When the living is: easy; in a canoe; fun (in the midnight sun); bug and bear infested; all of the above. Hot damn, it’s finally summer! Why is it so awesome? Let us count the ways. Here, for each hour of each endless blissful day, are the 24 things we love about summer in the North. Illustrations by Monika Melnychuk
1. Getting a (sort of) tan
All winter, Northerners scuttle around in the dark, cloaked in parkas. We become sun-starved: Our bodies can’t produce the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D, resulting in depression, obesity – even rickets (yes, it’s a real thing). Plus, we look ghastly. Our faces become cadaverous. You can practically see our guts through our skin.
So in summer, we make up for it – by getting an “Arctic suntan.” No, we don’t strip down and bask at the beach, roasting like rotisserie chickens. If we did, we’d feel like exhibitionists, and plus, it’s still too darn chilly. Instead, we don ballcaps and windbreakers and head out in the sunshine to go canoeing, four-wheeling or fishing.
For the first few weeks of this, our noses and the backs of our hands go from white to red to white again, like the light on a cop car flashing in slow motion. But sometime around mid-summer, our flesh gets rich and ruddy. We appear hearty – alive.
Sure, beneath our hat brims, our foreheads stay pallid as fish-bellies. When we roll up our sleeves, the tan-line is ridiculous. And our legs – well what do you want? They haven’t seen daylight since the ’90s.
But we’re proud of our face-and-hands tans. Even we, in our way, are sun-worshippers.
2. Seeing gazillions of animals
Anyone who talks about the North’s “abundant wildlife” is lying – sort of. For nine months of the year – the cold months – the North is a biological asteroid. But that all changes in summer. For a brief few weeks, hundreds of millions of creatures flap, buzz and splash in the Arctic, making it a riot of life.
Longtime Nunavut bird biologist Mark Mallory calls the transition “striking – a change from relatively low numbers to really large ones. It’s tough to think of anywhere else where you get as much of a change.”
After a winter with just a handful of ravens and ptarmigans, at least 50 million birds flock north to breed and feed. On Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay, some 1.5 million thick-billed murres cling shoulder-to-shoulder on the cliffs. Near the Koukdjuak River on Baffin Island, a third of all the geese in Canada gather to rear their young. Mallory describes the noise and action in these colonies as “a constant cacophony.”
It’s not just the skies that get crazy. Tens of thousands of salmon swim into the territorial rivers. Seals by the millions shift north from the Labrador Sea. Belugas and narwhal press into the High Arctic, pursued by killer whales. Bowheads congregate to breed: Once, 145 of the giant whales were spotted in Baffin Island’s Isabella Bay in a single day.
And then there’s the bugs: In the Hudson Bay Lowlands alone, there are a god-awful 40 million mosquitoes per
hectare. Yet even these mozzies are, after so long an absence, initially greeted with joy. In May or June, it’s common to hear Northerners exclaim: “Guess what? I just killed my first mosquito of the year!”
3. Playing in water that's wet
According to Nukapinguaq, a famous Greenlandic dog-sledder who guided epic treks through the High Arctic in the early 1900s, “There is one real difference between white men and Eskimos. White men always think of ice as frozen water, but Eskimos think of water as melted ice. To us, ice is the natural state.”
That’s why, in the North, open water is such a big deal. After nine or more months when rivers and oceans are hard as stone, summer breakup is greeted with ecstasy. Sometimes it comes gently, with the musical tinkling of “candle ice.” Sometimes it’s ferocious, as house-sized floes are shattered by the spring flood and hurled downriver in a maelstrom.
But what comes after is always the same: a joyous frenzy of activity that can only happen during the brief weeks when the water is open. So pull on your swimsuit, find your fishing rod, un-tarp your boat, and head for the water. It’ll freeze back to normal all too soon.
4. Chilling without air conditioning
Down south, air conditioners are everywhere – and that’s not hot, says Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air Conditioned World. Cox argues air conditioners isolate people form nature and make them antisocial and sedentary – they’ve even been linked to obesity. Also, they gobble energy: a half-trillion kilowatt hours per year in the U.S. alone, which is more than the total energy usage of Africa. Worst of all, air conditioners cause global warming, leading to more air conditioners, ad nauseum.
