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How do you get to Tuktoyaktuk? A half-hour Aklak Air flight from Inuvik brought us northeast to this Arctic Coast community in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Maureen Pokiak uses an <i>ulu</i> to remove beluga whale skin from <i>muktuk</i> in Tuktoyaktuk.
Maureen Pokiak uses an ulu to remove beluga whale skin from muktuk in Tuktoyaktuk.

Nicknamed Tuk, the hamlet has a population of 870, mostly Inuvialuit people. We met several of them on a cultural and community tour of Tuk that we booked in Inuvik.

The highlight was a visit to Maureen Pokiak's home. Maureen came to Tuk in 1974 to teach in the school. She and her Inuvialuit husband, James, have three children.

Maureen invited us into her modern kitchen to try traditional Northern foods. Clink, clink, clink. She poured chunks of dried black whale meat into a bowl.

As we savored the mouthwatering aroma of simmering caribou soup, she removed a layer of white skin from chunks of raw muktuk (whale blubber), with her curved ulu knife, and cut the muktuk into cubes. She served them to us, along with crispy dried, smoked fish and freshly baked bannock.

The chewy whale meat tasted like beef jerky. The muktuk had the texture of boiled egg white and a nutty flavour. The dried fish reminded us of smoky bacon and the caribou soup was so good that we asked for seconds. We used the biscuit-like bannock to soak up every drop.

"We get 80 per cent of our food from the land and sea," said James. Later, when we visited the local Northern store, we understood why: lettuce was $6 a head, melons $12 each and milk $14 for two liters.

Tuktoyaktuk attractions

The Pokiak's daughter, Rebecca, brought us on a tour of Tuk. At St. John's Anglican Church, built in 1869, we saw a bible printed in Inuvialuktun and a wolverine skin collection bag. We photographed a monument marking the start of the Trans Canada Trail and dipped our toes into the Arctic Ocean. To our surprise, it was warmer than Lake Ontario, which is much farther south.

The highlight was a tour of the community freezer with James Pokiak. We descended a 27-step ladder to a tunnel in the permanently frozen ground (permafrost). Inside his family's compartment, he showed us frozen fish for his sled dogs. As his flashlight illuminated the ceiling and walls, ice crystals sparkled like diamonds.

Pingo Canadian Landmark

Driftwood-strewn beach by Split Pingo, a Canadian landmark near Tuktoyaktuk
Driftwood-strewn beach by Split Pingo, a Canadian landmark near Tuktoyaktuk

Our half-hour flight south over the 13,000-square-kilometer Mackenzie Delta to Inuvik revealed more evidence of permafrost — pingos. The Pingo Canadian Landmark has the world's highest concentration of these permafrost pimples (about 1,400).

Inuvialuit use the soil-covered ice cones as landmarks. Split is a pingo with twin hilltops. Ibyuk, Canada's largest pingo, is as high as a 16-storey building.

Inuvik is more accessible than Tuk, because it's the northern terminus of the 734-kilometer Dempster Highway. Airlines offer flights to Tuktoyaktuk, Aklavik and even more remote settlements.

Inuvik festivals

Located 97 kilometers south of the Beaufort Sea, Inuvik (population 3,300) is a major transport and supply centre for oil and gas companies. Because homes sit on permafrost, residents use utiladors, elevated metal ducts, to carry water and sewage. If buried, the pipes would melt the permafrost, causing the ground to sag.

As we walked to the igloo-shaped church in Inuvik, crowds at the school diverted us. Visitors and many residents were here, watching traditional Inuit skills competitions at the Circumpolar Northern Games. Parka-clad women wielded ulus, skinning seals, muskrats and beavers. "Beaver is rich meat," said one lady. "You don't get hungry for a long time after eating it." Feathers flew as men competed in goose plucking.

There was good-natured banter about how women were faster than men in the skinning, tea-boiling and bannock-making competitions. The emphasis, however, was more on fun and sportsmanship than setting records.

"Younger generations don't need these skills to survive today," said one elderly lady. Instead, we found the young athletes in the gym, competing in one-foot high kicks, kneel jumps and other strength and endurance games. Afterward, they snacked on local fast foods: boiled muktuk chunks with HP sauce, dried fish and doughnuts.

Longest river in Canada

There are nine communities along the longest river in Canada. From Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River flows 1,800 kilometres to the Arctic Ocean. The café au lait-coloured river, in places, is as wide as 20 highways between banks forested with aspen, spruce and fir.

A hilltop mission church marks Arctic Red River. Like most settlements, it also has a native name, Tsiigehtchic. A car ferry bridges the Dempster Highway across the river in summer. In winter, there's an ice crossing. The 130 Gwich'in inhabitants survive by fishing, hunting and trapping. Along the river banks, we saw tents and tepees where they dry and smoke fish.

Fort Good Hope church

Fort Good Hope, a town on the east bank, has a population 585. Our jaws dropped when we entered Our Lady of Good Hope Church. Yellow stars glowed from an intense blue ceiling. Brilliant frescoes of angels, doves and flowers decorated the walls.

Jonas Kakfwi plays organ in the church at Fort Good Hope, NWT.
Jonas Kakfwi plays organ in the church at Fort Good Hope, NWT.

"Missionaries built it from wood, in 1865," said organist Jonas Kakfwi. "The colors come from fish oil and berries. No one can match them today." Music resonated as Jonas pressed the organ keys. "I'll sing you a Slavey hymn." We didn't understand the Sahtu Dene dialect, but the melody and beautiful surroundings left us with indelible memories of Jonas and the exquisite wooden church with its little cemetery of white crosses.

