The northern lights appear as a faint band at first. Then they grow in intensity, as if gaining momentum. The green gets brighter and shimmies as another line starts moving across the sky. Soon, the two banks merge and separate repeatedly as reds and greens blend and change.
In the Northwest Territories, the phrase "the lights are out" means the aurora borealis is lighting up the sky. On a clear night between October and March, when the sky is dark enough, perhaps the aurora will come out to play. But remember, the lights are unpredictable natural phenomenon that come out on their own schedule. That is why no appointment is necessary.
The N.W.T. lies between the Yukon and Nunavut but the southern part of the territory is accessed by road from British Columbia and Alberta. Drive the Dempster Highway through the Yukon to Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk. The landscape features boreal forest in the south, tundra north of the Arctic Circle, and the Mackenzie and Richardson mountains to the west. The Mackenzie River, North America’s second-longest river, starts its journey at Fort Providence before flowing more than 1,738 km (1,080 mi.) into the Arctic Ocean. Great Slave Lake is the continent’s deepest lake and Great Bear Lake is the territory’s largest lake.
The N.W.T. has 33 communities divided into five regions: Inuvik region, Sahtu, North Slave, South Slave and Dehcho. Indigenous Peoples comprise half the population—Dene, Métis or Inuvialuit. Although there are 11 official languages, most people speak English.
The Northwest Territories sits directly beneath the auroral oval. On a clear night, check the aurora forecast on Yellowknife’s Astronomy North website to find out the likelihood of spotting the northern lights (www.astronomynorth.com/aurora-forecast
). There are different ways to experience the aurora (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/aurora
). Join a tour operator and head out on the trail by snowmobile or dog team to a cosy camp that offers a clear view of the night sky. Participate in an aurora photography tour to learn the art of capturing the northern lights. Head out onto frozen Great Slave Lake in an eight-passenger Bombardier, or fly out to a wilderness lodge for a few days.
Summer brings opportunities to try northern fare. Cast a line into a river or lake for feisty northern pike, Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden or lake trout. Dine on whitefish that an outfitter has prepared over an open fire for your lunch. Spend the day fishing near a community, or enjoy a
multi-day package at a remote lodge (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/fishing
). Weekly summer markets in Inuvik, Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith feature locally-grown produce as well as homemade goods such as fireweed jelly and birch syrup. Stop by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Craft Store in Inuvik for some dry fish and other local delicacies.
Drive up the Dempster Highway and take a selfie at the Arctic Circle. Compete in the annual Billy Joss Open Celebrity Golf Tournament on Ulukhaktok’s nine-hole course, North America’s most northerly course (www.arcticcharinn.com/arctic-golfing.htm
). Visit the popular Igloo Church in Inuvik. The interior is decorated with paintings by Inuit artist Mona Thrasher.
Jackpine Paddle offers guided paddling trips on northern rivers including the Thelon, Nëné, Natla, Keele and Great Slave Lake, as well as in Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve (www.jackpinepaddle.com/expeditions-archive
Travel along an ice road, drive to the Arctic Ocean, sleep in an igloo and visit with a reindeer herd during a 4-day Canadian Arctic Reindeer Signature Package with Tundra North Tours (www.tundranorthtours.com/our-packages-tours/canadian-arctic-reindeer-signature-package
Sundog Adventures offers kicksled tours and aurora photography workshops in winter. Houseboat and heritage tours of Yellowknife Bay are offered in summer (www.sundogadventures.ca
Explore Yellowknife, the territorial capital, on foot (www.extraordinaryyk.com
). Enjoy a 360-degree view of Yellowknife Bay and surrounding Old Town from the top of the Bush Pilots’ Monument. Take a boat tour of Yellowknife Bay, home to North America’s most northerly houseboat community. Sandblast a northern motif on recycled glass during a workshop at Old Town Glassworks (www.oldtownglassworks.com
). The Yellowknife Farmers Market is held weekly on Tuesday downtown throughout the summer. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre provides a peek into northern culture (www.pwnhc.ca
). Next door, the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly offers guided and audio tours (www.ntassembly.ca/visitors
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Choose from front-country campsites and hikes to backcountry day hikes and epic multi-week backcountry experiences in the territory’s six national parks and 34 territorial parks (www.nwtparks.ca
). The historic Canol Heritage Trail near Norman Wells is a very remote, extremely rugged and rigourous hike (www.spectacularnwt.com/attraction/canol-trail
). Opportunities for guided or self-guided paddling and rafting trips are plentiful along one of the N.W.T.’s historic rivers including the challenging Coppermine River, the meandering Thomsen River and the world-renowned South Nahanni River (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/paddling
). Enjoy fishing day trips with an outfitter or a multi-day package at a wilderness lodge.
