Last updated: April 2nd, 2020
Located right on the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Northwest Territories is a little fishing village called Tuktoyaktuk. Like Easter Island, Tuktoyaktuk is one of those places totally off the beaten path. In fact, up until the end of 2017, Tuktoyaktuk was only accessible via boat, plane, or a winter ice road. Now, thanks to the newly opened Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, Tuktoyaktuk can be reached year-round by vehicles and is officially Canada’s first highway to the Arctic.
However, just because there’s a year-round road doesn’t mean Tuktoyaktuk will no longer be off-the-beaten-path. It still remains very isolated and only a true adventurer would dare make the road trip. Why? Well, to get there, you must first drive all the way to Canada’s Yukon, starting with the capital city of Whitehorse. You’d then have to drive another 530 km north to the city of Dawson, an incredible wild-west looking town made famous by the Klondike Gold Rush. Then, the real adventure begins with the Dempster Highway, a 700-km dirt road with only one service station, located almost right in the middle. This is an exciting road trip but one that certainly requires a good vehicle and some good planning. The Dempster Highway is definitely the most challenging part of this epic road trip, but if you succeed in making it to Inuvik, you’ll only have an additional 140 kilometers of dirt road taking you all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. Of course, you then have to come all the way back down as there’s only one road in and one road out. I’m not trying to scare you in any way, but I wouldn’t be trying this in a big motorhome or a little beater car.
It’s this road trip, however, and the isolation of a place like Tuktoyaktuk that makes the journey that much better. Back when we drove across Canada for 150 days, we knew we wanted to dip our toes in all three oceans. Unfortunately, the new highway was not yet opened but thanks to our project, the government granted us permission to make the drive, making us one of the first people EVER to drive the new Tuktoyaktuk highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. I was so excited to see a place I had never dreamed of visiting. The only downfall of our trip was that we only had four hours in Tuk (Tuk is what the locals call it). We were supposed to be there for two nights but due to all the rainfall and the soft road, the construction crew wanted to bring us back the same day to avoid us potentially getting stuck along the way and/or ruining their highway. Still, we weren’t about to turn down the offer of being one of the first people to drive the new highway and experience a place that most Canadians know nothing about.
We arrived in Tuk in the late morning and immediately began to connect with locals who could help us out. We then jumped on a local tour that took us to some of the popular spots such as the Tuktoyktuk Welcome Sign, and a nearby Pingo, which we were able to climb for beautiful views of the area. For those of you who don’t know what a Pingo is, it’s a mound of Earth-covered ice found only in the Arctic and subarctic regions. Some of them have even been designated a Pingo National Landmark! They remind me of a pimple on the Earth’s surface, except they’re much prettier. After climbing up and snapping some photos, we then went to a locals house to try some traditional food and wear some traditional clothing. Traditional food in Tuk consists of wild game such as caribou and beluga whale. We got to try Muk-Tuk, which is the skin and lard of a beluga whale, often eaten raw. I’m not sure if ours was raw but it was very rubbery and fishy tasting. I didn’t mind it but Karla wasn’t a big fan. The worst part was knowing that we had snorkeled with belugas in Manitoba just a couple of months prior, which was one of the top experiences of our lives. However, this is the way it has been up here for centuries and due to the climate, it’s hard to grow a variety of food.
Next was an opportunity to wear some winter clothing, which was also really cool to experience. Traditional clothes are often made from caribou hide and goose down, combined with a ruff made from wolverine or wolf fur. Ours was made from wolverine and even had the claws left on it. With Tuktoyaktuk weather dipping down to -70 Celcius with the wind chill, it’s easy to see why they need this type of clothing.
After, we walked out front and dipped our toes in the Arctic ocean, which was just steps from the home we were visiting. The water coming into the beach area was very shallow, making it easy for a toe-dip but not very easy for a whole-body plunge. So, after the ceremonial toe dip with Karla, we drove to another location where I could easily dunk my whole body in, a goal I’ve had during this entire trip. As cold as it was, it wasn’t nearly as cold as the Atlantic Ocean was back in May when I took the plunge there. I believe the waters here (in late August) were around 7 degrees Celcius versus the -1 Celcius water in Newfoundland during the month of May. Talk about refreshing! But hey, now I’ve jumped in all three oceans surrounding Canada! If you’re going all the way up to Tuktoyaktuk, I really think a “polar plunge” is an absolute must-do!
Aside from that, we drove around the town, visited the town hall, looked at the all houses built on stilts (due to the permafrost), and checked out the grocery store to see the outrageous prices on some of the food. Considering the isolation of this place, you can imagine how much the food is! I saw one bottle of Gatorade for $7! No wonder they still get most of their food from hunting and fishing.
With only four hours in Tuk, this was about the most we could accomplish. We would have loved to sit down with locals and learn more about their culture and listen to their unique stories but I guess that just gives us an excuse to come back.
If you’re looking to experience an Arctic fishing village far removed from much of Canada, Tuktoyaktuk northwest territories is a wonderful place to visit. I highly doubt it will ever become a place that attracts “mass tourism”, which makes it a great authentic adventure for those willing to head that far north.
So, what do you think? Is Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk on your bucket list now?
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