The Arctic isn't like any other place. That observation may seem elementary, but even a well-prepared first-timer will experience many things here to startle -- and perhaps offend -- the senses.
No matter where you start from, the Arctic is a long way away. By far the easiest way to get there is by plane. Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit all have airports with daily service from major Canadian cities. Each of these capital cities is a center for a network of smaller airlines with regularly scheduled flights to yet smaller communities; here you'll also find charter services to take you to breathtaking glaciers, mountain ranges, old whaling camps, and majestic fjords.
Tucked inland just east of Alaska, the Yukon is home to one of the most notable fortune hunts of all times: the Klondike Gold Rush. From 1898 to 1920, Dawson City was the destination of tens of thousands of prospectors -- and other types of gold diggers -- who were lured north by the dream of easy wealth. Today, Dawson City and territorial capital Whitehorse are still very lively and filled with history, though many of today's travelers are drawn as much to recreation on the Yukon's rivers, lakes, and mountains as to the trail of bonanza gold.
Until 1999, the Northwest Territories encompassed the entire northern tier of Canada (except the Yukon). Then Nunavut, comprising the eastern mainland and many of the arctic islands, split away (or was "created" if you live in Nunavut) to form a separate territory and a de facto homeland for the Inuit peoples. Centered on Baffin Island and the capital Iqaluit, Nunavut is an extremely far-flung territory made of up remote communities, expanses of tundra, and craggy, glacier-crowned islands.
The remaining Northwest Territories is sometimes referred to as the Western Arctic, although that term belongs to communities north of the Arctic Circle. Government, and gold and silver mining, were once the prime economic drivers. That distinction now goes to diamond mining. The capital of Yellowknife is a modern city, born of a gold rush and sustained by high-paying government and mining-industry jobs. Vast glacier-dug lakes provide lakefront for rustic to ritzy fishing lodges.
For information, contact Tourism Yukon (P.O. Box 2703, Whitehorse; tel. 800/661-0494; www.travelyukon.com). Be sure to ask for a copy of the official vacation guide, Yukon: Canada's True North.
For the Northwest Territories, contact Northwest Territories Tourism (P.O. Box 610, Yellowknife; tel. 800/661-0788, 867/873-7200, or 867/873-5007; www.spectacularnwt.com). They no longer provide free maps of the territory, but they will send you The Explorers' Guide, with full listings of accommodations, services, and outfitters, which is updated every year.
Information on Nunavut is at www.nunavuttourism.com, where you can download a copy of the Nunavut Travel Planner. You can also call tel. 866/686-2888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to make inquiries or request the travel planner.
Warning: Get Thee to an Outfitter
Outdoor enthusiasts who want to get out onto the land, the water, or the glacier will need to have the assistance of a licensed outfitter or a local licensed tour provider. There are no roads to speak of here, so you'll need help simply to get wherever you're going. This usually involves a boat or an airplane trip. Sports-equipment rental is all but unheard of, and it's very foolish to head out into the wilds (which start at the edge of the village) without the advice and guidance of someone who knows the terrain, weather, and other general conditions. For all these reasons -- and for the introduction you'll get into the community -- you should hire a licensed outfitter. You'll end up saving money, time, and frustration.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.