the creation of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This effectively split the former NWT into two distinct regions with the eastern half being renamed Nunavut (literally “Our Land”). Nunavut and the “old” western NWT issue their own tourist material; pick up, or download, a copy of their respective Explore Nunavut and the Spectacular NWT Explorers’ Guide brochures, which summarize accommodation options, airline connections, many of the available tours – costing anything from $50 to $5000-plus – and the plethora of outfitters who provide the equipment and backup essential for any but the most superficial trip to the region.
The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, is a beautiful and ethereal display in the upper atmosphere that can be seen over large areas of northern Canada. The night sky appears to shimmer with dancing curtains of colour, ranging from luminescent monotones – most commonly green or a dark red – to fantastic veils running the full spectrum. The display becomes more animated as it proceeds, twisting and turning in patterns called “rayed bands”. As a finale, a corona sometimes appears, in which rays seem to flare in all directions from a central point.
The aurora was long thought to be produced by sunlight reflected from polar snow and ice, or refracted light produced in the manner of a rainbow. Certain Inuit believed the lights were the spirits of animals or ancestors; others thought they represented wicked forces. Old-time gold prospectors thought they might be vapours given off by ore deposits. Research still continues into the phenomenon, and while the earth’s geomagnetic field certainly plays some part in the creation of the aurora, its source would appear to lie with the sun – auroras become more distinct and are seen spread over a larger area two days after intense solar activity, the time it takes the “solar wind” to reach the Earth. This wind is composed of fast-moving electrically charged ions. When these hit the Earth’s atmosphere they respond to the Earth’s magnetic field and move towards the poles. En route, they strike atoms and molecules of gas in the upper atmosphere, causing them to become temporarily charged or ionized. These molecules then release the charge, or energy, usually in the form of light. Different colours are emitted depending on the gases involved: oxygen produces green hues (or orange at higher altitudes), nitrogen occasionally violet colours.
You should be able to see the Northern Lights as far south as Prince George in BC, over parts of northern Alberta (where on average they’re visible some 160 nights a year) and over much of the NWT, the Yukon, Nunavut and northern Manitoba. (Check with the local tourist centres for information on viewing tours.) They are at their most dazzling from December to March, when nights are longest and the sky darkest, though they are potentially visible year-round. Look out for a faint glow on the northeastern horizon after dusk, and then – if you’re lucky – for the full show as the night deepens.
Begun in 1959 to service northern oilfields, and completed over twenty years later – by which time all the accessible oil had been siphoned off – the 741km Dempster Highway between Dawson City and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories is the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle. This route offers a tremendous journey through a superb and ever-changing spectrum of landscapes – mountains, open tundra, rivers, bogs, with thousands of wandering caribou and millions of migrating birds. In June the landscape bursts into colour as scores of tiny arctic plants suddenly bloom en masse, while in late August the tundra is ablaze in the most intense hues of red, yellow and orange imaginable. It’s also hard to resist the temptation of crossing into the Arctic 445km north of Dawson City, a section that takes you over the most captivating stretch of highway. Yet the highway is a hard-packed gravel road and the journey to Inuvik (12–15hr) is not a breeze; the road is generally in good condition, but often very slippery when raining, so drive the speed limit and give plenty of room to oncoming traffic. Keep in mind this road is very much about the journey rather than the destination.
The highway is open year-round except for brief periods during the November freeze and April thaw.
The vast distances involved in seeing Canada’s North can make driving difficult, tiring and expensive – although this really is the best way to see the region. However, many travellers will choose to fly to and between different northern destinations and use those as a base to explore from. Indeed, some places, the NWTs’ fly-in communities and almost all of Nunavut will require flying to visit. We’ve listed below the major carriers that service the North, where they fly to and which larger, more southerly cities they can be reached from; smaller operators’ and charter airlines’ contact details are listed in the relevant account.
One option worth considering is the Yukon Advantage Traveller Airpass, offered by Air North, which allows you ten segments to fly to or from seven destinations with Whitehorse as a hub (so all flights must begin or pass through that city). The pass covers up to two persons, and all segments must be flown within one year. It’s also pretty flexible, with reservations possible up to one hour before flight and features low change/cancel fees. The cost is $3150, plus tax.
Air Canada and subsidiary Air Canada Jazzt 1 888 247 2262, w aircanada.com. Prince George, Prince Rupert, Smithers, Haida Gwaii, Whitehorse and Yellowknife; flights can originate in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary or Ottawa.
Air Northt 867 668 2228, t 1 800 661 0407, w flyairnorth.com. Whitehorse, Inuvik, Old Crow, Dawson City, Fairbanks (Alaska); flights can originate from Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary.
Calm Airt 1 800 839 2256, wcalmair.com. Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake, Coral Harbour and other Nunavut communities; flights can originate from Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba.
