Reindeer Crossing in Inuvik
Witnessing over 3,000 reindeer cross the ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T is an experience that is hard to put into words. So it’s a good thing I caught some of my adventure on video:
On Sunday, March 29th, roughly 3,000 reindeer crossed the ice road, on the 80th anniversary of their annual journey to the calving grounds on Richards Island near Tuktoyaktuk. The day was cold (-17°C without the wind) and snowy. After we’d layered up against the chill, our friendly guide, Gerry from Up North Tours, picked us up and we headed down the ice road to witness this crossing.
The ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is 194 km long and the crossing is approximately 75 minutes away from Inuvik (at km 105). The landscape changes from hills and trees to open tundra as you continue down the MacKenzie. At the outset, the road conditions were good but as the day went on, things got more slippery and we had to take it slower. While we drove, Gerry pointed out features of interest, some stationary, and others transitory, like the moose wandering near the road.
For someone from southern Canada, it’s an odd feeling to drive on a frozen river. However, the ice is over 6 feet thick and is constantly inspected by the government to make sure it can support the weight of vehicles. In the winter, the ice road is a vital link between communities that would otherwise only be connected by plane, dog sled or snowmobile. As you stand on the road and look down, you gaze through layer upon layer of dark blue ice, each decorated with its own pattern of white streaks and cracks.
If this sounds intriguing, get up north in the next couple of years; the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk will soon be replaced by an all-weather extension of the Dempster Highway. Though there will still be other ice roads in the Northwest Territories, none will be as spectacular as this one.
Once we’d arrived at the crossing, I grabbed my gear and headed out on the ice road to scout out the perfect filming spot. A viewing area was marked off. I set up right at the edge, then settled in to wait and to fight the lure of the nearby warming tent. I didn’t want to miss this!
With the wind blowing, my face started to tingle, so I pulled up my layers to minimize exposed skin. Throwing my camera inside my parka to keep it warm and turning my back to the wind, I chatted with the others who were waiting. It seemed that everyone who was able to make it from the surrounding towns was there, in addition to my fellow visitors and the media, and we were all equally excited.
Eventually, there came a cry of “There they are.” I threw my camera onto its tripod. The reindeer approached, moving inside a white cloud made up of snow and the steam from thousands of pairs of lungs exhaling together. It was a magnificent sight.
To our initial disappointment, the reindeer were crossing well away from our carefully marked areas. But as we started to pack up, we noticed the herd moving closer again in response to the herders’ directions. I ran to get into position on the far side of a makeshift parking lot, capturing them just west of the road. As I let my camera roll, I stood in awe. Before me, 3,000 reindeer flowed across the tundra like a single gigantic animal.
As I stood transfixed, I lost track of time, only emerging from my spell after the last of the herd vanished into the falling flakes. Just a few fellow die-hards were left when I decided to retreat to the truck with my mom and our other traveler. As I climbed into the warm interior, I realized I’d gotten much colder than I’d been aware of with my adrenaline running high. I embraced the warm airflow from the vents.
After exploring more of the ice road, we were off to Reindeer Station. On our way, we took a detour north to see a pingo, a huge ice-covered hill pushed upward by a combination of abundant water and frost heave. The ride was a bit of a milk run, with many stops for photos, including some final shots of the reindeer herd in the distance. We arrived at Reindeer Station for hot stew, bread and tea, and conversation with the locals. Until 1969, Reindeer Station was a year-round, self-sustaining community of about 90, mostly herders and their families. That year, it was abandoned and the residents were relocated to Inuvik, about a half hour’s travel away.
Once I was thawed out, I tried my hand at lassoing and caught a couple of people with my new-found skill. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Inuvik. It was a sad departure; I could have spent hours there, shooting more of the incredible scenery and learning more about the lives of the people we’d met. Our guide Gerry went above and beyond on the journey, cheerfully honouring all requests to stop and take photos. When I mentioned checking out an igloo I’d heard about, he extended the trip just so we could see it.
If you have the chance to travel to Northern Canada, I highly recommend it. We were in Inuvik, above the Arctic Circle, for the Muskrat Jamboree and we had the time of our lives. The locals are as warm as their winter is cold. Random people greeted us as we passed them on the sidewalk as we attended the many events. From these conversations, I made connections I know I will keep. In addition to their welcoming attitude to visitors, the residents clearly have a strong sense of community; you can see that they look out for each other.
A note about the difference between reindeer and caribou, they are the same species but have slight differences and have differing lifestyles. The differentiating traits are thought to be the result of domestication. Reindeer are shorter, more sedentary and stouter, their bulls are also smaller than caribou. Reindeer were domesticated in northern Eurasia and they are herded by many Arctic peoples in Scandinavia, Alaska and Canada. Also, Reindeer tend to stay in cohesive, tight groups when herded where caribou are often scattered. The Canadian government in the 1920s initiated the Reindeer Project due to a shortage of caribou. By the 30s, reindeer were brought from Alaska (originally from Scandinavia) to the Mackenzie Delta along with Sami families to train Inuvialuit on the herding practice. Their descendants remain there today.
This day is one I will never forget. The images of warm people, a sprawling landscape, and that enormous reindeer herd are imprinted indelibly on my memory.