Canada’s vast Northwest Territories is renowned for its wintery blanket of ice and snow, and for those famous truckers that venture across its frozen lakes. Yet, there are much greater things for visitors to marvel at, whether in the depth of winter or under the warmth of the midnight sun: golden hearts, warm spirits, sparkling diamonds and countless opportunities for adventure in the nation’s greatest wilderness.
Covering an incredible 1.35 million square kilometers – almost six times the size of Great Britain – the Northwest Territories (NWT) is a truly epic landscape of Arctic tundra, boreal forest and lakes. And with a population of just 45,000 (one person every 30 square kilometers), there is plenty of adventurous room to play, and countless opportunities to do so with sustainability in mind.
Canoeing and Kayaking on the Great Slave Lake
One of the greatest places to start is Great Slave Lake, a mammoth freshwater expanse of some 28,500 square kilometres (the size of Belgium) that is within easy striking distance of the capital Yellowknife. Its many bays, islands and channels provide an incredible environment for fishing, wildlife watching and paddling of all levels using traditional canoes, kayaks or stand-up paddleboards. With almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer, there is plenty of time to soak it all in. As such, anglers will have no shortage of opportunities to reel in a variety of species, such as Arctic grayling and northern pike. Between bites on the fishing line, there is a plethora of birdlife to observe at this time of year, with bald eagles and Arctic terns soaring overhead, and shorebirds and waterfowl skirting along the lake’s surface.
Ice Fishing at Blachford Lake Lodge & Wilderness Resort
Angling in the winter takes on a brave new aspect, and shore-based operations such as Blachford Lake Lodge & Wilderness Resorttutor visitors in the patient art of ice fishing – you’ll be happy to hear that it can be broken up nicely with stints by an open fire or with plunges into a waiting hot tub. Wildlife encounters on shore are similarly surreal, with the world’s largest herd of bison roaming the lake’s western flank. Mythical in both scale and nature, these mammoth creatures are a sight to behold.
The NWT’s great lakes are not the only places to dip your paddle, with numerous rivers providing a wealth of wild challenges. Experienced paddlers can tackle the whitewater of rivers such as the Coppermine, Thelon and Nahanni in canoes and kayaks, while novices can embark on rafting tours down the latter to take in some of the dramatic NWT landscapes like the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Nahanni National Park Reserve.
As that legendary rock-climbing face proves, adventure in NWT doesn’t always happen on the water. For a true sense of utter isolation and exploration, head north to Ivvavik National Park, one of the most remote parks on the continent. Based at its single fly-in tent camp, between mid-June and mid-August, you can hike over a jagged landscape that grizzly bears, caribou and wolves call home.
Dogsled Through Ivvavik National Park
Winter need not halt your quest for one-in-a-lifetime discoveries, with the frozen lands providing access to areas and activities inaccessible at other times of the year. With knowledgeable guides, you can strike out across frozen lakes and tundra on snowshoes, cross-country skis or snowmobiles, or even as a well-bundled passenger on a dogsled.
Marvel at the Northern Lights
The winter is also the ideal time of the year to experience the ethereal northern lights, and the NWT is one of the best places on the planet to witness them. Watching the heavens dance above in vibrant greens, pinks and purples, while they reflect below off the frozen white canvas, is something nobody ever forgets. And that includes the people who call this land their own.
The aurora borealis have long been revered by the indigenous population, and they now take pride in sharing them and their associated legends with those who have travelled in the hopes to see them. And it’s these incredibly rewarding personal interactions with the human treasures of the NWT, the golden hearts and warm spirits, that often catch visitors by surprise.
Dive Deep Into Indigenous History and Culture
It must be said that no trip to this historic and cultural land is complete without spending time understanding its indigenous peoples. Making up the majority of the population, they have rich histories and traditions that date back millennia. Sitting around any campfire, you’ll likely become enthralled with the storytelling prowess of the people of the Dene First Nations, and when out in the wilds you’ll undoubtedly learn about how this region’s diverse peoples have thrived off this vast land. An incredible place to witness how the age-old ways of hunting, fishing and gathering continue today is in the newly established Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. But there are plenty of specific community-based cultural opportunities to embrace as well, whether cultural camps, harvest walks or festivals, such as the Great North Arts Festival, National Aboriginal Day and Yellowknife’s Winter Festival, the Long John Jamboree with its De Beers sponsored Ice Carving Competition.
The people of NWT also pride themselves on looking forward, and the discovery of large-scale diamond deposits in recent decades have transformed the economy and many livelihoods. There are many shining examples of how diamonds and sustainability go hand in hand in this unique region. Mines such as De Beers Group’s Gahcho Kué, Rio Tinto’s Diavik and Arctic Canadian Diamond Company’s Ekati provide job opportunities and funds to local communities and support the growth of long-term sustainable tourism that will generate wealth for the region’s people long after the precious gems are gone. They also ensure First Nations communities are involved throughout the lifecycle of a mine – to learn more click here. Canadian diamonds are revered for being responsibly and ethically sourced and visitors to Yellowknife can learn more by visiting sites such as the Northwest Territories Diamond Centre, with its interactive tour and the opportunity to purchase Forevermark diamonds. There is also the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, which features a NWT mining exhibit which includes the remarkable Dolphus Cadieux’s Northern Rhythm kimberlite carving which was commissioned and donated by De Beers Group and created using a piece of kimberlite from the Snap Lake mine. Also featured is the Legendary Sky Diamond, the world’s only 2.8 carat rough diamond that has been into space on a NASA shuttle.
If one thing is clear, whether arriving for adventure, wildlife, culture or northern lights, most visitors depart Canada’s Northwest Territories with more than they could have ever hoped for.
Top Travel Tips for Visiting Canada’s Northwest Territories
When is the best time to visit Canada’s Northwest Territories?
The crisp clear skies of winter are best for the northern lights, but autumn nights also put on a brilliant show. With longer daylight in spring, these months are optimum for ice fishing, dogsledding, snowshoeing and skiing. While the endless days of summer (mid-June to mid-August) are ideal for water-based activities, hikes and wildlife watching.
Where should you stay in Canada’s Northwest Territories?
Blachford Lake Lodge & Wilderness Resort Set on a remote inlet on the northern arm of Great Slave Lake (a half-hour float plane journey from Yellowknife), this lodge offers fishing, wildlife and nature experiences year-round. It generates the majority of its electricity from renewable resources, something guests Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge were likely pleased with during stay here.
Aurora VillageLocated on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, this unique site is not so much a hotel per se, but instead rather a surreal viewing stage for the northern lights. Log fires keep the tipi tents warm while you wait for the celestial show.
Ivvavik Fly-in Base Camp This camp’s simple prospector tents are pegged into the ground in the very heart of the incredibly remote Ivvavik National Park. Stays are part of either a 5-night or 9-night package, which includes meals, guided hikes with park staff, and flights from Inuvik (the views over the Mackenzie Delta are worth the price of admission alone).