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You know how, when you stare up at the stars, you feel all small and insignificant?
The Northwest Territories is the sort of place that puts everything in perspective. A superlative place, a place that's larger than life. Like staring at the stars, it will leave a person humbled – and yet somehow, their life will feel bigger.
With a surface area of four acres and a flow-rate of 3 billion cubic feet per day, Virginia Falls, or Náilicho, could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 2.5 seconds. The centrepiece of Nahanni National Park Reserve, it's twice the height of Niagara and considered to be the greatest wilderness waterfall on Earth.
For centuries, the Northwest Passage – the narrow, ice-choked, maze-like watercourse across the top of Canada – taunted mariners. Hundreds were lured to their deaths here, including the legendary Sir John Franklin. Today, luxury cruise-ship travellers can relive this harrowing history, visiting such famed locales as Parry's Rock in Winter Harbour, the Investigator wrecksite at Mercy Bay, the grim Smoking Hills, and perilous Prince of Wales Strait, as well as the communities of Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok.
Great Bear is the mother of all Northern Lakes. It's the size of Vancouver Island, and slightly wetter. The largest freshwater body entirely within Canada, it covers 31,000 square kilometres, with enough ice-blue water to supply Canada’s current household needs for 500 years. Unsurprisingly, patrolling the depths of this inland sea ...
Yep, that's right. Great Bear is alive with freshwater monsters. Here, the Lake Trout grow to the size of a 10-year-old child, and are significantly more ferocious. Dene fishermen have netted leviathans that approach 90 pounds, while in the lake's western reaches, an angler at a fishing lodge caught (and released) a 79-pounder – the world sportfishing record.
Clear crisp nights. Zero light pollution. Optimal geography, right under the "Auroral oval." It's no wonder that the Northwest Territories is the world's leading Aurora-viewing destination, with a lightshow that ignites the heavens more than 200 nights per year.
If you travel to the uttermost tip of this territory, you’ll experience what may be the harshest weather on Earth. Meteorologists say the icebound Parry Islands, near the top of the Arctic Archipelago, suffer from a combo of clouds, dampness, wind and unrelenting cold that make it the most extreme, least habitable corner of Canada. Even for Inuit, this asteroid-like environment was a no-man's-land: devoid of plant or animal life, there was no reason for humans to come here, and no way to survive if they did.
The Northwest Territories' signature beast is the mountain-sized wood bison, herds of which amble along our highways, blocking traffic and just generally doing whatever they feel like. Bigger and darker than their southern cousins, the plains bison, they can stand six feet tall at the shoulder and tip the scales at a metric tonne. This makes them the largest land animal in the Western Hemisphere. Needless to say, keep your distance.
Not far offshore from the little town of Lutselk’e, the bottom drops out of Great Slave Lake. Toss a stone from your boat and it’ll plunge through the dark cold water for 2,014 feet – greater than the height of the CN Tower. Not only is Great Slave by far the deepest lake in North America, but its bottom is also the lowest natural point on the continent, dropping a quarter-mile below sea-level.
Tuktut Nogait National Park is so remote that some years, no one goes there. It's perhaps the least-touristed national park in Canada. That’s just fine with the park’s caribou, raptors, wolves and Barrenland grizzlies, which are pretty much indifferent to human presence.
The Dempster Highway is the start of Canada’s northernmost motorway, carrying road-trippers across the Arctic Circle all the way to Inuvik in the Mackenzie River Delta. And this is beginning of the new highway to Tuktoyaktuk, an Arctic Ocean settlement famous for pingos, caribou and Inuvialuit culture.
With a watershed encompassing one-fifth of Canada, the Mackenzie is the country’s most significant river, spanning 4,000 kilometres from source to sea. In front of Norman Wells, the "Big Mac" is more than four kilometres wide; meanwhile, at a canyon near Fort Good Hope called The Ramparts, it chokes to just half a kilometre across. Culturally, the river is a superhighway linking together the ancient Dene homeland. For paddlers, it's an epic pilgrimage – the greatest way to get right to the heart of the Northwest Territories.
At 355 kilometres, the Canol Trail is the most extensive wild hiking path in North America. Backpackers often require three weeks or more to complete the route, and must be totally self-sufficient: You'll encounter no communities or services of any kind, and often, no other hikers. What you will find? A million nameless peaks, glorious alpine valleys, and critters that have never laid eyes on a human being. Be warned, this is also grizzly bear country.
Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest protected area in Canada and the second-biggest park on Earth. Dwarfing many sovereign countries, it guards a great swath of the boreal plains, home to the last remnants of the great bison herds that once roamed the continent. Indeed, almost everything here is superlative – the world's biggest beaver dam, the largest freshwater Delta, and this creature ...
This is perhaps the most endangered bird species in all of North America – but in the marshlands near Fort Smith, the elusive whooping crane has begun to rebound. Once numbering fewer than two-dozen, the world’s whooping crane population is now approaching 500, thanks in part to the protection of its summer habitat in the North. They're easy to recognize: At five feet tall, they're the tallest bird on the continent.
For two months each winter, the North Slave region is home to the planet’s longest ice road – a 600-kilometre frozen highway rolling across lakes and tundra clear to the Nunavut border. Though designed for mining transport trucks, this private road also carries hunters, photographers and adventurers. The hearty few who tackle it will need guts, gas, and Arctic-grade cold weather gear.
The Thomsen, gliding crystal-clear through the treeless Eden of Aulavik National Park, is considered the farthest-north navigable river on the planet. Each summer, canoeists ride its flow of snowmelt to the Arctic Ocean, gawking at muskoxen and fishing for char, whitefish and the world’s northernmost trout. This voyage can be done independently with careful planning, but it is best done with a tour guide for those who want to be uttermost paddlers on the planet.
Welcome to Canada's Empty Quarter – the vast unpopulated zone between the eastern shores of Great Slave and the coast of Hudson Bay. This sweeping swath of the Barrenlands has the lowest population density of anywhere outside of Antarctica – no roads, no homes, no Starbucks. There are a few fishing lodges here, and legendary rivers like the Thelon, plus tens of thousands of caribou, wolves, muskoxen, grizzlies and other critters. It's a heckuva place to go if you want to get away from people.
The Northwest Territories was once home to an array of hard-rock gold mines, some of the first oil wells in Canada, and a uranium mine that fuelled the Manhattan Project. Now the territory produces something even richer. Canada’s first diamonds were discovered here in the 1990s. Thanks to these deposits, the country is now the world’s third-largest diamond producer.
Call it what you want – nanulak, grolar bear, pizzly, p-grizzle. It's a part grizzly bear, part polar bear, and fully weird. The product of intermating between polar bear mamas and male brown bears that are spreading north due to climate change, just two of the hybrids have been confirmed to exist, both right here in the Northwest Territories. However, it's widely assumed that more of them are roaming the tundra up around Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok.
Fun fact: The Northwest Territories is the birthplace of hockey. While wintering here in the 1820s, Sir John Franklin’s men played a hockey-like sport on a frozen pond near Great Bear Lake – the earliest documented instance of what is, of course, the greatest game on Earth.
Cropping up from a mid-river island north of Wekweeti, right at the cusp of the Barrenlands, is a mound of stone from the Earth’s beginnings. At more than 4 billion years old, the Acasta Gneiss is the most ancient exposed rock ever found. It is literally the oldest thing on Planet Earth.