The newest territory in Canada (1999), Nunavut is largest of all provinces and territories at a whopping 2,093,190 square km – approximately one fifth of Canada’s total area.
In fact, if Nunavut were a country, it would rank 15th in total area. It is also the northernmost and least populous with one person for every 65 square kilometres of arctic wonderland.
It’s no surprise that the first impression most visitors have is that of vast, pristine wilderness and gigantic natural space. And of course, with untouched wilderness comes abundant wildlife – People travel from far and wide for a chance encounter with bowhead whales, belugas, walrus, seals, polar bears, and even the elusive narwhal.
Nunavut means ‘Our Land’ in Inuktitut, the traditional language of the Inuit people who comprise 84% of the population.
Their culture and language is at the heart of the territory, as well as its geographical nomenclature, with communities like Igloolik (the oldest Inuit settlement in Canada), Qikiqtarjuaq (which is also an island), and Iqualuit (the territory’s capital city).
Geographically, Nunavut is largely on the Canadian Shield and almost entirely north of the tree line (except near the Manitoba border); the landscape is dominated by tundra, rock, and snow and ice.
The territory is divided into three regions, from east to west — Qikiqtaaluk, Kivalliq and Kitikmeot.
Two of the world’s ten largest islands are part of the region of Qikiqtaaluk – Baffin Island (world’s 5th largest… and Canada’s largest) and Ellesmere Island (world’s 10th largest).
These islands are home to 3 outstanding national parks, which draw nature enthusiasts from around the world.
Auyuittuq ('ow-you-we-took’) National Park, on Baffin Island, is Nunavut’s most accessible national park and also its most popular with fantastic backcountry hiking and skiing amongst rock, ice, and iconic mountain peaks like the mighty Mount Thor.
Quttinirpaaq ('koo-tin-ir-pa-ak') National Park, whose name means ‘top of the world’, is located waaaay up north on the tip of Ellesmere Island and is home to the territory’s highest point – Barbeau Peak (2,616m). A mere 720 kilometres from the North Pole, the park's northern coast is a jumping off point for North Pole adventurers.
Finally, Sirmilik National Park, located at the northwest end of Baffin Island near Pond Inlet, is one of the most diverse areas in the arctic with abundant marine and bird life – An ideal environment for exploration by sea.
Almost entirely above the 55th parallel, the territory’s area includes parts of mainland Canada, most of the Arctic Archipelago, and all of the islands in Hudson Bay, James Bay, and Ungava Bay.
Although Nunavut shares a land border with the Northwest Territories to the west and with Manitoba to the south, there are no roads to Nunavut, and its 25 separate communities are not even linked by highway or railroad.
Travelling between Nunavut communities is usually done by aircraft or cruise ship, but in some cases it is possible to reach another community by snowmobile, dogsled expedition or boat.
Visiting this territory is a truly remote adventure!
The capital of Nunavut is Iqaluit (Formerly Frobisher Bay), which is located on Baffin Island at the northern end of the bay, near the mouth of the Sylvia Grinnell River. Its latitude of 63’75” N is similar to Nome (Alaska), Reykjavik (Iceland), and Anadyr (Russia). Its longitude of 68'52" W is shared with the easternmost corner of the USA, Venezuela, and the southernmost tip of South America.
The population of Nunavut is estimated to be around 37,000 people, the vast majority (roughly 85%) of whom are Inuit – and quite young!
Nearly three quarters of the Inuit population in Nunavut are under 40 years old and, contrary to popular belief, they do not live in igloos (Although the word igloo is the Inuktitut word for home).
During the summer, many choose to live in large canvas tents, but for most of the year people reside in single family homes.
Archaeologists and geneticists are now certain that the predecessors of today's Inuit originated in the area of the Bering Strait, which separates Asia from North America.
The first indigenous group, known as Paleo-Eskimos, crossed the Bering Strait sometime around 3000 BC and moved into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago around 2500 BC, apparently because of a change in climate.
From there they followed marine mammals and herds of big game land animals across all of Nunavut to Greenland.
