This blog post was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing and other COVID health and safety protocols were not in effect. The businesses and communities featured in this article may be once again welcoming visitors but please double check as some are only open with limited operations and others have not yet reopened.

I’m fascinated by Canada’s North with its wild, edge-of-danger beauty, and extreme weather. You need skills and strength to live there that I can only dream of possessing. Being a new-ish immigrant who’s still excited by the sight of snow; I have to confess that it’s a treat to even make a phone call to anyone up there because in my head I’m wondering: did they see the northern lights dance overhead last night? How deep is the snow there right now? Can they see reindeer from their desk!? I got to chat with Kylik Kisoun Taylor, owner/operator of Tundra North Tours, who probably got to experience ALL of those things in the past 24 hours. Currently working on building an ice village for Inuvik’s annual Sunrise Festival, he told me all about this cool cultural event, which is coming up in January—still plenty of time to make a booking to be part of the fun!

Kylik Kisoun Taylor prepping igloos. Photo credit: Weronika Murray

What’s it really like living without the sun for so long?
The sun goes down for a month straight in Inuvik, and when it comes back we celebrate! It’s cold and dark; there’s a very pale light, the snow reflects any little bit of light—especially from the moon— but most days, the sun doesn’t crest the horizon. There are days when you need a flashlight, but other days it’s like twilight for 24-hours. Some people aren’t affected by it at all—I just take multivitamins—but other people get S.A.D., so the festival is a big deal; it’s such a celebration when the sun comes back! We get 10-15 minutes extra every day, so after a week, we get an hour and so it goes on from the first week in January. It’s the start of the end of the winter.

What happens at the festival?
Last year about 400 people came to celebrate; it was crazy! The whole town comes down, and we make a huge fire with about 400 pallets to create a massive display of light, we have fireworks too. On the first evening, we hold a community feast and that’s when visitors can try local ‘country foods’ such as reindeer, muskox, bannock, and sometimes we have beluga whale if it’s available. We have a multi-cultural society too with members from as far afield as Jamaica and Pakistan, and they bring their foods to share too, it’s lots of fun.

For entertainment, we’ll have traditional drummers, dancers and jiggers. The tourists always love to see our drum dancing, in our local language every dance is a story: some will be about seal hunting, some about chopping wood, but the moves tell the story and they’re all part of the dance. It’s a traditional way of storytelling for us, there was no written language so it was all an oral tradition handed down. Storytelling, dance and song were important to keep our culture alive. Everyone has the opportunity to dance and learn a song, visitors can take part and show everyone their moves! It’s tonnes of fun!

In the day we have a big Arctic marketplace where locals come and sell art, food or anything they make themselves. You can buy beaver mitts, a hat or traditional art. We also have a community pancake breakfast where the town leaders come to cook and serve. Then we have a snowmobile parade, people dress them up and parade through town, it is hilarious!

After that everyone heads to the ice village, where there’s food for sale, and a snow carving contest to watch. There are lots for kids to do from sliding, and ice skating to climbing the snow castle.

What are you doing to prepare?
This year I will be building the ice village: I’ve built an igloo, and now I’m building snow sculptures and a castle for the kids, made of snow and ice. I’m cutting ice and stockpiling it; it takes around three weeks to build. It’s pretty big, we usually have two or three igloos, a few sliding houses, chairs, bars and benches made out of ice which we put lights in so it glows. Then we have to put tents up for people to have food and hot chocolate.

What else can visitors do when they’re up there?
We’re hoping to promote the festival as an event for visitors as well as locals. When they visit there’s plenty for them to do; we’ll head out on snowmobiles to visit the reindeer, build a fire and tell some traditional stories. At night time we’ll go to our aurora viewing area where people can help build an igloo, learn about our culture and sleep overnight in an igloo too. And now we have the new highway, we can take tours out to the Arctic Ocean! I’m building an ice village for Tundra North Tours too, with igloos, slides, and traditional tents.

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley is an award winning international travel writer, and food and wine journalist. Originally from the UK, Nikki fell in love with Canada after a visit to Newfoundland in 2008 and moved to Vancouver in 2012. Nikki has been criss-crossing Canada ever since, learning more about the land and its peoples, and sharing their stories around the world.