The territory’s wildlife has a schedule all its own, but look for nesting pelicans on rocky outcrops in the rapids of the Slave River near Fort Smith. Keep an eye out for free-roaming bison in Wood Buffalo National Park and the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary near Fort Providence. Dall sheep and mountain goats travel on the craggy slopes of the Mackenzie Mountains. Prehistoric-looking muskox roam around Banks Island. Black bears, moose, caribou and grizzly bears also call the N.W.T. home. See peregrine falcons, eagles and gryfalcons—the official N.W.T. bird. You never know when they may appear on your journey—and theirs.
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
Experience local music and culture such as jigging, drumming, drum dancing and Dene hand games at community events. Make your own crafts during artist-led workshops at Inuvik’s renowned Great Northern Arts Festival (www.greatnorthernartsfestival.org
). Learn about local history at the Norman Wells Historical Centre (www.spectacularnwt.com/attraction/
), the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre (www.nlmcc.ca
) and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Purchase Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis crafts at visitor centres, museums and shops. Feel the cashmere softness of a sweater that a local artist knitted from qiviut—wool that was harvested from shaggy muskox near Sachs Harbour. Admire carvings made of soapstone, bone or antler and created by northern artists. Buy a Dene birchbark basket at the Acho Dene Native Crafts store made by women in Fort Liard. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Craft Store in Inuvik has a good selection of locally made moccasins, carvings, jewellery, crafts and some traditional food.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
During the summer, eat locally sourced reindeer dishes and fish and chips cooked inside a converted school bus at Alestine’s and served on a terrace overlooking the Mackenzie River in Inuvik north of the Arctic Circle.
Travel along the edge of scenic Yellowknife Bay in a 12-person voyageur canoe for a Floating Dinner Theatre experience in the summer with Narwal Northern Adventures. Feast on a traditional meal of soup and bannock, accompanied by lively entertainment (www.narwal.ca/tours
Participate in the Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival, northern Canada’s only celebration of space and science. This family event is held in late August in Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park, the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve (www.tawbas.ca
Get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape during a flightseeing tour (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-to-do/tours/flight-tours
Travel through two mountain ranges and the Continental Divide, and take your photo at the Arctic Circle when you drive the iconic 740-km (460-mi.) Dempster Highway from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik (www.yukoninfo.com/Inuvik-nwt/driving-the-dempster
). Then continue on and drive all the way to the tiny community of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean.
Make like an ice road trucker. Drive the 6.5 km (4.0 mi.) winter road that links Dettah to Yellowknife. There are also winter roads that link Fort Simpson to communities in the Mackenzie Valley and a route from Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan, AB.
Climb into a sled and listen to the sound of excited huskies barking with anticipation. Then silence descends when you hit the trail and feel the power of a team of dogs pulling you through the forest during a dogsledding excursion (www.spectacularnwt.com/what-
). In summer, the Great Northern Arts Festival offers workshops for both kids and adults.
Northwest Territories is the only political region in Canada which recognizes 11 official languages, five of which are spoken frequently in Yellowknife.
AULAVIK NATIONAL PARK
Aulavik means “place where people travel” in the local Inuvialuktun language. This remote, fly-in only Arctic park is located on Banks Island near the community of Sachs Harbour. Aulavik is home to the endangered Peary caribou and the world’s highest concentration of muskox. The landscape includes rolling hills, buttes, badlands, river valleys and seacoasts. The Thomsen River, one of the continent’s most northerly navigable rivers, runs through the heart of the park. The land has supported pre-Dorset cultures and the Inuvialuit people for more than 3,400 years (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/aulavik
National Parks and Historic Sites: