At the far north end of the Dempster Highway sits the remote community of Inuvik. Located 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, with only one road connecting it to the rest of the globe. The community not only lives with, but also thrives in, 9 months of winter-like weather and 1 month of total darkness.
I’m fascinated with communities like this: people living in remote, extreme environments. They are like little mysteries I try to understand. Why do people live here? What do they do to survive? What’s day-to-day life like? Are they all introverts? Do they know something about the meaning of life that we busy, urban people living south of the Arctic Circle don’t?
I know I’m not alone – there are other people like me who love communities like this and are fascinated with life there. That’s why Tundra North Tours decided to start giving people glimpses into Canada’s most northern towns and cultures. I visited the northern communities in early April, when it was still hovering below 0, the rivers and ocean was still frozen solid, and the colorful town was covered in snow. I quickly learned what I thought was extreme, was normal to the residents in Inuvik.
Where is Inuvik in the Canadian Arctic?
Why Visit Inuvik?
As we drove around the little snow filled town Gerry Kisoun told us stories about Inuvik and growing up in the Beaufort Delta. Gerry is of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in descent, born and raised on the vast and virtually untouched Mackenzie Delta. As I listen to Gerry’s calm voice and subdued enthusiasm I realize he’s the perfect ambassador for the North. He grew up here, he loves the way of life, and he wants to share it with everyone. When you ask him a question he starts out the answer with “Golly…”. Every time he says it, it makes me smile; it feels innocent, and genuine.
“When I arrived in Inuvik (at 3 yrs old)– my world started right here,” Gerry said pointing to a snow bank on the river below the town. “My father, mother, and sister came to Inuvik and my father put a tent up in those willows. We stayed in that tent 3 winters. Can you imagine -50 C? We stayed warm by cutting a lot of wood. My father had a dog team tied up along the river. We eventually moved into what was called a 5-12 unit – 512 square feet. It was 16 feet wide by 32 feet long. It was like moving into a mansion!” Gerry exclaimed.
Gerry works with Tundra North Tours as an occasional guide and storyteller, and he was our ambassador to Inuvik and the culture surrounding it. We were able to see various parts of town, meet locals, and even participate in the local Muskrat Jamboree festival with Gerry. We witnessed a balance of tradition and modern living; you can watch drum dancing with elders and also do yoga, have high speed internet access, and do community gardening at the greenhouse.
Be a Part of the Muskrat Jamboree
When I arrived in April, Inuvik was just waking up from a long winter’s nap. After a long nap, it’s fitting that you celebrate, and the Muskrat Jamboree was in full swing!
Inuvik and outlying communities come together to welcome spring. Never mind that it’s still only 0 º C outside. The festival brings everyone out again to socialize and see each other after a long, dark winter.
There was food, music, dancing, and games all funded by the entire community; a true team effort. I think that’s one of the things that surprised me most about Inuvik, how strong the community was and how they worked together. You don’t always see that in small towns. I believe that extreme, tough conditions brings people together.
Royalty: There was a queen crowned but it had nothing to do with beauty, talent of knowledge…it had everything to do with sales. The woman who raised the most money for the festival becomes the queen. The winner raised over $60,000 – which was incredible to me in this small community!
Laugh a Little: I thought all of the fun and games (orange pass, skittle drop, egg carry) was going to be for the kids, so I was surprised when all of the teams were adults! It made me think of what fun it is for adults to be kids again. I reveled in their laughter, laughter that made them seem 7 years old again.
Drum Dancing: This was the highlight for me, a cultural tradition that is a must see. The locals dressed in traditional clothes, played drums, and danced. Each dance told a story about their life, hunting, or gathering. All ages and genders participated and I was enthralled by their connection to the music and the story.
Get Outdoors: Dress warm as the Jamboree activities are taken outdoors the next day. You can participate in a number of competitions such as dog team races, Skidoo races, harpoon toss, muskrat skinning, tea boiling, and snow shoe Races!
Locals set up traditional tents and all of the activities and competitions took place on the frozen river The tents had little chimneys poking out of the top with puffs of smoke coming out. Considering it was below freezing they looked pretty inviting.
I walked into one and met Irma, a local who does catering. The tent was cozy and warm with a big stove in the corner and a pile of firewood next to it. As the stove pumped out heat, Irma and her brother got the food ready for the Jamboree. They were selling chili, rabbit stew, eskimo donuts, and hot tea. I sat and had some donuts as I talked to Irma and stayed warm. She grew up around Inuvik raised on the land, as most people were around here. She never thought about leaving the area, this was home.
Go Green and Tour the Community Greenhouse
In a region covered with snow most of the year, you would expect very few fresh vegetables. When you are given big obstacles, you come up with big ideas. The Inuvik Greenhouse was a big idea that brought the community together. You can tour the greenhouse and learn all about its inception and how it’s run. It was fascinating to once again see how the community pulls together to support each other.
The Community Greenhouse is over 16,000 square feet of space in an old hockey arena. People can grow their own vegetables there from April to October. We were there right before the new soil got shipped in and the Greenhouse was opening for the growing season. So things weren’t quite green yet! However, once it’s in full swing, a family with one plot can grow up to $1000 worth of groceries in a summer. For many families, this is a game changer. It helps them save money and provides them healthy food.
There’s only one super market in the entire town, but once a week in the summer the Greenhouse holds an Arctic Market where they sell the veggies they are growing. They also have a veggie box program where people can get a veggie box delivered once a week in the summer for $35 each with 6 to 8 items in it. The homeless shelter also has a plot where they can grow vegetables.
The membership fee was $25 for two adults and children +$50 for the plot + 10 hours of volunteer time. I loved the fact that part of the fee was volunteer time, a great way to make sure that everyone is pitching in and makes it more of a group effort. That is how you bring communities together.
Diversity is Unity
Even though the most famous tourist site in Inuvik is the Igloo Church, an architectural wonder, I was more surprised by the other religious building – the mosque. Gerry drove us by the world’s most northern mosque, a site I wasn’t expecting to see. The Midnight Sun Mosque, also called the Little Mosque on the Tundra, was built in Winnipeg before setting off on its 4000 km journey to Inuvik in August 2010. In this small community of 3,400 people on the top of the world even they could figure out how to respect the diversity of religion that makes up our world.
But then again, it shouldn’t have surprised me since the whole weekend I witnessed the community work together like a well-oiled machine.
I walked away from this experience realizing sometimes it’s the most remote and small communities that are the strongest. Life in these types of communities is simple and they respect the land for the fruits that it gives them. But they also know they need each other to survive, which was why there was such a strong sense of community. Maybe they do know something about the meaning of life that we all don’t.
Experience Life Above the Arctic Circle And Visit Inuvik
Tundra North Offers Authentic Cultural tours and experiences in Inuvik and beyond. This is the best way to see and experience the culture. Tundra North Website
Muskrat Jamboree Website
Greenhouse Tours – Scheduled tours are available June-September. Contact the greenhouse for tours
Igloo Church Tours – Tours available during the summer months. See website for schedule and further details.
Where to Stay in Inuvik