Tour of Northern Canada

Canada is a place of poutine and hockey, maple syrup and epic ski runs, and in recent years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There’s the foodie haven of Montreal, which brought us Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion, and the cosmopolitan and culturally diverse city of Toronto, which consistently lands itself a spot on annual where-to-go-now lists. Canada has the Calgary Stampede, the otherworldly natural beauty of Banff National Park and Alberta’s quiet and pristine countryside, Whistler’s winter wonderland, and Vancouver, where it’s entirely possible to try a new local beer and/or a plate of just-as-authentic-as-the-real-thing Asian cuisine every day of the year. In short, from east to west, Canada has it all.

But little is known of its northern reaches. What lies above or beyond the invisible line that divides “accessible” Canada from the provinces that account for nearly half of the country’s total land mass? It’s a rarely explored place, much of which resides beyond the 60th parallel and thus inside the Arctic Circle, and it is home to the Inuit people, the first inhabitants to settle Arctic Canada. And in places, it’s also incredibly progressive despite its remoteness. There’s a movement of local chefs who are forgoing lucrative opportunities in larger cities and returning to their hometowns to pay homage to the land that raised them. There’s a burgeoning culinary scene with chefs who are redefining the notion of farm to table, or in some cases, sea to plate, and there’s a bounty of new craft breweries and distilleries that could rival its more southerly neighbors.

There are ways to get there on your own, but small airports with shortened landing strips and an inaccessibility to good WiFi make the trip difficult. Luckily, Edible Canada, a Vancouver-based company that, among other things, curate’s food-focused trips with a mission to shine a spotlight on Canadian cuisine, recently launched a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip that no one else is doing. They’re taking guests across the top of Canada in a private 737 with some of the country’s most decorated chefs on board. On land, the chefs pair with members of the community, fishing, foraging, and hunting to highlight the bounty of the local land in unforgettable dinners along the way.

Here, a virtual tour across the towns that define Arctic Canada, from polar bears and gold rushes to foraging and five-star restaurants—a glimpse into the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Whitehorse
This rough ’n’ tumble city with a population hovering somewhere around 30,000 is the capital city (and, well, the only city) of the Yukon Territories. It’s your first stop out of Vancouver, and at this point you’re already far enough north that you’d need to head due west if you wanted to drive to Alaska. Its central location at the crossroads of two of the Yukon’s major roads, the Alaska and the Klondike, makes it the perfect jumping off point to explore the area’s natural bounty.

The town’s history starts where a lot of towns in this area start: gold. In the late 1800s, thousands of prospectors packed their supplies and headed north on what was to become known as the Klondike Gold Rush, searching for a better life by way of little yellow nuggets in and around the Klondike River. Nowadays, it’s not the prospect of gold that brings people to the Yukon, but rather the memory of it. Tourism is one of the city’s largest industries, and what once served as the source of fortune, the mineral-rich land, is now the source of some of the freshest ingredients in the world—arctic char, a staple you’ll hear a lot about in these parts, as well as wild boar, elk, and whitefish, and from the Boreal Forest, wild berries, morels, and birch syrup.

Yellowknife
Untamed and raw, if the frontier spirit is still alive, you can feel it in Yellowknife. The city, tiny compared to others but large—as in 50 percent of the Northwest Territories’ population lives here—by Arctic Canada standards, is just a blip, a tiny speck among acres and acres of pristine wilderness and water. Yellowknife sits on the banks of Great Slave Lake, an incomprehensibly large mass of water that measures as the 10th largest lake in the world—the world, a big category.

This town once full of eager trappers and traders, miners, and fishermen still retains an entrepreneurial, live-off-the-land spirit. You can see it in Old Town, a section of Yellowknife where tax-free houseboats meet up with an eclectic tangle of wooden shacks and log cabins. In them, a handful of creatives have chosen to practice their craft in this sub-arctic capital city—like Down to Earth Gallery, an artist-run shop that hawks only Northwest Territories art—and chefs are changing Yellowknife’s culinary landscape for the better—like Chef Robin Wasicuna of Twin Pine Diner fame, whose list of accomplishments include feeding now–Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and enjoying a run on Chopped Canada.

