One if by land, two if by sea; everyone knows land is better whenever possible, even the forefathers. It’s that time of year when people start heading north in search of Arctic Adventure Tours. Most people go to the Arctic by ship cruise in the summer – it’s the most accessible, however Canada’s Northwest Territory is more accessible than you think. It’s accessible in the summer and the winter, which makes it even more unique. And if you are looking for real authentic arctic experiences, then traveling close to the ground is the way to go.
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Current State of Arctic Travel
When most people think of going to the Arctic, they normally think of Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland in the summer. However, you don’t have to cross oceans to get to the Arctic, you can simply go north to Canada.
Canada’s Arctic is just as stunning and culturally rich to visit as the popular arctic countries. There are no roads connecting communities in the Canadian Arctic. Instead, you use the water systems as boat highways in the summer and the ice highways in the winter. That’s why currently, cruising the Canadian Arctic is really the main tourism around; no roads are needed. The area lacks the needed infrastructure to handle an onslaught of visitors at this time; but that means you can be one of the few visitors traveling to this area before the crowds realize how wonderful it is.
And that’s my favorite kind of travel, discovering an area before it’s a tourist hotspot. I love remote, seldom-visited places and cultures. I seek out going the unusual way, the path less traveled. It’s those experiences that have the biggest impact on me.
How to Get To Arctic Canada
Granted – it’s not necessarily easy to get there – but the getting there is part of the journey, and I think it’s important to embrace it. I left from NYC and it took me about 30 hours of transport time including an overnight in Yellowknife to get to Inuvik. For some reason I was strangely excited about this long trip. Long flights don’t really bother me as the longer the flight is, it normally means I’m going somewhere really spectacular – and I was indeed.
I loved seeing how the landscapes changed below me and how the little regional airports operated. The planes kept getting smaller and the security more non-existent.
Tundra North’s Mission and Start
To live in the Arctic, you have to have passion for it; else I’m not sure why else you’d be there. Passion for the Canadian north is something that Kylik Kisoun, founder of Tundra North Tours, has in abundance.
I feed off of other people’s energy and passion, so when I met Kylik in Alaska last year at a conference I remember listening to his story with a giant perma-grin on my face. I knew I needed to experience Kylik’s version of the Arctic as he was the only person really approaching the north this way – on land, and fully immersed in the environment and culture.
Kylik first came to Inuvik when he was a teenager, to stay with his mother who lived in the community. He viewed the world of his ancestors for the first time through the eyes of a tourist. It was a perspective that would eventually open doors to his own tour company. He was taken in by relatives and taught about the ‘way of the north’.
As a curious teenager, he fell in love with the area and the culture and made Inuvik his home after high school. He founded his tour company, Tundra North, at the age of 20 in 2007. He’s been a pioneer in building the tourism of the North beyond simply the cruise ship or Dempster Highway visitor.
Kylik explained to me why he believes on-the-ground experiences are more authentic and what his current growth challenges are in the area.
“Your main way to see the North is by cruise ship, which is why the vast majority of tourists see it from a bubble; inorganically. You are never going to experience something by going into a community and buying some art and food for half a day. It’s unlikely you are going to walk away and say – that cruise changed my life! You need to be more involved and be more authentic. And that’s what we are going for.
I think people go on cruises because there is a lack of other options. If there were more authentic, indigenous options that were competitive and at a cruise ship level (good food, water, schedule), then you’d have a comparable option. Indigenous operations aren’t quite there yet. They don’t have the financial backing that the cruise companies have at this point. Cruise companies are giant corporations with marketing departments and I’m like a dude…one dude.”
Following your Passion
You know that feeling when you get so excited about something you feel you are going to burst if you don’t tell someone about it. And so you do. This passion to share the north is what drives Kylik to show curious people like me a land few people get to experience and learn about.
“I think the world needs to see this way of life, just how beautiful it is.” — Kylik
Check out the drone footage in this video to get a n idea of the landscape! This video was shot during our tour!
If You Are Longing for Epic Arctic Adventure – Here It Is
I arrived in Inuvik in the beginning of April to temps hovering around 0. Don’t freak out, you don’t have to go in the winter like I did, Tundra North offers Arctic adventure tours year around!
But if you know me, then you know I like to travel to places in the less popular seasons, so I was excited to bundle up in my Arctic gear and experience the real Canadian Arctic! Don’t worry, if you don’t have all of your own Arctic Gear, Tundra North will let you borrow theirs.
My Favorite Extreme Winter Gear
I’ve traveled to some pretty cold places around the world and have found some key gear that I take on every winter adventure. Check out my list of extreme winter gear I use!
Put on Your Dancing Boots
Inuvik was celebrating the beginning of spring in April with their annual Muskrat Jamboree It was as if the hibernating bears had woken up and the whole town was buzzing with activity. Events were held in the school gymnasium kicking off with a feast of local food. The song and drum dancing went late into the night as the locals and visitors partied together. I was touched by how welcoming everyone was. The Jamboree was our starting point with a chance to interact and even dance with locals. But it was just the beginning of our in-depth introduction to life in the North.