So it’s awesome that the North doesn’t need them. Many of our communities, of course, are naturally air-conditioned. Even in July, Resolute, Nunavut averages just 4.3C; its hottest day was barely room temperature. (On some summer days, the Arctic seems set to “max cool”: On July 5, 1939, the Fort Ross trading post near Taloyoak, Nunavut, dropped to minus-12.2C.)
Even in the Subarctic, where it actually gets warm, most Northerners cope just fine without air conditioning. In June 2004, when Whitehorse was hit by a record heatwave – eight days of 30°C and above – people survived. They opened their windows and cranked up their fans and drank pure, cool Yukon icewater. They lazed on their shady porches and swam in lakes just a few degrees above freezing. And when those things didn’t work? That’s when they cracked the Chilkoot Lager.
5. Watching the sun not set
Of all the wonders of the Northern summer, none is more celebrated than the midnight sun. In Dawson City, Yukon, on the longest day of the year, that celebration is taken – quite literally – to new heights.
It all started on June 21, 1899, when at least 150 Klondikers (“many of whom were ladies”) climbed to the top of the town’s aptly-named Midnight Dome to watch the sun fail to go down. Ever since, this mountaintop party has been an annual ritual.
According to Dawson’s Cameron Sinclair, each solstice he and hundreds of other locals and visitors gather atop the dome to camp and party. The scenery is heavenly: 360-degree views of the Yukon River, the goldfields and the Ogilvie Range, all bathed in golden light. Sure, Sinclair admits: During the wee hours, even from atop the 900-metre summit, the sun flirts with the horizon. “But you can still see it,” he insists. “It just ripples behind the top of the peaks.”
6. Getting in 36 holes after work
When a pair of Dawson City residents set out 15 years ago to build the northernmost grass golf course in Canada, they had to clear swamps, boulders and boreal forestland. The result, the Top of the World Golf Course, was a beautiful, smooth nine-hole playground. But they hadn’t counted on the Klondike’s slumping permafrost. Nowadays, what were once flat fairways have become rolling hills.
Are Dawson golfers bummed? No way. Their course is always new – it never plays the same way twice. And the same could be said for the North’s 22 other golf courses. If it isn’t shifting terrain that’s the hazard, it’s bears, ball-thieving ravens or 300-metre-long sand traps. What’s not a challenge is darkness. In the perpetual daylight of the Arctic summer, you can play round after round after round.
7. Not caring what time it is
Most of us spend our lives as slaves to calendars, clocks and alarms. Even when we remove our wristwatches, we can still tell the time. If the sky is bright, it’s midday; when it’s dark, it’s night.
Not so during the Northern summer, says Jerry Kobalenko, Canada’s foremost Arctic trekker. “If I’m out on the land for a month or two, I have no idea what date it is, or day it is. Time is irrelevant under the midnight sun of the High Arctic, because the only difference between 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. is that the sun is a little higher in the afternoon. There’s also a perverse pleasure to eating breakfast at 10 p.m.”
In the perpetual daylight, he says, your body develops its own schedule. “An eight-hour travelling day leads to the usual 24-hour cycle, but more marathon efforts, e.g. 12 hours, turn the day 28 hours long. That’s when you start working your way around the clock. The most practical thing about the midnight sun is the flexibility it gives travellers. Raining when you get up? Just go back to sleep for a few hours until it stops raining, then begin your normal travelling day.”
8. Making mozzies really mad
While camped on the tundra a century ago, naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton once counted 30 mosquitoes on six square inches of his tent. Observing that the tent’s “whole surface was similarly supplied,” he calculated that 24,000 mosquitoes were trying to get in. Studying the bug-blackened netting from safe inside the tent, he likely felt the weird satisfaction that every Northern camper feels: Too bad, bloodsuckers! Buzz all you want – you aren’t getting me tonight!
9. Stopping in the middle of the road
Summer roadtrips happen everywhere in Canada, but only in the North do you own the road. The epic Dempster Highway, for instance, sees fewer than 100 vehicles per day. Wanna photograph that roadside grizzly? Need snacks from your hatchback? Have to take a pee? Just stop – whenever, wherever – and do it.
