If you’ve ever dreamed of being an intrepid adventurer, the Canadian Arctic is where you want to go. Way up at the top of the world, Nunavut is a place so exotic and so extreme, you can’t help but be amazed, astonished, and enchanted by it all. It’s vast — as big as Western Europe — frozen in winter with temperatures plunging to -40 C, and then transformed into a gentle, big-sky tundra carpeted in wildflowers in summer. There are just a handful of roads. More caribou live here than people, and those that do — the native Inuit — are incredibly creative and resourceful. It’s a land where giant polar bear roam and most travel is by kayak, dogsled, or snowmobile over the treeless expanses of snow and ice. Get to know this Northern outpost where pretty much everything is still undiscovered.
A huge array of exotic wildlife
Most people know that polar bears live in the Arctic — 60 percent of the world’s population, in fact. But the sheer diversity of wildlife in Nunavut is what truly surprises visitors. There are 750,000 caribou, the most important traditional resource for the Inuit, plus Arctic fox and hare, ptarmigan (game birds related to grouse), and herds of muskoxen. These shaggy beasts leave behind tufts of downy wool on the tundra, collected by hand and used to fashion coveted garments as soft as cashmere.
At the floe edge where sea ice meets ocean, animals gather to feed: “Nanuq” (Inuktitut for polar bear), belugas and enormous Bowhead whales, single-tusked narwhal, and walrus. You can venture out with a guide on dogsled, snowmobile, boat, kayak, ATV, cross-country skis, snowshoes, or in a bush plane. Try a polar bear photography tour with specialist Arctic Kingdom. On the annual migration route, Arviat and Chesterfield Inlet on Hudson Bay’s west coast are top destinations for observing the largest of all bears.
A treasure trove of art and artifacts
For those visiting Iqaluit, Canada’s northern-most capital, the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in an unassuming old Hudson’s Bay building is small but loaded with stunning prints by contemporary up-and-comers. Take one home for a fraction of the price down south. The place also houses an impressive collection of intricately beaded garments, handmade textiles, tools, weapons, and whale bone carvings, plus ancient Thule artifacts upstairs. The gift shop is a must and the museum is also a good source of local intel. Another unexpectedly superb spot to see art: the Nunavut Legislative Assembly building. Look for the diamond-tip and narwhal tusk maces.
Wildly imaginative creatives
In a small community on the southern tip of Baffin Island called Cape Dorset, a cadre of talented Inuit artists make etchings, both stone- and wood-cut prints that are bold and colorful. This is the world-renowned West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative started in 1959 by Toronto artist and federal service officer James Houston at a time when the Inuit faced starvation after the fur trade collapsed. Today, it has the most artists per capita in Canada. The lithography co-op has grown to become the region’s economic engine and expanded into exquisite prints, drawings, and sculptures. It’s also the studio that nurtured the late Kenojuak Ashevak, the most famous Inuit artist of all time. Tour the studio September to May (call ahead), watch the masters at work, and take home a precious, limited-edition print.
Hang with the locals
Set on Dorset Island on Hudson Strait, Cape Dorset is tight-knit and authentic. It’s also teeming with wildlife. The friendly Finnish-Inuk couple that runs Dorset Suites can set you up with custom outdoor excursions: Camping and jigging for Arctic char through the ice, foraging for edible seaweed, boating around a nearby archaeological site with 100 stone figures, or dogsledding to the floe edge. They’ll also introduce you to the locals, invite you to a throat singing performance at an elder’s house, bring you into the homes of some of the gifted serpentine carvers in town, and take you along to try some “country food” at a community feast. Here you’ll sample “muktuk” (whale blubber) and “igunaq,” a traditional favorite of fermented walrus meat reminiscent of blue cheese.
Learn the Inuit way
A famous Canadian documentary shows an Inuk masterfully fashioning sled runners out of two frozen fish that he deftly coats in layers of ice. It’s a perfect example of how impressively resourceful these folks are who’ve lived for centuries on an extreme frozen landscape. The best way to get to know them are at two big annual community celebrations. At April’s down-to-earth Toonik Tyme Festival in Iqaluit, it’s a week of the traditionals: Inuit games, igloo building — which they do with their bare hands, seal skinning contests, dogsled and snowmobile races. Be sure to join the concerts and feasts. The homegrown late-June Alianait Arts Festival, also in Iqaluit, is especially compelling because it melds the traditional with the modern: Hip hop danced to traditional drumming and throat singing, for instance. There’s even an Inuit circus act. If you’ve never experienced a hypnotic throat singing performance, you won’t want to miss it. And the spontaneous jam sessions are fun and open to all.
See the Northern Lights
When Nunavut’s nights are long (from October to April) the aurora borealis often shimmers and dances intensely in the Arctic sky. On a fall trip, combine seeing the lights and spectacular fall tundra colors with tracking the traditional caribou migration, one of North America’s largest. From your base at fly-in Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge you’ll see as many as 300,000 Qamanirjuaq caribou traveling south for the winter during the daytime, and perhaps resident grizzlies and wolves, too. Then at night, you’re at optimal aurora-viewing latitude with zero ambient light on the barren lands next to Ennadai Lake west of Hudson Bay.
Natural wonders to the 10th power
Nunavut is filled with so many awe-inspiring natural wonders the place can seem nearly mythic. Sirmilik National Park is one of them. On the northern tip near the Northwest Passage, your base is the Inuit community Pond Inlet. It’s superlative — plateaus and glaciers, dramatic red sandstone hoodoos, icebergs — and filled with ancient sites and wildlife. The area is also has migratory bird sanctuary Bylot Island, home to the world’s biggest snow geese flock. Polar Sea Adventures leads a classic Arctic land-sea ski and kayak expedition for small groups of experienced paddlers.
Another is the Baffin Region’s Quttinirpaaq National Park, Nunavut’s farthest north and most mountainous, explored by only a handful of visitors each year. After a charter flight from Resolute, you’ll have 24 hours of daylight to explore the 14,585 square miles of ancient ice caps, glaciers, and fjords of Ellesmere Island. Black Feather guides multi-day hiking, camping, and photography treks for five through the high Arctic tundra past glacial lakes and river valleys, jagged black peaks, and an unusual thermal oasis. Wildlife here so rarely sees humans that they aren’t even fearful.
Then there’s Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, which calls itself “the most northerly safari lodge on Earth.” Hike, kayak, ATV, paddleboard, take a guided photography excursion, and fish for char, surrounded by muskoxen and polar bears in supreme solitude on an uninhabited island 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. You can hear chirping pods of belugas right from your luxe tent-cabin, a collection of 16 perched at the edge of the Northwest Passage.
If you’re ready to join the ranks of the globe’s most adventurous travelers, Nunavut is calling.
Get ready for your off-the-beaten-path vacation at the Nunavut Tourism website.