Now with three trips beyond the Arctic Circle, I’m taking time to reflect on the incredible experiences I’ve enjoyed north of 66° 33’.
In This Arctic Article You Will Discover:
- The Culture of the Land
- Images from the Far North
- What it Means to be a “Prisoner of the North”
I recently returned from my third journey north of the Arctic Circle. On this trip, I spent five days in Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park, with time in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, before and after.
The Canadian North has had a profound effect on me. I’ve long been entranced with the mythology of the Arctic, from Gold Rush tales, to the rich indigenous cultures, to the grand explorers of yore. With each visit, this bond is strengthened. When Pierre Berton wrote of The Prisoners of the North, I understood.
On this last trip, I spoke with a woman who told me travelling north of the Arctic Circle had been on her Bucket List for years. This trip, for her, might well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’d made me appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to travel so far into the wild—my personal record is 69° 27’, three degrees of latitude beyond The Circle. And I know I’ll be back—pushing beyond 70° is my next goal. Just call me a Prisoner of the North.
I first ventured north of 66° 33’ in 2008. I landed at Plummer’s Lodge, a sport-fishing operation perched right at the Arctic Circle on Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. But it wasn’t until I flew north of even that, to the Tree River, set within Nunavut’s barren grounds, that I really felt the Arctic’s spirit. The vastness and rawness of the land had a tangible presence. Feeling so impossibly small opened my mind to big questions. There was at once a sense of incredible isolation, yet also connectivity to the landscape and, perhaps, whatever exists beyond.
I took this photo where the Tree River meets Coronation Gulf and the Arctic Ocean—right before I took a swim in the frigid sea. The primordial landscape and remoteness is juxtaposed by the lonely Inukshuk sitting at the top of the cliff. I asked my Inuit guide about what I saw:
“That’s been there for 500 years,” he began to laugh. “Just kidding, me and my buddy built it last week.”
My second trip north of 66°, in 2010, was my most adventurous. Rather than simply fly in—as it is so easy to do these days—I hopped on my Kawasaki KLR650 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pointed it north. A week later, I was standing at on the Arctic Circle, midway along the rough-and-tumble Dempster Highway. Soon after I took this image, it began to rain. I barely made the safety of Eagle Plains Motel without incident; the previously hard-packed road turned to nearly-impassable mud in minutes. A fellow rider showed up a few hours later with a broken femur. He had to be airlifted out—a stark reminder of the Arctic’s unforgiving nature.
I forged ahead the next day, riding all the way to Inuvik, at 68° 21’ north. I still recall standing among the Richardson Mountains, shortly after crossing over to the Northwest Territories, and staring at an incoming storm. I felt as though the tundra would open up and swallow me whole. Like I was alone in the universe; I hadn’t seen a sign of human life in hours.
After a day’s rest in Inuvik, I bombed home, riding the dirty Dempster’s full-length—736 kilometres—in one day. I’m still proud of that.
This last trip north of the Arctic Circle (2016) was also deeply meaningful. For starters, I spent a full week north of 66°, immersed in the midnight sun the entire time. Plus, I made it all the way to Tuktoyaktuk, my new farthest-north stat.
During my five days in Ivvavik National Park, I had an unprecedented opportunity to explore the Arctic in summer. Wide open vistas, verdant plant life, colourful flowers and fascinating wildlife punctuated every day. For the first time, I saw a herd of caribou and a wild muskox and I also got my best-ever look at a grizzly bear. Plus, I had a chance to engage with some locals and discover more about Inuvialuit culture and the land they treasure.
In Inuvik, I boarded a boat and cruised through the massive Mackenzie River Delta toward Tuktoyaktuk. En route, we stopped at a whaling camp on the Arctic Ocean and had lunch with a local family. I ate reindeer stew and muktuk (beluga) and learned about their summer hunts. The Arctic is a foreign land. I was privileged to have a glimpse at the traditional lifestyles of a people who have called this land home for 8,000 years.
I await my next opportunity.
Footnote: In 2014, I spent a week in Nunavik—Arctic Quebec. Though considered the “Arctic,” due to the environment, animals and indigenous culture, technically we didn’t breach 66°. However, I often consider it my “most Arctic” experience—because I went in winter.