Northwest Territories

Na' ili Cho waterfall, NWT by CC user 31856336@N03 on Flickr

Introduction

In the early days of Canada, the Northwest Territories was this unfathomably large swath of land situated north and west of the tiny original four provinces (excluding BC) that made up this newly minted nation back in 1867. Since then, the most southerly reaches were carved up into the Prairie Provinces, the Yukon was created during the gold rush to better deal with the explosive growth happening there, and then most recently in 1999, Nunavut sliced out much of the northeastern portion of the NWT, leaving it with the borders that define the smallest of the three northern territories in the present day.

Like the Yukon, gold had played a role in the lives of the now 40,000 + people that call this chilly territory home, but in the 21st century, a completely different type of precious mineral is driving the economy here – diamonds. The polar ice strain has given the world an alternative to the occasionally tarnished origins of diamonds that come from Africa, as many of them come from countries where oppressive governments or rebel groups use proceeds from their sale to wage bloody wars on each other. This fact has swelled their popularity, breathing life into this place after the decline of gold in Yellowknife.

Apart from the attractions of the capital, many waterfalls, remote lakes with fishing camps that net massive catches, and dark winters that make for ideal viewing of the cosmos most spectacular light snow – the aurora borealis – make this place worth the trip. Along with a desire to go somewhere that is truly remote, an outpost of civilization at the dead end of a long road from the south, your trip to the Northwest Territories will undoubtedly be memorable for these reasons.

Wildcat Cafe in old town Yellowknife by CC user cbweather on Flickr

What To Do – Culture & History

If it is culture you are after, the majority of the major attractions in the Northwest Territories will be found in the territorial capital of Yellowknife, home to half of the territories’ population. Start by digging into the very recent past of this place at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, where the artistic, cultural, and archeological highlights of the territory are preserved and put on display for visitors.

While much of the city is relatively new and resembles the uninspiring architecture that you’ll see throughout many parts of Canada, structures that date back to the founding of this place in 1936 (yes, not even 100 years old!) comprise the Old Town of Yellowknife. These streets near the shores of Great Slave Lake ooze infinitely more character than the modern city surrounding it, as structures like the Wildcat Cafe (Yellowknife’s first restaurant), and countless other ramshackle wooden buildings that were slapped up on the exposed rock shore in a chaotic fashion. One of the central routes through this area is called Ragged Ass Road, giving testament to the authenticity of this original settlement’s residents.

The Ingraham Trail may seem like a road to nowhere, as it stretches 70 kilometres to the northeast of Yellowknife into the vast nothingness of the subarctic muskeg (it gives access to waterfalls and recreational lakes though, be sure to ask the locals for better details). But come winter, the navigable seasonal paths known asice roads open up, giving rise to one of reality TV’s most recent hits, Ice Road Truckers.

While many of these roads service diamond mines, and are of no real interest to tourists, there are ice roads that lead to local native settlements, so taking these won’t just give you a chance to emulate your reality TV heroes, but you’ll also get to see how life out in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories is for the people who have called it home for thousands of years.

Nahanni National Park Reserve by CC user 31856336@N03 on Flickr
What To Do – Natural Attractions

While the Northwest Territories features more of a Canadian Shield like landscape than a mountainous one that you would find in the Yukon, the westerly sections of the territory is home to the MacKenzie Mountains, in which one of Canada’s best kept secrets, the Nahanni National Park Reserve can be found. The whitewater rafting is out of this world, Virginia Falls will drop jaws with its vertical that doubles the drop found at Niagara Falls, and river canyons that sink 1,200 metres into the earth will engender similar reactions from you and your travel mates.

While much of the park can be found in neighbouring Alberta, passenger vehicle entrance and many causal traveler attractions within Wood Buffalo National Park can be found in the Northwest Territories. After entering at Fort Smith, attempt to track down elusive whooping cranes and members of the largest free roaming herd of wood bison in the world, surreal salt plains, and wild rushing rivers, all the while doing so largely by yourself, as only 1,500 people visit this park every year, despite all-weather road access from the Northwest Territories.

Being such a vast territory that is utterly devoid of people, Northern Lights viewing has become a thriving niche industry in the NWT. The Japanese in particular are drawn here each winter to experience the deep north, the native peoples, the pitch darkness, and most of all, practically guaranteed viewings of the alien-like lights of Aurora Borealis through the lengthy winter season. The lack of mountains make for great viewings, which is readily apparent through the money that is being spent by foreigners, which dumped $100 million in the local economy during aurora trips in the most recent year.

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