Welcome to the North’s wild heartland – the roadless core of our vast territory, rife with rivers, peaks, lakes, and just a handful of radiant communities. Norman Wells, the hub of the Sahtu region, is a hard-working oil town in the shadows of the Mackenzie Mountains. Délįne is the Sahtu’s spiritual epicentre, nestled on Great Bear Lake. You could spend weeks on end touring these two communities, but if you’ve just got three days, here’s how to make the most of it:
Launch your Sahtu adventure at the Norman Wells Historical Society’s museum, where the region’s rich past and wild present are vividly displayed. In the front yard you’ll find a trove of colourful antique vehicles, ranging from Canol Pipeline-era army trucks to a little sternwheeler that freighted supplies to Norman Wells back in the fur-trading days.
Inside the museum there’s a wild assortment of artifacts: memorabilia from the town’s oil boom nearly a century ago, a stuffed muskoxen, displays on local aviation history, an ancient snowmobile – the list goes on.
On the way out, make sure to peruse the gift shop, which boasts one of the best collections of Dene and Metis artwork that you’ll find anywhere in the Northwest Territories.
Now stroll down to the nearby riverbank. With no roads in or out, Norman Wells’ lifeblood is the broad Mackenzie River, sliding relentlessly toward the polar sea. Across the water are the Mackenzie Mountains, rising in weathered ranks clear to the Yukon border. And in the middle of the river you’ll see six manmade islands dotted with bobbing pumpjacks – this is, after all, an oil-drilling town.
After lunch, try your hand at a round of Arctic golf at the Ptarmigan Ridge Golf Course …
… or go hiking up in the Franklin Mountains just behind town, where Devonian-era fossils abound on an ancient seabed.
Round out the day with a flightseeing trip. North Wright Aviation offers 1.5-hour aerial excursions across the river, hitting the highpoints of the Canol Trail. You’ll see the remains of Camp Canol, dramatic Dodo Canyon and Carcajou Falls, the vast Plains of Abraham, the Vermillion Creek Sinkhole and more.
Then tuck into dinner at Ventures Lounge. When you turn in for the night, be sure to pull your blinds. With the Arctic Circle just a few dozen kilometres away, summers in Norman Wells are bright 24/7.
Take off for the Northern cultural mecca of Délįne. A brief flight from Norman Wells will bring you to this small Dene town, formerly called Fort Franklin. The home of the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę people, this is the sole community on the shores of Great Bear, the largest lake entirely within Canada.
Here, get into the rhythm of the local culture. Stroll the shoreline, checking out the fish-drying racks, teepees, the place where Sir John Franklin’s crew debuted the sport of hockey in the winter of 1825/26, and the shrine to the late spiritual leader Prophet Eht’se Ayah.
Then, ships ahoy! Climb aboard with a local outfitter for fishing trip out onto the big lake. Great Bear incubates the largest Lake Trout in the world. Just a few years ago, a fisherman here in Délįne netted an 83-pounder. Using a rod and reel, sportfishers have landed Great Bear Trout that exceed 70 pounds.
Once you’ve fished to your heart’s content, bunk down for the night at Délįne’s timberframe Grey Goose Lodge, lovingly decorated with ornate Dene artwork.
Today, you have a range of options. Spend another day fishing for monster Trout. Or, head out with an outfitter to explore Canada’s largest national historic site, Saoyú-ʔehdacho, encompassing two vast peninsulas on Great Bear Lake that showcase the rich heritage of the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę people.
Or, spend the day engaged in cultural activities in the community. You’ll have the chance to meet Dene elders who will share traditional stories, legends and knowledge of their homeland – about the days not so long ago when their people were always on the move, fishing in summer, following moose in the autumn, and hunting caribou in winter.
You may have the opportunity to sit with local artists as they craft snowshoes; tan hides; or sew moccasins, gloves or boots, using caribou hide, beaver fur and beadwork to create traditional items that are both gorgeous and functional.
Or, walk area trails with them, following in the footsteps of their nomadic ancestors, berry picking and learning about the flora, fauna and traditional medicines taken directly from the land.
And if you’re lucky, you might be in town when a traditional handgames tournament in going on – one of the most high-spirited events in the Northwest Territories.