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North of North: Exploring Canada's Northwest Territories

North of North: Exploring Canada's Northwest Territories

Amidst the nation's vastness, there is plenty of magic to discover.

Gerold Sigl/NWT Tourism (The Dempster Highway). Brandon Presser(Great Slave Lake, Nahanni National Park, and License plates). Shutterstock (Inuksuk).

For hundreds of years, the region known as the Northwest Territories was the swath of Canada’s seemingly infinite land unclaimed by the emerging colonies. And each year its size would decrease slightly as the European imperialists gobbled up more land in the name of their respective crowns. When modern-day Canada began to take shape, the territories were banished beyond the 60th parallel —
a line that still swooshes across the map to this day — until finally, in 1999, the land was once again recarved when the territory of Nunavut splintered off from the Northwest, helping to further distinguish the native lines of the Inuit. 

The Northwest Territories could hardly be deemed the “leftovers” anymore, proffering a strong aboriginal spirit among the indigenous Dene and the truest sense of north found anywhere on the planet. 

The capital, Yellowknife, is a strange place of opposites, bearing no resemblance to what it may seem like on paper. A sleepy township by any other standard of measurement (19,000 people on a good day), it’s considered a roaring hive of activity in the Northwest Territories, where the total population is astonishingly sparse (around 44,000 total). The rhythm of the city hums with the duality of being an administrative nexus and a faraway border town, its location overwhelmed by wilderness along the banks of Great Slave Lake — a body of water so large that it could be better described as an inland sea. 

Far-flung chalets dot the constellations of granite isles in the great lake. Try Blachford Lake Lodge (, about 65 miles from Yellowknife. Visited by Will and Kate on their royal tour, Blachford has become the gold standard for cottage getaways — a pillar of Canadian living, complete with fishing and paddling. 

As the Great Slave Lake has been the domain of the Dene nations for millennia, guests at Blachford are kindly asked — in accordance with ancestral traditions — to not harbor any thoughts of malice toward bears during their stay, a surprising and humbling testament to the fact that our conceptions of respect for the land and its spirit are still remarkably limited to the lodge’s more conventional efforts, like composting toilets and solar panels.  

The grand majesty of the Dene lands comes to a peak — quite literally — in Nahanni National Park, dubbed simply “the Nahanni” by those who covet its four fortress-like canyons that lie along the South Nahanni River like cataracts of the Nile. 

Situated on the ancestral territories of the Dehcho First Nations, the reserve has long captured the imagination of expeditionists with its cache of geological anomalies, and it has the honor of being one of the first World Heritage sites dedicated by UNESCO in 1978. Today, Simpson Air (, the same operator responsible for delivering goods and mail to the remote aboriginal communities in the region, doubles as a flight-seeing outfitter showcasing this world-in-one-expanse aboard its float planes. Trips dip deep between canyons and zip high over perilous amalgams of boiling earth and craggy stone, taking in natural attractions whose names belong in Magellan’s folio, like the Ragged Range and the Cirque of the Unclimbables. 

The park’s biggest attraction is Virginia Falls, or Nailicho in the Dene language, which rise to more than twice the height of Niagara Falls — if you can imagine — yet you’ll likely be the only one there. During the warmest months of the year, it’s the starting point for Canada’s most epic paddle: a weeklong float back toward civilization that’s seen as a rite of passage every northerner undertakes with aplomb before the morning dew turns to frost. 

As pronounced and unending as a summer’s day may seem, the perpetual night of winter is similarly striking. The seasons shift and suddenly the sacred stones and riverine pines go to sleep under a blanket of ice and a cloak of darkness. But just when you think that the wonder of the landscape has been all but erased, the northern lights — a halo over the Canadian Shield — emerge as if to remind you that here in the North of North, where the nation’s vastness is often prosaic, there’s never a day without magic.

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