Experience the real Arctic, a wild and dramatic landscape of glaciers, treeless tundra, mountains and oceans that remain frozen most of the year. Visit remote towns and meet local Inuit who make up 84 percent of the population of Nunavut, “our land” in Inuktitut, and experience their culture in this unique and little-known territory—Canada’s newest.
The size of Western Europe, Nunavut is the biggest and least populated of Canada’s provinces and territories, 2,093,190 sq. km (808,185 sq. mi.) covering one-fifth of the country’s total area and reaching almost to the North Pole. With a population that could fit into an average sports stadium, it means there is one statistically solitary person for every 53.85 sq. km (20.79 sq. mi.).
TRADITIONS LIVE ON
While Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit is an increasingly modern frontier town with a population of 7,740, the 24 other communities scattered across the territory are much smaller, some home to just a few hundred residents. No roads link the tiny settlements, nor are there roads connecting Nunavut to the rest of Canada.
In the remote hamlets, life is often still lived according to age-old timetables and traditions. Though snowmobiles, boats and guns have largely replaced dogsleds, kayaks and harpoons, many Inuit continue to hunt and fish to support their extended families. Once nomadic, they love to go out “on the land,” camping throughout summer, collecting bird eggs and picking berries. Women wear homemade amauti jackets that keep their babies tucked against their backs.
Drum dancing, throat singing, carving, storytelling and sewing traditional clothes are still practiced throughout Nunavut and locals are happy to share the experiences.
OUT ON THE LAND
While the communities are cultural outposts, most visitors also want to experience the mystical Arctic wilderness with its dramatic scenery and wealth of wildlife. Always choose licenced and insured operators whether they are locals situated in most hamlets or southern-based outfitters that also offer a variety of adventures from canoeing and hiking to dogsledding and cultural visits with specific dates using some locals as guides. Reservations are required with both types of operators as most trips are booked well in advance.
An increasingly popular way to explore Canada’s Arctic is via cruise ships that hopscotch along the coast, stopping at several communities where locals welcome guests with performances, feasts and handmade artwork and souvenirs. Often, Inuit elders, artists and cultural experts will travel on-board to enhance the experience.
Temperatures range from +30°C (86°F) in summer to -50°C (-58°F) in winter when much of the territory lies in almost 24-hour darkness as skies shimmer with the magical colours of the aurora borealis. So most visitors come during the short summers, when pleasantly cool days are lit around the clock by the midnight sun and the tundra comes to life with wildflowers and wildlife and the waters teem with whales, walrus and seals.
Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, an area rich in biodiversity, was established north of Baffin Island. At approximately 108,000 square kilometres (41,699 sq. mi.), this breathtaking Arctic landscape, where narwhals and thousands of seabirds reside, is rich with majestic fjords and glaciers (www.pc.gc.ca/en/amnc-nmca/cnamnc-cnnmca/tallurutiup-imanga).
The Agguttinni Territorial Park is being established north of Clyde River and will be the largest park in Nunavut. It offers amazing flora and stunning landscapes of mountains fjords, ice caps and coastal sites. The area includes significant Inuit cultural sites, important bird areas and essential habitat for polar bears and caribou.
The seven-day Nunavut International Film Festival is now in its third year. Focusing on prominent works by filmmakers from the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Greenland, screenings at the Astro Hill movie theatre are free. Workshops are also held at the theatre.
Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit can easily be strolled on foot. Visit the igloo-shaped Anglican church and the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum with its Inuit artefacts, as well as carvings and prints for purchase in the gift shop. The Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre features wildlife and cultural exhibits, while the Nunavut Legislative Assembly building displays temporary art shows alongside their permanent northern art collection including the Legislative Mace carved from a narwhal tusk. Check the Iqaluit Visitors Guide for local events and places to stay, eat and shop (www.nunavutnews.com).
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Nunavut has five national parks, 15 territorial parks and special places, four Canadian Heritage Rivers, as well as 11 migratory bird sanctuaries and wildlife reserves. But in reality, untouched Arctic wilderness starts on the doorstep of every hamlet.
From June through September there is hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting and marine mammal watching for narwhal, bowhead and beluga whales as well as walrus, seals and polar bears. Many of these activities can be experienced on day trips from communities. Sport fishing is popular, with fishing lodges and camps accessible by boat and float planes. In winter, there is ice fishing and travelling across the frozen tundra and sea ice by snowmobile, on cross-country skis and via dogsled. Choose a hamlet hotel base, camp on the tundra with an outfitter, or enjoy the comfort of luxury wilderness lodges including Arctic Watch, Arctic Haven and Bathurst Inlet Lodge (www.weberarctic.com; www.bathurstarctic.com).
