It’s not an ideal time to visit Inuvik. Let’s get that out of the way right now.
I arrived in the western Arctic community in the middle of mud season, and in the midst of a global pandemic. The yellow and orange leaves on the trees had fallen just days before my trip. A perpetually overcast sky obscured any nighttime aurora watching. The palette of the place was a mix of brown and grey.
But summer in Inuvik hits different. In this town of 3,400 on the Mackenzie Delta, the bright, long days are packed with colourful festivals and outdoor activities. When Jackie Challis, Inuvik’s tourism and economic development director, first arrived in the summer of 2007 she remembers how Chief Jim Koe Park was filled with ball tournaments, late-night barbeques, and square dances at 2am.
“That’s why this summer, in part, felt so strange,” she says over coffee at town hall. “To not have that… it almost hurt.”
Inuvik was home to one of the NWT’s five cases of COVID-19 earlier this year; one of two not located in the territory’s capital. Precautions have not waned since. Masks are common, restaurants are takeout only, gatherings—in a town Challis says is defined by its social gatherings—remain limited. Coronavirus also struck down the summer’s vital tourism season. Some local outfitters and business owners aren’t sure their companies can survive another year of this. Some locals aren’t sure they can survive an influx of tourists.
Like I said, it’s not an ideal time to visit Inuvik. But it’s also, in its own way, the perfect time. When you come to Inuvik in the off-season—and 2020 is the mother of all off-seasons—you realize the culture and hospitality isn’t just a facade for visitors, says Challis. This is no tourism town.
“There’s no show,” she says about life in this place, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. “It’s not always polished… but it’s so real.”
Inuvik is a government creation. It came to be in 1955 as a new administrative centre for the western Arctic, intended to replace nearby Aklavik. The town grew over the decades, bolstered by an increased military presence from Cold War tensions, and oil and gas interest from companies exploring the Beaufort Sea. Those heady days collapsed in the early ’90s and the subsequent recession has had a lingering effect on Inuvik’s economy. The local population now rises and falls with those arriving for government operations, scientific research, or for work at the Inuvik Regional Hospital.
“It’s this big mix of people that are coming to a really northern community that’s pretty isolated, but everyone’s nice and open to this idea of this isolation,” says Lance Gray, a local forest fire technician. “A lot of people get overwhelmed by how nice they can be received.”
Tony Devlin moved here from Nunavut 13 years ago with his wife. The senior chair of Inuvik’s Great Northern Arts Festival (GNAF) says his family quickly fell in love with the town.
“It’s one of the most accepting communities,” he says from inside the GNAF’s new downtown location. “Everyone here gets along, and there’s lots to do.”
It’s also a multicultural hub. These lands are home to both Gwich’in and Inuvialuit, but Inuvik also welcomes a sizeable Filipino and Muslim community (along with Canada’s most northern mosque).
“People think they’re going to go to the Arctic Market and get fish,” says Challis. “The hottest items are samosas.”
Family and food and gatherings are important to a lot of cultures around the world, she adds. That’s what makes Inuvik a familiar place, even when you’re new in town.
Situated at the end of the Dempster and the beginning of the Road to Tuk, Inuvik can be, perhaps too often these days, considered a stopover town from those looking to scratch off their bucket-list dream of visiting the Arctic Ocean. Those visitors come with no expectations, says Challis, and quickly find out “the fabric of Inuvik is much more complex.”
It’s only after meeting the people here that you realize how special this place is. I know I did. Inuvik is, above all, a sense of community. And it’s highly contagious.
“People really feel like they’re part of something,” says Challis.
Just remember to wear a mask.
Before you get into Inuvik, stop off for a burger and fries at the Cloud 9 Cafe, located inside the airport. Then, feed your social media timeline by stopping for a selfie in front of the famous “End of the Dempster” welcome sign. Next, head to the Western Arctic Regional Visitor’s Centre. It’s the perfect place to plan the rest of your stay, learn about the area’s history, and get your official ‘Crossed The Arctic Circle’ certificate.
Now it’s time for some sightseeing. Tour the community greenhouse, Aurora College, or the famous Igloo Church. Downtown, you’ll find plenty of souvenir shops selling arts and crafts, and be sure to swing by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Craft Shop for a “Tuk U” sweatshirt.
Walking around will also give you the chance to check out Inuvik’s public art and Arctic infrastructure. There are a number of murals on display, along with local carvings (like the inuksuk outside the Mackenzie Hotel). You’ll also be able to spot the utilidors—above-ground utility conduits running like arteries throughout the town, covered in corrugated steel. Or go visit the Inuvik Satellite Station Facility, which features giant antenna mu-rals painted by local Indigenous artists.
Finish the day with a meal from Alestine’s. The quirky Inuvik mainstay serves delicious fresh fish and poutine from inside a converted school bus.
The restaurant at the Mackenzie Hotel used to serve up breakfast, but now that kitchen is for guests and quarantining visitors only. Try Macs News Stand instead. The convenience store sometimes has breakfast sandwiches, but they sell out quick, so get there early.
For the rest of the day, it really depends on the time of year you’re visiting. Summer? The Great Northern Arts Festival will have a packed schedule of events and activities. Spring? The annual Muskrat Jamboree will be in full swing. Winter? Take part in the winter games at the Inuvik Sunrise Festival.
A short distance outside of town are a number of campgrounds and hiking trails. Climb the observation tower in Jak Territorial Park for a beautiful view of the Delta, or take a hike through Gwich’in Territorial Park to gaze out at the limestone cliffs from the Tithegeh Chii Vitaii Lookout.
Inuvik is the hub of the Beaufort Delta, so day trips to surrounding communities are also a great way to enjoy your visit. Head up to Tuktoyaktuk to dip a toe in the Arctic Ocean. Or go south, taking a trip via the Mackenzie River ferry to Fort McPherson or Tsiigehtchic.
No visit to Inuvik would be complete without a drink at the Mad Trapper pub. Then grab some late-night dinner from The Roost. Most of all, meet the locals. Talk to people, get out of your comfort zone and realize the best way to know Inuvik is through those who call it home.