IF YOU REALLY want to get away from it all, an adventure in Canada’s North will certainly let you do that.
Hike high into rarified air on mountain pass- es carved out by the wildlife that are still rulers of their domain. Paddle pristine tundra rivers that weave through the tree line, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town. Turn over stones and kick up dust that hasn’t been disturbed by another human in decades, centuries, even thousands of years.
Journeys to these special Northern worlds aren’t easy. They take weeks or months of dili- gent preparation and careful packing. They often require a guide—or tutelage from someone who has gone before. Even then, things rarely ever go totally according to plan.
That means there’s usually something you’d do differently next time. A piece of advice you could have used before you left. An unrealistic expectation you should have surrendered as soon as you stepped off of the plane. A pair of cumbersome boots that you lugged around for a week but never wore once. Or a pair of boots that you would have given just about anything for. There’s a faux-pas that you make by accident. Or an invitation you turn down—and immediately regret—because you say you’re too tired.
It happens to us all.
Here are six once-in-a-lifetime Northern experiences that adventurous, accomplished and ambitious travellers would do again in an instant… but probably with just one little change.
FOLLOWING NATURE’S TRAILS THROUGH THE TUNDRA: HIKING THE THELON ESKER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
SAND AND GRAVEL ridges snake all over the tundra. These eskers rise above their shrubby surroundings, providing some wind exposure and reprieve from the bugs. This helps explain why they are well-travelled routes that wildlife—and the people hunting it—have used since time immemorial. To Yellowknifer Meghan Schnurr, a hike on North America’s longest esker sounded like a great way to spend a couple of weeks.
Schnurr first got interested in the experience after hearing about fellow Yellowknifer Dwayne Wohlgemuth’s five-week, 700-kilometre hike following the Thelon Esker. When Schnurr asked about the trip, Wohlgemuth highlighted a 150-kilometre stretch from Rawalpindi Lake—roughly 280 km north of Yellowknife—to Lake Providence. “He was like, this is the most bang for your buck,” says Schnurr. There would be good camping, scenic vistas and, most importantly, it was an easy in-and-out by floatplane.
Understanding the bugs would be bad, it was imperative to get going as soon as the ice melted. “We were on-call with Ahmic [Air],” says Schnurr, who checked satellite images for ice conditions every morning. The day it was finally gone in early July, Schnurr, her friend Adam, and her two-year-old dog—a “Northern special” named Nellie—flew up.
They would spend the next 13 days following the esker eastward by eye and by consulting their GPS whenever the esker dipped underwater into the lake. There was no marked path to walk on: at times, they had to use a pack raft to cross streams and bushwhack to get around lakes.
But the challenge was part of the allure: “I’d never done an actual hike that wasn’t a set trail,” says Schnurr. At that point, it was the longest and most remote hike she’d attempted. Months after returning home, she still sometimes thinks back to the simplicity of those days. “All you really have to do is walk, eat and find somewhere with water to sleep.”
NEXT TIME, I’LL LEAVE MY DOG AT HOME.
Unfortunately, Schnurr’s group didn’t beat the bugs. And that didn’t bode well for Nellie.
With all their gear, Nellie had to haul her own food in a backpack, which meant she couldn’t roll around to escape the swarms. “The blackflies could just get right in the fur, right in the skin, and she was just frantic.” Schnurr set up her tent constantly—at lunch, as soon as they made camp—to give Nellie a break. And the tent was the last thing they took down before starting the day. “She was not into leaving the tent,” says Schnurr. “We would actually hike based on the winds because that’s the only time the bugs were a bit more tolerable for her.”
But there’s a happy ending. Nellie eagerly joins Schnurr on hiking adventures, so it’s not like she was traumatized for life. Still, Nellie will be staying home if Schnurr ever decides to chase another esker. “Yeah, I wouldn’t bring my dog on a hike in the tundra,” she says, with a resigned laugh.
BUILDING THE FIRST INUVIALUIT SOD HOUSE IN RECENT MEMORY: MAKING HISTORY NEAR TUKTOYAKTUK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
IT WAS AN EXPERIENCE nearly a decade in the making.
As a final project in college, Noel Cockney designed a program focused on ways of bringing back Inuit traditions, which he hoped to one day deliver to youth back home. This type of hands-on, on-the-land teaching comes naturally to Cockney. His grandparents, he says, dedicated their time in Tuktoyaktuk to “taking high school students out on the land and teaching us what to look for when we’re hunting or gathering plants and animals.”
When Cockney was hired on as a regional programmer and safety coordinator with Dechinta—the NWT’s “bush university”—he knew he wanted to take his project from the drawing board to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, by building a traditional Inuvialuit sod house.
