Life above the 60th parallel in the mountainous, river-threaded Yukon, and the lake-dotted Northwest Territories and arctic Nunavut is strange and wonderful. The inherent strangeness of the world north of the 60th parallel—the latitudinal line separating Canada’s provinces from the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut—is perceptible in empirical, practical, and mysterious ways.
The landscape is austere and beautiful in ways unlike anywhere else in North America: the tundra plains that reach to the Arctic Ocean, the remote ice fields of Kluane National Park, white-water rivers snaking through mountain ranges and deep canyons. This is also the last region of North America where native peoples have managed to sustain traditional cultures relatively undisturbed.
Seasons become so overlapped in the few nonwinter months that summer wildflowers have not finished blooming by the time the foliage picks up its fall color. In winter a network of highways, built entirely of hard-packed snow over frozen lakes opens up to automotive traffic. So cold are the snow and ice that they lose their slipperiness, making areas otherwise inaccessible relatively easy to reach. Bridges over rivers are also built of ice, and northerners must prepare for “break-up” and “freeze-up”—the few weeks in spring and fall when ice bridges are unstable but rivers are still too frozen for ferries to operate. Unprepared travelers will sometimes fork over several hundred dollars or more for a helicopter to sling their cars across a river. This underscores the fact that, in a region where bush pilots are held in high regard, air transport is the way to go. In a plane with pontoons an uncountable number of lakes means an uncountable number of watery runways.
If a single element of life in the far north stands out, it is the quality of light. In mid-summer, sunrise and sunset merge, and north of the Arctic Circle, they don’t occur at all. When night does come—so belatedly in summer that it is a way of life to draw shades tightly during sunlit evenings to simulate night—there is the mystical voodoo show of the northern lights.
Most of the region is climatically classified as semiarid, much of it covered by the vast granite spread of the Canadian Shield. But because water evaporates and ice melts so slowly in Arctic climes, there is an abundance of water. That water is mostly in the form of lakes and ponds in the flatter Northwest Territories and in the form of fjords and rivers in the mountainous Yukon. A good deal of it, of course, remains ice; the glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park, topped by 19,550-ft Mt. Logan, create the largest nonpolar ice field in the world.
This is wilderness, and the wildlife loves it. A migrating caribou herd exceeding 80,000 is not uncommon, and that’s a number to keep in perspective: It represents the entire human census of the region. Indeed, people are profoundly outnumbered by nonhuman mammals: bears (black, grizzly, polar), Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, moose, bison, and, of course, caribou. Humans are also outnumbered by fish and birds. Fishermen regularly throw back trout weighing 10 pounds, because a fish that size is considered in these parts to be too small. Bald eagles are a common sight, as are the flocks of migratory waterfowl that spend their summers here.
Signs on government buildings are often inscribed in as many as eight official languages—English, French, and various native languages. One of those languages, Slavey, is so difficult to learn that it was used in coding during World War II. Native people in the far north are wielding increasing influence in governmental affairs. The main tribal groups are seven nations of Athabaskan peoples and the Inland Tlingit in the Yukon, along with the Dene, Inuvialuit, and Inuit peoples of the Northwest Territories. Many of these people go about their lives much as their ancestors did centuries before them but with the help of such 20th-century basics as electricity and motor-driven machinery. In recent years, large tracts of land have been ceded to native groups in land-claims settlements. And in 1999 the Northwest Territories will be split in two, representing the principal lands of the Dene and the Inuit. The new Inuit territory in the east is to be called Nunavut, or “our land.” The Dene call their region Denendeh, which means the same, though there are no plans yet to make this name official. The western region remains the Northwest Territories.