An iconic Canadian Arctic adventure made affordable and accessible
Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
As our Twin Otter touches down on the rock-strewn tundra strip marked by old fuel drums everyone aboard braces for a bumpy landing. We’ve flown from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories over the labyrinthine Mackenzie River delta and through the heart of the British Mountains to reach Parks Canada’s Imniarvik Fly-in Base Camp in the heart of Ivvavik National Park. An iconic Arctic adventure awaits.
Comprising over 10,000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness tucked up in the northwest corner of Yukon bordering the Beaufort Sea and adjacent to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Ivvavik, which means ‘a place for giving birth' in the language of the Inuvialuktun First Nation, protects the traditional calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Each June over 150,000 caribou migrate here from their Alaskan wintering grounds. The Inuvialuktun and Gwich’in people of northern Yukon, who have called this land home for centuries, depend on these caribou for food and other traditional uses.
The largest of North Yukon’s five wilderness parks and the first Canadian national park to be created as a result of an aboriginal land claim agreement, Ivvavik receives fewer than a hundred visitors a year. Accessible only by air, it was until recently a prohibitively costly destination because groups had to book their own charter flights and handle all trip logistics. Then, in 2012, Parks Canada began offering package trips to Imniarvik Base Camp, which made visiting Ivvavik substantially more affordable and accessible. Today, you can book a single Twin Otter seat for a 5-day fully catered excursion and have a Parks guide you on day hikes. An Inuvialuktun cultural host also comes along to share stories and traditions of their people’s generations old connection to this ancient land.
culture is very important to us and people wanted to know more about that culture and have it as part of the experience,” explains Parks Canada’s Helena Katz, who helped create Ivvavik’s Base Camp experience. “Each trip now has a cultural host who brings something unique about their culture. For example, one host may be a traditional drummer. Another might have traditional needlepoint experience they can share.”
Stepping out of the plane and onto the taiga, where Canada's most northern tongue of boreal forest meets the tundra, I’m stunned by the gorgeous mid-summer Arctic palette of green, brown and copper shaded v-shaped river valleys blanketed by stunted trees, moss, lichen, wildflowers and cranberry, blueberry and cloudberry bushes. Ivvavik is part of the Beringia Refugium, an unglaciated area that extended between North America and Siberia where plant and animal life were able to flourish. The British Mountains covering over 90 % of the park comprise the only non-glaciated mountain range in Canada and are home to the country's most northern populations of moose and Dall's sheep. This is an untamed land of epic proportions, virtually untouched by humanity.
From the airstrip we hike down a winding trail to Imniarvik, formerly called Sheep Creek Station. Built in the 1970s as a gold mining camp, it now includes a spacious tented zone, a deck equipped with screen tents and picnic tables, secure food storage , a fully equipped cookhouse and a screened indoor common area. The best part – which edges Imniarvik toward a ‘glamping’ experience -- is the recently installed flush toilets and hot showers that make roughing it in the bush considerably more comfortable.
We’ve brought along a veteran backcountry camp cook, a 50 year old Inuvialuktun woman from Aklavik named Judy Selamio who whips up hearty multi-course meals and endless nutritious snacks throughout our stay, including daily packed lunches that keep us well fueled during several long hours of strenuous hiking. Her friend and our cultural host, Cynthea Gordon, is also along to share tales of life in nearby Aklavik and teach us the intricate art of Inuit beadwork.
Judy, Cynthea and our Parks Canada guides are here to ensure that we have a most memorable Arctic experience. Clearly, one of our group of five already has. Toronto visual artist Patrice Carmichael decided to stay on after spending the previous week exploring Ivvavik. “You're extremely remote, and it takes some work getting here, but once you're here it's incredibly accessible,” she says, adding that she wanted to continue exploring for another few days. “And travelling alone, I could take it all in and still feel safe in this environment,” she adds.
Safety, of course, is a real concern up here in the heart of Grizzly country and we need maintain constant vigilance because hungry bears occasionally wander into camp. Trained in the use of firearms, our Parks Canada guides carry bear spray, horns and bear bangers at all times. At our initial safety briefing they inform us that an electric fence ringing the tents was installed just a couple of weeks ago to thwart bears from trashing camp in search of food. It’s comforting to know that my sleep won’t be disturbed by any ursine incursions.
Bear facts in mind, we set out from Imniarvik on our first hike that afternoon. As the frothing Firth River roars below, we advance along a ridgeline toward an alpine meadow called Sheep Slot situated high above rapids where the canyon walls narrow. Scattered remains of gold miners’ camps from the 1930s can still be found here where gold prospecting began in 1898, and a minor gold rush occurred in 1947.
