Inuvik is a town in Canada's Northwest Territories located at the inland end of the McKenzie Delta and the northern end of the Dempster Highway, almost 200 km (120 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. With around 3,400 permanent residents as of the last census, it is the most populous town in the Canadian Arctic.
In contrast to other settlements in the North American Arctic, Inuvik strikes the visitor as a permanent settlement rather than an outpost in hostile terrain. Its streets are not only named but paved. Along them are permanent buildings that look like houses rather than glorified trailers, churches (and even a mosque!) parks with ballfields and playgrounds, bank branches, a town hall complex, hospital and even a Royal Canadian Legion hall. And it's surrounded by taiga and swamps rather than unbroken tundra. You could be forgiven for thinking it's almost anywhere else in Northern Canada ... that is, until you think about how much the buildings seem to be designed to retain heat. And then you might look closely, and notice the long metallic tunnels running aboveground between buildings—something you don't see many other places in Canada. Only then will you remember that Inuvik is, yes, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle.
Its history is built on this seeming contradiction: a town with a name in an aboriginal language that was established by the Canadian government in the late 20th century. Aklavik, to the west, had been the local administrative centre where the federal and territorial governments had offices and served residents since the beginning of the century. But due to its location in the centre of the Mackenzie River Delta, the world's 12th-largest, it was subject to frequent floods, and after a few close calls the governments realized there was a good chance of the next one washing away not only the town but the land it was on. There was also no land left for necessary expansion.
So, surveyors looked for better sites for towns in the area, and eventually a high patch on the river's East Channel, first known as East Three, was chosen. Human habitation had not been unknown there—Alexander MacKenzie stayed there in 1789 before exploring the river that took his name. But, despite its desirability, no First Nations had settled there, as it was disputed ground between the Inuit peoples of the northern coast and the Dene further inland to the south.
East Three was perfect. It had both river access and a clean water supply. There was ample access to wood (due to the river delta's moderating impact on the climate, the tree line is further north here than elsewhere in the North American Arctic) and gravel to pad buildings and roads so the permafrost 2 m (6 ft) below the ground would not melt. The land was high enough to keep most of the community above any floodwaters, and yet flat enough to allow for the construction of an airport nearby large enough to handle commercial traffic. In 1954 it was chosen as the new townsite, and construction began.
At first it was simply, and honestly, called New Aklavik. But that led to confusion in addressing and delivering mail, so to make Canada Post's life easier, in four years it was renamed Inuvik, meaning "place of people" in Inuvialuktun, the local dialect of the Inuit language Inuktitut. While at first it would have been more accurately described as "place of government buildings and construction sites", by 1960 most of the population of Aklavik had relocated (A small group of holdouts remain in the former settlement to this day, preferring to live in the town where their families grew up). Prime Minister John Diefenbaker came up to speak at the town's formal opening ceremonies the next year.
There were a lot of reasons to live in Inuvik then. With the Cold War in high gear, the Canadian and American militaries maintained a number of Distant Early Warning Line radar stations in the area (as elsewhere in the Arctic), forever scanning the polar airspace for any incoming Soviet missiles or aircraft. In the private sector, the discovery of oil reserves in the North Slope area brought people employed in that industry to town. By 1970 it had become a full town with its own elected mayor and council, the first incorporated municipality in the Canadian Arctic.
At first they had to get there by plane or, less frequently, boat. To serve the growing community, the government built the Dempster Highway, with Inuvik at one end and the other at the Klondike Highway near Dawson City in the Yukon. It was finished in 1979 and opened to traffic that same year, the only all-weather road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle, connecting Inuvik to Canada's highway network just as the U.S. had similarly built the Dalton Highway to the oilfields on Alaska's North Slope (A winter-only ice road allows truckers to get to Tuktoyaktuk at that time of year; it is soon to be replaced by an extension of the Dempster in that direction).
Later that decade, however, the boom times ended. The military post north of town was gradually closed from 1986 to 1990 as the Soviet Union's collapse became more and more inevitable, and the threat of nuclear attack from that direction both less likely and more efficiently detected with newer technologies that did not require so many radar stations. Today only the empty site remains, along with the name of the unpaved thoroughfare leading to it north of town: Navy Road.