More adventurous travellers can canoe the Soper River in Katannilik Territorial Park on Southern Baffin Island or the Thelon River on the Barren Lands. Rock climb granite peaks in Auyuittuq National Park, backcountry ski amid Clyde River’s sheer rock walls, or paddle Alexandra Fjord and hike in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island (www.blackfeather.com).
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
Throughout Nunavut are sites once used by nomadic Inuit. Stone rings marking the locations of skin tents used in summers are commonly spotted. In Qaummaarviit Territor-ial Park, near Iqaluit, semi-subterranean sod houses used by Thule people between 1200 and 1700 AD can be seen (www.gov.nu.ca/environment/information/territorial-parks-and-special-places).
There are also many Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts, remnants from the 19th century whaling era and, on Beechey Island, the graves of three men from Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage can be explored on expedition cruises staffed with artists, academics and Inuit (www.quarkexpeditions.com/en/arctic; www.adventurecanada.com).
Carving is common throughout Nunavut, but Cape Dorset is the epicentre of iconic Inuit sculptures that have been gifted to presidents, popes and royalty (www.dorsetfinearts.com). Their print-making is also acclaimed. The Kenojuak Cultural Centre, an art studio and exhibition space, covers seven decades of printmaking (www.kenojuakcentre.ca). The print centre in Pangnirtung is also world-renowned (www.uqqurmiut.ca).
MUST SEE, MUST DO
Dogsled or kayak on a day trip out of Iqaluit (www.inukpakoutfitting.ca).
Experience an Arctic safari aboard a snowmobile-drawn Inuit sled from coastal Pond Inlet to the floe edge in springtime, guided by Inuit. Wildlife, from whales to polar bears, take part in an open water feeding frenzy (www.arctickingdom.com/arctic-safari).
Watch polar bears and walrus emerge from stone, antler and whalebone as carvers work outside their homes in most hamlets.
See colourful northern lights flicker across the sky in fall and winter.
Experience Inuit throat singing and drum dancing (www.alianait.ca).
Taste traditional Inuit food like Arctic char, caribou, muskox and fresh, hot bannock bread.
Experienced backpackers can traverse the 97-km (60-mi.) Akshayuk Pass through Auyuittuq National Park, a 10 to 14-day hike amid glaciers, sheer cliffs and river crossings. Be sure to travel with one of the licenced, insured and Park-approved outfitters in Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq. The less adventurous can glimpse the pass’ spectacular mountain terrain on a day’s boat ride up the fjord from Pangnirtung to hike to the Arctic Circle (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/auyuittuq).
Hike the trail up the peak of 200-m (656-ft.) Mount Pelly in Ovayok Territorial Park east of Cambridge Bay for views, wildflowers and archaeological sites (www.gov.nu.ca/environment/information/territorial-parks-and-special-places).
Stroll easy paths through a tundra valley to waterfalls and cultural sites at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park just outside Iqaluit (www.gov.nu.ca/environment/information/territorial-parks-and-special-places).
Head to Iqaluit from Ottawa on a family-friendly long weekend in August. Flights, hotel and a town tour are included (www.arctickingdom.com/arctic-getaways).
Take the kids to play with Canadian purebred Inuit dog puppies at Inukpak Outfitting’s kennel, head out for a dogsledding excursion, build an igloo with your family then sleep in it, or ride a snowmobile and try ice fishing (www.inukpakoutfitting.ca).
Park PickSirmilik National Park
Between the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay on northern Baffin Island, Sirmilik National Park’s 22,200 sq. km (8,572 sq. mi.) are comprised of three parts: Borden Peninsula is a plateau sliced by broad river valleys; Oliver Sound is a scenic fjord for boating, wilderness hiking and camping; and Bylot Island is a spectacular and rugged island of mountains, valleys, glaciers and seabird colonies. Kayak iceberg-dotted waters, trek to red rock hoodoo spires, spot migratory snow geese at their biggest nesting area and visit ancient archaeological Thule sites. Bylot abuts the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation area called the “Serengeti of the Arctic” for its abundance of seals, narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, as well as walrus and polar bears (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/sirmilik).
National Parks and Historic Sites: www.parkscanada.gc.ca