Over the course of two and a half weeks last fall, Cockney brought eight high school students in total, along with three staff, to his family camp, roughly 15 kilometres northeast of Tuktoyaktuk. “On a nice day, it’s a 10- to 15-minute boat ride,” he says.
There, they began to build what Cockney says is likely the first new Inuvialuit sod house (or igluryuaq) in the region in 50 or 60 years. These structures were typically dug down into the ground, with driftwood forming the walls and roof of the buildings, and sod packed on top to insulate them.
The group hauled giant pieces of driftwood two to three kilometres from the beach to the camp by ATV, and cut the logs into sections, which form the walls of the traditional Inuvialuit structure. They also dug into the permafrost with pick-axes and shovels to set the big base logs that became the main sup- ports for the house. “They were quite large, for sure,” says Cockney. “One of them was pretty close to my arm span, reaching around it.”
Because it had been two generations since anyone had constructed a sod house in the area, Cockney says he and the rest of the group had to learn techniques from stories and from reading up about past builds. “A lot of it was trial [and error] as we were building it,” he says. “It’s been a really exciting thing to get back to the basics of how our ancestors had to problem-solve.”
By early October, the walls of the house were up. Early next spring, Cockney says he will bring classes out from Tuktoyaktuk’s Mangilaluk School to put on the finishing touches—cutting and laying the sod pieces to cover the roof.
NEXT TIME, I’LL LET THE KIDS STAY FOR LONGER.
Just as the students were starting to get the hang of the construction and falling into the routine of the days at the camp, it was time for them to head home. “We started off with five high school students and then, five days in, we had to switch out the group for three new students,” says Cockney. It would have been great to have them stay for longer, he says.
One student did want to remain for the whole time, says Cockney. That is, until he capsized a canoe and got his phone wet. “Once he lost that, it really discouraged him from staying out there.”
THE WONDERS OF THE HIGH ARCTIC IN THE SUMMER: LANDSCAPE AND WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY IN ARCTIC BAY, NUNAVUT
IT’S THE BEST of the North in one place, reckons Jenny Wong.
Last August, local guides from Arctic Bay brought Wong, an experienced wildlife photographer, to visit landmark sites around the community that few outside of the region have ever heard of. Wong was taken aback. She says people travel all across the circumpolar world to see the diversity of landscapes she witnessed near the north Baffin community in just two weeks.
There were waterfalls like you see in Iceland, glaciers you might find in Alaska, and the dramatic fiords and sheer cliffs that Norway is famous for. She even saw the types of ancient geological structures that dot the American southwest at an area known in Arctic Bay as Cowboy Land, which features surreal rainbow-coloured rocks. “It’s pink and purple and blues,” she says. Of course, there was also the wildlife—whales, seals and polar bears—you would expect to see in the Canadian Arctic.
Wong made the trip to work with the community-owned tourism company, Arctic Bay Adventures, to help create summer travel itineraries for tourists. When you ask Wong about specific hikes, boating or photography trips that might wind up in tourism packages, it’s hard to know where to start. “The land is just vast—valleys after valleys, mountains after mountains,” she says.
But to begin with, she says people need to stop thinking about the Arctic as a uniformly winter world. “Every image of the Arctic and the High Arctic—you think of Northern Lights, you think of ice, snow, white, cold,” she says. The summer is under-appreciated. “The landscape is gorgeous. It’s so colourful—you can’t imagine the blooming tundra. The berries, the lichens, everything.”
Today, tourism in Arctic Bay is mainly focused on six-week spring floe edge experiences, but the goal is to grow the summer tourism market. And that will bring jobs to local guides, who understand the land intimately—and can share their history through stories of the places only they know about.
NEXT TIME, I’LL LET SOMEONE ELSE CUT MY MAKTAAQ.
There is little that Wong would change about her Arctic Bay experience. But there was one moment where she bit off more than she could comfortably chew.
On previous visits to the Arctic, Wong had the opportunity to sample maktaaq, an Inuit staple of whale skin and blubber, served in a variety of ways. She found it delicious and was excited to share the experience with her videographer, Brian, who accompanied her to Arctic Bay. He had never had maktaaq before. “I cut it all up, prepared it, had the soy sauce and we both grabbed a piece and put it in our mouths,” says Wong.
One problem: “I don’t think I cut it deep enough and we’re just sitting there chewing, and chewing.” Unfortunately, the chunks were too big and, after minutes of dedicated chewing, Brian had to ask whether he was actually supposed to swallow the piece. “I clearly was not very good with my ulu,” says Wong.
RECALIBRATING YOUR SENSES FOR ANOTHER WORLD: ALPINE HIKING IN THE YUKON’S OGILVIE MOUNTAINS
AFTER EIGHT DAYS in the Ogilvie Mountains, even normal sounds will seem alien.
