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Inuvik, Where the Welcome Sign Is Billed as Top Attraction: Canada's Northwest Territories on the Looney Front, Part 1

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'Have you been north before,' asks the ticket lady at the Air North desk at Whitehorse airport. It's 6 A.M. and I'm checking in for the flight to Inuvik, beyond the Arctic Circle, at the very top of Canada's Northwest Territories.

'No,' quoths I with all the alacrity of the dear departed.

'Oh, we don't do security for there,' quoths she breezily. 'Just gather in that space over there by gate 3 and I'll take you all out in about half an hour.'

Aerial views

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It's Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians all over again. But it's not like there where they don't have any security at all. Here they have a proper area with all the machines, metal checks and ringing bells you'd expect. But that's only if you're heading south to Vancouver, Yellowknife or Ottawa.

If you're going north on the little 40-seater Hawker Sidley 748 turbo-prop to Dawson City or Inuvik in Northwest Territories, bring along your arsenal of kitchen utensils, the kitchen sink if you like. A nice sharp knife and a couple of grenades could come in very handy. Behead a few people for a nice bit of Islamic State propaganda.

Or why not hijack the ruddy plane and crash it into the Whitehorse hydroelectric dam? Or I could crash it into Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson City for a wheeze.

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Yukon from above

It seems like an open invitation to would-be terrorists. However, after the less than rapturous welcome I garnered in Anchorage when I informed them of my security concerns about their Dutch Harbor checks, I hold my peace, my piece, and shut up for a change, though I do later e-mail my concerns to the Canada Government website.

Once again, the benefits of travelling by comparatively low-flying turboprop are immediately evident. The sighting of the tailings from gold mining at Dawson city is impressive and the views over Tombstone Park, where I roamed ground-bound just a few days ago, are superb.

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Approaching Dawson City

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Tailings from gold mining

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More tailings

Equally splendid is the panorama of barren peaks, ridges and hollows streaked with bright white ice that offset the deep green dwarf forests and brilliant yellow lichen of the taiga after we cross the Arctic Circle.

Tombstone from above

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The zillion lakes and ponds, bright and clear, the equally bright and clear streams that coil everywhere like drunken snakes, the multiple wider but muddy channels of the 1,080-mile-long Mackenzie River into which they flow, the valleys, steep clefts, islands and hills, form an incredible jigsaw from above as we come into land at Inuvik. If you include the Mackenzie's several tributaries, it's 2,637 miles long.

Arctic Canada from the air

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But what can you say about a town which lists its own roadside welcoming board as No: 1 on its top-ten list of attractions? And its Visitor Centre as No: 2? That's Inuvik for you.

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Inuvik main drag

To be fair, the colourful board with a polar bear, sled dogs, indigenous people and a grizzly catching a salmon - and Welcome to Inuvik NWT (Northwest Territories) in English, Nedanihi Nanazgee in Gwichi'in, and Quyanuk Kikuffi in Inuit - is at the end of the Dempster Highway after its 417-mile gravelly sweep through the Arctic wilderness.

Welcome to Inuvik

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The Canadian government decided to build the highway, which starts 25 miles east of Dawson City, in 1958 at the height of the oil and gas boom in the Mackenzie Delta, retracing old dog sled trails. The welcome board is next to a bus graveyard and opposite the town cemetery, should you want a shortcut to the next world.

Inuvik, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 60 miles south of the Beaufort Sea section of the Arctic Ocean, was built round about the same time on the Mackenzie's eastern channel to accommodate indigenous people relocated from the flood-prone delta settlement of Aklavik to the west.

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Inuvik's igloo-shaped Catholic church

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Inuvik hospital

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Inuvik side street

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Another street

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River front on a Mackenzie channel

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Looking the other way

It means Place of People in Inuvialuktun, the language of the local Inuit. Gwichi'n people, related to Alaska's Athabascans, also live here.

The surrounding countryside is very attractive, lushly green and sprouting a myriad spring flowers in yellows, blues and purples (it's late June).

Inuvik's blooms

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Oil and gas exploration saw the town boom for 20 years, starting in 1971. The companies then pulled out due to low prices and the end of government subsidies, but have since returned to search for natural gas.

The two indigenous groups have settled their land claims with the government, and the town with its brightly coloured wooden houses in red, blue, green and yellow and its igloo-shaped Catholic church is home to 3,500 people.

Inuvik houses

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A silver 'snake' runs through it on pilings, crossed by a road bridge just like a stream, and crossing another road like a railway bridge. It's the sewage pipeline that would melt the permafrost and sink if it were at ground level. The buildings are on piles, too, for the same reason.

Silver 'snakes'

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It's a remarkably wooded area within the taiga forest belt of low trees just south of the tree line and west of the treeless tundra.

The over 6,200 miles of Mackenzie Delta channels, one of the world's largest, provide an incomparable prowling and growling ground for winter snowmobilers, and a quieter paradise for dog sledders.

Around Inuvik

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At Top Attraction No: 2, you can learn about the history, heroes and villains of the region. There's the 'Mad Trapper of Rat River' whom the Mounties tracked down and shot in 1932 in a media circus-sparking chase that lasted 48 days in temperatures averaging -40 (Fahrenheit and Celsius reach parity here) after the naughty gent shot an officer over a complaint about trap lines in Aklavik.

Now Inuvik has The Mad Trapper Inn and The Mad Trapper Pool Hall on Mackenzie Road right in the heart of downtown.

Mad Trapper & Co

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Then there's the Lost Patrol. The four men lost their way in frozen mid-winter on a 475-mile dog-sled patrol when they left Fort McPherson, about 125 miles southwest of here, for Dawson City in temperatures of -67 F., or -55 C, on December 21, 1910.

By February they had still not arrived, nearly a month overdue. Their bodies were found on March 22, 1911. They had apparently turned back, but starved to death despite having gobbled up the entire dog team just 26 miles from Fort McPherson, where they now lay buried in the Anglican graveyard.

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'The graves of the lost patrol in Fort McPherson are a testament to the hazards and difficulties of arctic travel,' Top Attraction No: 2 tells you.

[Upcoming blog on Sunday: A toe in the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea]

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Slouching back to town

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Round about midnight

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.