I spend three months in the Arctic and had some of the most memorable moments of my life.
As a kid living in Belgium, I had been fed plenty of wildlife propaganda by my dad. Growing up in civilization it sparkled my imagination. But Disney movies are never a good source of reality and even nature documentaries highly glorify the wild as being somewhat of a “happy place”.
Life in the bush is hard work. Living out that far requires self-sufficiency. I met people who do it, like my friend Andy. He’s a self-made Yukon Bushman.
Tired with his life in Belgium, he decided to wander around the Yukon territory, living in a tipi. He did so for several years until he moved into a house. It is an hour away from Whitehorse, in a valley where his neighbor lives five km away. He carries a survival pack in his truck. This is because if the car breaks down and he’s stuck for a night, freezing temperatures might mean the end of a successful Bushman career.
I met Judy, originally from Ontario, she left her family and friends to follow her sweetheart. Unfortunately, the love was gone when she arrived. She stayed anyways and still lives in a cabin deep in the woods, making beanies out of handwoven dog fur.
Then there is Anna Sofia, our dog mushing captain. She taught us how to train our huskies. We had a conversation once about what tempts people to come to the Arctic. She reckoned were two sorts of people that travel here. The first were of the altruistic sort, driven by an urge to help First Nations communities figure it out. The second were of the selfish sort, heading up to the Arctic because they needed some space to breathe.
I am of the second category.
The Arctic is a wild place but thankfully the locals have made some civilized pockets in it so city people don’t die when confronted with a lack of cocoa body butter and flushable toilets. They name them “towns”. This custom dates back from the first Yukon gold rush in 1896 when boats of town folk drifted up in boats hoping to find their fortune.
As I said before in my post Best Powder riding in Canada, you can find the great wild here in the north. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories are where I was heading to have a real taste of being in the middle of nowhere. The Yukon is like Alaska, but with less people.
My Canada travel was part of a bigger travel in North America. I spend one and a half year journeying through Canada, then going south to the United States and then ending up cave diving in Mexico and studying Spanish in Guatemala before I went home to Belgium.
To get to the Arctic, I hitchhiked from Calgary to Whitehorse through Jasper, Prince George and Dawson Creek. In Whitehorse, I flew to Inuvik, above the arctic circle. It was the most remote place that I could find where I could learn how to dog mush. Something I absolutely wanted to do while in Canada.
What was it like to live in Inuvik, one of the most remote places in the world? Just continue reading and find out.
When I moved up north to experience the Arctic and learn how to dog mush, there was luckily a town. In this town, there is a Chalet. This Chalet has the obvious name the Arctic Chalet. Their business is tourism. Their huskies take visitors for tours in the taiga.
The team of mushers consisted of five mushers for thirty dogs. I was one of those five. Besides me there was also Charlotte from France, Debbie from Taiwan and two Canadians: Sebastien and Cory.
Charlotte was the only one of us who made dog mushing into a career. She is still dog mushing in Iceland and Finland. Sebastien was taking a break from university to spend a year at the Arctic Chalet. He had a hard time having Canada being associated with Justin Bieber. Debbie was our office manager, I saw her rarely during summer because she was permanently sheltering inside a mosquito net. Cory was the literary intellect of the group. He would retreat at night with a glass of bourbon to read F. Scott Fitzgerald.
We lived very close with the owners, Judi and Olav Falsness. It takes a special type of people to move permanently to a place that is so remote and harsh. You can call it brave, but we called them crazy. Fabulously crazy though. You could probably punch Olav in the face and he wouldn’t budge. A result of being self-sufficient for many years.
Preferred dog breed for mushing are huskies. These ferocious fluff balls are how the arctic first nations have been getting around since 2000 BC. Roald Amudsen also used sled dogs when he was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. His competitor, Robert Falcon Scott, used Siberian ponies and died.
Huskies were bred for pulling and speed, having their origins with different wolf breeds around the arctic. All of them have gray wolf in them. Therefore, huskies are a bit harder to train than other dog breeds. It doesn’t mean they’re dumb, they are highly intelligent. A good leader dog will get you through a storm. They find trails when you can’t, through difficult terrain.
I guess making them sit down and roll over just isn’t their cup of tea. As gorgeous as they look, these are dogs that are very close to wolves and you need to remember that if you decide to own one. They require a huge amount of exercise and space. Because they’re so fluffy expect a lot of hair flying around in spring. At night, in the kennel, expect howling concerts as the huskies show their appreciation for the night.
The Life of a Dog Musher
A happy husky means a safe journey. Mushing dogs get bred to pull so like professional athletes, they need to train. Every morning we took them out for a run. In summer, because there is no snow, they get to pull an ATV.
