Nicknamed ‘Canada’s Last Frontier’, the area became the country’s first territory in 1870. Originally a vast hinterland comprised of Yukon, Nunavut, and parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador. Trade routes were established along the myriad of giant lakes and waterways and, over time, communities grew around trading posts. Of course, First Nations have called the territory home since time immemorial; the indigenous heritage reflected throughout much of the territory’s geographic nomenclature.
Nature enthusiasts recognize the Northwest Territories most for its giant lakes, abundance of rivers, and imposing mountains. It is filled with the country’s ‘deepest’, and ‘longest’ water bodies, as well as some top ranks on a global scale: Great Slave Lake is the deepest lake in Canada (and tenth largest lake in the world); the Mackenzie River is Canada’s longest river running 1738km north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean (the entire river system is 4241km long, making it the second longest river in North America); and Great Bear Lake is the largest lake lying entirely within Canada (eighth in the world).
Most notable in the adventure travel world is the iconic South Nahanni River (the Naha Dehé, in native Dene), considered a mecca to canoeists world-wide. Touted the “Greatest river trip in the world”, the Nahanni was also amongst the world’s first UNESCO designated sites due to its rich ecology and unique geological features. It runs for 540km from the Mackenzie Mountains, with whitewater rushing through four of Canada’s deepest river canyons, past sulphur hot springs, granite peaks, alpine tundra, enormous waterfalls, and a limestone cave system. It contains evidence of ancient rivers as well as almost every known type of North American river and stream. It is located within Nahanni National Park Reserve – One of the largest protected terrestrial areas in the world, containing a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region and offering the adventurous visitor an intensive wilderness experience. Its Virginia Falls (Nailicho) are nearly twice the height of the more popular Niagara Falls, plunging the river into a thunderous plume.
Wedged between the Yukon to its west and Nunavut to its east, the Northwest Territories (NWT) shares its southern border (the 60th parallel) almost entirely with the northern borders of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Mainland NWT has its northern border along the Beaufort Sea, but the territory also includes several large islands located in the Arctic Ocean (several of which are split with Nunavut by the 110th meridian).
Its jagged western border runs along the length of the Mackenzie Mountains and roughly follows the Mackenzie River Watershed to the east.
Located on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, is the Territory’s capital city of Yellowknife, known both as the ‘Aurora Capital of North America‘ (with about 240 days of Northern Lights per year), as well as the ‘Diamond Capital of North America’. Once a gold-mining town, it now supplies the diamond mines to its north. Although it has the energy of a metropolis, it maintains its ‘frontier town’ feel with friendly locals and its ‘Northern Frontier Visitor Centre’. Its latitude of 62’44” N is similar to Denali (Alaska), the Faroe Islands, and the Baltic Sea. Its longitude of 114'40" W is similar to Calgary (Alberta), the US state of Utah, and the west coast of Mexico.
The Northwest Territory’s first inhabitants were the Dene, who once traveled in small family groups on the land, moving east and north as the glaciers retreated. Today, Dene families live in communities, but many still travel on the land in summer and winter.
Roughly half of the territory’s residents are First Nations or Inuvialuit, passing on their traditional knowledge to younger generations – the ways of the animals, the beneficial use of plants, and the stories of their people.
From north to south, you’ll find the Inuit and the Inuvialut, the Gwich’in, the Sahtu Dene and Metis, the Dehcho, the Tlicho and the Akaitcho. Each of these ethnic groups has its own musical, artistic, and religious traditions which contribute to a rich local culture. Some of the territory’s most popular souvenirs come in the form of intricate soapstone carvings, birch bark baskets, and elaborate porcupine quill work. All of which can be found on display at numerous summer festivals – most notably Inuvik’s Great Northern Arts Festival. And the lively Inuvialuit drum beats, Dene tea dances, and other musical performances can be experienced at Yellowknife’s annual Folk on the Rocks Festival.
Combined with more recent adventurous inhabitants, Northerners speak no fewer than 11 official languages. Of these, 9 are Indigenous and belong to three different language families: Dene, Inuit, and Cree. Chances are, though, that when you visit this remarkable territory, you will be greeted in English by a friendly local with a great story to tell.
The weather in the Northwest Territories can generally be divided into two different zones – North of the tree line and south of the tree line. The climate north of the tree line is distinctly Arctic - generally very dry, with little precipitation, and cold temperatures. South of the tree line, precipitation is slightly greater, temperatures are warmer, and summer lasts slightly longer – Up to 3 months. As a whole, the NWT experiences some of the world’s longest and coldest winters. No matter when you visit, it's important to be prepared for sudden changes in weather and temperature, especially if you are doing outdoor activities.
Summer is June to mid-August. The temperature can be plus 25 Celsius with the sun blazing around the clock in the far north, where the sun barely sets. This is the best time of year for outdoor adventure. On summer solstice, June 21, the sun doesn't set at the Arctic Circle. The further north one travels, the higher the sun and the longer the season of the midnight sun. Pack shorts and T-shirts, but come prepared with plenty of layering options. On an outdoor excursion, always bring along pants and long sleeves. A hat and gloves can come in handy, and a windbreaker is useful at higher elevations. Brimmed hats, sunglasses and sunscreen protect against the intense summer sun. Good walking shoes are a must. If you're going into the backcountry, consider packing a bug jacket.
Fall is mid-August until October. Temperatures are pleasant for outdoor activity during the day, but drop significantly at night. Bring plenty of light, long-sleeve shirts, sweaters and windbreakers for jaunts around town or in the wilds. Pack a warm hat and gloves, walking shoes, plus waterproof boots.
Winter is long – From mid-October to May. Winters here are cold and snowy, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 45 Celsius at night, and usually remaining below minus 15, even during the day. There is little to no sun at all the further north you travel. This is the perfect time to visit if you are hoping to witness the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis. A good parka and insulated winter boots are a must. Pack lots of warm clothes and long underwear. Bring wind or snow pants if you have them. Warm hat, gloves or mittens, plus a scarf or neck warmer are essential.
Spring is short and blends easily between winter and summer. This transition season rolls together the last of the winter activities, the arrival of migrating swans, and the rising of the many lakes and rivers. Pack long-sleeved shirts, pants, a windbreaker or shell jacket, sweaters, a warm hat and gloves, plus walking shoes and waterproof boots.