Canadian Northt 1 800 661 1505, w canadiannorth.com. Yellowknife, Norman Wells, Inuvik, Iqaluit; flights can originate in Edmonton or Ottawa.
Condort 1 866 960 7915, w condor.com. Summer charters from Frankfurt, Germany, to Whitehorse, Prince George or Yellowknife.
First Airt 1 800 267 1247, w firstair.ca. Fort Simpson, Hay River, Yellowknife, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit and several other Nunavut communities; flights can originate from Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montréal.
WestJett 1 888 937 8538, w westjet.com. Prince George, Yellowknife and Whitehorse (May to Oct); flights originate from Vancouver and Edmonton.
Arranged in a gentle arc some 150km off the Prince Rupert coast, Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) consists of a triangular-shaped archipelago of two major islands – Graham and Moresby – and two hundred islets that make an enticing diversion from the heavily travelled sea route up through BC’s coast.
The islands are something of a cult destination among travellers and environmentalists – partly for their scenery, flora and fauna, and almost legendary remoteness from the mainstream – but also because they’ve achieved a high profile in the disagreement between the forestry industry and ecology activists. At the forefront of the disagreement were the Haida, who have made the islands their home for over ten thousand years. After years of negotiations the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was created, which protects large tracts of land, incredible biodiversity, traditional villages and numerous archeological sites. The Haida culture, and in particular the chance to visit their many deserted villages, forms an increasing part of the islands’ attraction, but many also come here to sample the immensely rich flora and fauna, the profusion of which has earned the islands the title of the “Canadian Galapagos”.
Some areas of Haida Gwaii were one of only two tracts in western Canada to escape the last Ice Age, which elsewhere altered evolutionary progress; this has resulted in the survival of many so-called endemics, which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Species unique to the islands include a fine yellow daisy, the world’s largest subspecies of black bear, a subspecies of pine marten, deer mouse, hairy woodpecker, saw-whet owl and Stellar’s jay. There are also more eagles here than anywhere else in the region, as well as the world’s largest population of Peale’s peregrine falcons and the elusive black-footed albatross – whose wingspan exceeds that of the largest eagle. There’s also a good chance of spotting several species of whale, otter, sea lion and other aquatic mammals, schools of fish and a host of colourful marine invertebrates.
The Haida are widely considered to have the most highly developed culture and art tradition of BC’s First Nations. Extending from Haida Gwaii to southern Alaska, their lands included major stands of red cedar, the raw material for their huge dugout canoes, their traditional intricate carvings and their homes. Haida trade links were built on the reputation of their skill; to own a Haida canoe was a major status symbol. The Haida were feared warriors, paddling into rival villages and returning with canoes laden with goods and slaves. Their skill on the open sea made them the “Vikings” of North America.
The Haida divided themselves into one of two main groups, or moiety, the Eagles and the Ravens, which were further divided into kin groups named after their original village location. Marriage within each moiety was considered incestuous, so Eagles would always seek Raven mates and vice versa. Descent was matrilineal, which meant a chief could not pass his property on to his sons because they would belong to a different group – so instead his inheritance passed to his sister’s sons.
Haida villages were an impressive sight, their vast cedar-plank houses dominated by fifteen-metre totem poles displaying the kin group’s unique animal crest or other mythical creatures, all carved in elegant, fluid lines. Entrance to each house was through the gaping mouth of a massive carved figure; inside, supporting posts were carved into the forms of the crest animals. Equal elaboration attended the many Haida ceremonies, one of the most important being the memorial potlatch, which served to mark the end of mourning for a dead chief and the validation of the heir’s right to succession. The dead individual was laid out at the top of a carved pole in front of his house, past which visiting chiefs would walk wearing robes of finely woven and patterned mountain-goat wool and immense headdresses fringed with long sea-lion whiskers and ermine skins.
After European contact the Haida population was devastated by smallpox and other epidemics. In 1787, there were approximately ten thousand Haida scattered across the archipelago; by 1915, the population totalled just 588. They were then forced to leave many of their traditional villages, where homes and totems fell into disrepair and artefacts were appropriated by collectors. SGang Gwaay, a remote village at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, remained relatively untouched.
Several Haida artists are highly regarded in the North American art world; Robert Davidson and the late Bill Reid and Freda Diesing are among the best-known figures, and scores of others produce a mass of carvings and jewellery for the tourist market. The Haida also play a powerful role in the islands’ social, political and cultural life, having been vocal in the formation of sites such as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Heritage Site and Duu Guusd Tribal Park.
