World-class bands thrill chanting crowds in the hot, hazy half-light of midnight. Children frolic among glittering ice sculptures beside a palace made of snow. Artists display their wares and lead tourists in workshops far above the Arctic Circle. Flotillas of paddlers play games in the waves of Canada’s top whitewater river. Storytellers and dancers mesmerize on the banks of the rushing Mackenzie. Wherever, whenever, the North has the very best festivals.
WHAT: Food, dance, music and activities like snow-carving and “sno-pitch,” plus a giant bonfire and spectacular fireworks.
WHERE: Inuvik, the northernmost major town in Canada, approximately 300 kilometres above the Arctic Circle.
WHY: Because when the sun has been gone for a month of polar darkness, it deserves a big “welcome back.”
WHEN: Early January.
WHO: Inuvialuit and Gwich’in folks from around the Western Arctic, plus visitors keen for an ‘illuminating’ Arctic experience.
HOW: Daily flights from Yellowknife – or, if you’re bold, winterize your car, pack your survival gear and drive up the Dempster Highway.
WHAT: A month of exhibits, shows and dances – plus playing on the famous slide –inside a glittering palace made of snow.
WHERE: In Yellowknife’s offbeat Old Town, on the frozen surface of Great Slave Lake.
WHY: Because frolicking in this glittering castle makes you feel like a kid again.
WHEN: Throughout March.
WHO: Thousands of Aurora-viewers visiting from Asia, plus every single person in Yellowknife.
HOW: Direct flights from Calgary, Edmonton or Ottawa.
WHAT: Drumming, dancing, parades, music, storytelling, feasts and a heckuva lot of fun, all in honour of the folks who’ve made the North their home for the past 10,000 years.
WHERE: Pretty much every settlement and city in the Northwest Territories.
WHY: Because “we are all treaty people” – and while National Aboriginal Day is a celebrated Canada-wide, no place takes it as seriously as the Northwest Territories.
WHEN: June 21.
WHO: Cree, Chipewyans, Tlicho, Gwich’in, Inuvialuit … and you.
HOW: Unfold your map, pick a little town as your destination, and hit the road.
WHAT: A big-river get together, celebrating art and culture both ancient and ultra-modern.
WHERE: In Fort Simpson, the diverse, vibrant, age-old gathering place where the mountains and the Mackenzie meet.
WHY: Because the rich nature and culture of the Dehcho region shines out in the works of local artists, musicians, performers and storytellers.
WHEN: Early July.
WHO: Dene, Metis and non-Aboriginals from around the North, plus plenty of visitors keen to hear traditional tales on the riverbank, participate in craft-making workshops beneath the midnight sun, or buy intricate artworks straight from hands of the creators.
HOW: You can fly to Fort Simpson from Yellowknife, but the drive – up the Liard Trail, or along the Mackenzie Highway – is a bucket-list experience.
WHAT: The Great Slave’s lollapalooza: A hot weekend of musical euphoria beneath the delirious midnight sun.
WHERE: In Yellowknife, on the jackpine-dotted shores of Long Lake, not far from Fred Henne Territorial Park.
WHY: Because we bet you’ve never danced barefoot in the sand while an Inuit throatsinger, a Japanese taiko drummer and a Jamaican reggae star all jam together on stage.
WHEN: July 14-16.
WHO: Tons of visitors and locals, plus performers from around the world.
HOW: This is the perfect excuse to make a Northern roadtrip – or fly up from Calgary, Edmonton or Ottawa.
WHAT: During 10 of Inuvik’s 56 perpetually sunlit summer days, artists from across the Arctic gather for the North’s best visual-arts festival.
WHERE: Inuvik, creative crossroads of the Western Arctic.
WHY: At this pan-territorial meeting of artistic masters, you can pick from more than 1,500 pieces for sale, representing Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Inuit, Metis and non-Aboriginal styles.
WHEN: June 14-23
WHO: Anyone who wants to learn how to make a birchbark basket, fill it full of goodies from the gallery, and then cap off the day by watching Northern models sashay in an Arctic fashion show.
HOW: Fly up from Yellowknife, or drive up from the Yukon.
WHAT: A wet, wild, wonderful celebration of paddling – Canada’s most iconic activity.
WHERE: Just outside of Fort Smith, on the Slave River Rapids, possibly the most fabled stretch of whitewater in the western hemisphere.
WHY: Because there’s tons of flat-water fun for novices, plus plenty of thrills watching the pros do flips in house-high waves.
WHEN: August 4-7.
WHO: Canoe and kayak enthusiasts from across Canada and beyond.
HOW: You can fly to Fort Smith from Edmonton or Yellowknife, but the drive – through Wood Buffalo National Park – is worth the extra time.
WHAT: A nod to the music-filled reunions that took place for eons among the Gwich’in people of the North, this fest features fiddling and country tunes, jigging, square dancing, storytelling, canoe races, berrypicking and lots of wild meat and bannock.
WHERE: At a mountain-ringed fairgrounds down the Dempster Highway from Fort McPherson.
WHY: Because country-music sounds best when it's out in the country.
WHO: As many as 2,000 attendees come and camp out for the weekend. Most are local Indigenous folks, but there’s plenty of tourists, too.
HOW: Dempster roadtrip, baby.
(photo credit: Adam Jones/Global Photo Archive/Flickr)