10. Using fireweed as a calendar
Epilobium angustifolium – fireweed – is the North’s iconic flower, appearing in everything from homemade jelly to corporate logos (Fireweed Helicopters, Fireweed Plumbing, etc.). Like us, it’s a hearty “pioneer species,” thriving on rugged mountainsides, river banks and wildfire burns. And like us, its approach to summer is bright, joyous – and measured.
Fireweed has been called a “blooming chronometer of summer, brilliantly marking the season’s progress.” Following the final frost of spring, it blooms low on its stalk – an eruption of pink and purple. As summer progresses, the vivid blossoms creep skyward; the bottom flowers wither. When the very topmost petals are flaring, every Northerner knows you better have the larder stocked and your firewood cut. Autumn is just around the bend.
11. Getting shaken up by thunderstorms
Big hellroaring electrical storms are rare up here, and that’s why they’re so fun. Every summer, Subarctic residents can count on at least a few crash-and-bang tempests, often accompanied by hail, jackpine-flattening winds, and lightning that knocks out the power grid.
North of the treeline, summer storms are rare – but not unheard of. In August 1993, thunder was heard on northern Prince of Wales Island in the High Arctic. Even farther north, at the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere Island, a cumulonimbus cloud – or “thunderhead” – was photographed in August 2004. And, says Environment Canada meteorologist Yvonne Bilan-Wallace, in July 2007 a group of 13 caribou were mysteriously found dead outside of Arviat. The most likely cause? A series of rare lighting strikes that had recently zapped the area.
12. Catching fish as big as a dog
Lake Athabasca once produced a 102-pound trout. Nunavut’s Tree River contains three-foot-long char. The Yukon River has the planet’s richest salmon, dripping with fatty goodness. Great Slave whitefish are so tasty they’re sought after in Manhattan and Helsinki.
And the thing is, they’re yours for the catching. The legendary outdoorsman Lloyd Bull, who passed away at age 86 this past January, came to the NWT summer after summer, perfecting the art of hooking giant lakers on the shoals of Great Bear Lake. In 1995, he pulled in a 72-pound leviathan – the biggest ever caught on rod and reel. Amazingly, fewer people fish that lake today than when Bull was fishing it. The monsters are still out there.
13. Riding the rivers on car ferries
In a land where rivers run free, car ferries are more than just a way across. They’re a cherished Northern tradition, a scenic rest stop, a social gathering spot – a quirky, jerky anachronism in an all-too-streamlined world. They’re old friends: the George Black, the Johnny Berens, the Merv Hardie, the Abraham Francis, the Louis Cardinal, the Lafferty, the Pelly Barge. But sadly, like the frontier itself, they’re threatened. Bridges (the nearly completed one over the Mackenzie at Fort Providence and the proposed one over the Yukon at Dawson) are beginning to straddle even our wildest rivers. In not too many summers, the beloved car ferries of the North may all be gone.
14. Blowing away the bugs
A good stiff wind is the best way to keep the bugs off. Writing about Alaskan mosquitoes in his book The Golden Spruce, John Valliant observes that “it takes a good five or 10 knots of breeze to keep them at bay, but even then they will tend to hover in your lee, waiting for the wind to die. Mosquitoes swarm so thickly up there that they can, like clouds, briefly assume recognizable shapes. This is probably the only circumstance in nature where it is possible to look downwind and see a shadow of oneself infused with one’s own blood.”
15. Not feeling quite so impoverished
In the North, heat and light cost an arm and leg. According to a survey conducted in December 2010 – before the latest price-hike – the average homeowner in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, spent $8,277 annually on heating fuel. Chances are, they spent at least another $2,500 to keep their house electrified.
Of course, those costs aren’t borne evenly throughout the year. They hit hardest during the dark, cold months. In January, your heating and power bill can approach $2,000.
That’s why summer is a vacation for Northerners’ wallets. Sometime in May the furnace gets switched off; it won’t
be fired back up until September. And, thanks to the midnight sun, electrical costs plunge as well. For a few brief months, we practically live for free.
