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Where are the largest and second largest lakes entirely within Canada (Great Bear & Great Slave Lakes)? Where is Canada's longest river, the second longest river in North America, and the third largest in the world (the Mackenzie River)? Where will you find 500,000 caribou, 95,000 musk ox, 15,000 wolves and 13,000 bears, but only 42,000 people?

Mackenzie River Delta, NWT
Mackenzie River Delta, NWT
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

They are all within the Canadian Northwest Territories (NWT). The 60th parallel forms the southern border of the NWT with British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Arctic Ocean washes its northern coast and islands, with Yukon on the west and Nunavut on the east.

Three times the size of California, the Northwest Territories has big lakes, big fish, big animals and big diamonds. Between the vast Mackenzie Delta of islands, lakes and channels and Great Slave Lake, the 1,800-km main stem of the Mackenzie River passes riverside communities, historic sites and wilderness scenery.

Mackenzie River

Deh Cho (the native Dene name for "Great River"), flows by tundra, unadulterated boreal forest, numerous rivers, rapids, mountain ranges, 60-meter cliffs, stone and driftwood-strewn beaches and hills with black bears, falcons and purple fireweed. In places, the Mackenzie River is three kilometers wide. The only signs of civilization are a few Dene fish camps and settlements built around mission churches and former Hudson's Bay trading posts.

The population of the Northwest Territories, half of which is Aboriginal, lives in 33 communities. NWT has 11 official languages, but almost everyone speaks English. Many communities, that have both Native and English names, are more commonly using their native names. For example, Arctic Red River is also called Tsiigéhtchic.

Things to see in Yellowknife

The Rock plaque above Old Town and downtown Yellowknife
The Rock plaque above Old Town and downtown Yellowknife
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Located on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife is the cosmopolitan capital of the Northwest Territories. Old Town boasts historic buildings, while downtown has modern high-rises.

For orientation, take a floatplane scenic tour and a heritage walking tour. Highlights include the Bush Pilot's Monument on The Rock, historic log cabins, and Lois Lane. Actress Margot Kidder (Superman's girlfriend), was born here.

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre features more than 100,000 items. Exhibits include natural history, northern aviation, Dene and Inuvialuit art and culture, mining and a fun hands-on Discovery Gallery for children.

On display is the only mooseskin boat ever preserved. Mountain Dene people made it without nails, from eight moose hides, using only an ax, needles and knives.

Cultural tours

Hay River, on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, near the Mackenzie River entrance, is a transportation hub. Inuvik is a gateway to hamlets like Tuktoyaktuk, the national parks, Aulavik and Tuktut Nogait, and the high Arctic islands. Small towns include Fort Simpson and the oil center of Norman Wells.

Dene beadwork
Dene beadwork
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis proudly share their rich culture with visitors. Tour operators arrange home visits, year-round fishing, camping and cultural trips. Participants learn winter survival skills, how to smoke meat and fish, tan hides and drive dog teams.

On a Tuktoyaktuk community tour, for example, you can visit an Inuvialuit family on the Arctic coast. You'll learn how they combine traditional and modern life. If you dip a toe or swim in the Arctic Ocean, they'll give you a certificate as proof.

Aboriginal crafts

You can admire and buy Aboriginal arts and crafts at NWT visitor centers, museums and shops. Especially popular are stone and antler sculptures, vibrant beaded moccasins and birch bark baskets, decorated with colored porcupine quills.

Reminders of explorers, fur traders, missionaries, mounted police and prospectors are in numerous communities. The church in Fort Good Hope, for example, features exquisite floor-to-ceiling decorations, painted by missionaries.

Special events, ranging from the July Great Northern Arts Festival, in Inuvik, to the March Caribou Festival, in Yellowknife, are great ways to meet the locals, sample traditional foods and view arts, crafts and dances.

Wood Buffalo National Park

Northwest Territories has four National Parks, three Canadian Heritage Rivers and 27 Territorial Parks. The largest national park in Canada is Wood Buffalo National Park. It is a World Heritage Site, as is Nahanni National Park Reserve, which offers world-class wilderness whitewater paddling.

In Nahanni National Park, you can view the Nahanni River, mountain ranges, canyons and Virginia Falls (twice the height of Niagara) on a flight-seeing tour from Fort Simpson. Passengers choose between aerial views-only tours and flights that land, allowing time for walking and swimming.

Paddling trips

Thomsen River in Aulavik National Park, on Banks Island, is the most northerly navigable river in North America. Tuktuk Nogait, the newest Northwest Territories park, protects bluenose caribou calving grounds.

Visitors to NWT parks can go hiking, bird watching, fishing, camping, rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Outfitters offer guided paddling trips to the Nahanni and Slave River Rapids, near Fort Smith.

Each spring, more than 200 species of songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and seabirds converge in the Northwest Territories to nest. The most accessible stops for spring and fall migrants are Niven Lake in Yellowknife, Vale Island near Hay River, along the Liard Highway (where owls frequent the muskeg edges), Blackstone Territorial Park and Wood Buffalo National Park.

Northern lights holidays

On most dark, cloud-free nights, between late-August and mid-April, you can view the aurora borealis. Created by the solar wind and the earth's magnetic field, the swirling, blue-green, yellow-green and pink northern lights shimmer directly above the Northwest Territories.

Outfitters offer day and overnight northern lights viewing trips. Bundled up in warm clothing, you can admire the dancing drapes and spirals while dogsledding or standing on a frozen lake accessed by snowmobile. In lodges, you can admire the fiery lights while soaking in hot tubs or relaxing in chairs on heated, enclosed viewing decks.

Aurora viewing

The main northern lights-viewing facility, Aurora Village, closes between early-October and mid-November because there is not enough snow for winter activities and the weather is not conducive for summer activities. The best time to see the northern lights is between December and March, because the nights are long and the skies are very dark.

NWT golf courses

Northwest Territories has eight golf courses and driving ranges. The 18-hole course in Yellowknife is the oldest and busiest, with sand and gravel fairways and Astroturf greens. Fort Smith, Hay River, Gameti (formerly Rae Lakes) and Fort Simpson have nine-hole golf courses.

The nine-hole tundra course in Ulukhaktok (also called Holman), on Victoria Island in the high Arctic, is the most northern golf course in Canada. Hazards include meandering wildlife and ravens that steal golf balls, thinking that they are eggs.

Driving trips

Ingraham Trail (Highway 4) begins at the Highway 3 junction, in Yellowknife, and runs 70 kilometers east to Tibbit Lake. Highlights include Prelude Lake Territorial Park, Cameron River Falls and Reid Lake Territorial Park.

The Deh Cho Travel Connection, a 1,800-km circular route, links the Mackenzie, Liard and Alaska Highways through northwest Alberta, southern NWT and northeast British Columbia. Highlights include Alexandra and Louise Falls, the Hay River Gorge hiking trail and roadside bison.

Dempster Highway, Inuvik
Dempster Highway, Inuvik
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway (Highway 8) is the only road to the Arctic in Canada. It runs northeast for 740 km from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik. The hard-packed gravel road crosses the Continental Divide (three times), the Arctic Circle, the Mackenzie River and two mountain ranges.

A driving trip on the Dempster Highway will leave you with memorable images: the Midnight Sun painting the Mackenzie River gold, vibrant purple fireweed, massive boreal forests, birds, wild animals, and friendly inhabitants who share their rich heritage. It will be a Northwest Territories vacation that you won't forget.


Northwest Territories: www.spectacularnwt.com

More things to see and do in Northwest Territories:

NWT - Muktuk, Moose Hair & Mackenzie River