Tuktoyaktuk is a village on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Canada. It has a population of about 950. About 80% of the population are Inuvialuit (formerly known as Eskimos but they have reverted to their original name instead of the one that white people gave them).
The village has two grocery stores but no restaurant. Many people still supply their meat by fishing and hunting. Food in the stores is extremely expensive because everything is brought in by air except for large items which come in summer by ship.
While walking around Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk for short), one thing that you will notice is that all the houses and other buildings are above ground level. Below the ground is a layer of permanent ice, even during the hot days of summer. Although the ice never totally melts, it melts and re-freezes enough to change shape. If you built a house on the ground, it would soon be on a slant. Therefore, posts are driven down through the ice to solid earth below the permafrost; and the buildings rest on these posts.
There is no municipal plumbing in Tuk. If you look closely you will see that each building has a large pipe sticking out of it. Water is brought to each house by truck from a very large holding tank. This tank is filled from lakes during summer and holds enough water to last all winter. The water is then purified and put into trucks for distribution.
The Community Freezer
Tuktoyaktuk is an interesting place. The village has an underground community freezer. Access to the freezer is by ladder, going down nine metres below the surface. At the bottom of the ladder, you can go into one of three tunnels. Each tunnel has several rooms off to the sides. Fishermen store their catch here. It remains frozen all year round without the use of electricity. The freezer was dug out of the earth, by hand, many years ago. Today, many people have chosen the convenience of ordering a freezer for their home instead of using the underground freezer, even though an electric freezer has the added expense of being shipped in by barge from the south as well as an increase in their electric bill. However, many fishermen still used the free underground freezer.
The tunnels in the community freezer are beautiful. The roof and the sides, about half way down, are covered in ice crystals. On the lower half of the walls, one can see a series of lines in the ice, where different layers of ice have formed. This is difficult to explain – look at the photos.
One of the pastimes that younger people have in Tuktoyaktuk is called “skipping”. This involves driving a snowmobile over open water. Surprisingly, they do not sink, as you might think. As long as you go fast enough and start and end your trip on land or ice, you will be ok. If you stop or go too slow, the snowmobile will sink. I saw this in Tuk and also on the MacKenzie River. Snowmobiles can travel long distances on water. The best way to describe this is with a question and an analogy. Do stones float or sink? Obviously, stones do not float, but if you throw a flat one at the right angle and with enough speed, it will skip along the surface of the water until it loses momentum, before sinking.
Skipping can be dangerous. One young person drowned just a few days before I arrived in Tuk when his snowmobile broke through the ice and sank.
Pingo National Monument:
Another fascinating attraction in Tuktoyaktuk are the Pingos. They look like large hills on the Arctic tundra, but they are filled with ice, not dirt. If you live in Canada or northern United States or Scandinavia, you will be familiar with ice heaves. Ice melts and freezes, depending on the temperature. As ice takes up more space than water, sometimes the ice pushes the surface upward. This can result in bumps or cracks in the road.
In the Arctic, ice heaves, are taken to the extreme, some of them being 70 metres (230 feet) tall. Underground water freezes during the winter and pushes the surface upward. During summer, the temperature is warm enough for more water to enter and the next winter, when it freezes again, the ground is pushed further upward. Pingos exist only in the high Arctic in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Russia and the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Pingos grow by only a couple of centimetres per year, so one that is 70 metres tall has taken hundreds of years to form.
A park called Pingo National Landmark, near Tuktoyaktuk, was created to protect eight pingos from being damaged by all-terrain-vehicles or excavation. One of the Pingos, called Ibyuk Pingo, is Canada’s largest and the second largest in the world. The largest one is in Alaska. A National Landmark, is something like a National Monument in the United States. Similar to a National Park, but lower in status, as they do not receive enough tourists or federal funds to be a National Park. Landmarks in Canada and Monuments in the U.S.A. are part of the federal park services, like a National Park. Pingo is Canada’s only National Landmark. Ibyuk continues to grow at a rate of about two cm (about 0.79 inches) per year and is estimated to more than 1,000 years old. If you don’t know what they are, you might think it is just a hill; but the Arctic tundra is flat and treeless and does not have hills like a pingo.
No story about Tuktoyaktuk would be complete without mentioning the mosquitoes. To say that they are abundant would be an understatement. They are also very aggressive. Tuk has a population of more than 900 people but you never see a lot of them on the streets. I did see some children playing outdoors but most people stay in their houses except when it is necessary to go out. When they do venture out, they usually wear hoodies because of the mosquitoes. It was a warm day but I wore a light jacket and gloves and a hat with head netting. If you come to Tuk make sure you bring mosquito protection. Insect repellent is ok for short outings. It is better to have a head net and even better to have a whole jacket made of mosquito netting.
The MacKenzie Delta:
The terrain between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk is the MacKenzie Delta where the Mackenzie River meets the Arctic Ocean. The area is a maze of channels as the river splits into many different routes.
On either side of the river is a land filled with lakes. There are several small lakes per kilometre and some larger ones.
The Road to Tuk:
At the present time, there is no road to Tuktoyaktuk, but there are several ways to get there. You can fly. There are daily flights out of Inuvik to Tuk. You can go by boat. There are a couple of tour companies in Inuvik that arrange trips to Tuk but they are very expensive. You can fly up and come back by boat or vise versa. The boat trip along the Arctic coast and down the MacKenzie River can be very nice if the weather is good. You might see Beluga Whales which inhabit the Arctic coast around Tuktoyaktuk. During winter, it is also possible to drive to Tuk on an ice road. This road melts in the summer, however a permanent land road is currently under construction from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. It is scheduled to be completed in 2018.