I grew up northern Quebec. I love winter. I can't help feeling nostalgic with the first signs of winter. I always hope for mountains of snow, but it never happens. Not as in my childhood memories. Well, if the snow won't come to me, I will go seek it! So it was that a friend and I were scanning Google Maps wondering how far north can we venture with a 2-week vacation on a limited budget...
Before I had the time to process what really happened that night, I was on a plane for Whitehorse with an Arctic adventure ahead of me, my snowshoes and camera gear taking most of the luggage allowance.
Upon arrival, we found a little place to eat - Bocelli's Pizzeria, strongly recommended. Don't forget the pint of Yukon Gold to keep you warm! After a hearty dinner, we went for a walk by the Yukon River and saw what looked like a man on patrol. He warned us about bold coyotes by the Canoe People. 1-Great! Wildlife sighting on the first day. 2-Are coyotes dangerous? 3-Where/Who are the Canoe People? Armed with useful advice on how to deal with curious-maybe-dangerous wildlife, we continued our walk hoping for an encounter. Didn't happen. We returned to the hotel and got prepared for the early departure the next morning.
Interesting enough, security check isn't required to fly to the Canadian arctic. Nor is heating. On the second and last stop before reaching our destination, on a short runway made of ice, as the Hawker reached its takeoff speed the pilot slammed on the break. A door isn't closing: takeoff aborted. We were asked to wait in the one-room airport until further notice. An hour later, we got back on the plane and despite an insisting 'biiip-biiiiiip-biiiiipp' we were informed that the problem couldn't be found so up we went again.
It was at that exact moment that I remember how much I was afraid of flying! I spent the following two hours glued to the window. Fortunately for me, the view was breathtaking. We were flying over the Richardson mountain range when the mountains abruptly stop to make way to the Mackenzie Delta frozen wetland.
Our guide, Kylik, was waiting for us at the Inuvik airport and brought us over to his place for dinner. On the menu: wild caribou stew, fresh cranberries, wild duck, wild sablefish - cooked and smoked - and of course dried caribou meat and blubber.
We left shortly before dawn the next morning, destination: Tuktoyaktuk! While driving on the ice road, we witnessed a 2-hour sunrise, watched the treeline disappear and the mountains becoming hills and then flattened. There was nothing left, only ice and snow. Perfect! The last few miles where driven directly on the Beaufort sea through the Pingo National Landmark and in Tuktoyaktuk. It was now time to put our snowshoes on and climb the tallest pingo. On our way, we saw fresh caribou and arctic fox tracks and hope for seeing wildlife came back. The only unusual thing we saw was a tree, the tallest in Tuk and maybe the only one, the size of a man. After slightly more than an hour, we reached the pingo and climbing it revealed to be more challenging than expected. The snow was so cold and dry that it was similar to trying to climb a sand dune. Through perseverance I reached the top and smiled at the infinite icy nothingness ahead of me. That's me, at the summit, wearing what would become typical for the two weeks to follow: merino base layers, Coraloft and Polartec mid-layers, Gore-Tex Pro Shell, ninjaclava, fur hat, three layers of mitts, excessively warm boots and most importantly sun glasses... oh, and yes, a Fox 40 whistle strapped to my backpack. On the way back to the truck, I realized that my camera body was covered in frost and my lens wouldn't respond anymore. Worries.
Before leaving the community, we visited a permafrost house. To be avoided if suffering from vertigo and claustrophobia. We went down an icy ladder and arrived in a cave covered in ice and ice crystals, split into small locked units used as a storage - a freezer that never warms up. Tuk highlights? Overpriced cereals, houses on stilts and a walk on the ocean.
While driving south on the Dempster highway, to a place just passed the arctic circle, we encountered a cyclist! Minus 30 in mid-afternoon, this individual decided to cycle his way north the Dempster all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. As we drove further away from Inuvik, we saw the trees vanish once more and the road weaving itself into the heart of the Richardson mountains. It was grandiose... until we found ourselves in the Hurricane Alley. The typical weather in this area is as follows: "Blizzard. Wind northeast 60 km/h gusting to 80. Low minus 31. Extreme wind chill minus 52. Frostbite in minutes." Just wind and snow. Nothing more, nothing less.
That night was the first one so far to show promises of northern lights. After an evening of playing pool with Gerry and his friend, we retreated to our room in Eagle Plains and dressed up for a night of shooting. Walking toward the hotel front door, the excitement was building up to the point where we hit a locked door and alarmed armed. For our own safety, we were locked inside our hotel. No lights tonight.
The weather during the return drive was more forgiving and allowed me to catch a sight at a few details that evaded me the day before: 1- There are reflective poles every 30 meters in the Hurricane Alley to facilitate sight; 2- There are huge fences on the mountain sides to prevent the snow to reach the highway should avalanches occur; and 3- There is an outhouse on the arctic circle.
The last part of the trip was spent in a rustic cabin at Fish Lake, near Whitehorse. Our accommodation afforded us all the comfort of a secluded life. Not to far after our arrival, we visited the kennel and signed up for some dog sledding. The dog's restlessness was impressive - imagine 143 Alaskan huskies howling and trying to break their chains to be part of the run! We each had our own team, harnessed our dogs and set out unto the lake. My lead dog was among the most adventurous and kept wanting to pass the teams in front of me. I spent most of the ride hitting the breaks and sustaining looks from Jeepers that seemed to be telling me "You don't get it, lemme go faster we'll pass them!" Apart for the sled ride, the time at the cabin could be resumed by climbing days and waiting nights. Surrounded by mountains, each day was a new climbing challenge. And challenging was also each night. In the cold winter of northern Canada, we were patiently waiting for the northern lights to appear. Many long nights wasted waiting for nothing, until one night - the reward. A tiny one, but still there were some lights!