In Canada, only the newly created territory of Nunavut, established in 1999, has a higher percentage of Indigenous residents than the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. These territories in the north of Canada are like few other places in the world, where you can travel by dog sled, experience the midnight sun and the northern lights, and meet the peoples—the Champagne and Aishihik, Dene, Yukon and others—who call this untamed land their home. Here are four experiences to include on your travels to the northern edges of the continent.
While the term bucket-list experience is perhaps used too freely these days, seeing the northern lights, or aurora borealis, is one that surely qualifies. For millennia the dancing lights in greens, blues, and reds that can be observed at the highest latitudes of the hemisphere have dazzled and mystified humans. If the science behind them is now better understood—they are caused by solar winds disrupting the earth’s magnetosphere—the display is just as breathtaking.
Yellowknife is one of the best places on earth to observe this phenomenon, thanks to its remarkably clear skies on most nights of the year. And seeing them from a Dene community on an excursion with Arctic Range Adventure makes the experience even more memorable. If the ice road across Great Slave Lake is open, you’ll drive on it to the small town of Dettah, where you’ll have a cabin heated with a wood stove as your base for an evening of storytelling, learning about the northern lights and their significance to the Dene, and enjoying northern snacks. Then when the lights flare and brighten the sky, you’ll have the perfect lakeside vantage point to take in the spectacle.
Paddling Around Yellowknife
The capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake and the nearby area is dotted with smaller lakes, rivers, and streams. It’s an area best explored by paddling around, just as the Dene traveled around the region in canoes for millennia. With Narwal Northern Adventures’ half-day tours, you can get a beaver’s-eye view of Yellowknife Bay, where the Yellowknife River enters Great Slave Lake. Longer, full-day tours include other nearby lakes and rivers.
The Tlingit First Nation is generally associated with the Pacific Northwest, so it may surprise some people to realize that Carcross, formerly Caribou Crossing, in the inland Yukon was first settled by Tlingit as well as Tagish people and has been inhabited since around 4,500 B.C.E. according to some estimates. Located 45 minutes south of Whitehorse, the town today has Tlingit- and Tagish-inspired facades and totem poles. On a visit there with Arctic Range Adventure, you’ll meet Keith Wolfe Smarch, a master Tlingit carver who has also met with both Prince Charles and Prince William on their separate visits to Carcross. He’ll explain the symbolism of Tlingit art and lead a carving demonstration and workshop.
Long Ago Peoples Place
The Long Ago Peoples Place offers a chance to, as its name implies, step back in time. Located in the Yukon off the Alaska Highway, between Yellowknife and Haines Junction, the First-Nations owned and managed operation includes structures built following the traditional methods of the Southern Tutchone peoples. A cabin modeled on those from the early 20th century, another one from the 1940s, and a simple bark structure reflect how people created homes when they had nothing to work with beyond the stones and trees at the place where they wanted to build. Visit include a walk through the woods with a lesson in the ingenuity of the First Nations people. An added bonus, a snack of fry bread with coffee or tea before you head on to your next stop.
Learn more about these and other highlights of the Yukon and Northwest Territories at the Indigenous Experiences website.