What’s the best way to glimpse the Northern Lights? Drive out of town, far from the glare of streetlights, and watch the sky erupt in a glowing nocturnal dance. The Western Arctic offers an array of roads that will get you face-to-face with the spectacle, including the Dempster, where the lights shimmer over the Richardson Range, and the new Tuk Highway, where the tundra glitters beneath the haunting celestial show.
As Canada’s longest river approaches the Arctic Ocean it splits into a labyrinth of creeks and channels, forming one of the richest ecosystems in the North. Drivers can glimpse local wildlife and birds, check out traditional hunting-and-fishing camps, and hear legends and tales about the old days when locals were nomadic and roamed the delta year-round.
For road-trippers, the Western Arctic offers campgrounds galore. There are two in Inuvik – Ja’k, with an observation tower and prime bird-watching, and Happy Valley, situated on a bluff overlooking the Mackenzie River and Richardson Mountains. Vadzaih Van Tshik Campground, Gwich’in Territorial Campground and Nitainlaii Territorial Park all serve travellers on the Dempster Highway. The latter perches on a cliff overlooking the Peel River; its visitor centre offers a fascinating glimpse of the life of Gwich’in people past and present.
If you’re here in July, revel in the displays and activities at Inuvik’s remarkable Great Northern Arts Festival. The event draws hundreds of artists and performers from around the polar world. Inuvik hosts other great celebrations, including the Sunrise Festival in January and the Muskrat Jamboree in April. Other Western Arctic towns boast fun fests featuring dancing, dog-sled racing, country-food feasts and more.
Thanks to the new Tuk Highway, the Western Arctic is the first and only place in North America where you can drive to the fabled Arctic Ocean. Here, on the coast of the Northwest Passage, it’s a tradition to go for a little splash. Some folks just dip their toe in the bracing waves. Others go for full immersion – a brief, brisk swim in the world’s most celebrated sea.
The Mackenzie Delta has the world’s highest concentration of pingos – bizarre ice-cored hills erupting from the tundra like Coke cans bulging ominously in the freezer. Eight pingos, including the famous 15-storey-high Ibyuk Pingo, are protected by Parks Canada in Pingo National Landmark just outside Tuktoyaktuk. Their scenic summits are a popular destination for hikers.
Our biggest town above the treeline, “Tuk” juts boldly into the Arctic Ocean. Over the years it has served as a base for Inuvialuit caribou- and beluga-hunting, a DEW Line radar site, and a centre of oil and gas exploration. Today it welcomes visitors, who tour the nearby “pingo” hills, sample traditional foods (like muktuk!), and, of course, cool their heels in the chilly Arctic Ocean.
Possibly the North’s most iconic, most photographed structure, the Our Lady of Victory church in downtown Inuvik is a bleach-white cylinder capped by a silvery dome, imitating the Inuvialuit snow-houses of old. The inside features paintings by local artist Mona Thrasher.
The Western Arctic’s regional hub, this busy town was engineered in the late 1950s as the territory’s first “planned” community. Today it’s a vibrant mix of some 3,500 Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and non-Native residents, all gathered on the boreal flats along the easternmost channel of the Mackenzie Delta. There’s a rich visitor industry: hotels, restaurants, galleries and a variety of tour providers.