The Northwest Territories cover approximately one-third of Canada. Given that Canada is the second-largest country in the world, it can therefore be said without fear of contradiction that the NWT is rather large.
|Bathurst Inlet’s barrenground caribou are estimated at 500,000 head, making it one of the largest free-roaming mammal herds in existence.|
Unlike its human population, which is rather small: a mere 55,000 people. Almost a third of these live in the territory’s capital, Yellowknife, on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake. The rest are . . . out there! Not that many travelers ever meet them. Not properly.
The NWT is no stranger to tourism. For years well-heeled visitors of the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ kind flew into the region’s remote lodges, hunted, shot, fished and then flew out again. They shot grizzly bears, wolves, whales (no, really, some big-game hunters actually shot whales), caribou and musk ox. They fished land-locked Arctic char of prodigious proportions, and other species of trout weighing up to 30 kg.
Most visitors, though, didn’t encounter the indigenous Inuit peoples, or make more than a cursory effort to come to grips with the realities and ecology of the NWT’s spectacular environment. Many still don’t.
A different kind of NWT tourism, though, exists and thrives just above the Arctic Circle in the shape of the Bathurst Inlet lodge, a former Hudson’s Bay Trading Post now converted to visitor accommodation. It is run jointly by Glen Warner and family and the Kingaunmuit clan.
Before he came to Bathurst Inlet, Warner served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, patrolling the North with huskies and sledges. The Kingaunmuit are an indigenous Inuit clan. Their name means “People of the Nose,” a reference to a jutting rock formation at Bathurst.
The partnership began in 1969, when Warner turned up at Bathurst on an RCMP patrol and heard that the Burnside Mission church and the Hudson’s Bay trading post were closing for good. Warner fell in love with the landscape, wildlife and local people, and realized that the closure of the trading post would be a crippling blow to the Kingaunmuit. Warner bought both properties and refurbished them, retaining the traditional Hudson Bay Company’s paint colors of red and white, and opened then up for ecotourism business. It worked.
Profits are shared equitably. The lodge’s floatplane also serves as a delivery vehicle and emergency medevac for the whole community. The lodge’s generator powers the other homes in this tiny neighborhood. Writer Lyn Hancock put it thus: “Statistics Canada pegged the population at 18, but it’s really 27 when everyone’s at home.”
For most of the year the Kingaunmuit are out, pursuing their traditional nomadic hunter-fisher lifestyle across the Territories. When summer comes, however, everyone returns to Bathurst Inlet, the lodging is cleaned, and it is time to welcome visitors.
In the brief arctic summer, the High North gets as much living done as quickly as it can. Ground normally frozen hard suddenly softens and is blanketed by flowers and, later, berries. The sea ice slowly recedes. Summer temperatures average 20 degrees. Vast, glorious landscapes stretch in every direction.
|Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus)|
Thirteen mammal species breed at Bathurst Inlet, including musk ox and barrenground caribou. Indeed, the caribou number over half a million animals, making Bathurst’s one of the largest free-ranging mammal herds in the world.
The predators, too, are relatively plentiful: grizzlies, wolverines and Arctic wolves.
Bird life is superabundant; 80 species nest here, including one of the world’s densest populations of peregrine falcons. The inlet is also an important staging ground for migratory birds such as Canada geese and snow geese.
Another migrant is the arctic tern, an appealing little bird that completes the longest journey of any species. It doesn’t winter anywhere. It summers in the Arctic, then flies south to summer in Antarctica — in the process probably seeing more sunlight than anything else living. Get too near its nest and it will divebomb your head.
You can also fly to the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a 6-million-hectare spread that is the protected nesting area for 95 percent of the world’s Ross goose population.
|Painted cup, or Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)|
Framing all this life is a landscape as vast as it is enthralling, and which — in an unsettling way — dwarfs the human observer. There are beaches of amethysts, canyons, waterfalls, the chill sea waiting for the ice to return and the sweeping, seemingly endless tundra.
The eskers are intriguing geological features. These high meandering sand ridges are the beds of rivers that once flowed beneath vast ice sheets covering the land during the last Ice Age. It is easier for water to erode up through ice rather than down through rock, and that’s what happened. The result? An esker.
The area is also rich in Inuit archaeological sites, including open graves, subterranean larders, cairns and stone traps.
The Bathurst Inuit, the Kingaunmuit, are gentle, friendly and delighted to introduce visitors to their customs and pastimes. They’ll explain not only what’s what, but also where and why. Many NWT Inuit have abandoned their traditional lands and activities for the perceived convenience and comforts of modern settlements. The Kingaunmuit, very likely as a result of their alliance with the Warners, decided to carry on as they always have done.
“Everyone owes himself or herself a week at Bathurst at least once in a lifetime,” was the verdict of arctic historian Mary Houston.
It will be an expensive week: Travel in the Arctic is inevitably costly. The distances and logistics are challenging. A week’s stay, including return air fare from Yellowknife, accommodation, meals, activities such as canoeing, slide shows and lectures by naturalists, will set you back C$4,275.
The experience, though, is priceless.