Why the Canadian Arctic Should Top Every Traveler’s List

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Why the Canadian Arctic Should Top Every Traveler’s List
Whatever your political leanings, there are many great reasons to head to Canada this year. First off, our neighbor is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its confederacy. (Happy Birthday, Canada!) Second, the exchange rate is very much in America’s favor (US$1 = CAN$1.31). Third, admission to the country’s 200-plus national parks and historic sites has been waived through 2017. Fourth, Justin Trudeau. And fifth, there’s more to the Great White North than what you see in the marquee cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver—namely the Canadian Arctic.

By Ashlea Halpern, AFAR Contributor
Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Visit the Arctic
    I learned this firsthand last July during opening week at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge on Somerset Island in Nunavut. Located 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, it is the northernmost safari lodge on the planet and a partner of the adventure outfitter, Quark Expeditions. Founders Richard Weber and Josée Auclair have been running expeditions and treks to both poles since the mid-1980s, and Weber, long considered the most experienced North Pole explorer, recently received the prestigious Order of Canada honor. The couple’s two sons, Tessum and Nansen, help with the day-to-day management of Arctic Watch and Arctic Haven, the sister lodge in Ennadai Lake. They also lead adventure trips for kayakers, mountain bikers, heli-skiers, and wildlife photographers. Although I didn’t do anything too extreme in my weeklong stay at Arctic Watch, I did get a good feel for life at the 74th parallel north. Click ahead to get an idea of what the Arctic has in store—and details for planning your own Canadian escape.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Arctic Arrival
    To get to Arctic Watch, I first had to get to Calgary, and then to Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. From there, I boarded a small charter plane for a 4.5-hour flight to Somerset, stopping for gas at Cambridge Bay en route. Before we took off, our pilot handed sack lunches and earmuffs to every passenger, warning us that the twin turboprop could get noisy. Despite some minor weather delays, the ride was smooth. Whenever the pilot wanted to point out an interesting sight below—like, say, a cluster of gold mines—he would scribble a description on a notepad and pass it back through the cabin. I wish all pilots were that communicative!
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    At Arctic Watch
    Guests at Arctic Watch do not rough it. Each of the camp’s 16 private tents are equipped with real beds, cozy duvets, a radiator, shelving unit, coat rack, stool, mirror, and marine toilet and sink. I took hot showers in the main lodge and the electricity, which runs off a generator, is available from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. All our drinking water came straight from the Cunningham River.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    The Great Room
    The communal lounge, or Great Room, is the heart of Arctic Watch—second only to the dining room. Here, guests relax with hot tea, browse the small library of Arctic-themed books, attend evening lectures, or simply admire the lodge’s collection of ancient fossils and animal bones.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    In the Details
    Check out the spectacular detail on this traditional Inuit coat, which is also on display in the Great Room.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    What a View
    These three seats were the best in the house, overlooking the pristine Cunningham Inlet. Arctic Watch gets nearly 24 hours of sunlight in the summer months, so you have all day and night to enjoy the view.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    ATV Lessons
    One of the first things you learn to do at Arctic Watch is pilot an ATV, which is easier than it looks. I’d never driven a stick shift before, but I picked it up after a couple of turns. We explored the landscape, perched atop our vehicles with binoculars in hand, scouting for ring seals, bearded seals, and polar bears at Polar Bear Point.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Alternative Transportation
    The lodge can accomodate up to 26 guests, but there were only seven the week I visited. When we traveled together as a group, we piled into the back of a bright-yellow Mercedes-Benz Unimog. The Unimog can tackle some rough terrain, but in places where the water was too deep, we would switch to rafts.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Arctic Activities
    Arctic Watch introduced fat biking to its programming last summer. These specialty mountain bikes have extra thick tires, making it easy to cycle across packed snow and ice, loose shale, and rocky tundra. But of all the activities available, my favorite was kayaking the icy rapids of the Cunningham River. I tried my hand at stand-up paddle boarding too, and failed miserably, despite Josée’s introductory lessons and endless encouragement. She’s one heck of a coach.
    Courtesy of Nansen Weber/Arctic Watch
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    A Bonkers Experience
    Have you ever walked on an ice cap in the Northwest Passage? I hadn’t either. Now I can say that doing so feels as bonkers as it looks. Don’t worry, the ice is much thicker than it seems.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Fonts of Arctic Knowledge
    The staffers at Arctic Watch are among the world’s most passionate and pedigreed polar adventurers. Hadleigh Measham has spent a decade guiding in the Arctic and Antarctic. He’s an expert alpinist and diver, plus a serious history buff. Ask him anything—about the 1,000-year-old Thule archaeological site at Cape Anne or the historical crusades along the Northwest Passage—and he’ll be delighted to share an answer. Dave Allcorn, pictured here on a slippery hike through Gull Canyon, is another superstar guide; when he’s not touring, he works as a ranger for the Canadian National Parks.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Arctic Flora
    Dave encourages guests to get down on their hands and knees and take an up-close look at the flora, including tiny willows, poppies, and parrya. It’s miraculous that flowers can bloom in such extreme conditions. This hardy purple saxifrage is rampant—it grows in wet tundra, on dry gravel, and even in snow beds.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Bountiful Belugas
    Most guests who travel to Arctic Watch come with the hope of seeing beluga whales. As the ice on the Northwest Passage thaws, the whales migrate to the Cunningham Inlet to nurse their babies and molt their skin in the warm, shallow waters. Although I managed to see two types of seals, a herd of musk oxen, a giant Arctic hare, and a host of unique birds (jaegers, peregrine falcons, feathery-footed ptarmigans), I missed the whale migration by just a few days. This image was shot by Nansen with the help of a drone.
    Courtesy of Nansen Weber/Arctic Watch
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    What a Spread
    After an exhausting day out on the tundra, there’s nothing like tucking into a home-cooked meal. Chef Justin Tse pulled off three delicious meals a day in one of the most challenging cooking environments on Earth. This spread included lemon- and thyme-roasted chicken with Israeli couscous, a Greek salad, a Caesar salad, roasted sweet potatoes with buttermilk dressing, and a chocolate pot de crème with Chantilly cream and candied nuts for dessert. Madison Espie, Arctic Watch’s in-house sommelier, can suggest a pairing for any dish—even Chef Tse’s freshly caught Arctic char. Wines from Canada’s Okanagan Valley are the lodge’s specialty.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Polar Plunge
    On our final night at the lodge, guests and guides alike stripped down to their swimsuits, strapped on life jackets, and plunged into the frigid waters of the Cunningham Inlet. The swim lasted all of two minutes but, man, was it invigorating.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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    Your Turn
    Somerset Island is so strange and otherworldly, it’s hard to say good-bye and impossible to forget. Want to experience this magical place yourself? Arctic Watch’s 2017 season reopens June 30 and runs through August 14; trips book out months in advance. To get more information and reserve your spot, visit Arctic Watch or Quark Expeditions.
    Photo by Ashlea Halpern
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