The Northwest Territories is the Land of the Midnight Sun, where summer daylight is everlasting. Two a.m. looks pretty much like high noon. All night, birds chirp, kids play, fishermen fish and golfers golf. Campers get their days all turned around, eating lunch at midnight and crawling into their sleeping bags in the morning – because really, when each day is blissfully infinite, you just do whatever feels right. Here’s why the midnight sun is so wonderfully, wildly weird:
In Aulavik National Park, way up on Banks Island, paddlers on the Thomsen River enjoy a “day” that lasts 2,500 hours. Up there, the sun rises for the summer on April 30 and won’t set again until August 13, three-and-a-half months later. Even in more southerly communities such as Fort Simpson there is no true darkness from May to July.
Though our summer sun never goes down, it’s not like it stands still in the sky. Instead, it rolls around the heavens in an oblique loop, reaching its zenith at midday and grazing the horizon at midnight, over and over and over. It’s seriously mind-blowing to behold.
Bring your sunscreen. Because of our low-angle sun, you’re more likely to get a burn when you’re standing up than if you’re stretched out flat on a beach. And watch out for UV reflecting off our clear, pure water. Plenty of hapless travellers have lathered their foreheads with SPF 50 only to end up with a wicked burn on the underside of their nose.
Photographers go crazy for the midnight sun because it provides the magical dusk-and-dawn light that gives pictures a radiant glow. In the Northwest Territories, the coveted “photographic golden hour” lasts for months on end.
If you’ll be camping up here, you might want to bring a sleep-mask. Why? Daylight stimulates the photoreceptive ganglia of your eyes, which tells your pineal gland to stop making melatonin. Melatonin is what makes you feel drowsy and lowers your body temperature in preparation for sleep. Without it – hello, insomnia. (Luckily, Northwest Territories hotel rooms are usually equipped with “blackout blinds” to keep the 2 a.m. sunbeams from blazing into your room.)
Some animals in the Northwest Territories are specially adapted to endless daylight. Caribou have a set of genes that spare them from needing to sleep on a regular 24-hour cycle. Instead, they stay active throughout the bright Arctic summer, napping only sporadically.
The Northwest Territories is bisected by the Arctic Circle. That’s the imaginary line where, on June 21 – the summer solstice – the sun doesn’t drop below the horizon. The farther north you go from the Arctic Circle, the longer the sun stays up. At the northernmost point on Earth, the North Pole, the sun is up for six months straight.
There's two easy ways to reach the Arctic Circle. You could drive the incredible Dempster Highway, the only road in Canada that crosses the circle ...
If you come North for just one day, choose the summer solstice, June 21, when endless fun keeps you active throughout the bright night. All across the Northwest Territories, National Indigenous Peoples Day festivities fill local parks with Indigenous food, music and dance, often late into the wee hours …
Up until the 1880s, Arctic navigators sought “the open polar sea,” where they reasoned that the midnight sun must keep the ocean free of ice. It took several frostbitten tragedies before their dreams of a bright polar utopia gave way to the cold hard facts.
Given the proper environment, the midnight sun is like rocket fuel for Northern plants. In the huge community greenhouse up in Inuvik, sunflowers grow to a height of 14 feet. Even in the High Arctic islands, the tundra erupts with a profusion of vivid flowers.
Temperatures, too, shoot up in the unrelenting light. Our all-time high temperature happened in Fort Smith on July 18, 1941, when the mercury blazed at 39.4°C (103°F) – hotter than the all-time high in Hawaii. When those sorts of conditions kick in, there's only one solution: Head out to the water to cool down.
If that's not enough, here are some other wonderfully, wildly weird facts about the midnight sun, by the numbers:
87: Days in a row that the sun doesn’t set in Sachs Harbour, our northernmost town.
1: Day the sun doesn’t set in Fort Good Hope, at the cusp of the Arctic Circle.
22:26: Hours and minutes of light at the 60th Parallel on Summer Solstice.
2: Genes in caribou that spare them from needing to sleep on a regular 24-hour cycle. Instead, they stay active throughout the bright Arctic summer, napping only sporadically.
9: Hours that bees rest every day, even when exposed to the midnight sun, meaning their internal clock keeps on tickin’.
14’2”: Height, in feet and inches, of the tallest sunflower in the greenhouse in Inuvik, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
480: Kilometres that Cool Robot, a solar-powered rover designed for the polar regions, can cover in a week during the Arctic summer.
0: Kilometres it can cover in the Arctic winter – which is why it gets sent to Antarctica.