Land of the Midnight Sun

Town of Inuvik

Inuvik is quickly gaining a reputation as Canada’s best kept tourism secret. Located above the Arctic Circle on the picturesque Mackenzie River and Delta, the town lies near the Arctic Ocean and the Richardson Mountains…

Nestled among a maze of waterways, northern boreal forest, and bare, treeless tundra, the community of 3,500 enjoys stunning views, abundant wildlife, and a host of outdoor recreational activities. “I can literally step off the deck of my home and I am on a lake, ready to go paddling,” says Mayor Floyd Roland. “In the winter, I can jump on my snowmobile and go out to the main river. Within minutes I am out in the wilderness.”

This is also the land of the midnight sun, where summer is a riot of wildflowers and daylight – and winter is steeped in endless darkness and bone jarring cold. It is a destination, Mayor Roland says, that “provides challenges, but also provides great rewards.” In short, a visit to this unique town is a must for any traveler who dares to go beyond the ordinary, into a land of rare beauty and adventure.

Tourists will be pleased to find that, while the weather is harsh, accommodations are not. As the first planned community located within the Arctic Circle, Inuvik was carefully designed to provide the same up-to-date facilities of any Canadian town. “We surprise a lot of people,” Mayor Roland remarks. “Inuvik is quite modern for being so far north. We are a modern community with modern amenities that will rival larger communities.” In fact, providing top notch amenities has been crucial to Inuvik’s success. “When you are in such an isolated place and you want to keep people working and living here, then you have got to make sure that you have good facilities.”

The purpose behind this government project was to create a base for development and administration, as well as a centre for education, medical care, and opportunity for Canada’s arctic residents. Town status was officially achieved in 1970, and Inuvik has thrived ever since, despite its remote location and extreme temperatures. The town remains the government centre and transportation hub for the Western Arctic, and is the largest community north of the Arctic Circle. Furthermore, Inuvik is the main headquarters for the booming oil and gas industry operating throughout the Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie Delta area. “There are untold riches that lie within our ground here,” Mayor Roland remarks.

Traditionally, Inuvik has been considered a summer destination. “Because everybody considered this far north so remote, so cold, the idea of winter tourism wasn’t greatly looked at,” Mayor Roland explains. The locals aren’t deterred by the cold, however, and they were convinced that tourists were missing out on some of the best that the arctic had to offer. “We live it [the cold] daily, so we don’t think of it as unnatural,” Mayor Roland explains. As long as a person is properly prepared, winter above the Arctic Circle is an amazing experience. In fact, the long, dramatic dark of midwinter is “a big draw.” Visitors can experience total darkness round the clock – and view Inuvik’s remarkably vivid northern lights during the middle of the day. There are also winter sports such as cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding that allow tourists to trek through the Arctic’s vast, unspoiled wilderness.

Summer in Inuvik is short but intense, as nature explodes into activity to make the most of the fleeting warmth. The land teems with waterfowl and is blanketed in blossoms. The sun is relentlessly cheerful, refusing to set all season long. In fact, the intensity of the sunlit nights and awakened landscape catches many tourists by surprise. “Many people say that it was beyond anything that they ever expected,” Mayor Roland reports. In the summer, after the ice has melted, countless waterways can be explored by canoe, kayak, or motor boat. “You can be out to the Arctic Ocean in a couple of hours and see the water open up before your eyes,” Mayor Roland adds. Or, visitors can hike the vast, empty tundra. “We are right on the treeline, so you can climb the hills and see the tundra for as far as the eye can see.”

Tourists also have the opportunity to experience arctic traditions and ways of life. “We take people out to our traditional camps to introduce them to the people, the language, the wildlife, the flora, the fauna,” Mayor Roland says. The local Inuvialuit and Gwich’in cultures are also showcased in Inuvik’s festivals. For the last quarter of a century, Inuvik has been celebrating the return of the sun with an annual Sunrise Festival. Every January the community is eager to welcome the first rays of sunlight after nearly 30 days in total darkness. “We don’t see the sun crest the horizon from December fifth or sixth until January fifth or sixth,” Mayor Roland explains. Festivities begin with traditional drumming, dancing, storytelling, and singing. After a community pancake breakfast the following morning, there is a snowmobile parade with awards for best decorated, best themed, and oldest vehicles. The festival highlight is, of course, watching the actual sunrise, which takes place at noon. (Only two hours later, the sun dips back below the horizon.) There are also outdoor activities in Snow Park, including a snow carving competition, games, and sliding hills, as well as a bonfire for much needed warmth.

“It can be very cold,” Mayor Roland admits. “But the last two years of the Sunrise Festival have been quite nice – nice in our terms is minus 26 degrees Celsius.” Winter temperatures typically dip much lower. “When I drove into work today, it was minus 39 degrees Celsius without the wind.”

Festival visitors will also enjoy Inuvik’s Sunrise Arctic Market, in which local artisans sell their locally made arts, crafts, and baked goods. The event reaches its peak with the annual fireworks display. The festival comes at the perfect time of year to view fireworks, the Mayor explains, because during the summer, the midnight sun would drown out the display. “On Canada Day, everyone else is lighting up fireworks, but we can’t do that here because all you would see is a puff of smoke as it is so bright.”

Another major Inuvik festival is the Muskrat Jamboree, held every spring. “In the old days, when the days got longer and brighter, and the weather warmer, people would gather together and host games.” Inuvik and surrounding communities have continued this tradition, and each settlement in the region hosts an annual spring carnival around the end of March. The four day extravaganza features a bevy of activities, from foot racing, snowshoe racing, and cross country ski racing, to harpoon throwing contests and jigging contests. There are community games, traditional drum dancing, and a parade. Dog team races are a tourist and community favorite, and provide an excellent opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate and experience traditional arctic transportation.

Inuvik is remote, but accessible. The community is located at the end of the Dempster Highway, the only all-weather road in Canada bold enough to cross the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, the road offers travelers a memorable driving experience – and a chance to experience the unique isolation of the far north. “[Most people] are used to driving for an hour, and you are in another town,” Mayor Roland explains. “That’s not how it works up here.” For kilometre upon kilometre, travelers will see nothing but endless, untouched wilderness as they wind through towering mountains and across pristine rivers. In the wintertime, an ice road allows the highway to extend into arctic communities that are only accessible by boat or plane during the rest of the year. These ice roads are “smooth and wide, and you can haul huge loads on them,” Mayor Roland shares. “It is like a natural highway.” The ice can handle cars as well as large tractor trailers, which bring much needed supplies to far flung settlements.

An ice road is certainly an adventure for those from more southern climates. “When the days become longer and the sun comes out, it becomes like a hockey rink,” Mayor Roland cautions. “You drive carefully.” In the summer, ferries provide access across waterways, and private boats can take travelers to distant communities. A well-equipped airport allows travelers to access Inuvik by air any time of year. Whether arriving by land, sea, or air, Inuvik boasts a wealth of activities and natural beauty for visitors to enjoy all year round, from the brilliance of the midnight sun to the unique darkness of midwinter.

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February 25, 2020, 5:00 PM EST