16. Skinny dipping -- or trying to
Al Pace, owner of Canoe North Adventures, has gotten naked in a lot of Northern waterways, but he’s never had an experience like last summer. After guiding a group of VIPs – including Prince Andrew, the Duke of York – down the Horton River, some of them decided to celebrate by skinnydipping in the Arctic Ocean. According to Pace, “Five guys, including the duke, stayed [on top of a ridge] and five of us went down to the beach. We got our shirts off and we’re undoing our pants and this grizzly bear comes walking along the shore. I thought, ‘There’s five of us, I’ve got a bear-banger, I’m not too worried.’ And then this second bear walked out and I said, ‘Holy shit guys, we’re a little out-gunned here.’ What we didn’t know is that up top, the duke was gazing out over the ocean, and he was saying to the other guys, ‘You know, this is my fifth Arctic trip and I’ve actually never seen a bear – except for those two, headed right for our gang.’ He got a real chuckle. … And of course, the minute we threw our shirts back on and started to scale the steep bank again, the bears were gone. We never did get to swim.”
17. Flying anywhere you want
There’s perhaps no Northerner who knows floatplanes better than Dave Olesen. As a commercial pilot, he earns his living chartering his float-equipped Husky and Bush Hawk, taking paddlers to the Barrenlands and doing wildlife surveys for the government. But his aircraft aren’t just used for work. From early June until October, they’re his lifeline to the Olesen family homestead at the eastern tip of Great Slave Lake.
Olesen’s been flying on floats for three decades, some summers logging as many as 400 hours at the tiller. He says each year, as the ice begins to break up at his home at the mouth of
the Hoarfrost River, he looks forward to getting on the water. “Floatplanes are a really sensuous way to be involved with aviation,” he says. “On nice days there’s this amazing freedom of being able to land on any lake you want – it’s just amazing.”
Flying them isn’t too difficult, he says. Compared to wheeled planes, “the basic principles of aviation don’t really change. The airplane flies the same, it just handles a whole lot differently once you’re on the water. Taxiing, beaching, dealing with waves, glassy water – that’s tricky. When I do my safety briefing, I always joke with people that they’re now in the world’s worst boat.”
And Olesen admits that, as much as he enjoys the floatplane season, by mid-autumn, he’s happy for it to end. “You have ice on the floats and you’re falling into the water and snow is blowing,” he says. “You’re very, very glad to get the damn floats off the plane.”
18. Running rivers like a prime minister
Pierre Elliot Trudeau apparently spent some time as the leader of Canada, but he’s far more famous for his love of Northern rivers. He loved canoeing in the wilderness, and his paddling portfolio was diverse, including expeditions down the Nahanni, the Coppermine and Ellesmere Island’s Ruggles – likely the northernmost river ever run. Supposedly he made some memorable statements in Parliament, but surely his greatest quote captures what makes Northern river-tripping so sublime: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other travel. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
19. Doing nothing in the rain
Rain is a novelty in the North. Except for the Labrador coast, we see little precipitation of any kind, most of which falls as snow. In all of 1949, Arctic Bay got just 1.3 centimetres of moisture – a Canadian record. The western High Arctic islands receive barely more rain than Death Valley, North America’s driest spot. Of the 100 largest Canadian cities, Whitehorse is the least rainy; Yellowknife is second-least.
But there’s a bigger reason why rain is great. It gives us a break. The Northern summer is a solar-powered frenzy – a desperate race to pack a year’s worth of living into a few brief, bright months. We stay up too late, sleep too little, do too much, and get wild-eyed and strung out. When a crappy, wet day finally comes along, we’re forced to stay inside, just resting and – what’s that word again? Oh yeah, relaxing. We’re happy to just let it pour.
20. Spotting tourists in their habitat
This time of year, the territories become the summer range of several species of visitors. Northerners rejoice at their return and take great sport in observing their habits. Many of these seasonal visitors gather at Whitehorse’s popular Robert Service Campground, where manager Amanda Stehelin has become an expert at recognizing their distinctive markings and vocalizations.
This year as usual, she says, “we’ve got Germans,” who come by the thousands on direct flights from Frankfurt, eager to rough it under the midnight sun. Similar in temperament are the increasing number of Asians, “whether Chinese, Koreans, or Japanese, going on an adventure trip, some by car and some by canoe. … I’ve got a couple right now from Japan, I think she’s 62 and he’s 65, and they’re paddling to the Bering Sea.”