And you can see it in the nightlife, a surprisingly diverse and active crowd for its northern locale and population of roughly 20,000, depending on the time of year. The reason is that many young professionals are drawn to the area, seeking out big seasonal money in the public-sector industry, gigs with wilderness outfitters, or just the thrill of living in the Arctic. It’s a city for 20- and 30-somethings who come seeking adventure, just like during the Gold Rush.

Churchill
Churchill is a quiet little town on the southwest shores of Hudson Bay in Canada’s Manitoba province. In fact there are no roads that lead in and out, meaning the only way to get here is via plane, train, or snowmobile. Upon arrival, every brochure and signage reads, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” And it is. You can see them here come October and November—it’s widely claimed that during peak season there are more polar bears in and around Churchill than there are residents—cruising the frozen tundra and starting their hunt on the icy sheets of Hudson Bay. But what you shouldn’t overlook is the scores of other things you can do here during various parts of the year.

In the summer months of July and August, the world’s largest population of beluga whales descend on the estuaries of Churchill River eager for warmer waters, with their young gray calves in tow. These magnificent creatures outnumber the local population by nearly three times, marking the second time annually when humans become the minority in these parts. And during the off-season, January to March, clear nights bring a magnificent dance of the Aurora Borealis.

Iqaluit
So you’ve never heard of Nunavut? Or Iqaluit? You have company, and there’s good reason. It might as well be a different country up there. Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, the largest Canadian province—by large, I mean that it’s massive, with nearly 800,000 square miles of land, which is 200,000 more than Quebec, the second largest, and around 100,000 more than the entire country of Mexico—and it accounts for the vast majority of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. And it’s remote. Only 35,000 people call this entire province home. If you were to draw a line due west from Iqaluit until you reached the Northwest Territories, you’d cross more than 1,000 miles of land and water, and not a single road. In short, it’s vast and remote.

Further hammering home the different country vibe is the fact that most signs are written in Inuktitut, the language of the local Inuit people, and you’ll hear it used in town. Traditionally, Iqaluit was a fishing village, settled by the Inuit for thousands of years now. The name means “place of many fish” in Inuktitut. The landscape is dusty and desolate tundra, a terrain so stark and unsettling in its beauty. It’s a landscape that many are drawn to; in fact, Iqaluit is growing. Nowadays it’s a delightful mix of Inuits whose ancestors have lived here for generations, of expats drawn to the high-paying and adventuresome work, and artists, writers, and makers who come to take part in the city’s thriving arts community. To eat local, you must revisit the land. The traditional Inuit cuisine is made up of a mix of marine mammals, like seal and whale, and land-based animals, like caribou, muskox, and birds, as well as elements foraged from the land during the summer months of thaw.

St. John’s
Ahh, Newfoundland and Labrador—this place steals hearts. The province’s capital and North America’s oldest city, St. John’s sits curtained by the steep slopes of St. John’s Harbor. The hillside streets are a virtual candy shop, lined with houses in all the colors of a Skittles bag. There are two theories as to why this is. First, that sailors coming in off a long haul on the water needed help finding their front doors through the fog and the haze of one too many cocktails. Secondly, that boat paint was cheaper and more durable than house paint, and boat paint comes in more vibrant colors. Either way, the distinctive vibrancy of the city lends a character all its own.

The seafaring town’s history lies in salt cod, but recent years have brought the excitement onshore. Nowadays it’s quite the cosmopolitan city with world-class restaurants, a burgeoning craft brewery scene, and an eager community of artists and musicians. But even then, it’s a relaxed pace in these parts. Fisherman dock up in the afternoon bringing in the day’s haul, locals gather for a pint at pubs along Water Street, and young chefs are returning to their hometown, shopping from the land around them and bringing culinary fame to the ingredients they first got to know as children.

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