The Northwest Territories is a land where legends and stories abound about the stories of man against nature. In 1845, John Franklin and his two ships were lost in their search to explore a Northwest Passage, a tragedy that riveted the world. The British, especially, launched over six expeditions totaling dozens of ships and hundreds of men. Navigating the waters of the Northwest Territories is a dangerous task, as ice could abruptly enclose and crush ships. The bodies of Franklin and his team of over 100 men were never all discovered. One skeleton was uncovered in 1858. A second skeleton was found in 1984; it was perfectly preserved thanks to the permafrost. Scientists examined the body and concluded from the hair strand of the sailor that he died of pneumonia.
One good did come from this tragedy and it was the mapping of this wilderness by the searchers. The territories once spanned nearly one-third of Canada, a size half that of the United States and covering four time zones. In 1999, it was carved up in half, its eastern section forming the new territory of Nunavut. Today, the Northwest Territories encompass over 1.18 million square kilometers of land, one-eight of Canada, and has a population of about 42,000 people. Much of its land is comprised of the Arctic coast and island territories, the Great Bear and Great Slave lakes, and the drainage of the Mackenzie River roamed by polar and grizzly bears and herds of bison, and flocked by the rarest bird species in the world.
Most of the people in the Northwest Territories live in the capital, Yellowknife, and around the Great Slave Lake area. The people in the Northwest Territories are known to be friendly and welcoming and have a long reputation for hospitality – cooperation and dependency are necessary for survival, given the harsh wilderness. The Dene Indians and the Inuit have lived in these remote lands for thousands of years. Southerners call them Eskimos. They live in small communities that are typically separated by vast distances. Their lifestyles follow closely that of their ancestors. Hunting, fishing, and arts and crafts are important to their lives. Some of the communities in the Northwest Territories boast having the highest number of artists per capita in the world.
Even though the communities are remote and isolated, they are in tune with what’s going on in the world. In 1992, the territory launched the largest aboriginal television network in the world, offering programming in English and up to 12 aboriginal languages.
The Northwest Territories is divided north-south by a tree line that stretches from the Mackenzie River Delta near the northwest border with Yukon all the way to the Nunavut border in the central east. In the north, a bleak land of tundra grips the winter before blossoming in the summer with a bright landscape of lichen, moss, colorful flowers, and other vegetation that can survive in the permafrost zone. The coastal waters are inhabited by seals, polar bears, and walruses. In the Arctic Circle north, there is such minimal precipitation that the area is called a polar desert. The land is covered with alpine and ice vegetation.
Permafrost is frozen soil at a depth between 30 to 300 meters. In the Tuktoyaktuk area, permafrost reaches up to 45 meters high, creating cone-shaped hills of ice called pingos. These pingos develop where the permafrost is extremely thick, often hundreds of meters thick. They grow each year by about 1.5 meters. In the southern part of the territories, the drainage is poor and bogs and muskeg can develop as a result of the permafrost melting in the summer. The subarctic boreal forest in the jackpine area is full of herds of moose and caribou roaming among the spruce and poplar. Beavers ad black bears also thrive in the icy terrain.
The ice age that ended 10,000 years ago has shaped much of the territories. Surface material have been stripped to bare stone by retreating glaciers and deep fjords have been carved along the coast. Scars have been gouged as well, creating two of the world’s largest lakes, Great Bear and Great Slave. There are many other lakes in the territories, many of them unnamed.
In the north, the winters are dark and cold. In January, there is no sunlight at all, whereas nighttime disappears in June when the sun is up 24 hours a day. In the southern regions, the sun is up about 20 hours a day. The summer months experience the highest temperatures. July and August temperatures range from 11°C-21°C in Yellowknife. In the east, the summers are shorter.
Many communities are reachable only by airplane. There are eight highways that span this vast land, very few of it is paved. In the spring and fall, the roads also become icy. The rivers also turn to ice, but aren’t solid enough to drive across nor navigable by ferry. Effectively, airplane becomes the only way to commute between communities.
In the Northwest Territories’ capital, Yellowknife, you can find hotels and Bed & Breakfasts just like in any other major city in North America. Outside the city, however, your choices are limited. Often, you’ll find homely inns with less than ten rooms. It’s best to make reservations in advance. There are a number of lodges for fishing, hunting, and eco-tourism, however, scattered across the territory. Guides and outfitters offer tours for everything, including caribou hunting and dog sleighing. There is a consumer protection program that ensures deposits paid to licensed tourism operators are guaranteed.
“Northwest Territories.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_territories>
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
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