When I moved to Canada from the UK, my idea of a ‘remote community’ was one maybe an hour away from a main town. This definition has been a little challenged in Canada, and I have to continually update it the further we travel around this gigantic country. Canada is a bountiful land of fly-in, boat-in, drive-a-long-long-way-in communities. One of the latter is Inuvik, a North West Territories town placed seemingly on top of the world, reached by a 750km gravel road and ferry combination in summer and an iceroad in winter. There’s a three week period every spring and autumn when the ferries cannot run (ice melt and break up) and so the town is only accessible by air. I think it’s the most interesting community I’ve ever been to.
Inuvik is a purpose built town, created in the 1950’s after one of the local native settlements had a tendency to flood and the government wanted a more permanent solution (note that the ‘replaced’ town, Aklavik, still exists). It’s now home to 3,000 people (a mixture of First Nation and non-native) mainly working in local services, government and oil/gas exploration. Why is it so interesting? It’s a desert town for one thing. While it’s very cold in winter, not much snow actually falls. Secondly, every building is built well above the ground, with the water and sewage pipes running externally i.e. not underground. This is due to the permafrost that Inuvik is built on; if it was to thaw, the whole town would sink. Thirdly? Being above the Arctic Circle, Inuvik enjoys 30 days of 24 hour sunlight in summer and then 30 days of darkness in winter.
As we discovered in June, continuous sun can lead to very hot temperatures, even here in the Western Arctic. In winter however, the average temperature hovers around -20C (and less). I couldn’t imagine living in such extremes of temperature and day lengths. Asking around, we found that the locals generally seemed to prefer winter since there was more to do (think snowmobiling, ice-fishing, dog mushing etc.) and far less bugs. Of course, I couldn’t write about Inuvik again without mentioning the ferocious and incessant hoards of mosquitoes. But now I’m done, I swear.
You may wonder what there is for visitors to do here in summer. Well, like Inuvik itself, it’s an interesting mixture. The town sits next to the Mackenzie Delta, so there are boat rides out to other river communities on offer, as well as longer trips north to the town of Tuktoyaktuk, perched on the Arctic Ocean. Back in town, there’s an impressive Igloo Church; an evening tour took us up into the roof to see the unique structure. Other local attractions include a community greenhouse (actually very cool) and the stuffed polar bear at the airport. There’s also a polar bear skin in the children’s section of the library, if you’re still wanting more.
Not a local attraction is the North Mart supermarket. Here is where we discovered the delights of grocery shopping in remote Northern Canada. It’s a dangerous thing; one visit may well bankrupt you. The fresh fruit was, as expected, very expensive ($3.69/kg for bananas, $18/kg for mushrooms) but even canned goods were astronomical ($4 for a can of beans). Strangely, dairy and eggs were a price closer to what we were used to, sometimes even cheaper. Really though, it’s impressive that we were able to debate about buying blue cheese instead of avocados in the Western Arctic.
We were really impressed with the community greenhouse. It’s volunteer run, and aside from the private plots ($100/season), the greenhouse also produces and sells ornamental and vegetable plants to local communities. The growing season is short here, from late May to the end of September, but the 24 hour daylight (and heat) enables plot holders to grow a substantial amount (and variation) of crops. The building is an old hockey rink; one of the best re-uses of a building I have ever seen!
We may not have exactly been fans of the 24 hour daylight thing (and the subsequent 24 hour onslaught of mosquitoes) but something about Inuvik grew on me. Our original intention was to paddle up the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk, and at first I was disappointed we didn’t make it. Now though, I realise that our time in Inuvik and on the Dempster Highway was everything I wanted from our ‘up north’ experience. As well as changing my outlook on what is considered as ‘remote,’ it also widened my viewpoint on what it is to live in Canada. Life in Inuvik is similar but so very different to life somewhere down south. Yet, somehow, it is all still Canada. Incredible.