Way up at the top of the map, on an island as big as Ireland but with just 112 residents, is the most idyllic national park in the world. Aulavik National Park, showcasing the lush lowlands of northern Banks Island, is a polar paradise – of crystalline rivers, romping muskox, breeding birds, ancient artefacts and a wealth of other attractions. Here’s why it’s off the charts:
Widely considered the world’s northernmost navigable river, the pure-blooded Thomsen starts as a trickle of icewater in the bare uplands of Banks Island. It quickly gathers snowmelt as it slides 160 kilometres north through a broad, gentle, treeless and deathly-silent landscape, finally draining into the Arctic Ocean. For most of its length is slices through the heart of Aulavik – a gentle, fluid pathway (devoid of rapids or portages) upon which canoeists and kayakers can experience the park. Boaters usually take three weeks to float the river, putting in near the park’s southern boundary and exiting at Castel Bay on historic M’Clure Strait. The best time to paddle is from late June to late July, riding the spring freshet after the ice goes out.
Visiting Aulavik National Park is like going on a muskox safari. The ice-age ungulates gather here in stupefying numbers. Known as umingmak to the Inuit, the 600-pound beasts are members of the sheep family, and are known for producing qiviut, the warmest wool on Earth. In recent years scientists have estimated that approximately two-thirds of the world’s muskoxen live on Banks Island, a great number of them –10,000 or more – in Aulavik National Park. The Thomsen River valley produces particularly rich grazing habitat for the creatures, and paddlers will seldom be out of the sight of them. Though typically placid, muskoxen boast fearsome horns and a resolute character, and should not be approached.
Aulavik National Park has no hiking trails. It doesn’t need any: The landscape around is wide-open and inviting, with long sightlines and few natural barriers. Hikers can set off in any direction they wish, enjoying continuous summer daylight, a tundra landscape blanketed by brilliant wildflowers, abundant birdlife, frequent muskox sightings, and the occasional Inuit archaeological site.
Aulavik National Park is treeless, yes. But it’s no wasteland. Though the tallest plants are ankle-high Arctic willows, the landscape in summer is a crazy-quilt, painted by the more than 150 species of flowering plants super-charged by round-the-clock daylight. Hikers and paddlers will enjoy shimmering fields of day-glow purple saxifrage, radiant yellow arnica, delicate Arctic roses, bright tufts of hairy lousewort, fluffy Arctic cotton and fuzzy willow catkins. South facing slopes are particularly brilliant. But see it while it lasts: by mid-August, most of the plants have gone to seed, readying for onset of winter just weeks away.
For a river 600 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the Thomsen boasts a remarkable diversity of fish. Six freshwater species call the river home: Lake Trout, Least Cisco, Lake Cisco, Nine-Spine Stickleback, Fourhorn Sculpin and especially Arctic Char. The river is a key spawning grounds and nursery habitat for succulent Char, and the species can even be found in Aulavik’s larger lakes, such as Nangmagvik. All anglers in the national park must possess a valid National Park Fishing Permit.
Just outside of Aulavik National Park, in Mercy Bay east of the Thomsen River, lies one of the most important shipwrecks in the Arctic. The HMS Investigator, under the command of Robert M’Clure, entered the Arctic in 1850 as part of the massive manhunt for the Franklin expedition. Here, just 150 metres off the north coast of Banks Island, the vessel became trapped in ice and eventually sank. On the shore nearby, barrel staves, a coal pile and metal artifacts remain. The ship itself was famously rediscovered by Parks Canada divers in 2010, sitting upright in the silt, almost totally intact, just eight meters below the surface.
For more on Aulavik and other national parks in the Northwest Territories, explore how to pick your park.