Parks Canada
Credit: Parks Canada

“They look like the spines on a dragon’s back,” says an enthusiastic Eric Baron, Parks Canada Visitor Experience Manager for the Western Arctic Field Unit.

He’s talking about tors — the signature landform of 10,000-sq-km Ivvavik National Park and just one of the exclusive experiences found within this remote Arctic preserve.

Occupying the northern reaches of Yukon, Ivvavik was the first national park in Canada to be established by an aboriginal land claim — an event celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014. For eons, the area has been home to the desolate peaks of the British Mountains and a migration route for the 160,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd. More recently, it has harboured Sheep Creek Base Camp — and today it’s the most affordable vehicle into a true Arctic experience. Parks Canada currently runs four- or five-day trips into Ivvavik throughout June and July. Costs vary, depending on whether visitors choose to go catered or self-catered, but the big savings is that, rather than chartering a plane at great personal expense, Parks Canada handles flight logistics. 

“You can fly from Inuvik into the park and only pay for your seat going in,” explains Baron. “That’s the big game-changer for us opening Sheep Creek — we’re coordinating the charter aircrafts.”

To further assist with costs, Parks has partnered with Canadian North Airlines to offer trip participants 30 per cent off airfare to Inuvik.

“It’s not cheap to come up here, but compared to other Arctic experiences, I would certainly wager this is one of the more accessible,” says Baron.

And what can one expect in Ivvavik?

“The big attraction for most of the visitors to Sheep Creek is the day-hiking options. Because that area has so much terrain clustered around nearby, it is a perfect base to explore from,” continues Baron. Sheep Creek Base Camp is in the heart of the British Mountains — day-hikes that see fewer footprints than the summit of Everest are accessible right from the kitchen shed. Baron explains that Ivvavik is similar to Rocky Mountain hiking in that you can be above the tree line in 10 minutes. From there, the taiga opens up into boundless Arctic alpine ridge-walks. 

“The signature hike is called Halfway to Heaven, affectionately named by Mervin Joe, a parks guide and local Inuvialuit… from the summit, he once exclaimed, ‘We’re halfway to heaven standing here!’ And the name stuck,” laughs Baron.

As part of Beringia, Ivvavik was untouched by glaciers during the last Ice Age. (There wasn’t enough precipitation.) This glacial refugium resulted in V-shaped valleys (rather than a traditional U-shape) and the signature tors (which would have otherwise been scrubbed clear by glaciers). Within these landforms, mega-fauna like caribou, muskox, grizzlies, wolves and wolverines as well as raptors such as golden eagles, peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks make their homes.

“The open sightlines of the park are good for [wildlife viewing],” says Baron, adding there are never any guarantees with animals. Though, recalling an instance in 2011, he describes observing the local Porcupine caribou herd, “Like being at the old Maple Leaf Gardens after a game! Caribou were just pouring out of the coastal plain towards their wintering grounds. The valley was, as far as you can see, coloured with caribou.”

Beyond the wildlife and scenery, Baron says the really amazing experience is the living cultural story — listening to a guy like Mervin Joe speak about how he experiences the landscape today and how his ancestors did in the past. Every guided trip has a designated “culturist,” from the nearby community of Aklavik, plus “one-third to one-half” of local parks staff is Inuvialuit.

“You’re getting both Parks Canada trained staff and someone who has stories to tell and a connection to the land that’s really profound,” says Baron.

Once used as a gold mining operation, Sheep Creek Base Camp consists of a handful of hard-sided buildings — kitchen, pit privy, etc. — but accommodation is still in two-person tents, supplied by Parks Canada to keep luggage weight down. 

“It feels a bit like front-country camping, but you’re in the remote Arctic backcountry,” says Baron. Parks Canada has big plans for the future of Sheep Creek — such as solar-powered potable water systems (showers and flush toilets!) that will actually decrease impact on the land when compared to pit-toilets. Wall tents, for an “authentic delta prospector experience,” are on the horizon too.

 “Everyone who goes there is blown away by the landscape and the opportunities,” says Baron. “We’re trying to aim high. I don’t think anything less than that will do just because it’s such an amazing environment.”

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.