In winter when the lakes freeze over and there is a few centimetres of snow, the sleds come out. You’re in the back, wrapped up in warm parkas and beaver fur gloves. Guiding the dogs through the pines onto a frozen lake. You might see a polar fox or a lynx. Finish the day with reindeer stew as you see the Northern Lights outside. This is what huskies do best: exploring wintery landscapes.
Inuvik, Northwest Territories
Inuvik is the end of the Dempster Highway. A 742 km dirt road that connects Dawson in the Yukon to the northwest of the Northwest Territories in Canada. One of the last towns in the Canadian North. It’s above the arctic circle. This means that on the of 21st June it gets 24 hours of sunlight and on the 21st of December they have a polar night.
In spring and early winter, the Dempster Highway closes because of unsafe road conditions. The spring brings thaw which makes the road into a mudpit, meaning you could get stuck and that would be the end of your trip. Early winter, slushy snow does the same thing.
For most of the year, starting autumn until spring, the supermarket receives their stock only through airplane. Pricewise this means that everything that’s heavy and bulky, triples in price. Milk goes up to a whopping $7 a litre. Fresh fruit and vegetables are so expensive, I hardly included them in my diet.
Luckily the town’s majority of inhabitants are first nations. They have a few extras that help them through winter. Hunting is a way to supply some extra food. They also have imported reindeer herds from Scandinavia. The reindeer roam the vast wilderness around Inuvik and once and a while an animal gets harvested. You can’t get more free-range than this.
Landscape around Inuvik is mainly taiga mixed with tundra. Taiga I can describe as an open forest of miniature pines. During the summer, the top soil thaws on top of a permafrost layer resulting in soggy, swampy ground. This is so much fun to walk on. In winter, everything freezes including the lakes and rivers. Parts of the Mackenzie river next to town are converted into an ice road that truckers use to bring supplies to the Inuit community Tuktoyaktuk.
There is not that much snow around Inuvik. They are close to the Arctic Circle so it’s very dry. Annual snow fall is about 160cm. These are perfect conditions for dog mushing since heavy snowfall makes it impossible to sled.
The taiga merges with the tundra in the north and south. Tundra has no trees since the conditions are too harsh for them to grow. In the autumn, it transforms into an ocean of warm colors. It stays like this for a very short period before everything freezes over for winter. It is absolutely spectacular and a must see.
Expect to see bears so be prepared when hiking. When you walk you need to carry bear spray and bear bells. Everything helps to not surprise a bear.
While I was there we saw a few bears and polar foxes. Bears can be dangerous but if you stay at a distance, they shouldn’t take too much interest in you.
In summer, you’ll meet Canada’s most feared predator: the black fly. Black flies are small, usually come in swarms and will be there the moment you step into the taiga.
They don’t sting you, they literally take a piece of your skin which results in a bloody, open wound. They’ll attack every piece of uncovered skin they can find. Even if you’re fully covered, black flies have a way to fly into openings of your clothing and still eat you. Especially around your ankles and legs. The only way to protect you is to wear netted shirts that cover your head and hands, tuck your heavy jeans into your boots and wear two pairs of socks.
Good part about this is that when the first frost hits the landscape, they all die and that is the end of the terror.
The Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights
Inuvik is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights.
I saw them in the middle of the night but it required me to camp outside in the cold. It was -10 degrees Celsius. I was huddled in front of the campfire with only my sleeping bag keeping me warm. The night was long and for the most part I saw only a green band in the sky.
After a few hours of freezing my bum off they got more intense. I was treated to one of the natural world’s most spectacular light shows. Bands of pink and yellow flowed into each other. They swirled for at least an hour until they lost intensity. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
There are two options to get to Inuvik. One is by plane, which is the only option in winter. A two way ticket will cost you a few thousand dollars.The other option is driving up the Dempster Highway. The latter choice is the most scenic. It requires some bravery since it is 742 km of dirt road through some of Canada’s most wild places. It takes you from Dawson Creek in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
There are no towns within hours of Inuvik. Actually, there are only a few places on the Dempster Highway where you can get fuel or find a mechanic. One is Eagle Plains Hotel and the other is Fort Mcpherson. There are campsite scattered along the road. The closest city is Dawson, sixteen hours to the south of Inuvik.
But even though it’s such a remote part of Canada, there are still plenty of people traveling up there during summer and autumn. There are the retired couples in their RV’s and the motivated French explorer, biking the whole 742 km. If you want to test your endurance both are good options. Just make sure you know how to fix stuff when it’s broken because mechanics are scarce.
And a last tip: know how to handle the wildlife. Bears, moose and beavers are wild animals. They bite and especially bears love to snack on tourist food. Nice smelling stuff like body lotion and perfume make you smell like a delicious snack. Don’t bother, bush people prefer a more rustic smell up north.