Did I really just see Big Bird and his family play hockey on an outdoor rink in the Northwest Territories? I would’ve rubbed my eyes in disbelief except that I’m wearing mittens. Turns out that every March, teams of players from around the region converge on the community of Hay River for a Polar Pond Hockey tournament. Some participants arrive in costume. From pushing pucks while dressed as a teacup to running a dog team down a wooded trail, northerners have perfected the art of playing in the snow in a place where there’s white stuff on the ground for seven or eight months of the year. Yes, Virginia, winter really can be fun. Here are six things to do on a Northwest Territories Canada snowcation.
1Watch the Northern Lights
The sky is clear at first. Then bands of green and red light start stretching across the sky, separating and coming together like lovers in a warm embrace. Welcome to the Aurora Borealis, the best natural light show north of the 60th parallel.
The Northwest Territories sits directly beneath the Auroral oval. On a clear winter night, there’s a strong chance of seeing the dance of the northern lights. Cast your eyes toward the heavens and look for signs that the northern lights are coming out to play.
There are different ways to appreciate them. Local tourism operators can take you by dogsled or snowmobile to a cabin or camp that offers an unobstructed view.
Sit in a hot tub at Blachford Lake Lodge a half hour from Yellowknife and admire the view. Or go for a ride in a Hagglunds BV, a versatile, all-terrain, amphibious vehicle. Check Astronomy North’s website for an Aurora Forecast. Then bundle up and head outside.
2Dogsledding: Hitch up the huskies
At Beck’s Kennels in Yellowknife, the cacophony of canines in the yard fill my ears as about 150 dogs bark “Pick me! Pick me!” Every husky wants to be hitched up to a sled and go for a run. It’s in their genes.
Some of them stand on top of their doghouses to put them at eye level, as if it might increase their chances of getting picked. But only a few will get chosen this time.
Then silence descends as soon as the dogs have been chosen and the teams have departed. The only sound is of the sled runners scraping along the snow as the parade of paws runs down wooded trails.
Dog teams were once used as the main form of transportation to haul fish and furs, people and goods. Now dogsledding is a sport.
Watch dog teams fly out of the starting line at the 150-mile Canadian Championship Dog Derby in downtown Yellowknife at the end of March each year.
Tour operators in Yellowknife, Hay River and Inuvik offer packages of anywhere from a half hour dogsled ride to an overnight trip where you’re driving your own team.
3Snowmobiling: Zoom down the trail
The first time that I rode on the back of a snowmobile, we were going up and down enough hills that I could probably be forgiven if I thought I was riding a rollercoaster.
Apparently these machines are more like broncos when they don’t have proper suspension.
My second trip, which was with Arctic Chalet (Whitehuskies.com), took us from the town of Inuvik. We travelled across the frozen tundra to see Canada’s only semi-domesticated reindeer herd.
The ride was almost as smooth as a glassy lake on an autumn day. And, yes, the reindeer were breathtaking to watch. You can also ride onto the ice in a Bombardier with Great Slave Lake Tours to learn about the commercial fishery.
4Skiing: Let it glide
Who knew there were three ways to cross-country ski? Glide along groomed trails at ski clubs in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Inuvik.
Participate in the 27.5-kilometre Thebacha Loppet, the oldest one in Western Canada. It’s held each March along old portage trails that fur traders once used along the Slave River from Fort Fitzgerald to Fort Smith.
If you’re a good skier, try skijoring with White Huskies in Inuvik. Strap on a pair of skis and let a pair of huskies pull you along. Or let yourself be carried by the wind on Great Slave Lake with Yellowknife’s Aquilon Power Kite. The company offers kite skiing lessons.
Strap on a pair of skis or a snowboard and get tethered to a kite. Then learn to steer and control the power of the wind. If you aren’t comfortable on skis or a snowboard, climb into a buggy that has three skis and is pulled by a kite. Then relax and enjoy the power of the wind.
5Fish for dinner
I’m standing on Great Slave Lake trying not to dance around as I push the auger deeper into the ice beneath my feet. In a few hours, tents will start popping up and more holes will be dug.
Every year, as winter pulls into spring, communities across the Northwest Territories hold fishing derbies. Participants dangle a line beneath the ice, grab a seat and wait.
With any luck, they will enjoy the slow excitement of pulling fish from the depths of a frozen lake. The winner is the person who catches the biggest fish.
Every March for the past 20 years, the SnowKing’s Castle is built on Yellowknife Bay. Wedding ceremonies are held at this unique venue, as are film nights, live music and events for kids. There’s even a Royal Ball.
At the Muskrat Jamboree in Inuvik, teams of four are lining up on the ice beside the Mackenzie River to walk the plank. It’s not what you think.
Amid shouts of “Right. Left. Right. Left,” teams of four try to glide forward in unison on a piece of wood as they race to the finish line.
Other events include log sawing, the harpoon throw and a trapper skills competition that includes getting wood, making a fire, chiselling ice, making tea and bannock, skinning and stretching a muskrat.
Carnivals across the territory cap off yet another winter. So plan for next winter and come visit the Northwest Territories for a snowcation to remember.