Approaching a river, coming down from the mountain, Margaret McClelland and Barry Richards suddenly snapped alert at a strange noise. “I thought it was a bear,” says McClelland, who stumbled forward in surprise when she first heard it. The English couple kept quiet, with ears perked, until the sound slowly began to register. “It wasn’t a bear,” she says. “It was a car.”
Richards says through the brush and the trees, they didn’t realize they had ended up on the Dempster Highway. “It was just a week out of civilization and something you hear every day became something really unusual.”
You can forgive them—they’d just spent a week in another world. The outlandish experience started as soon as the couple, three other hikers and Terre Boréale guides, Max and Boris, took off from Mayo to land on what Richards describes as “a little puddle” in the mountain in August 2019. From there, they hiked 60 kilometres through seldom trodden country and into Tombstone Territorial Park. “You’re looking around and you can’t hear anything apart from the wildlife that’s there,” says McClelland. There were no familiar sights or sounds to bring them back to their normal lives. No vapour trails in the big sky. At one point, McClelland recalls, a moose crossed ahead of the group, 10 metres away.
On the penultimate day in the mountains, they woke up and winter had blown in. Camping on an exposed plateau, they had to abandon their plans to climb higher and instead find a route off of the mountain. Max and Boris swung into action and improvised a descent. It was slow going, says McClelland, considering the amount of bushwhacking and scouting they had to do, but serendipitously, they came upon an outfitter’s trail. “It was fantastic as we were coming off the hill, looking behind as the mountains were all snow,” says Richards. “The sun had come up then and it was really absolutely stunning.”
The new route gave them another surreal moment. Scanning the horizon, they spotted a grizzly roughly 150 metres away. “It was almost like a cartoon thing, up against a tree scratching with his back,” says McClelland.
The trip was a pure sensory experience. Descending a hill of deep shale, Richards vividly recalls the dust the group kicked up. “These smells that you’ve never smelled before and you think, nobody might have ever done this,” he says. “This might have been untouched dirt forever.”
And it didn’t end there. The attention Max and Boris paid to the meals made every stop a highly- anticipated affair. There was chilli, couscous and sweet potato, mushroom balls and pasta—and breaks for tea, says McClelland, where the guides infused “herbs that they’d found during the day.” McClelland and Richards celebrated their anniversary on the trip and Max broke out some candles to top their apple crumble dessert.
“That’s the joy of being with professionals, isn’t it?” says McClelland. “They’ve got sufficient knowledge to adapt and to keep you safe.”
NEXT TIME, I’LL DITCH THE LIGHTWEIGHT POLES.
Packing light isn’t always alright. McClelland says her light-weight carbon walking poles didn’t last very long in the rocky mountain terrain. “They’re lighter, but they’re rubbish when you fall between rocks and they break,” she says. With some duct tape, she and Richards were able to salvage them to help prop up their tarp— but that was about it.
Fortunately, Richards had a usable pair. “And you valiantly gave me your poles,” McClelland says, turning to Richards, who smiles.
GOING WITH THE FLOW (BY NOT GOING WITH THE FLOW): RAFTING THE ALSEK RIVER IN THE YUKON’S KLUANE NATIONAL PARK
WHENEVER BRONWEN DUNCAN bumped into Jill Pangman, she would gently prod her about leading a Whitehorse women’s backcountry trip. Eventually, Pangman, owner/operator of Sila Sojourns, suggested a rafting adventure in Kluane National Park to camp at the foot of the Lowell Glacier. How could Duncan say no?
In late July 2021, a group of five women put their rafts into the Dezadeash River. They meandered through lush green landscapes for a day before the river merged with the Kaskawalsh to become the Alsek. Here, the river picks up in size and speed, with gravel banks and constant braiding that requires minute-to-minute decision-making. Duncan, an experienced paddler, was a rafting newbie. Unlike a canoe or kayak that can cut through the waves, “a raft is like a cork in the wind,” she says. “It just kind of bobs around and you just have to go with it. You need the guidance of someone who really knows the boat’s habits.”
After a few days on the Alsek and navigating a set of moderate rapids, they arrived at Lowell Lake, setting up camp with a striking view of the 17-kilometre-long Lowell Glacier. “There’s icebergs that calve off regularly and then float around the lake,” says Duncan. “Every half hour or so, there would be a thunderous noise as another chunk of ice just calved off the glacier, or one of the existing icebergs would roll over.”
The group started to name the house-sized icebergs. “They would just stick out of the water like these brilliant glass-blown art installations,” she says.
Overall, Duncan was struck by the rawness of the stark land. “I’ll get poetic here—the expanse of all this bareness kind of supplies a backdrop where you feel the frailness and strength of humanity.”