Oil exploration also fell on hard times around 1990. Prices per barrel fell considerably, making it much less profitable to drill in the hostile northern environment. Governments reacted by reducing or eliminating subsidies, no longer worried about their economies being at the mercy of Saudi sheikhs. And local activists led opposition on environmental and tribal grounds to further drilling. People who had come for military or business reasons left; the town's population declined from its high above 4,000 to its current level by the mid-1990s. The governments—federal, territorial and local—have remained as major employers, and hunting and trapping in the surrounding taiga and tundra sustained a few as well.
Today Inuvik is reinventing itself. Oil may not be viable, but gas is, and interest is picking up. Satellite companies have found Inuvik, with its relative lack of radio interference, an excellent location for regular downloads of orbitally collected data, and that business is expected to pick up when broadband connections to Inuvik are improved. Ecotourism is also making itself felt, as visitors come to experience the Arctic either from the relatively comfortable and familiar confines of the town itself, or being flown to nearby wildernesses such as the Vuntut/Ivavvik/Herschel Island parks in northwestern Yukon or even Aulavik National Park 500 km to the north on Banks Island. Inuvik has also become a cultural destination, with the Great Northern Arts Festival bringing indigenous artists from all over the northern regions of North America every July under the town's midnight sun.
You might have come to Inuvik just because it's the end of the road. Or you may be on the way to somewhere else even more remote. But either way take a little time to take in this Arctic town with its colourful houses connected by silvery "utilidors" carrying the gas and electric lines away from the permafrost. When the sun stays out all day, it's easier to find that there's more there than meets the eye.
The Dempster Highway (Northwest Territories Route 8; though not signed in the NT: Yukon Route 5 in that territory) connects Inuvik with Canada's road network and is open year round to all traffic. From its junction with the Klondike Highway (YU 2) near Dawson City in the Yukon, it runs 737 km (458 miles), mostly unpaved, to its current end at Inuvik. On the way it passes through some very beautiful scenery in the Richardson Mountains. The trip takes a few days one way and is often considered a destination in itself; many visitors to Inuvik are there laying over between arriving and returning home via the Dempster, their vehicles recognizable in parking lots around town by their thick dust coating.
Going to Inuvik this way can be the adventure of a lifetime. However, this road is not to be taken casually. There are few towns or services along its length; travellers are strongly advised to prepare themselves for many things not ordinarily part of long drives—car camping (only Eagle Plains, roughly midway along the highway, has a hotel, and it's not cheap), subarctic and Arctic wilderness conditions (food and water supplies are essential), car repairs including replacing and patching tires, and even the possibility of grizzly bear or polar bear encounters (i.e., a rifle).
This admonition goes quadruple (at least) for anyone planning to take the Dempster to Inuvik and back in the wintertime. Climate change notwithstanding (for the time being), temperatures along the route, especially in valleys, can and will be even colder than those in Inuvik, sometimes as low as -50º C (nearly -60º F), cold enough to freeze brake fluid. Even less cold than that can often make electrical contacts in a car contract and become temporarily unusable. If your car stops working due to the extreme cold, many kilometres from the nearest settlement, and you're not prepared yourself, the Dempster in winter could be the last trip you ever take.
It is thus strongly advised that you do not venture up the Dempster to Inuvik in wintertime without both adequate preparation and at least one person on the trip who has previous experience travelling by motor vehicle in Arctic winter conditions.
Flying to Inuvik is the most common way for visitors to come to Inuvik. Mike Zubko Airport, named for an early aviation pioneer in the area, is located about 5 km south of town along the Dempster. Regular commercial flights arrive and depart daily on several of the airlines that serve the Canadian North. These flights are usually run as shuttle routes along a series of stops, with Inuvik as the north end of the route. Whitehorse and Yellowknife are the best airports to connect through.
- Air North: One flight in and one flight out daily, usually stopping in Dawson City along the way. Some flights back go through Old Crow instead.
- Canadian North: Daily flight in and out connecting to Norman Wells, Yellowknife and Edmonton.
- First Air: On Mondays and Fridays it offers its own flight to Norman Wells and Yellowknife; connections to either Edmonton or Hay River are possible.
Commuter and charter flights on small prop planes from other isolated Northern communities are offered by both Aklak Air (based locally and operated by Kenn Borek Air) and Norman Wells-based North-Wright Airlines.