Among Canadians, there are two notable breeds, Stehelin says. “I’ve got all my hippies that show up every year, looking for work in Whitehorse and Dawson. And I’ve got all my yuppies that have the $10,000 tents and the $20,000 canoes. I just renamed our coffee shop the Hippie Yuppie.”
And finally there are the countless RVers, creeping up the Alaska Highway in caravans of six-figure motorhomes. Stehelin says they don’t usually bed down at her campground. Clearly, more research into their habits is required.
21. Eating every meal outside
So what if it’s raining or the wind is ripping across the tundra? So what if the sun is blinding and flies orbit you like satellites? As soon as the snow melts – and sometimes before – Northerners take their meals outside. For some of us, it’s BBQing on the deck and lounging on patio furniture that for eight months was buried by blizzards. For others, it’s at the firepit in the backyard, roasting smokies; or having a fish-fry at the tent-frame by the river; or sucking mattaq by the floe-edge. Who cares if the bugs die in your dinner faster that you can pick them out, or if the smells bring ravens and foxes around? There’s just something about filling your stomach under the big, bright, wild sky.
22. Smelling the aroma of wildfires
On any hot, hazy day in the Subarctic, there’s a good chance you’ll smell smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s wildfire. Flames consume staggering expanses of Northern timberland and regularly menace communities. In 2004, in the Yukon, more than 1.7 million hectares burned, reducing an area larger than Connecticut to ashes. In the NWT last year, elders in Délįne had to be evacuated when acrid smoke from nearby wildfires made breathing a chore.
But despite all those downsides, Smokey the Bear was wrong – you can’t prevent forest fires, nor should you. Most Northern wildfires are started naturally, by lightning, and they do a wonderful job rejuvenating the landscape – clearing moose pasturage, unlocking nutrients in the dirt, making the woods a diverse mosaic of old and new growth.
Another bonus: They’re good for people. Sure, sometimes they burn our cabins, or, yeah, kill us. But each summer, lots of Northerners are eager for the fire season to begin. It means jobs. In small communities, where work is often scarce, scores of people find seasonal employment as wildland firefighters. They earn good money, do important work, travel widely, and get to live a robust life in the great outdoors.
Finally, fires are good for the soul. When you peer out over the boreal forest and see a pillar of soot rising into the sky, you’re reminded there are forces out there more powerful than yourself. And you take a nice deep breath of that smoky air, and you smile.
23. Not wearing mukluks
Come summertime, we’re all bloody sick of our parkas. We’re sick of boots, mitts and toques. We’re sick of gearing up like astronauts going for a space walk. We’re sick of looking frumpy, formless, unrecognizable. We’re ready to dress for summer.
Which is why, as soon as it gets warm, Nikki Ashton does a booming business. As the co-owner of La Dee Dah Boutique in Hay River, NWT, she’s who local ladies turn to when they want to look like, well – ladies. “It’s been really busy lately. They’ve been coming in; they’re tired of all their winter sweaters and stuff,” she says. “They’re looking to summer up their wardrobe.”
And of course, after Ashton outfits them in light, bright fashions, they flaunt it. Suddenly, the streets are full of skin. There’s a buzz in the air; the North becomes suddenly – dare we say – sexy. “I love it. I think it’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can show my legs. I can wear flip-flops, skirts, dresses.’ Dresses are so impractical in the winter: People kind of furrow their brows at you, like, ‘What are you doing?’”
24. Having a very merry sealift
Know what really makes your Yuletide bright? Celebrating it under the midnight sun. That’s what happens in more than three dozen communities on the Arctic coast when they receive their annual summer sealift. During the Far North’s brief ice-free season, ships and barges sail from village to village, unloading non-perishable goods (from soup to nuts, not to mention diapers and dish soap) that locals ordered at bargain-basement prices from down south.
According to blogger Morena Steeves, who spent the past three-and-a-half years raising a family in the Nunavut communities of Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, “Sealift day is almost like Christmas morning, except Santa delivers these presents with a forklift. You crack them open and see two-and-a-half tonnes of wonderful stuff you put on your wish list months before.”