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Get up here to get down: Your guide to the north's best fests

Crowd shot at Folk on the Rocks music festival on Long Lake in Yellowknife

Get up here to get down: Welcome to the best fests in the North


World-class bands thrill chanting crowds in the hot, hazy half-light of midnight. Children laugh and play 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


(photo credit: Angela Gzowski/Folk on the Rocks)

Young girl wearing a coat with fur trim on the hood at Inuvik's Sunrise Festival

Inuvik Sunrise Festival


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: The sun has been gone for a month. It deserves a big “welcome back.”

WHEN: Early January

WHO: Inuvialuit and Gwich’in 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.

People playing hocket at the Polar Pond Hockey Tournament in Hay River, NWT.

Polar Pond Hockey Tournament


WHAT: A weekend of four-on-four pond hockey underneath the glorious spring sun – plus skating around in the giant tent/mess hall/concert venue.

WHERE: In puck-crazy Hay River, the fishing, transportation and hockey hub of the North.

WHY: It simply doesn't get any more Canadian than playing hockey on the frozen Hay River. 

WHEN: Early March

WHO: Anyone who likes to strap on their skates and go up against other fans of Canada's game from all across the North. 

HOW: A day’s drive north from Edmonton, or a short flight from Yellowknife.

The SnowKing Castle shines in blue red and green colours under the shining Northern Lights in the month of March

SnowKing Winter Festival


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 going anywhere near this glittering castle makes you feel like a kid again.

WHEN: All March

WHO: Thousands of Aurora-viewers visiting from Asia, plus every single person in Yellowknife.

HOW: Direct flights from Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver.

People dancing in teh grass with their arms up in the air on National Indigenous Peoples Day, a statutory holiday in the NWT.

National Indigenous Peoples Day


WHAT: Drumming, dancing, parades, music, storytelling, feasts and fun, to honour the people who have called the North home since time immemorial.

WHERE: All across the Northwest Territories.

WHY: National Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Aboriginal Day) is celebrated Canada-wide - and especially proudly in the Northwest Territories.

WHEN: June 21

WHO: Everyone.

HOW: Unfold your map, pick a little town as your destination, and hit the road.

Group of kids standing around a main painting on his easel at the Open Sky Festival in Fort Simpson

Open Sky Festival


WHAT: A big-river get together, celebrating art and culture in the Dehcho region.

WHERE: In Fort Simpson, the diverse, vibrant, age-old gathering place where the mountains and the Mackenzie meet.

WHY: To showcase the Dehcho's talented artists, musicians, performers and storytellers.

WHEN: Early July

WHO: Northerners, plus visitors keen to hear traditional tales on the riverbank and participate in craft-making workshops.  

HOW: You can fly or drive to Fort Simpson from Yellowknife or drive up the Liard Highway from northern B.C.

Lemon Buket Orchestra at Folk on the Rocks music festival Photo by Angela Gzowski

Folk on the Rocks


WHAT: A hot weekend of musical euphoria beneath the shining midnight sun.

WHERE: In Yellowknife, on the jackpine-dotted shores of Long Lake, a short distance from Fred Henne Territorial Park.

WHY:  You get to dance barefoot in the sand as an Inuit throatsinger, a Japanese taiko drummer and a Jamaican reggae star all jam together on stage.

WHEN: Mid-July

WHO: A throng of visitors, devoted and delirious locals, plus performers from around the world.

HOW: Pack up the Volkswagen van for the pilgrimmage North. Or fly up from Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver.


(photo credit: Angela Gzowski/Folk on the Rocks)

Man holding a muskrat on a table is laughing with an elder at the Great Northern Arts Festival

Great Northern Arts Festival


WHAT: For 10 never-ending days, artists from across the Arctic gather for the North’s biggest visual-arts festival.

WHERE: Inuvik, the creative crossroads of the Western Arctic.

WHY: A pan-territorial celebration and showcase of Inuvialuit, Gwich'in and Northern art in many mediums.

WHEN: Mid-July

WHO: Anyone who wants to learn how to make a birchbark basket, purchase authentic handmade Northern works of art, and then cap off the day by watching models sashay in an Arctic fashion show.

HOW: You can board a 737 from Yellowknife, or drive up from the Dempster Highway through the Yukon.

A group of people on the water with their kayaks at Slave River Paddlefest near Fort Smith, NWT.

Slave River Paddlefest


WHAT: A wet, wild, wonderful weekend of paddling.

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 something for everyone – loads of flat-water fun for novices, plus plenty of thrills watching the pros do flips in house-high waves.

WHEN: August Long Weekend

WHO: Canoe and kayak enthusiasts from across Canada and beyond.

HOW: You can fly to Fort Smith from Edmonton or Yellowknife, but a drive through Wood Buffalo National Park is worth the extra time.

A foggy photo of people walking on a path with a teepee in the background at Midway Lake Music Festival

Midway Lake Music Festival


WHAT: A fest that features fiddling and country tunes, jigging, square dancing, storytelling, canoe races, berrypicking and lots of 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.

WHEN: August

WHO: As many as 2,000 attendees come and camp out for the weekend.

HOW: Dempster roadtrip, baby. 


(photo credit: Adam Jones/Global Photo Archive/Flickr)

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