The North, Canada

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The North

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Although much of Canada still has the flavour of the “last frontier”, it’s only when you embark north to the Yukon, Northwest Territories or to Nunavut that you know for certain you’ve left mainstream North American life behind. In the popular imagination, the North figures as a perpetually frozen wasteland blasted by ferocious gloomy winters, inhabited – if at all – by hardened characters who make do without civilization. In truth, it’s a region where months of summer sunshine offer almost limitless opportunities for outdoor activities and an incredible profusion of flora and fauna; a country within a country, the character of whose settlements has often been forged by the mingling of white settlers and aboriginal peoples. The indigenous hunters of the North are as varied as in the South, but two groups predominate: the Dene, people of the northern forests who traditionally occupied the Mackenzie River region from the Alberta border to the river’s delta at the Beaufort Sea; and the Inuit (literally “the people”) of Nunavut.

The North is as much a state of mind as a place. People “north of 60” – the 60th Parallel – claim the right to be called Northerners, and maintain a kinship with Alaskans, but those north of the Arctic Circle – the 66th Parallel – look with light-hearted disdain on these “Southerners”. All mock the inhabitants of the northernmost corners of Alberta and such areas of the so-called Northwest, who, after all, live with the luxury of being able to get around their backcountry by road. Yet to any outsider – in terms of landscape and overall spirit – the North begins well south of the 60th Parallel. Accordingly, this chapter includes not just the territories of the “true North” – Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut – but also northern British Columbia and Alberta, regions of both provinces that are considerably starker and more remote than areas further south.

The two roads into the Yukon strike through northern British Columbia: the Alaska Highway heads up from the eastern side of the province, connecting Dawson Creek to Fairbanks in Alaska, and to the west is the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, from near Prince Rupert to Watson Lake, on the Yukon border. Though the Stewart-Cassiar’s passage through the Coast Mountains offers perhaps the better landscapes, it’s the Alaska Hwy – serviced by daily Greyhound buses and plentiful motels and campsites – that is more travelled. While the scenery is superb, most towns on both roads are battered and perfunctory places built around lumber mills, oil and gas plants and mining camps, though increasingly they are spawning motels and restaurants to serve the surge of summer visitors out to capture the thrill of driving the frontier highways. Equally popular are the sea journeys offered along northern BC’s coast, among the most breathtaking trips in Canada. Prince Rupert, linked by ferry to Vancouver Island, is the springboard for boats to the magnificent Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) and a vital way-station for boats plying the Inside Passage up to Alaska.

The Stewart-Cassiar and Alaska highways converge at Watson Lake, marking the entrance to the Yukon Territory. This exhilarating and varied region is truly bear country: 34,000 people live in the Yukon alongside ten thousand black bears and seven thousand grizzlies. It boasts the highest mountains in Canada, wild sweeps of boreal forest and tundra, and the fascinating nineteenth-century relic, Dawson City. The focus of the Klondike gold rush, Dawson was also the territory’s capital until 1952 when that role shifted south to Whitehorse, a city doing well on tourism, federal jobs and the exploitation of the Yukon’s vast mineral resources. From here, the Klondike Highway strikes north to link Whitehorse with Dawson City. North of Dawson the Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle, offering a direct approach to the northern tundra and to several remote communities in the Northwest Territories. The Yukon’s other major road is the short spur linking the Alaskan port of Skagway to Whitehorse, which shadows the Chilkoot Trail, a popular long-distance footpath. If you’re planning a wilderness trip in the Yukon, pick up a copy of Into the Yukon Wilderness at any tourist office or download a copy at w env.env.gov.yk.ca/publications-maps/documents/intothe_yukonwilderness.pdf.

Combining coastal ferries with the Chilkoot Trail makes an especially fine itinerary. Following the old gold-rush trail, the route begins at Skagway – reached by ferry from Prince Rupert – then follows the Chilkoot to Whitehorse, before heading north to Dawson City. From there you could continue up the Dempster Highway, or travel on the equally majestic Top of the World Highway into the heart of Alaska. Alternatively, many people coming up from Skagway or plying the mainland routes from BC head to Alaska directly on the Alaska Hwy to enjoy views of the extraordinary and largely inaccessible mountain vastness of Kluane National Park, which contains Canada’s highest peaks and most extensive glacial wilderness.

If the Yukon is the far North at its most accessible, the Northwest Territories (NWT) is the region at its most uncompromising. Just three roads nibble at the edges of this almost unimaginably vast area, which occupies a third of Canada’s landmass – about the size of India – but contains only forty-one thousand people, almost half of whom live in or around Yellowknife, the territories’ colourful capital. Unless you’re taking the adventurous and rewarding Dempster Highway from Dawson City across the tundra to Inuvik, Yellowknife will probably feature on any trip to the NWT, as it’s the hub of the (expensive given the remoteness of the region) flight network servicing the area’s widely dispersed communities.

Otherwise, most visitors come to the NWT to fish, canoe, hunt, hike, watch wildlife or to experience the aboriginal cultures and ethereal landscapes. After years of negotiations, the Inuit of the eastern NWT finally realized their dream of administering their land with the creation of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This effectively split the former NWT into two distinct regions with the eastern half being renamed Nunavut (literally “Our Land”). Nunavut and the “old” western NWT issue their own tourist material; pick up, or download, a copy of their respective Explore Nunavut and the Spectacular NWT Explorers’ Guide brochures, which summarize accommodation options, airline connections, many of the available tours – costing anything from $50 to $5000-plus – and the plethora of outfitters who provide the equipment and backup essential for any but the most superficial trip to the region.

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