Canada’s Northwest Territories enclose some of the world’s remotest and wildest landscapes, including two World Heritage Sites, Wood Buffalo and Nahanni. The area’s northerly reaches lie within the Arctic Circle, but despite the polar climate, its vast wildernesses contain varied and dramatic terrains: deep canyons, gushing rivers, immense cliffs, mountains, river valleys, badlands. And living within these remote landscapes are ancient populations of buffalos, muskox and caribou, as well as indigenous Inuvialuit communities who have forged a living from the barren land for millennia.
Four canyons cutting over 1,000 meters into the tundra, along with waterfalls twice the height of the Niagara Falls, define this dramatic and elemental park which is tucked into the south-west corner of the Territories. The ferocious rush of the South Nahanni River slices right through its center, after it flows out of the earth in the remote heights of the Mackenzie Mountains. The water plummets 100 meters at the Virginia Falls, then runs through green mountain valleys and deep granite canyons before debouching into the Arctic Ocean 2000 miles away. Beside the river unfold a series of utterly unique places, such as the steaming Rabbitkettle Hot Springs, and the Grotte Valerie caves, which shelter the ancient skeletons of almost a hundred Dall’s sheep.
The world’s second largest national park was established in the 1920s to protect the last remaining herds of wood bison in Canada. It succeeded: there are now an estimated 5,000 bison roaming the park’s broad boreal plains. The area has inadvertently become a sanctuary for other endangered species, such as the whooping crane; birdwatchers should also watch out for migratory white pelicans, night hawks, golden eagles, and the park’s varied owl population. Its vast, predominantly flat terrain encompasses salt plains, pine forest, karst sinkholes, saline streams and one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.
Tuktut Nogait is a region which, it is immediately and indisputably clear, still belongs to the wild – to the herds and packs of caribou, wolves, muskoxen and grizzlies that inhabit its rolling tundra, jagged canyons, and exposed stretches of sedimentary rock. Crystal rivers course across this unpolluted natural world, which lies 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Alongside the wild creatures, aboriginal cultures have existed for millennia, and Inuvialuit communities live in the park’s northwestern regions.
Scattered across the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula are 1350 conical hills, rocky outcrops that jut up from the flat tundra like miniature volcanoes, although instead of fire, their cores are filled with solid ice. These hills are called pingos, and they measure up to 49 meters in height and 300 meters across the base. They stand sentinel upon the region’s hard permafrost, and have for centuries functioned as guides for indigenous peoples travelling across the immense lake-strewn landscape. Pingos occur across the world’s frostbitten regions, but a quarter of them are concentrated on this tough peninsula.
Located on Banks Island, the most westerly island in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, Aulavik is a pristine Arctic wilderness and a true land of the midnight sun. Despite its frozen, northerly position, it contains a range of landscapes, from 100 meter cliffs above the M’Clure Strait, to rolling green hills and valleys beside the flowing Thomsen River, to canyons, arid badlands, polar deserts, bare plateaus, and great glacier-carved features in exposed areas of rock. The world’s densest muskox population roams across this terrain, of which there are an impressive 68,000 living on the island as a whole. The muskox shares the land with arctic foxes, wolves, hares and polar bears, while beluga and bowhead whales ply the water off the park’s northern shore.