Annie Steen might be the envy of every economic development officer in the North. It’s not every day a $300-million highway comes to town and, with it, an anticipated rush of tourists. In response, the residents of Tuktoyaktuk have been busy at work on all sorts of business proposals to make a visit to their town as fun and fulsome as possible. But if Steen’s situation is enviable, her workload probably isn’t. “It’s really an exciting time to be in Tuk,” she says, laughing. “Overwhelming, but exciting.”
When I spoke to her in November, Tuk was still recovering from the massive celebrations that came with the official road-opening. It was quite the welcome. The party included a meal for 1,000—more than the hamlet’s population—and it took three full days of cooking. With the ferry crossings over the Peel and Mackenzie rivers closed for the winter, Tuktoyaktuk’s residents had a couple of weeks to recharge before the ice crossings opened the road to more visitors.
The rest is well deserved. Besides the actual road construction, which many locals had a hand in, the last year has been one of transformation for the community perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
There was a massive paint job this summer, on buildings and other structures, so the town could put on its best face. A restaurant—Tuk’s first in ten years—is slowly ramping up. Local entrepreneurs plan to open a tire shop, and new outfitting and tour companies that include cultural camps and dogsledding activities. “We’ve done cultural host workshops with the community,” says Steen. “Because a lot of people kind of tend to be shy, you know, speaking publicly.” The workshops focused on preparing soon-to-be hosts and guides for the types of questions tourists will ask.
The town has three bed and breakfasts—and Steen says more people are interested to start their own. A few spots have been designated for RV camping, but there’s no official campground or RV park. Those types of things, along with a day-use area, are in the works. Someone’s even talking about opening a hotel, says Steen.
The road opening is also seeing Tuktoyaktuk recommit to the arts. At the grand opening celebrations, tables along the back of the community arena were packed with moccasins and slippers, elaborate carvings and jewellery, mitts and ornaments. Steen says the town is looking to really push an arts brand that makes people think of Tuk—much in the way arts enthusiasts associate weaving and prints with Pangnirtung, Nunavut or carvings with Cape Dorset, Nunavut. “We used to have a really successful fur shop in Tuktoyaktuk that produced designer muskrat coats—you know, like high-end stuff that was really successful,” she says. “And then when the oil companies pulled away and everything died in the community, there was no model that would kind of sustain that.”
It’s been a long road back for Tuk since its oil and gas heyday. The town’s been waiting for an opportunity like this—and people are ready to seize it.
When in Tuk
It’s going to be a busy year in the hamlet of 900, as Tuktoyaktuk rolls out a slate of events for visitors driving to the Arctic Ocean the first year the highway is open. Steen says the hamlet is working with the Town of Inuvik so their schedules complement each other, instead of competing. Here’s just a taste of what to expect in Tuk:
January 12 to 14: Sikiniq Nuimavia Katijvikput, a festival to welcome back the sun.
March 9: Extreme marathoners leave Eagle Plains, Yukon on the 6633 Arctic Ultra for Tuktoyaktuk.
April 20 to 23: The Beluga Jamboree.
(Inuvik’s Muskrat Jamboree is March 23-26.)
June 5: Inuvialuit Day commemorates the Inuvialuit land claim agreement signing.
June 21: Aboriginal Day—a stat holiday in the NWT.
Late June/early July: A summer highway opening celebration—dates to be determined.
July 1: Canada Day.
August: The Land of the Pingos Music Festival.
Late December: Christmas feast, drum dance and square dancing.