Learn How to Build an Igloo
This isn’t some quick video or demo, it’s the real thing. Kylik and his team will teach you how to build a real igloo and then you can take pride in your work and sleep it in overnight in the Arctic.
Kylik is a self-taught igloo maker, “I googled it, did some research, I saw a schematic about how it had to have a keylock and the spiral, and the snow needs to be a certain texture. And I was really lucky that the first time I made one I nailed it! It was probably the best igloo I ever made – because I did it so carefully the first time. I had no confidence so every single cut I made was perfect.”
This was hands-on work where we all pitched in to cut and hoist blocks of snow, a truly authentic Arctic experience.
Try the Local Food
You expend a lot of energy building igloos, so coming in to a warm fire and a pot of reindeer stew was a treat. We met with locals in their homes who taught us about hunting and preparing beluga whale and were able to try various preparations of it. We also had dried white fish, and muskox.
Hunting belugas is allowed in the region, as it is upholds the tradition of the Inuit culture. They only hunt what they need to feed families for the winter. One beluga whale will feed 4 families for the whole year.
And don’t forget the donuts; Eskimo donuts! Yes that’s what the locals in Inuvik actually call them. An Eskimo donut is simply deep-fried dough with holes poked in it. It doesn’t have a lot of sugar in it, so it can be eaten as savory or sweet. It is hugely popular in the Arctic, and you will find it at any community event, gathering, or feast.
Go Off-Trail Snowmobiling
The ability to just drive your snow mobile anywhere is the ultimate arctic freedom. In most places, everything is owned; you have to go on a trail, and buy a permit for that trail. It’s really limiting and it doesn’t feel very free. But in the Arctic it’s completely different.
We rode snowmobiles over the snowy tundra to view reindeer herds and even had the choice to drive ourselves or ride on the back. It’s just easier to get around on snow mobile up north, so you’ll see people driving them all over the towns running errands as if they were cars, an unusual sight.
This was my hook that initially got me interested in the Canadian Arctic, the chance to see/herd 2,000 reindeer via snowmobile. Once I heard this was something Tundra North offered, my excitement level was the same as my 7 year old self who got a Barbie Dream House for Christmas.
We participated in the reindeer crossing, an annual event where the herd is moved over the ice road to their spring calving grounds at Richard’s Island.
It’s something special to watch to see how the herders can control 2,000 reindeer and move them to where they need to go. I watched as they went after strays in the distance always getting them turned around. It was an interesting ebb and flow – a process of starting and stopping. The herd moved in unison like a school of fish. It was poetic to see the brown herd move along the white snowy backdrop of the frozen Mackenzie River.
A few hundred hearty souls (mainly tourists/visitors) drive out on the ice road for 2 hours to see the reindeer crossing. After they crossed the herders moved them up the hill on the other side and left them there to graze. We took snowmobiles up to the grazing area to get a closer look at the herd; observing for nearly an hour. Most just sat and grazed digging under the snow to get to the lichen, some fought, and some rested. It was fascinating to see the trampled snow where the massive herd formed their path; a mangled mess of snow, hoof prints, poop pellets, and dirt.
Drive on an Ice Road
We drove down a snowy bank and stopped at the stop sign. Gerry turned on the blinker and turned right. And just like that we were driving on the Mackenzie River. This was probably the most exhilarating thing I did in the Arctic – driving the ice roads in Canada.
Normally driving on ice is something you try to avoid, but in the Arctic, it’s a way of life and a necessary way to get around in the winter. The ice roads were a sight to see; a super-highway with speed limits, stop signs, cars and trucks. It didn’t really sink in that we were driving on rivers and the Arctic Ocean until we stopped and got out and walked on the marbled looking ice; an unnerving experience.
Note that 2017 was the last year of the Ice Road to Tuktoyatuk since a new paved road was built. However, the ice road to Aklavik will still exist next year and beyond in the region.
Mush Your Own Dog Sledding Team
You aren’t simply a passenger, you are the musher when you go dog sledding in Inuvik. It was the most fun I’ve ever had dog sledding. After a few lessons on how to control the 4-dog teams, we were off with a jolt! It was as if I were 16 again and driving myself for the first time. A bit of an adrenaline rush at first, and then eventually you settled in and had the dogs going in the right direction – most of the time!
This is what traveling close to the ground is all about. It transcended ‘vacation’ and instead made it into a complete cultural experience. Tundra North is still new and growing their offerings. However, I know whatever Kylik decides to do will be an immersive learning experience, one you won’t forget.
“What you saw on your tour is only 20% of what I know we can do.” –Kylik Kisoun
How you can do this trip
I was a guest of Northwest Territories and Tundra North for this trip. However all opinions expressed here are mine.