We had been fishing for hours when Manny finally landed the big one. Not that I minded. He had warned me that the fishing might be slow; most of the schools of arctic char had already migrated further north, into the Arctic Ocean. But nestled into a cleft on the riverside rock at the intersection of Canada’s roaring Sheep Creek and ferocious Firth River, on the very northernmost tip of the Yukon Territory, I became lost in a sort of northern reverie, taking in the purple and green of the surrounding mountains as the aquamarine Firth frothed at my feet. At one point I actually fell asleep, awakening with a start as I fumbled for handholds in the ancient granite so I wouldn’t tumble – feet over fishing rod – into the violent, extremely frigid temperatures below.

I was in Ivvavik, one of Canada’s most stunning – and least visited – national parks. Located more than 200km above the Arctic Circle, on one of the northernmost stretches of the Canadian mainland, Ivvavik is a difficult place to access, visited by only some 75 people per year. But those who come here are richly rewarded. Ivvavik means “the nursery” in the local Inuvialuit language, for the big herds of porcupine caribou that calve here every May and June, at the end of their long migration from Alaska. It’s a place that basks in the light of the midnight sun all summer: a far-flung park that’s so remote, many of its beautiful peaks remain unnamed, bisected by fresh lakes and rivers.  

Ivvavik also is one of Canada’s newest national parks, and the first in the world to be created out of a land claim agreement. The area is the traditional homeland of the Inuvialuit, a Western Arctic Inuit people. After their ancestral home became subject to mining and drilling exploration in the late 1970s, the Inuvialuit sought to protect it by filing an official land claim, offering the land to the federal government in exchange for the highest degree of protection – being made a national park. Since the matter was settled in 1984, this massive, 10,000sqkm park, has been preserved but, until recently, largely unvisited.

I was part of a group of a dozen or so visitors who had bought into a new package trip by Parks Canada, which includes meals, tent accommodations and most importantly, charter flights from the Northwest Territories town of Inuvik. We boarded a hardy Twin Otter airplane, flying west over the uncounted ponds and lakes of the famed Mackenzie Delta. Nearing its ultimate destination in the shimmering waters of the Beaufort Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean), the mighty Mackenzie River splits into literally thousands of tiny waterways that range across 13,5000sqkm. Having traversed the Delta, we dipped over the sculpted peaks of the British Range, flying to the extremely remote Sheep Creek Warden Station, which comprised the only structures in Ivvavik. After first completing a fast fly-over to confirm that no grizzly bears or wolves were on the runway, we bumped down on the plane’s big, hearty tundra tires, making a slightly harrowing – if entirely routine – bush landing on the 250m landing strip.

Manny, along with a small group of Parks Canada staff, was there to welcome us and usher us down a narrow path to a series of orange tents pitched on a little patch of tundra, right next to the creek; our home for the next four days. The Sheep Creek Warden Station is an oasis in the wilderness – a small handful of structures created as part of a gold mining camp that now provide shelter and support, creating a rustic sort of “glamping” experience. We ate our meals in a cook shack, and read and relaxed in dining tents on a large deck (showers are even in the works for next year). But camping in such a remote place is not without risks. Grizzlies are common polar bears aren’t out of the question, and the day before our departure, staff screened a safety video that included the instructions: if we “encounter an aggressive bear, his intention is to eat you … if this happens, fight for your life". Giving an introductory briefing up on the big deck at Sheep Creek, staff showed us how to use a “bear banger”, a sort of flare gun that fires off a charge, creating a loud noise that, in most cases, sends the beast running in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, our days in Ivvavik were entirely bear-free, and while there, I learned that many of the surrounding mountains hadn’t even been named. One of the biggest had actually gotten its moniker – Go Big or Go Home – from four Parks Canada staffers, one of whom was on my trip. “We climbed it, then we sat down and came up with a name for it,” said Nelson Perry, the park’s ecosystem scientist. “Once you’re on it, you reach this point where you either have to push for the peak – or give up and turn around. And that’s where the name comes from – you either go big, or you might as well go home.” I didn’t push for the peak – not even close – instead I spent some of my days simply relaxing, reading on the deck and looking out on a line of nearby peaks, which, covered in a layer of green grass and small bushes, appeared soft, even silky, and seemed to change colour as the never-setting sun made its way across the sky. Fellow guest Patrice Carmichael – a well-known Canadian painter – dubbed the same view the “Velveteen Valley”.

One day, Manny and I hiked along the edge of the Firth, treading along the edges of cliffs that plunged precipitously into the vibrant green river. As we sat down for a rest around the halfway point, perching on smooth rocks and looking out at a big bend in the Firth, Manny told me about how his mother was one of the key leaders in establishing the land claim agreement that created the park. Manny – whose real name is Dean Arey (Manny is just a nickname) – now serves on a number of related committees, as well working part-time as a cultural liaison inside Ivvavik. “I’m proud of what we’ve done here. There’s no mining or oil; it’s all about protecting the land,” he said, a small smile playing on his lips.

Manny grew up in Aklavik, a tiny, extremely remote village – and at 150km to the east, the closest community to Ivvavik – that still serves as his home. At one point in the 1950s, the Canadian government moved to shut down Aklavik, which is prone to floods, and move all of its residents to the newly built Inuvik; they refused, creating the town’s motto, “Never say die”.

As a full-blooded Inuvialuit man and an unofficial elder, Manny uses his treaty rights to harvest the land year-round. Even in such a harsh environment – a place where temperatures can reach 50C (yes) below zero in the winter – the land provides some 75% of his sustenance. He hunts and traps muskrat, caribou and bear for their meat and pelts, driving an ATV or hiking up into the hills to find them. He even harpoons beluga whales, navigating a boat out into the labyrinth of the Mackenzie Delta, then sharing the meat and blubber with others in the community. “We don’t waste anything, and want people to respect the land and its animals,” he said. “It’s the way I was brought up, and I’m passing that along to my sons.”

But Manny’s outdoorsy skills certainly didn’t rub off on me. After narrowly avoiding my unpleasant swim in the ice-cold Firth, I returned to my spot in that cleft in the rock. A hundred casts later, my line remained completely unbitten, and nary a fish would accompany me back to the camp. But I was okay with that. After all, I had gathered a million memories of this northern wonderland. And the privilege of treading many fresh paths – under peaks so unvisited, many didn’t even have a name – was reward enough.

Practicalities
Parks Canada offers three-and-four-night packages to Ivvavik, starting at 2,000 Canadian dollars, during the months of June, July and August.