Perched on a spit of land at the edge of the Beaufort Sea, the story of this small Inuvialuit community is legendary across the North. Tuktoyaktuk started after the decline of whaling at Herschel island. It grew as more families moved from encampments to a small community with a trading post and church. Originally called Port Brabant, it reverted to its indigenous name in 1950. It expanded as a Dewline site and boomed as an oil and gas exploration centre. And it will always be known for its fictitious university, the infamous University of Tuktoyaktuk-- emblazoned on hundreds of thousands of T-shirts that travelled the world.
Tuk is the farthest north you can drive in Canada. It sits at the end of the 140-kilometre Inuvik-Tuk highway and is the only place in North America where you drive a public highway to the Arctic Ocean. And what an ocean it is. Covered with ice for nearly nine months per year. A temperature barely above freezing in the middle of summer. And home to beluga whales, seals and dozens of species of migrating birds.
Once the Arctic Ocean ice around Tuktoyaktuk has melted, the urge to dip at least a toe in the frigid water is overwhelming. Visitors by the dozen pull off shoes and socks, roll up pant legs and take a step or two into the icy waters. A few brave souls, plunge right in, mainly to say they have swum in the three oceans bordering Canada. For those not into “frozen toes”, the next best thing is to take a little Arctic Ocean home with you. Sometimes small bottles of Arctic Ocean water are available to purchase or just bring your own bottle and take a bit of the ocean home.
Tuktoyaktuk sits in the midst of the world’s largest concentration of Pingos (cone shaped hills with a core of ice). There are approximately 1,350 on the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula, about one quarter of the world’s Pingos. One of these Pingos, named Ibyuk, is the highest Pingo in Canada (160 feet and still growing) and is thought to be over 1,000 years old. Ibyuk and seven other Pingos make up the Pingo National Landmark. Local outfitters offer guided services to the Landmark. Or you can see smaller Pingos right in the community of Tuk, where a building is perched atop one rounded Pingo. Pingos are often used as navigational aids by the locals.
Although Tuk is north of the treeline, some of its shores are strewn with tangles of driftwood, including large logs and stumps. Through spring breakup, these logs are ripped from the banks of the Liard and Mackenzie River and are dragged down river by ice and river currents, to be finally caught in the sheltered bays of the Beaufort Sea. As the only Arctic community with a source of wood, originally the people built and lived in sod houses, rather than traditional igloos. They also used wood for fires.
Pay a visit to an authentic sod house reconstructed in the middle of Tuk. This type of structure provided a home where people slept, ate, raised their children, told stories and entertained. The floor is dug into the ground and the dwelling is built from driftwood, covered by blocks of sod and earth. Oil burning lamps kept these houses warm during the cold days of winter. Sod houses built by early inhabitants were often shaped like a cross, with a central room, three alcoves for sleeping and a long, covered entrance passage.
For more than 20 years the schooner Our Lady of Lourdes braved pounding storms and shifting ice floes to deliver supplies to far flung Catholic missions from Tuktoyaktuk to Cambridge Bay. In 1982 the ship was moved to Tuk’s Catholic mission, and there it has sat, high and dry, for three and a half decades. The ship had a facelift in 2008, but still battles the ravages of weather and time.
The Northern arm of the Trans Canada Trail (now known as the Great Trail) winds along the Mackenzie River, crosses the delta and ends at the community of Tuktoyaktuk. Hikers interested in this northerly section of the trail can follow the new Inuvik-Tuk highway, roughly 138 km (86 miles) A monument marks the northern end of the trail.
Tuk may now have southern style houses, an airport and internet, but culture is still a prevalent part of everyday life. Visitors are welcome to explore the contrast between traditional and modern lifestyles. Learn more about the Inuvialuit language, traditional arts, crafts, dance, music, clothing, games, subsistence harvesting and country foods. Local operators can provide cultural tours of the community and surrounding area.
Plan your visit to coincide with one of Tuktoyaktuk’s annual events. For every changing season, Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall you will find a celebration in the community. Tuk welcomes back the sun in January, after disappearing for two whole months. Then as it starts to warm up in April the Beluga Jamboree marks the coming of Spring followed by the summer filled with numerous activities & events through to late August and early September where the Land of the Midnight Sun Music Festival completes our four seasons festivities.