Ivvavik National Park, Canada

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Ivvavik National Park, Canada

Canadian National Parks I: Extreme Boonies

National parks are free for 150th anniversary year; many embrace indigenous heritage

Celebrating 150 years of Canada as a nation-state, Parks Canada is advertising free admission to the entire Canadian park system. This includes the Discovery Pass, which will admit you to the endless natural wonders of our northern neighbor. It also includes, for those who own or can rent a boat suitable for touring, seasonal lockage and mooring permits for Canada’s historical waterways.

Canada shares a long and peaceful border with the U.S., and for much of the time the nations have existed, the formalities for crossing in either direction have been minimal. It’s necessary to remind our readers that while the U.S. and Canada remain as friendly as nations get, things have changed since September 11, 2001.

On that day, the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, made history by taking in stranded airline passengers who had nowhere to go because the airspace over the U.S. was closed to all but military traffic. A town of about 10,000 souls made room for 6,579 unexpected “guests” in public spaces and private homes.

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Despite all the aid and comfort and good feelings, the formalities required for travel to Canada have been substantially ramped up, so that it’s necessary to warn anybody who is old enough to remember how things used to be to start ahead of time and get papers in order.

We seldom forget that Canada, like the U.S., borders on both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Looking at Canadian weather statistics, we are quickly reminded that Canada also borders on the Arctic. Travelers who intend to take full advantage of the 2017 free admission offer might want to go all the way above the Arctic Circle and start in Quttinirpaaq National Park, where you can camp less than 500 miles from the North Pole. You can tell it’s high season for tourists when the sun remains in the sky 24 hours a day. The park is only staffed from mid-May to mid-August.

Glaciers in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Canada

Jerry Kobalenko

Glaciers in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Canada

To visit Quttinirpaaq, you can fly commercial into Resolute Bay, where you must book a charter. Because of the weather, charters do not run between September and March. Most of the climbing and hiking and animal photography people come for happens in July and August.

Having come that far, a side trip to Canada’s farthest north community, Grise Ford, becomes a cultural tour of interest, because 95 percent of the population is Inuit. If you are not with a group tour, you can enhance your safety in some very wild country by hiring an Inuit guide.

Two more safety reminders before heading north.

First, remember that you will be too close to the magnetic north pole to use a compass. This is another reason to hire a guide.

Second, Quttinirpaaq warns visitors to keep a good distance from polar bears. They have a certain cuteness to them that grizzlies do not, but they are still bears. If you get into a misunderstanding, the bear is likely to win.

Still slightly north of the Arctic Circle, Parks Canada offers another fly-in camping destination called Ivvavik National Park. It’s in the Yukon Territory not terribly far from the Alaska border, and the attraction of Ivvavik is spectacular scenery and wildlife in a place that draws fewer visitors than Mount Everest.

Ivvavik is not the least visited park in the Canadian system. That distinction belongs to Tuktut Nogait National Park across the Yukon border in the Northwest Territories, known for scenery and calving grounds for a major caribou herd.

Tuktut Nogait National Park in Canada is known as a caribou calving ground, and in fact 'tuktut nogait' means 'young caribou' in Inuvialuktun.

Courtesy of Parks Canada

Tuktut Nogait National Park in Canada is known as a caribou calving ground, and in fact ‘tuktut nogait’ means ‘young caribou’ in Inuvialuktun.

Also in the neighborhood of Alaska but less expensive would be hiking the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile historic trail that follows a path opened by the Klondike Gold Rush between Bennett, British Columbia and Dyea, Alaska. The U.S. end starts in Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park, where they refer to Chilkoot as “the world’s longest museum” for all the artifacts left along the trail by persons under the influence of gold fever seeking to lighten their load.

Actually, it would be more correct to say that the Chilkoot Trail was re-opened by the gold rush, because it was a traditional trade route of the Tlingit people before Europeans showed up. The Indian trail was used by the settlers until the railroad came to Skagway’s White Pass Trail rather than Dyea’s Chilkoot Trail.

The Chilkroot Trail was originally a Native route. It became wildly popular during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Courtesy National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

The Chilkroot Trail was originally a Native route. It became wildly popular during the Klondike Gold Rush.

The original gold discovery may have been a re-discovery, because it’s credited to a Tagish Indian. You could investigate this by visiting the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, found just north of the British Columbia border in Yukon Territory. A more likely reason to visit the Carcross/Tagish Reserve is Kusawa Park, which is not yet a Canadian park, pending agreement of a steering committee of the Yukon government and the three First Nations for whom it is traditional homeland—Carcross/Tagish, Champagne and Aishihik, and Kwanlin Dun.

The crown jewel of the park is Kusawa Lake, which gets its name from a Tlingit word meaning “long lake.” Archaeological studies back up the First Nations oral histories, proving human habitation around the lake for more than 5,000 years. The shores of the lake were also on trade routes for several other First Nations, just as the Chilkoot Trail was used by trading Indians before the gold seekers came.

In Canada, the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site merged with the U.S. park to create the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park. The gold seekers tried to carry enough supplies to live for a year in the gold fields. Your hike will not be quite as complicated, but it is close. You need a permit from either the U.S. National Park Service or Parks Canada. To apply for the permit, you must specify the dates, which campgrounds you intend to use, and how you will leave the trail.

On the Canadian end, the Chilkoot Trail ends at Lake Bennett, which is not accessible by road. You get to Bennett on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad or Alpine Aviation Yukon. Like the remote camping areas, the Chilkoot Trail hike is difficult. In the next part of this series on the Canadian parks where entry will be free this year, we will take up UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The UNESCO sites should be both more well known and easier to reach. It will still be necessary to yield right of way to the bears, though.

This story was originally published March 30, 2017.

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Canadian National Parks I: Extreme Boonies

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