In the heart of the Northwest Territories, yesterday never ends. Here, as nowhere else in Canada, time stands still, preserving the distinctive history of the Dene people, early missionaries, pioneer bush-pilots, frontier oilmen, and more. Here are nine places to get your history fix in the Sahtu, including the North's oldest church, the largest national historic site in Canada, and the quaintest darn historical museum you'll ever see.
The oldest and certainly the most ornate place of worship in the North, this tiny cathedral crowns a bluff overlooking the Mackenzie River in Fort Good Hope. Built starting in 1865 by Oblate missionaries – including the famed Father Émile Petitot – the church from the outside is whitewashed, steep-roofed, plain and stately. The inside, however, glows with elaborate frescoes: The vaulted ceiling depicts a Northern winter’s night sky while Christian imagery is intermixed with depictions of local plants and wildlife. Today, though a National Historic Site, it still hosts regular services.
Towering 400 metres above Tulita, sacred Bear Rock is said to be where Yamoria, the great law-giver of Dene lore, confronted a gang of giant beavers that had been drowning hunters. Yamoria killed three of the beavers and draped their vast pelts on Bear Rock – forming three dark ovals that distinguish the mountain to this day. Hikers can follow a trail to the summit of the peak, where they'll find a scenic lookout.
North America's most rigorous backpacking trail follows the route of a defunct military road and pipeline that once transected the Mackenzie Mountains. It was built in a frenzy during World War II to supply fuel from the oilfields at Norman Wells to the Allies fighting on the Pacific Front. Nowadays all the pipe has been removed, but history still abounds in the form of old barracks, rusting trucks and various other wartime relics.
Two peninsulas on Great Bear, covering 5,565 square kilometers, were designated as a national historic site in 2009. At that time, Parks Canada and the community of Délįne signed a first-of-its-kind deal where the sites – called Saoyú (saw-you-eh), or Grizzly Bear Mountain, and ʔehdacho (aa-daa-cho), or Scented Grass Hills – will be co-managed by the feds and the local First Nation.
Norman Wells' lovingly curated history museum showcases the multifaceted events that shaped this region. Colourful military vehicles from the building of the legendary Canol Road sit bumper-to-bumper in the yard, while inside you’ll find memorabilia from the oil-boom nearly a century ago, displays on Mackenzie river shipping and barging, and much more.
Built in Tulita around 1880, this single-storey log church, complete with a gable roof and wooden steeple, is one of the oldest standing buildings in the Northwest Territories. It is located on the former Hudson's Bay lot in the historic centre of the community. The dovetailed log structure is an excellent example of the building style of the time.
This is the spiritual heart of Délįne. It's the lakefront log cabin of the community's revered visionary, the late Ehtseo (Grandfather) Louie Ayah. Often called "the Prophet," Ayah was said to have forseen the discovery of diamonds in the Northwest Territories, the utilization of uranium from Great Bear Lake in World War II's infamous Manhattan Project, and the political rejuvination of the Sahtudene with the advent of self-government – not to mention the end of the world.
Located at the North-Wright dock on DOT Lake in Norman Wells, you'll find two log buildings here – one the original North-Wright base, and one built by Canoe North Adventures as a shelter for canoeists in transit. In addition, there are small buildings once used by the four airlines that operated in Norman Wells – Canadian Pacific Airlines, Nahanni Air Services, Northward Air and North-Wright. The buildings and an open air hangar for a gull wing float plane are all part of a working museum designed to appeal to visitors and provide freight and cargo services.