From the sky-high trees and brown bears in British Columbia to the kitchen parties and codfish-kissing in the Maritimes, our toast to Canada offers plenty of reasons to take the trip. For December, we’re exploring a glimpse of the far north with a look at the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Northwest Territories and Nunavut
Canada’s north has long fascinated researchers and explorers alike. Most of the landmass we now think of as Canada was actually once known as the North-Western Territory. Over the years, as provinces developed and grew, the portion reserved as the Territory shrank. Finally, the map seemed settled: Canada had 10 provinces and two territories. And then, in 1999, the map was shaken again. After years of negotiations, the Northwest Territories was split once more. The land to its east would become Nunavut—Canada’s newest and largest territory. The division has allowed both regions to develop distinct identities that make each worth including in your bucket list travels.
The Cities: Yellowknife and Iqaluit
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
There are about 43,000 people who call the Northwest Territories home. Among them you’ll hear 11 official languages, most of which belong to Canada’s First Nations. In the capital city of Yellowknife, you’ll find the majority of the population along with a city as worthy of attention as any across the country. Pop into the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, walk the Frame Lake Trail, or take a self-guided tour of Old Town. The mix of skyscrapers and sailboats, and of log-cabins and ice palaces are just the beginning of experiences waiting to be had in this gorgeous corner of the world.
Nunavut is a hard territory to overlook: It makes up about one fifth of the country’s total landmass and is the size of Western Europe. Despite being the largest of the regions, it remains the least populated with only about 33,000 inhabitants. That’s the equivalent of one person for every 25 square miles. Getting around isn’t easy: There are no roads that will get you here; you’ll need to rely on air or sea. But what it lacks in ease of access it makes up for in stunning beauty. In the capital city of Iqaluit, you can choose between dog sleds and skis in the winter and incredible hiking options in the summer. Year-round the city—which sits on Baffin Island—is the hub. Everything from politics and local affairs to cultural celebrations and community events are centered here. Despite the fact that Nunavut makes up the vast majority of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and is home to the country’s most vast land spaces, Iqualuit remains a friendly, welcoming destination where once-in-a-lifetime opportunities await travelers.
Why December Is the Perfect Time to Go
The Northern Lights: Both territories offer fantastic opportunities to view the Aurora Borealis. Travelers can check in with Astronomy North to get a sense of weather conditions (and the likelihood of glimpsing the lights) on any given night. At Aurora Village, you’re outfitted with warm gear and brought out to heated teepees to take in the night sky. Or book with an outfitter like Blachford Lake Lodge that boasts its own night watch. They’ll wake you up when the lights appear. In Nunavut, try Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge—a five-star offering on the Arctic tree line.
Winter Fun: Take a turn as a musher on a dog-sled across frozen waters, learn to ice-fish and then dine on your catch … when you live this far north, there’s no escaping the fun that winter can bring. Snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and winter camping are all family-friendly options across the territories. Dress for the weather (temperatures can dip FAR below zero) and you may find winter is your season after all.
Why It’s Great Other Times of Year
Out on the Water: In the Northwest Territories, you can book a private fishing tour of Yellowknife Bay that comes with a local shore lunch, or head out for a cruise of Great Slave Lake. Looking for something a little longer? Consider Adventure Canada’s “The Heart of the Arctic” cruise expedition, which explores Nunavut as well as Quebec’s Nunavik region, Greenland, and the Davis Strait.
Aboriginal Experiences: Who better to show you around the North than members of a 100 percent Aboriginal-owned tour company who’ve long called the area home? North Star Adventures is based in Yellowknife and prides itself on knowing the best spots to catch the Aurora. They’ll also teach you to capture the fast-moving lights on your camera. Join the company’s Aboriginal Culture Tour to take a snow hike out to an Aboriginal culture camp where you’ll learn about the history, traditions, and challenges of keeping their way of life alive and thriving in the modern day.
Catch the Reindeer Migration: Every year in early spring, “Canada’s greatest reindeer herd” moves from winter grounds to summer digs closer to the Beaufort Sea.
Summer Solstice: The summer solstice—when long, dark winter nights give way to long periods of daylight—is one of the most festive times of year up north. It’s also a great time to visit as it offers you some of the best opportunities to see the wildlife. Animals ranging from polar bears and musk ox to whales can all be spotted in the area. Best of all, the daylight months are also when most local Nunavut celebrations take place. Traditional Inuit performing arts including storytelling, throat-singing, and drum dancing are well worth seeing. And the annual “Inuit games”—an Olympics of sorts that includes athletic and mental stamina-based competitions—is incredible to behold.
The National Parks
The national parks that make up Canada’s far north aren’t for the novice. Without the right skills, or at least the assistance of a good outfitter and guide, a tourist could find themselves in real trouble. The rewards, when done right, are memorable: incredible wildlife, once-in-a-lifetime interactions with indigenous people, and access to pristine lands and waters.
Paddlers love Nahanni. The National Park Reserve is full of mountains, forest and tundra to explore. But it’s the South Nahanni River that gets canoers, kayakers, and rafters drooling. Winding its way through deep caverns and fast rapids, past moose, bear, and caribou, it’s the stuff adventures are made of. The park is best visited between June and August when flood waters have subsided and the weather is warmer. Not a paddler? Then strap on your boots and hike through the mountains, forest and tundra with views of waterfalls and those paddlers being batted around below.
There’s no question that national parks in the region are remote—it’s both their difficulty and their charm. Sirmilik—“place of glaciers” in Inuktitut (an Inuit language)—is on the northern tip of Baffin Island. You’ll see the most if you visit in the spring or summer (May – September) when you’ll have the benefit of the round-the-clock sun. And if you can take the temperatures, diving adventures await under the sea ice and hold the potential of a beluga whale or narwhal encounter. Neighboring communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay mean you can also get a sense of the traditions and culture of the local people.
More from SmarterTravel:
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- Canada 150: Visit Alberta for Stars, Stories, and the World’s Wildest Wilderness
- Canada 150: Ocean-Floor Adventures and Maritime History in New Brunswick
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- Canada 150: Churchill Polar Bears and Winter Fun in Manitoba
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