For private pilots so equipped, floatplanes can be landed in the summer at the Shell Lake aerodrome, just north of the airport.
The flat rates for a taxi in Inuvik, effective April 2013, are $6 for a ride within the town and $35 for the 11km (7 mile) ride to the airport.
- Delta Cabs, 124 Mackenzie, ☎ .
- United Taxi, 26 King Road, ☎ . +1 867 777-5050, 777-4777 (Town Cab) or 777-2525 (24 hours).
By rental car
- The Arctic Chalet offers car rental ($100-120/day) at +1 867 777-3535
- Driving Force (Norcan Rental), 170 Airport Road, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: . 8AM-noon and 12:30-5:30pm weekdays. Vehicle rental and leasing, normally closed weekends unless a vehicle is already reserved in advance.
If you have the time and energy, consider walking around town (and even to and from town to places slightly outside of it like the Arctic Chalet, if you're staying there). The terrain is generally level and the roads (and sidewalks) are well-maintained and eminently walkable. Within town, despite the presence of North America's northernmost traffic light, traffic is so light that even in the middle of the day on the widest stretch of Mackenzie Road downtown, vehicles will almost always stop to let pedestrians cross wherever they choose to do so (but do be careful not to abuse this privilege).
- 1 Our Lady Of Victory Church (Igloo Church), 178 Mackenzie Road (E corner of Mackenzie and Kingmingya Rds intersection downtown), ☎ . Probably Inuvik's best-known building, there are reasons to check out this prominent downtown landmark even if you aren't a devout Catholic celebrating Mass away from home. This distinctive circular domed church, with its exterior painted to look like an igloo, was built in 1960, making it one of the oldest buildings in town. Inside it features artwork by Inuit artist Mona Thrasher.
- 2 Midnight Sun Mosque, 29 Wolverine Road (S side of bend in road 150 m E of Navy Road), ☎ . North America's northernmost mosque. Not too distinctive architecturally, except for the (purely functional) minaret
- The Great Northern Arts Festival has been held annually for 10 days in the middle of July, around the end of the midnight-sun period. Participating artists come from across the north, as far way as Newfoundland, and even some from Alaska; while artists and art lovers come from all over the world to appreciate their work. Everyone one with the northern spirit is welcome to have bannock and caribou stew and see the best of the best in Arctic art. Some artists are even creating their pieces on site, so you can see first hand how to turn a stone into a magnificent figure of polar bears, walrus or Inuit faces.
- The annual Sunrise Festival happens on the second weekend of January, usually around the time Inuvik's month-long polar night ends with a 15-minute day as the sun breaks over the mountains to the south. The event combines various native traditions with modern ones, such as the fireworks that can't be displayed at Canada Day celebrations (due to the midnight sun). Every year it keeps getting bigger.
Inuvik is a great place for those with an adventurous spirit. It is one of the last places on Earth that can feel very much untouched by humans, and the sense of being top of the world is impossible to avoid.
The local people are very friendly and quite willing to show those curious enough to ask how they still, in the 21st century, live off the land in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
One can explore for thousands of miles in any direction by snowmobile, boat or ATV. Just be sure to have a guide go with you who is familiar with the land, as Inuvik is a very isolated town,and you want to make sure you get back. Also ensure you have sufficient supplies for your adventure, as there is nothing outside of the town to provide you with gas, food (apart from hunting), or a warm dry bed.
Or stay in town. The local people are trying very hard to preserve their culture, and tourists showing a genuine interest will help support their goals. From soap stone carvings to stunning beadwork, even watercolour paintings by local artists will dazzle the senses and be sure to provide you with a unique experience.
- Midnight Sun Recreation Complex, 95 Gwich'in Road, ☎ 867-777-8640. Great swimming pool: lanes, "lazy river," large water slide, volleyball net and basketball net. Also a canteen selling food and drinks, a 85' x 200' arena, 2 squash courts, a children's play zone, fitness centre, a community hall and meeting rooms, and a 4 sheet curling rink and lounge.
