If you think kayaking is a new thing, consider this: Inuit invented the sleek seafaring vessel about 4,000 years ago. The Canadian Arctic’s indigenous people constructed lightweight bone or driftwood frames, stretching animal skins over top to create a watertight covering. And canoes? Even older — first built in 8,000 BC, scientists say, originally by hollowing out tree trunks. Tour the Arctic the historic way, by canoe and kayak in Canada’s northern territory Nunavut, a top global kayaking destination.
Sparsely populated, Nunavut is enormous — about the size of Western Europe — and blanketed in ice and snow much of the year. So one of the best ways to explore is by boat. In July and August, when the sea ice breaks up, kayak some 28,000 miles of remote coastline, marked by fjords, inlets, and bays, and filled with exotic wildlife: Polar bears, single-tusked narwhal, ptarmigan, and caribou, plus Arctic fox and hare.
Canoe in late spring when the lakes and rivers begin to thaw. Start in Iqaluit, Canada’s northern-most capital, and head out from there. If you can, catch spring’s Toonik Tyme: A delightfully genuine local cultural celebration with dog sledding, igloo building, pond hockey games, Inuit throat singing, and “country food” like caribou stew. You’ll want an experienced guide to lead you on a paddling expedition — then prepare for the experience of a lifetime.
Kayak Baffin Island north
For experienced kayakers, Baffin Island is it. Canada’s largest and the world’s fifth-biggest island, the Inuit’s homeland is superlative — a place of steep fjords, towering glaciers, and untouched landscapes. On the northern tip near the fabled Northwest Passage, Inuit community Pond Inlet near the floe edge, marked by spectacular jagged mountains and hoodoos, is a prized spot. Paddle past migratory bird sanctuary Bylot Island to the north and around icebergs, looking for whales, walrus, and seals. The area is filled with archaeological sites from Inuit ancestors, the Dorset and Thule people. The Great Canadian Adventure Company’s two-week adventure focuses on tracking narwhal, which frequent the area in sizable pods, while Polar Sea Adventures leads a kayak trip that includes hiking and fishing for Arctic char.
Kayak Baffin Island south
On Baffin Island’s southern-most peninsula is Kimmirut. A traditional Inuit hamlet of 400, it lies on Hudson Strait off Quebec, an area of rocky hills and wide-open tundra. Kayak the dramatically fluctuating tides — the second-highest on the planet. Then take a look at historic buildings like Baffin’s first Hudson’s Bay trading post, established in 1911, and the first RCMP outpost dating to 1915. Hike to waterfalls in Katannilik Territorial Park, with the island’s only trees: 10-foot-tall Arctic willow. Pick up a local artist’s serpentine stone carving, ivory scrimshaw, or Inuit jewelry made with gemstones from the area, including garnets, sapphires, and the rare lapis lazuli, to take home as a memento. Inukpak guides kayak trips and canoe excursions around the area.
Find a guide through Canadian Northern Outfitting and venture off-the-beaten path in Igloolik. Here, you can tour the wildlife-hub ice floe and watch for whales, icebergs, walrus sunning themselves on ice chunks, and the Northern Lights. North of the Arctic Circle, Igloolik is on a small island between Canada’s mainland and Baffin Island. Despite its remoteness, it’s an artsy place with its own culture festival, Inuit circus troupe, called Artcirq, and a surprisingly large number of creatives. This spot was also the setting for the award-winning film, “Atanarjuat—The Fast Runner.” Make time for a dog sled or snowmobile outing and to get to know the eclectic Inuit community of 1,500.
Canoe the Soper
If you’re ready for a serious challenge, it’d be hard to find a more otherworldly, pristine setting. You might paddle for 120 miles without a single portage in Nunavut and there’s always plenty of whitewater and rapids. Gems here include the Kazan and Thelon Heritage Rivers in Kivalliq, the Back River in Kitikmeot/Kivalliq, and Kitikmeot’s Coppermine River. A favorite is the Soper Heritage River on southern Baffin Island near Kimmirut, a perfect Arctic 101 river for any level. The name is Inuktitut for “place of waterfalls.” Paddle through the lush, sheltered river valley, a classic Arctic landscape of sloping tundra carpeted with wildflowers in summer, plateaus and ravines, and 1,000-foot-high glacier-carved cliff terraces. It’s the ideal way to see Katannilik Territorial Park and the many creatures who live there: Polar bear, wolves, ptarmigan, caribou, and in the water, char. Black Feather leads summertime inflatable canoe trips with class 1 and 2 whitewater.
Canoe the Dubawnt
Wild and isolated, the fast-water Dubawnt near the Manitoba border is for the intrepid and advanced paddlers who want to forge their own adventure. The Dubawnt, and the Thelon, which it joins, flow through the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary — the largest and most remote on the continent, and some say, the world. See herds of caribou and muskoxen, plus wolverines, moose, and grizzlies, in this unaltered, biodiverse ecosystem, a treeless tundra of valleys and white sandstone cliffs. Come prepared with maps, supplies, and a personal locator beacon, ready to deal with any situation solo. A must is a covered canoe, because the water is very cold. Be sure to share your itinerary with the local RCMP before you depart and check current conditions. Afterwards, relax at your Baker Lake Lodge cabin and toast your accomplishment.
If you’re headed to the Arctic, you’re most likely going to get way out there, where few ever journey. But add a little culture and community to your adventure, stopping in for a concert, film, or story telling session at the Alianait Arts Festival, a 10-day culture fest of everything Northern.
Prepare for your adventure at the Nunavut Tourism website.