The main industries in Nunavut are mining, fishing, and hunting and trapping, but there is also a very rich arts & crafts culture.
Visitors are drawn to the intricate carvings, prints, jewellery, and finely-sewn items of Inuit clothing that can be found for purchase around Iqaluit.
But it’s not just their art that leaves an impression; the warmth and hospitality of the people of Nunavut is inspirational.
In traditional Inuit culture, the ethic of sharing is of foremost importance and this deep-rooted social value is eternal. Even today, this sense of collectivity, respect and mutual reliance is what often distinguishes the friendly residents of Nunavut communities from people in many other corners of the world.
This is the Arctic, which is much colder on average than most of the populated regions of the world. Nunavut is an enormous territory, so the weather varies widely from place to place. The average temperature in Kugluktuk is the warmest in Nunavut, sometimes rising to 30°C in the summer and ranging from -15°C to -40°C in the winter. The coldest community in Nunavut is Grise Fiord, where summer temperatures can sometimes rise above freezing to 5°C and winter temperatures frequently drop to -50°C. As most of the Arctic is a polar desert, long stretches of cloudless days without precipitation are common.
Spring is from late March until June, when the sun shines for around 18 hours per day, and temperatures are more consistent throughout the territory, with average daytime highs between -20°C and -10°C. The cool days of spring in Nunavut have plenty of sunshine. The sunlight reflected off the snow and ice can cause severe sunburn, so even though it may feel cold, using sunscreen lotion is advisable. Dressing in warm layers is advised. You will need wind-proof clothing, boots, gloves, hat, and a scarf.
*The floe edge (Sinaaq in Inuktitut) is a very special place to be in the spring. A floe is a flat chunk of floating sea ice up to 10km wide, and the floe edge is where the open sea meets the frozen sea. In springtime, this becomes one of the most dramatic and dynamic ecosystems on Earth, where arctic wildlife including walruses, seals, polar bears, narwhals, bowhead and beluga whales, gathers in abundance.
Summer begins in June, when the snowfall comes to an end. By mid-July, the sea ice has broken up and melted away, temperatures rise, and days become longer. At the summer solstice, the sun shines for 21 hours in Iqaluit with a few hours of beautiful twilight around midnight. The further north you go above the Arctic Circle, the greater number of days that have complete 24-hour sunshine. Depending on the community, the sun never completely sets beneath the horizon for up to four months of the year. However, more sun doesn't mean warmer weather. The most northerly communities will barely see temperatures above freezing in the middle of the summer. Whereas, Iqaluit sees an average temperature of 15C in the summer. The little rainfall that Nunavut receives annually usually falls from July to early September. Precipitation in Nunavut tends to fall sideways, as it is almost always accompanied by winds of 30-60 kph (19-37 mph). In the summer, you will need a light jacket, wind-proof clothing, and practical shoes as there are no sidewalks and the ground is uneven.
Winter in Nunavut begins in September when snow falls until June, and arctic blizzards are a common occurrence. Visitors should be prepared for cold temperatures and short days. On the shortest day in the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, the sun rises and sets within four hours. The further north you go, the shorter the winter days get. Communities north of the Arctic Circle don't see the sun at all for stretches at a time, although the sky may lighten a bit on the southern horizon at midday. In December, the capital sees an average temperature of -30 degrees Celsius. The low humidity in Nunavut helps reduce the impact of the cold, making a -20°C day feel more like -5°C in southern Canada. Winds, however, can cause frostbite, so it is wise to have a parka with fur around its hood for wintertime visits. Many communities in Nunavut have steady average winds of 15-20 kph (9-12 mph) daily. Some communities are notorious for occasional extreme winds that can gust to 100 kph (62 mph). The windchill factor is often more significant than the actual air temperature. It is important that you have warm clothing in winter, especially if you will be spending a lot of time outside – This should include a parka rated at least -40C, hat, gloves, and scarf.
To find the weather forecast for any community of Nunavut, check the Environment Canada website.