Most people approach Dawson City on the Klondike Hwy from Whitehorse, a wonderful, lonely, 536km paved road running through almost utter wilderness. The highway loosely follows the original winter overland route to the goldfields first used in 1902; it took five days to complete the chilly journey in horse-drawn stages, with the trip costing an extortionate $125 per person (passengers were also expected to carry enough overproof rum to keep the drivers sufficiently lubricated). Today, the drive takes little more than six hours, but you could easily stretch that out by allowing for frequent stops and a detour along the Silver Trail to explore the historic silver-mining towns of Mayo and Keno.
To make the 725km journey west from Prince George to Prince Rupert, you can travel either Hwy-16 (the Yellowhead Highway) or the parallel VIA Rail line; neither is terribly scenic by BC standards until you reach the glorious river and mountain landscapes of the Skeena Valley 150km before Prince Rupert. Most people make this trip as a link in a much longer journey, either connecting to ferries north to Alaska or south to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, or to start the Stewart-Cassiar Highway en route to meet the Alaska Highway at Watson Lake over the Yukon border. The best place to pause during the journey is near Hazelton, approximately 450km from Prince George, where you can visit a little cluster of First Nations villages.
The Skeena River carves a beautiful valley through the Coast Mountains, an important trade route for Aboriginal peoples and stern-wheelers before the coming of the railway in 1912. For a couple of hours the road and railway run past an imposing backdrop of snow-capped peaks half-reflected in the estuary. Out on the water you might see seals, or bald eagles perched on the river’s immense logjams. Dark valleys peel off the main river’s majestic course and delicate threads of waterfalls are repeatedly visible though the trees.
Shortly after Hwy-16 meets the river crashing down from the north near Hazelton and New Hazelton, a couple of minor roads strike off to four nearby villages, where something of the culture of the indigenous Gitxsan peoples, consummate artists and carvers, has been preserved.
The 733km stretch of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (Hwy-37) – from the Skeena Valley east of Prince Rupert to Watson Lake just inside the Yukon – is one of the wildest and most beautiful of any road in BC. Though less famous than the Alaska Hwy, the road provides a shorter route from Prince George to the Yukon, and is increasingly travelled by those in search of adventure. Some stretches are still gravel and the petrol and repair facilities, let alone food and lodgings, are extremely patchy: don’t contemplate the journey unless your vehicle’s in top condition, with two spare tyres and spare fuel containers.
The highway has two main side roads worth exploring. The first goes to Stewart, with its exceptional sea and mountain scenery, where you can branch off and cross into Alaska at Hyder. The second goes to Telegraph Creek, a tiny riverside town reminiscent of the early 1900s. There are two additional rough roads midway up that lead to the wilderness of Mount Edziza Provincial Park and the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park.
In summer Stewart is added to the itinerary of certain sailings of the Alaska Marine Hwy ferry service – albeit infrequently – so with careful planning you could travel overland to Stewart, or ride a boat to Ketchikan and then to either Skagway or Prince Rupert.
Surrounded by endless expanses of northern lakes, forests and great wilderness, the NWT’s capital city YELLOWKNIFE is named after the copper knives of the First Nations Slavey people. Today, this city of 22,000 attracts adventure seekers who come to experience the city’s legendary hospitality, its Northern Lights, an array of cultural events and a mind-boggling selection of canoe routes and fishing spots. Despite its large-city size, Yellowknife has managed to keep its frontier town atmosphere.
The city’s high-rise core of offices and government buildings exists to administer the NWT and support its population in a region whose resources – despite the discovery of diamonds to the north in 1991 – should by all rights support only a small town. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company closed its trading post here as early as 1823 on the grounds of economics and, except for traces of gold found by prospectors on the way to the Klondike in 1898, the spot was a forgotten backwater until the advent of commercial gold and uranium mining in the 1930s. This prompted the growth of the Old Town on an island and rocky peninsula on Great Slave Lake, and then in 1947 the New Town on the sandy plain behind it. In 1967, the year a road to the outside world was completed (Edmonton is 1524km away by car), Yellowknife replaced Ottawa as the seat of government for the NWT. Oiled by bureaucratic profligacy and the odd gold mine, the city has blossomed ever since.
Much of Yellowknife’s accessible hinterland is an ideal playground for paddlers and naturalists, or for hunters on the trail of the region’s 400,000-strong herd of caribou. Shops around town sell a variety of expensive northern Aboriginal crafts, but these are cheaper than you’ll find in more southerly cities.
Snowking Festival March w snowking.ca. One of the most intriguing of Yellowknife’s festivals, with attractions including a snow castle on Yellowknife Bay, fireworks, art exhibits, a film festival and plenty of music and food.
Yellowknife Summer Solstice Festival June 21. A midsummer celebration is celebrated with street events, a golf tournament with tee-off times under the midnight sun, and a host of cultural and musical performances.
Folk on the Rocks Mid-July w folkontherocks.com. Annual festival, when folk singers from across Canada and the US meet Inuit and Dene folk singers, folk dancers and the famous Inuit “throat singers” in an amazing medley of world music.