The Call of the Wild … Jack London described a world of pure white, dangerous and exhilarating. Contrary to his time, today you can easily travel to the great northern territories of the USA and Canada and experience the thrills without the danger — just bring your adventurous spirit!
Imagine huskies running full speed, sprays of snow as the sled carves its way across the tundra, the wind on your face … Depending on your sense of adventure, you can either sit on the dog sled or, for the more audacious, mush your own dog team. In both cases, you will have a blast! Mushers should prepare for a workout as the dogs are powerful and have a mind of their own. Make sure the company cares about their dogs — they are athletes and hard workers who deserve to be treated as such.
Northern Lights Viewing
Usually starting as faint white lines, the Northern Lights turn darker shades of green, with yellows and oranges adding to the most impressive displays. The Aurora Borealis are best seen under a new moon from September to April, when the nights are longest and darkest. Dress warmly as temperatures drop severely at night, though tours usually provide hot drinks and shelter, adding welcome warming opportunities.
With vast open spaces covered by snow and few roads available, traveling around is better done by snowmobile. While dog sledding is fun, a snowmobile is a better fit for longer drives or wildlife watching, camping or staying at a cabin for an overnight trip. Driving up snowed embankments in search of reindeer, Arctic foxes or other animals is definitely exciting.
Ice Road Driving
Some parts of Canada and Alaska are so remote that they can only be reached by boat in summer or by car over frozen rivers and sea in the winter. Ice road driving is an interesting experience; driving over several feet of thick ice along the tundra, with no cars in sight, gives an intense moment of solitude. Depending on the year, these winter roads can be travelled until the ice starts thawing around May.
With ice so deep an Airbus plane could land safely, it’s no small business to dig fishing holes in the Arctic. But being alone in remote locations, surrounded by numerous lakes for miles around, is priceless. You can do the hard work of digging yourself, or book the services of fishing companies, selecting from budget to luxury setups by the lakes. Try your luck at trout, pike or even Arctic char!
Traveling the Arctic Circle
To commemorate your passage to the Far North, stop by an Arctic Circle center to receive your certificate! Indeed, very few people live beyond the Arctic Circle, which is mostly settled by indigenous people including Inuits, Yupiks and Aleuts. The farther north you go, the sparser the vegetation gets, and where the tree line ends is where the tundra and permafrost (land that never thaws) start. If you get a chance to see an ice house carved deep into the permafrost, make sure to check the frozen soil, caves and ice formations. You might even see a frozen seal stored for future meals.
Though facing extreme conditions, the northern regions are teaming with wildlife such as caribou, muskoxen, Arctic foxes, wolves, even polar bears.
Wildlife spotting is hard, but winter is somewhat easier as the animals stand out among scarce vegetation. Polar bears are best seen from Churchill during their migration in October and November. Caribous mostly stay below the tree line in winter, gaining weight before their spring calving migration and full summer migration. Muskoxen are mostly found in East Greenland, Arctic Canada and some parts of northern Alaska. Many companies can organize expeditions to spot and observe these amazing animals.
Other winter activities include skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing or horse carriage tours, though these can be found in most winter locations outside the Far North. A favorite winter post-activity is to head to a steaming hot tub and then roll into fresh powder snow of -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 degrees Celsius)!
Where to Go
With its vast northern territory above the 60th parallel and north of the Arctic Circle, Canada is well-located to offer some of the best winter adventure options.
Whitehorse, the origins of which go back to the gold discovery in the Klondike in the late 19th-century, is Yukon’s largest city. Situated on the Alaska Highway and close to the Yukon River, Whitehorse is best known for the yearly 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, one of the toughest dogsled races in the world. A recurring host of the Arctic Winter Games, Whitehorse offers great winter activities including Northern Lights viewing and ice fishing. Multiday trips like a 4-Day Northern Lights Tour can also be arranged from Vancouver.
In the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, the territory’s capital, sits on the shore of the Great Slave Lake, the 10th-largest lake in the world, and offers one of the prime locations for Northern Lights viewing, snow kiting and ice fishing. Inuvik, located on the Mackenzie River delta, is at the end of Dempster Highway, a scenic highway route starting in the Yukon’s Dawson City. Frozen several feet deep in winter, the Mackenzie River turns into a public highway, the only practical ice road to Tuktoyaktuk, located another 121 miles (194 kilometers) north, right by the Arctic Ocean. With rolling hills and several lakes and located by the tundra, Inuvik is a paradise for Northern Lights viewing, dog sled mushing and snowmobiling. A local, privately managed reindeer herd is migrated in winter to nearby Richards Island, offering an occasion to admire these wild animals.
Churchill, located in Manitoba about 70 miles south of Nunavut, deserves a special note for wildlife lovers as polar bears cross the Hudson Bay in the fall, early winter.
Alaska, the United States’ largest and least populated state, is mostly composed of uninhabited wilderness, a true recognition of its Aleut name — Alyeska, the “great land.”
The state capital, Anchorage, is the most populous city in the state, with over 40 percent of its residents. Located north of Cook Inlet, the city lies by the coastal lowland leading to the Chugach Mountains. Surprisingly for an urban environment, grizzly and black bears, moose, foxes and wolves can be regularly seen in town. Many winter activities are accessible from Anchorage: snowmobiling in the Chugach Mountains, snowshoeing and dog sledding in nearby wilderness, and Northern Lights watching around Talkeetna.
Fairbanks, the second largest city after Anchorage, is less than 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle, sitting close to the Chena River. Known as America’s coldest city, Fairbanks is the other home of the Yukon Quest’s dog sled race. From Northern Lights viewing to Arctic Circle day trips across the Yukon River to a visit to the Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks offers great options for discovering northern Alaska.
— Contributed by Patricia Pagenel