Since the sun never entirely sets in mid-summer at this latitude we could potentially keep hiking all night. But thoughts of Judy’s hearty dinner trump any notion of turning our initial excursion into a midnight sun stroll like the one Patrice says she did to celebrate the summer solstice. We return to homemade pizza and fresh arctic char, followed by Judy’s specialty – thick, doughy and decadent eskimo donuts. Stuffed and serene, I lay in my tent after dinner struggling to fall asleep -- a challenge here in the Arctic’s midsummer when it’s nearly as bright at 3AM as it is at midday. At least none of us will get lost in the dark taking a nocturnal bathroom break.
Luckily, we are blessed with mostly sunny, mild weather for our entire trip, making the hiking over the next three days simply spectacular in this pristine Arctic park with no marked trails. Armed with industrial strength bug spray to ward off the hordes of ravenous mosquitos, blackflies and bulldogs (horseflies) that offer our tender southern flesh no quarter, we first strike out for aptly named Inspiration Point. Crossing Sheep Creek, we tramp through thick bush and across sloping tundra to reach this lofty ridge with its stunning views of the Firth River Valley. Ahead lies a final uphill push to a majestic cluster of rocky pinnacles called Wolf Tors, but gathering afternoon thunder storm clouds prevent us from venturing further.
Back at camp we hungrily tuck into a feast worthy of Christmas dinner, including turkey, stuffing and all the fixings. Clearly Judy already understands that our group, like an army, travels on its stomach. She’s also full of stories, like the one she shares about her close encounter with a Grizzly she caught trashing her camp. “I shot the bugger and burned him,” she says bluntly. Then there’s her excuse for nearly missing our flight into camp – she was butchering a whale she had caught that morning and lost track of time. When she’s not cooking, our intrepid wilderness chef slips out into the nearby woods to collect spruce sap that she keeps boiling in a large iron pot. This homemade ‘spruce juice’, Judy assures us, can cure all sorts of ailments, including cancer. At first taste it’s incredibly bitter, but becomes more palatable the more I drink, although not nearly enough so to temp me to smuggle a tumbler of it back home.
Even more memorable journeys await over the next two days as we explore high ridgelines while Golden Eagles soar overhead and traverse grassy tundra meadows, an important foraging habitat for Dall Sheep. Saving the best for last, we devote our last day to a challenging eleven kilometer round trip signature hike called Halfway to Heaven. Ascending a steep path behind camp, we eventually reach an exposed plateau surrounded by unglaciated hills and multicoloured peaks. After scaling a steep, spiky outcropping called Dragon’s Tor that rises dramatically out of the purple shale, I stop to rest and admire the incredible view. If, as my guide says, we’re just about halfway to heaven, it certainly feels on this perfect day in incredible Ivvavik National Park like the better half.
IF YOU GO
The Parks Canada Ivvavik Base Camp Experience includes a seat on a chartered Twin Otter flight from Inuvik, which lies about 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. Canadian North and First Air fly here from Edmonton and Yellowknife. Air North offers departures from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Whitehorse. Or you can drive the iconic Dempster Highway up to Inuvik.
The optimal hiking season is from the floral bloom of mid-June into the latter half of August when autumn colours are at their peak. Hikers in July should be prepared for biting insects. Hikers planning to travel later in the season should be prepared for the possibility of cold snowy conditions and delays in charter flights due to weather.
Transportation between the Parks Canada office in Inuvik and the airport
Charter flights from Inuvik, NT to Ivvavik National Park, YT and return
Use of Imniarvik base camp facilities including washrooms and bear-safe storage
Use of camping mattress
Accommodation in prospector or mountaineering tents
Inuvialuit cultural host
Northern backcountry use fee
Three meals a day, snacks and beverages prepared by the cook and served buffet style
Visitors are welcome to bring personal food and beverages, as long as they fall within luggage weight limits and are kept in the bear-safe storage
Visitors can bring up to 35 lbs/16 kg of luggage per person
How difficult are the hikes?
Parks Canada staff will lead day hikes of varying lengths and difficulty. There are no marked trails and the terrain varies from fairly flat to hummocky, with some steep sections. Good hiking boots with strong ankle support are recommended for your comfort and safety. Hike an easy 3 km round trip to Sheep Slot. Inspiration Point is a moderate 5 km route while Halfway to Heaven is a strenuous 11 km return trek. There are no marked trails and the terrain varies from fairly flat to hummocky, with some steep and very steep sections. Good waterproof hiking boots with strong ankle support are required for your comfort and safety. It is recommended that you have the ability to hike over uneven terrain for a half to a full day.
Costs and how to book
5-Day catered Imniarvik Fly-in Base Camp trips start at $3,375.00 per person. To book, call 867-777-8800 or email Inuvik.firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit Parks Canada.