- 1 The Corner Store, 15 Dolphin Street (NE corner of Kingmingya Road intersection), ☎ . Smaller supermarket alternative to NorthMart
- 2 Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Craft Store, 107 Mackenzie Road (Third floor of large blue and white building 150 m down road from Mackenzie Hotel), ☎ , e-mail: MJacobson@inuvialuit.com. Mon-Fri 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.. Crafts made by local members of the Inuvialuit. All proceeds go to the individual artists.
- 3 Midtown Market, 114 Mackenzie Road (100 m NE of NorthMart along that side of road), ☎ . Open 24 hours. Inuvik's only convenience store, open all 24 hours.
- 4 NorthMart, 160 Mackenize Road (Large building across the street from the Mackenzie Hotel), ☎ . The first and last place you'll go for anything you need—if it's not here, it's probably not available in town. In addition to the medium-size supermarket, there's a drug store and what are probably the northernmost KFC and Pizza Hut outlets in the world. The front section's outdoor section is also a good place to look if you need one last item before going off into the Arctic wilderness.
- 5 Rexall, 125 Mackenzie Road (100 m NE of the Mackenzie Hotel), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Fri, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat, noon-5 p.m. Sun. Local branch of nationwide drugstore chain is probably the best place to go for your needs in that area.
- 1 Cloud 9 Cafe, 1355 Airport Rd (In the airport), ☎ . Great food. Muskox burgers
- 2 The Roost, 106 Mackenzie Road (50 m E of Berger St. on N side of road), ☎ . Till midnight daily. The go-to place (in fact, the only place) in Inuvik for popular take-out food like burgers, Chinese or pizza. You can also eat in the backroom if you prefer.
- 3 Tonimoes, 185 Mackenzie Road (1st floor of Mackenzie Hotel), ☎ . 7 a.m.–9 p.m. daily. This is as fine as dining out in Inuvik gets. Breakfast, brunch and lunch menus are augmented by a dinner menu specializing in surf-and-turf
- 1 Mad Trapper Pool Hall, 124 Mackenzie Road (Across from Rexall, next to the Midtown Market), ☎ . Once upon a time the Trapper had a house band or two and a packed dance floor on Friday nights. Now it's a pool hall, although like most such establishments the game is often a pretext for downing pitcher upon pitcher of beer, especially if you don't know the right end of a cue from the wrong one. Still retains a dive-bar flavour.
- 2 Shivers, 185 Mackenzie Road (First floor of Mackenzie Hotel), ☎ . The MacKenzie's bar is, as you'd expect from the rest of the joint, a tonier alternative, perfect for retiring to after a meal across the hall. Tuesdays are Scotch Night, a popular draw with a selection of high-end product served.
- 1 Arctic Chalet, 25 Carn Street (Off Dempster Highway 1.5 km south of town), ☎ , toll-free: , e-mail: email@example.com. Small cabin complex south of town with a rustic feel, nearby trails, and sled dogs kept on the property. The owners can arrange shuttles into town, to the airport and many other tourism options. $25–115.
- 2 Capital Suites (Zheh Gwizu' Inuvik), 198 Mackenzie Road (NE corner of the Bompas Street intersection), ☎ , toll-free: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. An all-suites hotel run jointly by the chain and the local First Nations tribal council From $184.
- 3 Mackenzie Hotel, 185 Mackenzie Road (Northwest corner of the Veteran's Way intersection, the only traffic light in town), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. The plushest hotel in town offers a central location, restaurant and bar. from $199.
- 4 Nova Inn, 300 Mackenzie Road (Across from the hospital), ☎ , toll-free: , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 3 p.m., check-out: 11 a.m.. Cheaper alternative to the Mackenzie from $120.
- 5 Polar Bed and Breakfast, 75 Mackenzie Street (Near Boreal Books at the Millen Street intersection), ☎ , fax: , e-mail: email@example.com. Smaller place downtown $105-115, $10 per extra guest.
At the moment, Internet service to Inuvik, like most of the Canadian Far North, is constrained by limited capacity. Hotels and any other providers of free Wi-Fi will often request that you limit your use to basic email and web browsing, avoiding Skype or streaming services that could slow down the throughput for everyone. You may also have shorter than usual time limits at their business centres.
This may be allayed in the future. The new Canadian government elected in 2015 has promised to increase broadband capacity to the entire Arctic. Inuvik in particular may be first in line for these improvements due to its increasing popularity with satellite companies as a downloading point.