Norman Wells Historical Centre

Large man-made islands dot the river near Norman Wells. Oil pumps, on top, bobbed up-and-down like giant metallic feeding birds. Geologists drilled the first oil wells here in 1919.

During WWII, the US Army built the CANOL Pipeline to carry Norman Wells' crude to Alaska. After three years, they abandoned it. At the Norman Wells Historical Centre, signs, maps, vintage equipment and videos bring the project to life.

Today, black gold flows south to Edmonton for processing. The CANOL Heritage Trail, a challenging 355-kilometer hiking trail, follows the pipeline route to the Yukon border.

Tulita wedding

One of the joys of traveling in the Northwest Territories is the opportunity to meet the local people. Tulita (formerly called Fort Norman), is a community of 500 Dene at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Great Bear Rivers. It was once a Hudson's Bay Company trading post and the exploration base for Sir John Franklin. Comedian, Leslie Nielsen, lived in Tulita while his father worked for the RCMP.

While we walked through the hamlet, we met a villager who invited us to her mother's wedding. The bride was 82-year-old Rosie Norwegian. Her long-time companion, Frank Yallee, was the groom. After the ceremony, Rosie's family invited us to attend the evening drum dance and feast. Unfortunately, we had to leave.

We had pre-booked flight-seeing tours of Nahanni National Park, which depart from Fort Simpson, upriver. The three-hour aerial tours of the UNESCO World Heritage Site offer spectacular views of Virginia Falls, canyon valleys, forests and the South Nahanni River.

What to do in Fort Simpson

In Fort Simpson (population 1,216), Steve Rowan from the Historical Society led us on a walking tour of the town. Our first stop was Albert Faille's tiny cabin. For 40 years, the trapper and prospector unsuccessfully searched the Nahanni for gold.

Hilda Tsetso shows photo of Pope John Paul II visit to Fort Simpson in 1987.
Hilda Tsetso shows photo of Pope John Paul II visit to Fort Simpson in 1987.

"I found $1,000 cash behind this cupboard after he died, at 86, in 1973," said Rowan. The money is now in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. Everything else remains in the cabin — old beaded moccasins, snowshoes, a suit, his metal frame bed, a gold pan filled with rocks on a table, and coffee, food and pots in the cupboard.

On the Papal Grounds, a short walk away, a drum circle and tepee mark the location of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Fort Simpson in 1987. Residents still talk about the event, with joy and pride. Even William and Kate's July 2011 royal visit to Yellowknife and Blachford Lake Lodge did not overshadow the locals' enthusiasm about the pope's visit.

Inside the Visitor Centre, Hilda Tsetso showed us a photo of the pope greeting some of the 4,000 people, who journeyed to this island at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers, to see him. "People hunted and fished to feed the crowds. We listened to storytellers and watched drum dances." She showed us the pope's carved moose antler-and-hide chair, given a place of honour among the handicraft and wildlife exhibits in the Centre.

The nearby square-logged McPherson House was considered a large home when it was built in 1936. George and Lucy McPherson raised their nine children here. Inside, we saw their vintage stove, furniture and wooden washing machine.

Fort Providence crafts

Dene wall-hanging with tufted moose hair flowers at Snowshoe Inn Craft Shop in Fort Providence, NWT.
Dene wall-hanging with tufted moose hair flowers at Snowshoe Inn Craft Shop in Fort Providence, NWT.

The diversity of Dene and Metis handicrafts astounded us at Fort Providence, a settlement of 800 people. In the Snowshoe Inn Craft Shop, we admired birch bark baskets decorated with porcupine quill flowers, beaded moccasins and wall hangings with 3-D flowers, crafted from dyed and tufted moose hair.

How do you make tufted moose hair flowers? "Dene craftswomen pick the best hair from the moose's shoulders and rump, when it's about 15 centimeters long and still white, so they can color it with powdered dye. They keep the hairs moist in their mouths or a damp cloth so they don't break," explained store manager, Linda Croft.

"After grouping about one or two dozen hairs of the same size and color, they tighten them together with a thread. Finally, they sculpt the ends of the hairs with scissors."

"Don't be surprised if you see bison grazing along the roadside," said Linda. "They're from the 2,000-animal Mackenzie herd. The bulls like to scratch their backs against our windows."

That night, we woke up at 2 am to see a magnificent display of northern lights in a star-filled sky. Green lights curled like wisps of smoke and flowed like translucent waterfalls across the celestial stage. It was a spectacular ending to our visit to Fort Providence.

Yellowknife tour

The bus trip from Fort Providence to Yellowknife takes four hours. With a population of 20,000, the Northwest Territories capital is much larger and more cosmopolitan than the communities along the Mackenzie.

We climbed up The Rock to view the Bush Pilots' Monument. From here, we overlooked Old Town's shacks and New Town's modern buildings.

Log cabin in Old Town Yellowknife
Log cabin in Old Town Yellowknife

Prospectors, who built log cabins and set up tents after gold was discovered in the 1930s, gathered at the Wildcat Café, the first restaurant in Yellowknife. It's across the street from Back Bay, where early airlines like Wardair and Canadian Pacific originated with bush planes.

There was no muktuk or dried whale meat on the menu, but we saw caribou and Arctic char. As we munched meaty caribou burgers, the roar of floatplanes, landing and departing on Great Slave Lake, reminded us that Yellowknife is a boomtown. The gold mines have closed, but new diamond mines now lure international workers to the Northwest Territories.


Northwest Territories Tourism: www.spectacularnwt.com

More things to see and do in Northwest Territories:

NWT - Things to See and Do