Last updated: June 23, 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 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 kilometres of dirt road left to take 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.
The History of Tuktoyaktuk
With a population of less than 1,000, the residents survive some of the harshest elements in the country. 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, which in this case 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.
Tuk has a varied history of indigenous, military, and pop culture that has largely been 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 in the early 1900s. The Inuit who settled at the site after it was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid-1930s were from the immediate area and from other parts of the great white north. Then, in the 1950s, 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.
Inuit culture here is quite unique compared to other northern regions, as they are one of the only Inuit cultures that had a steady source of wood. The Mackenzie River runs north, and so does the driftwood, all flowing into the Arctic Ocean around Tuk. Most Inuit cultures living above the tree line had no source of wood and therefore built igloos to be nomadic and move around to follow their food supply. In Tuk, however, they built sod and wood houses to stay permanently.
Up until October 2017, Tuktoyaktuk was only accessed via ice road in the winter or via a small plane. Now, an all-season road is in place from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, making it easier than ever to visit this small northern town. It’s also the first highway in Canada to reach the Arctic ocean.
Fun Fact: On September 3, 1995, Metallica and other popular bands flew into Tuk and made the little town internationally famous. The bands played a concert in Tuk as a publicity event for Molson Brewing Company to promote their new ice-brewed beer. It put Tuk on the map in the world of pop culture.
Road to 150 – Road Trip to Tuk
The isolation of a place like Tuktoyaktuk is what makes the journey to get there 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. We were supposed to be there for two nights but due to all the rainfall and the soft road it has created, 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 snorkelled 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.
Afterwards, 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 near the Great Trail sign where I could easily dunk my whole body in, a goal I’ve had during the entire trip. As cold as it was, it wasn’t nearly as cold as the Atlantic Ocean back in May when I took the plunge there. I believe the water here (in late August) was around 7 degrees Celcius versus the -1 Celcius we had to endure 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 costs! 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.
Things to Do in Tuktoyaktuk
For those of you looking to make the adventurous journey to Tuktoytaktuk, there’s a lot more to the town than just dipping your toes in the Arctic Ocean. To really experience Tuk, as the locals call it, it’s best to stay a night or two, talk to some locals, learn about its history, visit the lone grocery store, and just get a feel for this isolated Northern Canadian town.
Visit the Tuktoyaktuk Welcome Sign
Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to get a photo in front of the “Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk” sign. It makes for a great keepsake.
See the Pingos
Pingo’s are a very unique geological formation. 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 sight to see and one of the main attractions in the region. Home to roughly 1,350 pingos, Tuk has one of the highest concentrations of pingos in the world. These pingos can reach up to 230 feet in height and 2,000 feet in diameter! They are pretty impressive to see in the winter or in the summer, with the largest one (Ibyuk Pingo) standing 15-storey’s high.
Ride a Snowmobile Around Town
If you’re visiting Tuk in the winter months, do like a local and drive around on a snowmobile. These are much more popular than cars in the winter months. 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.
Meet the Locals and Eat Muktuk
Whether you get the opportunity to meet the elders or anyone else that’s local to the area, take the opportunity to enlighten your experience and worldview. They have stories and a wealth of knowledge that you’ve never heard before. You may even get to try some local food, such as muktuk (Beluga whale skin and fat), Eskimo donuts, smoked beluga, and muskox.
Dip Your Toes in the Arctic
If you make it all the way to Tuk, you’re probably excited to either dip your toes or completely dunk yourself in the Arctic ocean. It’s a popular activity. There are some beaches where you can just walk out in the shallow water, or you can find another spot and go right under. It’s cold, so in some ways, it’s easier to just jump in completely than to walk out from a shallow beach. Maybe you can even do it while visiting the Arctic Ocean sign.
Our Lady of Lourdes Ship
This beautifully restored schooner is sitting off the main street by the Catholic mission. This schooner delivered supplies to far-flung Catholic missions in the Arctic in the 1930s and ’40s, braving storms and shifting ice floes.
Go on an Adventure Tour
Considering the remoteness of such a region, there are a variety of ways to go on an adventurous tour, whether it’s a snowmobile tour to see the caribou migration or a floatplane tour over the Pingos and the MacKenzie River. These are typically quite expensive and are based at certain times in the season, but if you can do it, it will surely become the memory of a lifetime.
Things to Do in NWT
If you’ve made it all the way up to Tuktoyaktuk, you’ve likely passed through Inuvik and perhaps, the Dempster Highway. Between both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, there are so many incredible things to see and do, ranging from gold panning in Dawson to a boat trip around the Mackenzie Delta in Inuvik.
For more on what to do in the area, check out these articles below:
- Things to Do in Inuvik
- Things to Do in the Northwest Territories
- Tips for Driving the Dempster Highway
- Things to Do in the Yukon
- Things to Do in British Columbia
- Things to Do in Alberta
So, what do you think? Is Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk on your bucket list now?
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