Driving the Dempster: Inuvik

Inuvik, ‘place of man’ is a hot and gritty industrial town. Its edges are worn and the whole place feels dirty and run down. It is most certainly not a ‘tourist town’, not even with it being a destination. I expected the town to be flat and barren, but it’s actually hilly and surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see. The biggest surprise, given the appearance of the town, is just how friendly the locals are.

It’s a peculiar place to end up after all the excitement of driving the Dempster to reach it. There are no museums or other cultural attractions, no shops worth mentioning, no restaurants. The only real thing to do is to get out, by plane or boat. Inuvik’s motto is apt: the end of the road is only the beginning.

The town is a planned community conceived in 1953 to serve as an administrative centre that would replace Aklavik, prone to flooding. Inuvik gained village status in 1967, became a town in 1970, and was linked to the rest of Canada via the Dempster in 1979, making it the northernmost community that can be traveled to year-round by car. The population is just over 3,000, of which the majority are Inuvialuit and other First Nations.

One of the most famous features of the town is its Utilidor system. These above-ground pipes carry potable water and sewage to the buildings in town. By having these pipes above ground two things are achieved: 1) the permafrost is not disturbed and 2) the pipes are easy to get to if anything needs to be fixed.

utilidor system going into a house

The most famous landmark is the Our Lady of Victory Church, shaped like an igloo. I was unable to tour the inside, but the exterior is most impressive!

another shot of the Igloo Church

While not tourist-friendly, the town appears to be very livable. There are a new hospital, a dentist, an impressive rec complex, schools, a community greenhouse, and two supermarkets. Coming from a town that has only boutiques, not stores, I was quite jealous of the ‘Northmart’ which sells everything one could want at reasonable prices. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the price of groceries in Inuvik, but coming from Dawson I found no reason to complain! Things do become much more expensive in the winter, however; a loaf of bread can cost $5!

Homes in Inuvik run the gamut, from shacks to pretty bungalows that would not be out of place in the best neighbourhoods ‘Outside.’ Most homes and buildings are on pilings to keep them from melting the permafrost. Most people seem to have pick up trucks or SVUs, but there are a few other brave souls who do the Dempster in sedans and sub-compacts.

I spent my first two nights in Inuvik at the Happy Valley Campground. It claims to be ‘downtown’ but is actually ‘within walking distance of downtown.’ The whole installation is a contradiction. The RV electrical hookups are obviously kept up, but the tent area consists of a few tent pads haphazardly set up on a fairly level patch of dirt (at least, the area has a splendid view of the Mackenzie river). The showers sparkle, but water is kept out by curtains black with mould. The grass is kept trimmed, but the entrance has potholes you could drop Canada into. At $15 for a tent, though, it is a bargain, considering that the other campground with showers is outside of town and more than $20 a night!

tent set up at Happy Valley

My first stop in Inuvik was the visitor information centre where the attendants are super friendly and helpful. There are some interesting displays there about the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people, as well as Inuvik and the Mackenzie Delta. There, I got information tours to Tuktoyaktuk and then I found myself wondering how I was going to spend the days and hours until my tour when I realised that beyond getting out of town, there wasn’t much to see or do.

First things first, I made inquiries about Tuk tours and decided on Arctic Adventure Tours because they had a few lined up. I wanted to give myself as many opportunities as possible since I’d come such a long way! I was tentatively booked for a Wednesday 3PM tour and was heading out of the info kiosk, located across from the Igloo Church, when I witnessed a spectacular accident–a Jeep plowed straight into a parked car!

After that excitement, I went off in search of dinner/groceries (so glad I had the ability to cook for myself), drove around town for a bit, and went to bed early.

Wednesday’s Tuk tour was canceled because not enough people signed up. I wiled away the hours driving around town, checking out the few shops, and spending time sitting in a chair at the campground with a pot of juniper tea while overlooking the Mackenzie’s east channel. Wednesday was a true ‘vacation’!

Thursday, I moved to the Arctic Chalet resort, just outside of town. The folks who operate this b&b and cabin property also run the Arctic Adventure Tours. The owner, Judi, offered me a room for $60! At that price, it was worth getting at least one night in a proper bed! The room was beautiful and bright, with a private deck overlooking a lake and a kitchen and bathroom shared with one other guest. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. What a bargain! I spent a few hours reading and then it was time to leave on the Tuk tour.

my room at the Arctic Chalet

I was beat when I came back and it was so nice to be able to make a proper meal, have a hot shower, then sit out on a deck with a book. I even watched some television before bed! The bed was soooo comfortable and I got in a solid seven and a half hours; the best sleep I’ve had in months. I left the Arctic Chalet around 9:30 on Friday and the rest of that day will follow two posts from now.

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  • So interesting!! Look how high the sun still is at 11:30pm! Even in Dawson its already dark by 10:30.
    Glad to hear you made it safe and sound, I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of the story.
    Did you find out how they keep those utilidors from freezing in the winter?

  • It’s quarter to 11 right now in Dawson and it’s dark. Where has the summer gone?!

    It didn’t really get dark like this in Inuvik. I awoke multiple times during the night to find the sun still in my face!

    As long as the water and sewage are flowing, they wouldn’t freeze. That’s how they keep the water system from freezing in Dawson, by making residents keep a tap open all winter.

    Tomorrow, I will be taking you to Tuk!

  • […] Last night, being unable to sleep, I decided to raid the cupboards one last time even though I’d just recently gone through them. All I could find was the stainless steel non-travel mug with tea strainer that I had bought in Inuvik. […]

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