If you just come, put your foot in the Arctic Ocean, or walk on it in winter and turn around – then you are missing out. To really experience Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk as the locals call it), you need to stay a night, learn about the history, walk around, get stuck in the snow, rely on the kindness of the community, go to the one grocery store, and meet locals. And that’s exactly what we did.
Tuk, population 860, teeters on the Arctic Ocean, which means that it’s not your your typical beach town. Visited by beluga whales in the summer and darkness in the winter, the small community somehow survives the harshest of elements. Formerly known as Port Brabant, the community was renamed Tuktoyaktuk in 1950 and was the first place in Canada to revert to the traditional Native name. It means “resembling a caribou”. According to legend, a woman looked on as some caribou waded into the water and turned into stone. Today, reefs resembling these petrified caribou are said to be visible at low tide along the shore of the town
Road to Tuktoyaktuk Putting Tuk on the Map
Tuk has a varied history of aboriginal, military, and pop culture in this tiny community that was previously cut off from the rest of the world. In the late 1800’s it was home of the whale-hunting Kittegaryumiut Inuit, who were wiped out due to a series of epidemics early 1900s. The Inuit who settled at the site after it was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in mid 1930s were from the immediate area and from other parts of the North.
In the 1950’s radar domes were installed as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, to monitor air traffic and detect possible Soviet intrusions during the Cold War.
On September 3, 1995, Metallica and other popular bands flew into Tuk and turned put the little village in the international news. The bands played a concert in Tuk as a publicity event for Molson Brewing Company promoting their new ice-brewed beer. It put Tuk on the map in the world of pop culture. As I walked around the town bundled up in April I had a hard time imagining a giant heavy metal concert in this little, quiet community.
But the most recent historical change in Tuk is the addition of an all season road that now connects them to the rest of the world. It is now possible for the first time in history to drive to the top of Canada’s mainland year round. Prior to this the only way to cross the Arctic Circle by car in Canada was to head north on the Dempster Highway, starting near Dawson City, and driving to Inuvik, a frontier town of 3,000 people in the Mackenzie River Delta. Now, after four years of construction in harsh conditions, the last 85 miles connecting Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk was completed. This new connection to the world, could bring a lot of changes to this small remote community.
An Arctic Town Made of Wood
Inuit culture here is one of the most unique because they are one of the only Inuit cultures that had a steady source of wood. The Mackenzie River runs north, and so does the drift wood, all flowing into the Arctic Ocean at Tuk. Most Inuit cultures living above the tree line had no source of wood and built igloos to be nomadic and move around to follow the animals. However, in Tuk they built sod houses as permanent places and stayed put.
As we drove the Ice road to Tuk, our guide, Kylik, told us stories of his family living in the region. “My grandfather came from Alaska. When he married my grandmother he thought she was amazing because she cooked all of these different types of food (fish stew and roast) that my grandfather didn’t eat normally because he had no access to wood and fire. The Inuit culture in Tuk is a little different, and the wood was a big part of it. In Tuk there was enough food and they didn’t have to go anywhere. They could build permanent structures out of wood and there was enough food and wood to not have to move.”
Don’t Miss These Winter Things to do in Tuktoyaktuk
Ride a Snowmobile Around Town
You hear the whir of snowmobiles (or Skidoos) instead of cars in the winter. After all, a snowmobile is the vehicle of choice in the Canadian Arctic. If you can, get on a snowmobile and ride around the town, over the Arctic Ocean, and visit the DEW Line and Pingos. This was part of our itinerary with Tundra North.
See the Pingos
A pingo is a dome-shaped mound consisting of a layer of soil over a large core of ice, occurring in permafrost areas. This natural phenomenon is a site to see and the main attraction in the region. Tuk has one of the highest concentrations of pingos in the world (aprox 1,350). They can reach up to 230 feet in height and 2,000 feet in diameter! They are pretty impressive to see in the winter or the summer! In the winter it’s as easy as driving a snow mobile out to the pingos!
Meet with Elders
As a part of our stay we had the chance to have dinner at an elder’s house, and anytime you can meet an elder it’s pretty special. They are a wealth of knowledge and stories. Eileen made us a traditional dinner of reindeer soup, Eskimo donuts, muktuk (beluga whale skin), smoked beluga, and muskoxen. While we ate dinner she talked about the history of how and why they prepare these foods.
It it only takes 2 people to catch a whale about 12 feet long, and it will feed 4 families for the whole year. Eileen helps the family work on it to get her share. She also dries white fish and smokes it. And the Muskox have come from the west and was introduced into their diet. She told us that in May the geese come and everyone is excited to start harvesting them. They keep the down and also make their coats out them.
She also explained all of the different trapping and equipment they used today and how they make their traditional clothes. She even let us try them on to see what it was like to wear polar bear pants. They were heavy…but warm!
Call upon the Kindness of Strangers
As soon as we pulled over, we knew we had made a big mistake. The van sunk immediately as if we had just entered quicksand. But it wasn’t quicksand, it was snowpack. Snowpack is a mass of snow on the ground that is compressed and hardened by its own weight. The snowpack in this part of the world is really deceiving. You can walk on it, you can ski on it, you can drive a snow mobile on it once it’s hard enough, but you can’t drive a heavy van on it.
It took about 3 minutes with our van stuck in the ‘main square’ in Tuk for a passing car to slow down, roll down the window, and tell us, “The loader is on the way!” So without even asking, we had help on the way. The big front loader showed up in no more than 3 more minutes. The driver was a man of few words, he simply assessed the situation, backed the loader up to the van, and hooked it up. He barely cracked a smile as he pulled us out and went on his way. But I’m pretty sure he was going to crack a smile later that day while he told the story to his friends and family of how he pulled out tourists today.
Sure, I supposed it was a little embarrassing that we got stuck, but in an environment like this it happens a lot. However the real lesson of this story to me was how fast and helpful people were to strangers. The whole ordeal from getting stuck to getting out only took 10 minutes and we didn’t even make a single phone call. I love small towns!
Note: I’m not suggesting that as a ‘thing to do’ in Tuk you get stuck, but if you do, realize that it can actually be a fun, learning experience.
One is the Only Number so Plan Carefully
If you come, realize there’s really only one hotel in town and one grocery store in town. We stayed at the Smitty’s B&B (known for giving out free hugs!). They were more like big condos rather than a hotel or a room – but it was perfect for our group!
There is also only one gas station and grocery store in town – and it’s worth it to stop in and see what they sell there and what the prices are!
So don’t speed through Tuktoyaktuk on your trip to the Arctic Ocean else you’ll be missing the best part of the Northwest Territories – the culture. Slow down, watch the sunset on the Arctic, stay overnight, meet locals, and really explore this little gem at the top of the world.
Drive the Road to Tuktoyaktuk and Stay for a Night!
Tundra North offers winter and summer tours to stay overnight plus snow mobiling, pingos, and dinner with an elder.
Tundra North Website
Or Book your own hotel at Smitty’s B&B 867-977-2777