I spy with my little eye, one majestic beast.
And just what beast would that be? Well, if it’s hulking and horned, you’re likely looking through your car window at a stoic bison as you roll down an NWT highway. If the creature’s gait is deliberate and its fur yellow-white, you’ve probably embarked on an epic High Arctic adventure and are peering unbelievingly through your binoculars at a polar bear on the prowl.
The Northwest Territories is an immense land where giant wild animals roam free. Here’s how to spot four of its most iconic beasts, from easiest to hardest.
Difficulty: Piece of cake
How: Get in your car and drive
Trees. Water. Bison. These you can expect to see along some of the most popular stretches of NWT highway. It’s not uncommon to catch a stoic bison rumbling down the road’s shoulder, or to see herds of the giants crowding and lounging on the road.
Where do you stand the best chance of coming across bison? They are a reliable presence outside of Fort Providence and along the length of Highway #3 to Behchoko. The Fort Smith Highway into Wood Buffalo National Park also provides ample viewing opportunities. And you can bet on seeing bison all over the Liard Trail around Fort Liard – a town positively teeming with the beasts.
While you’re looking for bison, you might also see: Lynx, moose, black bears
Difficulty level: Not so easy
How: Get off the beaten path
When caribou are on the move, it’s as if the entire landscape itself starts moving. To witness this supernatural scene with your own eyes, you’ll need to get to the barrens. Luckily, there are a great many lodge in this roadless expanse of tundra north of Yellowknife, east of the Mackenzie River and south of the Arctic coast. In the winter, the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto ice road provides temporary access into lands that have been part of the migrating caribou’s habitat for longer than recorded history.
For a more intimate experience, Tuktut Nogait National Park is a prime location, as the park comprises the calving grounds of the Bluenose Caribou – a herd some 20,000 strong. There, you will have the caribou all to yourself, as they outnumber humans by a factor of 2,000 to one.
That’s because Tuktut Nogait National Park only gets an average of ten visitors each year.
While you’re looking for caribou, you might also see: Wolves and wolverines
Difficulty level: Hard, but getting easier
How: To be safe, go to Banks Island
How hard is it to find muskox? It turns out that’s a relative question because it all depends where you look.
If you’re spending your time in the most populated and road-accessible regions of the territory, you will have a hard time spotting muskox. But that may be changing. Long known as a High Arctic denizen as well as being spotted around Great Bear Lake in the Sahtu, muskoxen have been on the move the last few decades and are now regularly sighted along the rocky shores of Great Slave Lake’s East Arm. (A few years back, one Yellowknifer even witnessed a lone muskox near Cameron Falls, a popular and pretty day-hike destination for residents of the NWT capital.)
While you can also find muskoxen in the Thelon Game Sanctuary (straddling one of the world’s wildest rivers, the Thelon) your best bet to spy this shaggy ungulate is on Banks Island. Why? Well, it’s only home to the majority of the world’s muskoxen.
While you’re looking for muskoxen, you might also see: Grizzlies and Arctic Fox
Difficultly level: Good luck
How: Go North!
The Northwest Territories is home to roughly 1,500 to 2,000 polar bears and most of these apex predators are found on the arctic islands – or miles from them, on adjacent sea ice. If you want to see a polar bear in the NWT, the first thing you should do is take precaution. Unless you have wilderness experience, it is probably wise to hire a guide in the communities of Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island or Sachs Harbour on Banks Island who will safely bring you to the bears. If you're more comfortable in the wild, take a trip to the northern coast of Aulavik National Park, where these hyper-carnivores hunt for seal.
Not so adventurous? Not to worry. You can still find polar bears in more convenient places. If you want to get a picture with one, you can find a giant polar bear chasing a seal in the Yellowknife Airport. Better yet, a cursory scan of any NWT town will reveal a surprising abundance of polar bears… adorning the back bumper of every passing car.
While you’re looking for polar bears, you might also see: Seals