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“It is big, ancient, beautiful, and new.” Nunavut is Canada’s largest, newest, and northernmost territory; it only became confederated in 1999. It has a population of under 40,000 (that’s the entire territory), and 80% of people are Inuit. This Arctic wonderland is an adventurer’s paradise, so here are 15 reasons to visit Nunavut on your next vacation.
None of Nunavut’s towns are linked together by highway, which means the only way to get into the area and travel around is by air and sea. Locals usually travel between communities via aircraft (some of the territory’s best views are visible from the sky) or cruise ship. However, some residents take the high road and access remote communities through snowmobiles, dog sledding, and powerboat.
Nunavut has more artists per capita than anywhere else in the world. Carvings Nunavut is a 100% Inuit-owned company, with the largest collection of Inuit art in the territory (and possibly the world). There are thousands of pieces in the Iqaluit gallery, including sculptures and jewelry. Iqaluit Fine Arts Studio is another business, as is the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts in Pangnirtung. The center is home to Inuit crafts, prints, carvings, and tapestries.
Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. Because there is little light pollution in the region and only four hours of daylight, the natural phenomenon is regularly visible from October to April. But you have to be made of tough skin (literally) to visit during this time, as winter temperatures can range from -10 to -32°C (-25.6–14°F).
Alert is the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited town. It lies 817 kilometers (508 miles) from Santa Claus and the North Pole, and 2,092 kilometers (1,300 miles) from Iqaluit. The residents work at the Alert Airport, Environment Canada weather station, Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory, and the Canadian Forces Station Alert. The town is covered in snow for an average of 10 months every year.
Seeing the unique animal species that call Nunavut home is one of the main reasons people visit the Arctic archipelago. Species include belugas, bowhead whales, caribou, muskox, narwhals, polar bears, seals, and walruses. Ukkusiksalik National Park is a popular destination to see polar bears, grizzlies, Arctic wolves, and caribou; guided hikes, boat tours, and snowmobile excursions are available. Sirmilik National Park in Pond Inlet is known as narwhal and beluga whale territory too.
Held annually in June during the midnight sun, Alianait Festival “sets the spotlight on Inuit and other circumpolar artists while bringing together exciting world-class musicians, circus acrobats, dancers, storytellers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists from across the globe.” The festival’s mission is to build a healthier Nunavut through the arts.
Located in Auyuittuq National Park, Mount Thor is a granite monolith with an elevation of 1,675 meters (5,495 feet). It also has the world’s greatest vertical drop at 1,250 meters (4,101 feet). Experienced climbers come to tackle Mount Thor, even though Auyuittuq National Park is very remote. People also visit the national park to hike the 97-kilometer (60-mile) Akshayuk Pass. A traditional Inuit traveling route, visitors can choose to do day hikes to the Arctic Circle or explore the pass via snowmobile and dog sled.
Held every spring in Iqaluit, the Toonik Tyme Festival is a celebration of Inuit traditions. The festival includes activities such as igloo building, dog sledding, snowmobile racing, and seal skinning contests. The traditional activities and recreational games “reflect and preserve Inuit culture and heritage while providing a platform for Inuit to celebrate as well as share Inuit culture with non-Inuit residents and tourists.”
Because Nunavut is a large territory, the climate differs from place to place. But generally, it has a polar climate, which means every month has an average temperature of below 10°C (50°F). There is also a lack of daylight in winter, plus the midnight sun in summer. Resolute Bay in the north experiences 24 hours of sunshine for nearly four months every year, but then there are days without the sun in winter. The landscape is also extremely different in the Arctic and includes treeless tundra, glaciers, and permanent layers of ice.
Quttinirpaaq National Park is the definition of off the grid. Literally on top of the world, and the world’s second-most northerly national park, Quttinirpaaq had a total of 17 visitors in 2016. The remote national park’s polar desert landscape includes tundra, glaciers, deep fjords, rivers, and rugged peaks. The local wildlife includes muskox, Arctic wolves, caribou, walruses, narwhals, and beluga whales. It’s not cheap to explore Quttinirpaaq, but visiting this historical national park will be an adventure of a lifetime.
You don’t need to go to Antarctica to cruise alongside icebergs. A popular route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago is the Northwest Passage. It was previously used as a trade route to Asia, as it connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Companies such as Adventure Canada offer Northwest Passage tours, which take people through the Arctic waters of Greenland, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories. Expect to see wildlife in their natural habitat, learn about Inuit culture, and see fjords, glaciers, and icebergs at every turn.
Nunavut has over 100 species of birds, which are mainly migratory species. The territory is also home to many bird sanctuaries. Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary is Canada’s largest federally protected nature preserve, and it has the world’s largest concentration of nesting geese. Sirmilik National Park is another option, as is Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. In the summer, the sanctuary is home to over 400,000 nesting birds. Naujaat is also a bird-watcher’s paradise, where birds and other wildlife outnumber people. Peak bird-watching season is May until August.
According to Nunavut Tourism, Nunavut has supported a continuous indigenous population for over 4,000 years. “The traditional lifestyle of the Inuit is remarkably adapted to extreme arctic conditions. Their essential skills for survival have always been hunting, fishing, and trapping.” Even today, modern Inuit communities still follow their ancestors’ hunter-gatherer tradition. Learn more about this fascinating culture through guided hikes, community tours, and traditional practices such as dog sledding.
Katannilik means “places of waterfalls,” and this territorial park is where the Soper River travels 50 navigable kilometers (31 miles) through a deep (and surprisingly fertile) valley. The Itijjagiaq Trail is a historic overland route that goes on for 120 kilometers (75 miles) through Katannilik Territorial Park. In the summer, people do hike the trail, while others take to the water with its challenging rapids. In winter, the trail is an excellent snowmobile route.
The political, business, and transportation hub of Nunavut, Iqaluit is where most Nunavut adventures begin and end. The city is home to colorful Arctic homes, the igloo-shaped St. Jude’s Cathedral, and Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum. The museum has a large collection of Inuit artifacts and fine arts, as well as traveling exhibits and interpretive displays. Iqaluit is also close to three territorial parks—including Katannilik—with each having their own unique scenery and archaeological artifacts.