The Alsek flows into grizzly country. Although Duncan says they saw three grizzlies on the trip, the group was put at ease by Pangman’s experience and preparedness throughout the trip. “The park controls very strictly where you can camp, for how long you can camp,” says Duncan. “It needs to know how you’re getting in, what plane you’re taking out, the colour of your plane, the colour of your tents.” Pangman took care of it all and that allowed the group of women—between 50 and 65 years of age—to really enjoy each other’s company. “It was this gentle humour that we just kind of developed,” Duncan says.
NEXT TIME, WE WON’T WORRY ABOUT GETTING TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN.
At Lowell Lake, Pangman was excited to show the group the view of the glacier from the top of Goatherd Mountain. All they had to do was cross a small creek to get there. But in the years between Pangman’s visits, this creek has become a fast-moving stream.
The group started to brainstorm a way across. First, they built a crude raft with sticks and ropes, giving Pangman a pole to try to pull herself across. Next, they wrapped their life jackets around the raft and once again sent Pangman out. Then they tried to toss a rope across. The rope wound up being too short, so they added another, attached to a throw-bag, which promptly filled with water and became an anchor in the mud. When Pangman finally got across, in her wet-suit, she was barely able to get out of the muck.
Ultimately, each attempt failed in its own spectacular way and the group of women fell around laughing. “We completely cracked up,” says Duncan.
It turned out to be a highlight of the trip. “We ended up playing like little boys,” she says. “We totally focused-in on sticks and rope and honestly did our best to get across the river. That’s the only thing we had to focus on for a day and a quarter and we just had so much fun with it. That was such a gift. You don’t get that in life anymore.”
The group never did get to the top of the mountain. But Duncan could care less. “We kind of had to let Jill down gently and say, ‘You know, does it matter? We had so much fun pulling this bad raft together.”
THE ONLY SOULS FOR HUNDREDS OF MILES: PADDLING THE UPPER TALTSON RIVER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
SUMMER COMES QUICKLY on the tundra.
When the floatplane carrying George Wing landed on a lake, 200 or so kilometres northeast of Fort Smith, NWT, in July 2019, he was surprised to see so much ice still on the surface. In fact, for much of the first two days of his ten-day trip on the Upper Taltson River, they had to lake-whack through candled ice.
But that came with the territory. Wing and the rest of his group, led by Jackpine Paddle owner Dan Wong, ventured into a part of the world that only a small fraction of people will ever witness. They paddled through a land that remains totally unblemished by humans, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest permanent settlement. On shore, they would come across muskox skulls and giant caribou antlers. Wing found a quartzite arrowhead. Grizzly and wolf tracks were everywhere. “Almost every beach you went to had bear tracks on it.” The fishing was “glorious,” he says. “I'll probably never see anything like that again.”
Even now, more than two years removed from the river, he says the experience is hard to describe. For example, the speed at which the seasons changed was almost impossible to believe. “It was winter and then spring happened in about seven days and then it was summer. I mean, the sun never set, so the plants woke up, the trees blossomed, the leaves grew in a week, and then it was summer,” he says.
NEXT TIME? I SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS 30 YEARS AGO…
Wing had been dreaming about such a paddle adventure for more than 30 years, since his eyes first peeped a tiny “one-inch-square” ad for ‘Arctic Canoe Trips.’ “I used to get the New Yorker magazine and Alex [Hall] would buy the tiniest ad you could possibly buy, like in the back pages.”
“I’ve always been a canoer and so I wrote to him and I said, ‘What are you offering?’ And he wrote back with the itineraries and the prices,” he says. “I was a college student in New York City and it was just too much money and I couldn’t do it.”
But Wing and Hall, a true icon of Arctic paddling, would continue to write to each other. “He would always hand-write a letter,” says Wing. Eventually they transitioned to email, in an on-again, off-again correspondence that lasted some 30 years. “Alex and I wrote about his ever-evolving trips, what they cost, and what animals he was seeing,” says Wing.
“I could never quite afford the trip and then one day I was like, ‘I can afford this now.’” When Wing wrote to share the good news, Hall told him it was unfortunately too late. He was dying. The icon of tundra paddling passed away in March 2019.
Wing never did meet Hall, but on the Taltson, he caught touching glimpses of the man. “There were traces of him on the landscape,” says Wing. “He would make these weird rectangular fire rings and stack small pieces of wood next to them,” he says. These landmarks, Wing explains, would remind him where he could stop, pull to shore, and show guests interesting items he’d found in the area.
And Wing did the next best thing to paddling with Hall—he did the Taltson with Hall’s protégé, Dan Wong. In Hall’s last days, he transferred much of his knowledge of the tundra rivers—and his business—to Wong, who now guides trips on some of Hall’s favourite waterways. “Dan has done an absolutely fantastic job of taking it over and just doing it,” says Wing. “I would take any trip with him.”
In fact, Wing is planning to return to the Taltson this summer—this time, with his 14-year-old son.