Inuvik: A Study In Contrasts

Of course, the church in Inuvik is shaped like an igloo!
Of course, the church in Inuvik is shaped like an igloo!

 Travelling north over 460 miles on the Dempster Highway may very well change your view of the world around you. Starting off from the Yukon’s Dawson City, the legendary home of the Klondike Gold Rush, this northbound strip of gravel, dirt, ferry crossings, and car-eating potholes stretches across the Arctic Circle all the way to the tiny Arctic outpost of Inuvik, which translates to “the place of man.”

The first 300 miles or so are bound to awe even the most jaded visitor: A full day’s drive filled with more spectacular remote mountain scenery, mud, and mosquitoes than you are likely to find anywhere else on Earth. If you can see through the cloud of blood-sucking pests that follow you everywhere you go and the coating of arctic dust that will cover your windshield, you will witness infinite solitude unlike any on this crowded planet. Imagine if you can, well over three hundred miles without cities, towns, villages, or even more than a handful of buildings.

When you consider that looking out directly towards the east the closest paved road is in Europe, the overwhelming isolation of the area really starts to sink in. At a roadside stop wolves trot by like stray dogs, completely unconcerned with the humans (like me) snapping quick photos. After all, the wolves could run almost 1,500 miles to Hudson’s Bay and not see another human… or camera.

After hundreds of miles of countless potholes and flat tires, the first habitation cluster north of the Arctic Circle is Fort McPherson, which is little more than a gravel road lined by a few houses leading to the Peel River Ferry. In a jolting, jagged, dusty 300 miles this is the first town where you can finally buy a sandwich and a drink.

By now you’re in the Mackenzie River valley, which has to be one of the largest and most majestic deltas on Earth. The scenery begins to shift from greenish-brown mountains and valleys to flattened tundra pockmarked by innumerable kettle lakes. While south of the Mackenzie the scenery is awesome but is not really much different than you would find further south in the British Columbia and Alberta Rockies, once you cross this expansive river you realize that you are in a totally alien environment of reindeer moss, lichens, liverworts, sedges, tough grasses and a few shrubs sticking up about a foot over the flattened and permafrosted landscape.

After over a hundred miles of wondrous tundra-scapes, the infernal tire-shredding gravel strip finally gives way to a paved road. This is the signal that the end of the road is near at the surprisingly thriving town of Inuvik, home to almost 3,500 hardy souls with one stop light and heated by geothermal steam piped under the buildings. Much to the disappointment of uninformed travelers it is not possible to drive on to the Arctic Ocean outpost of Tuktoyaktuk as it is only reachable by air or ice road in the winter.

As it is late August, the sun actually sets as it has not done for about three months. But the twilight is short lived as no sooner has the luminous orb disappeared beneath the horizon that it begins to rise again. The horizontal light which filters through the window at the Mackenzie Delta Hotel illuminates a room that could easily be in a modern midrange hotel in Denver. In the middle of this incomprehensibly enormous arctic wilderness, it is somehow comforting to have the 28” TV on an old episode of Baywatch.

When you pass the sign at the entry of Inuvik’s Roads End Golf Club two degrees above the Arctic Circle and you notice that there is a stapled warning next to the sign to watch out for grizzly bears, that is the time you really understand just how far away you are from everything you have known in your life. Inuvik is a destination as exotic in its own way as Kiribati in the South Pacific or Parintins in the Amazon. It is a town that challenges your perceptions of what life really is on this planet. Especially if you’re in a position to take a tee shot and have to watch out for charging bears.

After all where else can you enjoy a very good Chinese meal at a table set next to an eight foot tall polar bear? Fortunately the bear is stuffed, just as you are after the second helping of chow mein. The Back Room Restaurant is often regarded as the best dining venue in town, just make sure you don’t poke an eye out on the five foot wide rack of antlers mounted on the wall next to the bear.

Inuvik is a town of contrasts. The mighty Mackenzie drains almost a quarter of the Canadian land mass and all that water and silt passes by right on Inuvik’s doorstep on its way to the icy Arctic Ocean, yet you can walk into the CIBC bank and feel like you’re in a Toronto suburb. It is a town set on the only ten miles of paved road in the Northwest Territories yet most of the vehicles (with polar bear cutout license plates) you see driving around are not four wheel drive. The main church is named The Igloo Church and resembles the famous Inuit ice structure, but it was built by Francophone masons. Inuvik is a town that may be sitting on a vast energy bonanza to rival northern Alberta, yet many of the residents want to keep the oil companies away to prevent any further damage to the virgin land.

It’s August yet there is a touch of frost on the car windshield in the morning. Winter is never far away from Inuvik, and it is not unusual for temperatures under 40 degrees below zero to persist for six weeks in the long Arctic winter night. Yet the talk in the town is about global warming and what is happening to the Arctic. The old timers you strike up a conversation with at the Quick Stop are flummoxed by the phenomenon of the disappearing ice and the starving polar bears venturing further south each year.

Perhaps the Golf Club should staple up another warning to watch out for polar bears on the fairways.

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