The Great Trail: Tuktoyaktuk
Winding across Canada from the Atlantic to Pacific to Arctic Oceans, The Great Trail is an ambitious, 15,000-mile (24,000-km) cross-country community effort to connect a vast expanse of diverse landscapes and cultures. Its series of wilderness, rural, and urban paths and waterways span the entire breadth of the world’s second largest country, offering walking, hiking, biking, and paddling routes for adventure seekers of all ages and enthusiasms.
We at Clif love the way The Great Trail promotes outdoor adventures and helps protect the places we play. So, in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, we funded a 150-kilometre (93.2-mile) stretch of The Great Trail. We’re looking forward to an ongoing relationship, raising awareness of this epic adventure opportunity, helping bring the trail to life, and inspiring people to get out there—whether it’s on a 10-day wilderness trek or a jog on a downtown footpath.
Caribou antlers adorn a cluster of small seaside clapboard and log houses. Women hang strips of fish, seal meat, and beluga blubber to dry on racks for the coming winter’s supplies. Sled dogs howl and rambunctious kids kick a soccer ball alongside wolf pelts and fish nets drying in the breezy sunshine.
Well north of the Arctic Circle, the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk (pop: 852) is the site of a colorful northern Mile Zero marker, a trailhead that marks the terminus of The Great Trail’s remote northern routes connecting this far-flung corner of Canada with the rest of the country. The far north is culturally, historically, and geographically very different from southern Canada.
Tuk perches at the northern reaches of the Northwest Territories on a low-lying peninsula jutting into the Arctic Ocean, an Inuvialuit community that largely follows a traditional Western Canadian Inuit lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and foraging. Its residents still share one of the North’s few remaining communal freezers carved out of permafrost 30 feet (10 m) underground, mostly for families’ sled dog food storage.
Alongside Tuk lies the vast, island-dotted labyrinth of the Mackenzie Delta where North America’s second largest and longest river system after the Mississippi empties into the Arctic Ocean.
In winter, when days are short or dark around-the-clock, the Mackenzie River’s frozen channels are crisscrossed by dogsleds and snowmobiles on 6-foot (2 m) thick ice. Locals snowshoe and cross-country ski across the river as multi-colored North Lights shimmer across the sky. A 110-mile (177-km) ice road is built over the delta to the mainland community of Inuvik, which is connected to Southern Canada via the 285-mile (460-km) gravel Dempster Highway, an overland spur of TGT from the Yukon Territory to Inuvik that is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. But the ice road will vanish with the completion in November 2017 of a landmark, all-season road across the permafrost from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
Usually, travelling between Victoria and the rest of Canada involves a 100-minute ride via BC Ferries. The ferry sector is officially part of the Trans-Canada Highway, and The Great Trail was set to follow the same route. That’s until Robert Holley and his colleagues at the non-profit BC Marine Trails Network came up with an alternative agenda for that motorized “hole” in The Great Trail.
They created a watery wilderness route perfect for paddling, complete with conveniently spaced campsites and provincial parks along the The Great Trail’s only saltwater stretch. Their recently launched Salish Sea Marine Trail is 160 miles (257 km) of island-hopping from Victoria to Vancouver, retracing the footsteps (or paddle strokes) of the local Coast Salish people who once paddled their canoes throughout these protected waters.
“It seemed obvious,” says Robert Holley, a BC Marine Trail board member and keen kayaker. “Both Vancouver and Victoria—BC’s two biggest cities—look out onto wilderness from their downtowns. And in between is perfect paddling terrain.”
Sheltered from the worst of Pacific storms by Vancouver Island, the Inside Passage separating “The Island” from BC’s coast is busy commercial and recreational fishing territory, particularly for salmon. Cruise ships ply to and from Alaska. Ferries service Northern BC islands and coastal indigenous communities without road access. Island residents and cottagers commute with small boats, and the region offers some of the world’s best sailing waters.
Both Vancouver and Victoria—BC’s two biggest cities—look out onto wilderness from their downtowns. And in between is perfect paddling terrain.
Having a spectacular sea trail through a unique and wild eco-system adds a jackpot of diversity to the transcontinental Great Trail, offering access and an up-close peek into some of BC’s 15,985 miles (25,725 km) of coastline where humpbacks breach; orcas travel in pods; grey whales, dolphins and clouds of seabirds feed in rich waters; and grizzly bears prowl rugged shorelines.
Starting from Victoria, it’s a lovely meander northward through fresh salty air, as you thread through a maze of lush and hilly Gulf Islands. Stock up on organic goodies at Saltspring Island’s lively Saturday farmer’s market. Hike up Pender Island’s Mt. Norman for dramatic sunset views. Grill a fresh salmon over a camp fire on a deserted sandy beach under the stars.
The two longer stretches of more open water you must cross to reach mainland BC’s Sunshine Coast notch the week-long crossing up into experienced kayaker territory. Yet shorter routes like the Victoria to Nanaimo section are perfect for intermediate paddlers. So is following the Sunshine Coast’s trail of beaches southward past Keats and Bowen Islands with Howe Sound’s wild, snow-capped Coast Mountain peaks announcing your arrival into vibrant Vancouver.
“You don’t need to paddle the entire Salish Sea route to be moved by its stunning, raw nature,” says Robert Holley. “The Great Trail is meant as an inspiration to get you out there, even if it’s just a short urban paddle around downtown Vancouver.”
Canada’s third biggest city is perched on the edge of wilderness and surrounded by the ocean, with mountains as a backdrop. It’s an active urban playground where outdoor-loving Vancouverites live, work, commute, and play on The Great Trail daily. Kids to pros walk, jog, and cycle the Seawall that encircles the 1,000-acre (405-hectare) temperate rainforest of Stanley Park, which lies smack in the center of downtown.
And now they’re heading up the Sea to Sky route, a spur of The Great Trail. Sure, there’s a speedy highway etched into the cliffs of Howe Sound, a network of dramatic fjords just northwest of the city.
But it’s so much more fun to savor sea breezes on the 24-mile (39-km) Sea to Sky Marine Trail, paddling to the outdoor activity-mecca of Squamish, then hiking, biking, or cross country skiing another 50 miles (80 km) north toward Whistler Mountain, another outdoor playground—and the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.