When to go
Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) over Bear Lake, Alaska.
Best: March – November, for weather and wildlife migrations.
In Canada, October for polar bears, July-August for beluga whales, fur seals and birds.
Worst: November – March (dark, very cold and snow moves horizontally)
Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay in Arctic regions, not including flights or sail time : 4/5 days in any area where wildlife is active, bearing in mind that there are also indigenous cultures to appreciate in some areas.
Recommended: 1 week or more if you wish to see ice-oriented human cultures as well as wildlife.
Why go to the Arctic Circle?
Like the Antarctic, the Arctic it has a (small) range of strange and wonderful wildlife which manages to survive the extreme conditions, but unlike the Antarctic it also has peoples who do the same – in Greenland (Denmark), Canada, Norway, Sweden, Alaska (USA) and Russia. See Arctic Circle Map.
A cruise ship visiting Alaska. Photo by UNH edu.
• Seasickness: many tours will be via either a largish cruise ship or a specialist expeditionary vessel, but if you’re prone to motion sickness then you could have a problem, though most cruises spend a lot of time in fjords and inland seas where waves are not an issue.
• Cold: those with circulatory problems or a heart condition should take extra precautions against the cold though the summer weather can be mild, depending on the region. Frostbite is a real danger in the colder months and regions.
Best country for fans of dog sledding and also has the most diverse wildlife found above the arctic circle in the Arctic Refuge.
Anchorage Alaska, is homebase for the most famous dog sled race in the world, the Iditarod. Very much an urban setting (Anchorage is a sizeable city) but a good base for the start of a south Alaskan exploration.
The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge in the far north east has one of the most diverse habitats one could expect due to the close proximity of differing geographical features. It is also – of course – wild and protected. Caribou migrate North here from below the Brooks Range and the Yukon Territories in spring.
Dog sledding in Denali, Alaska, USA. Photo by Jacob W.
Best country for viewing wildlife, especially along its extensive coastlines.
Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the Hudson Bay is the best place to see Polar Bears from mid-October to mid-November and Beluga whales in July and August. It also has the best views in the world of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Polar Bears that wander into the town during the summer are locked up until the ice hardens so that locals and travellers can sleep soundly at night. At the last count there were more than 1, 500 polar bears living around Churchill. Get there by plane (one and a half hours) or train (thirty six hours) from Winnipeg.
Whale River in Quebec sees the largest Caribou herd migrations on the planet. Get there via Schefferville and travel into this wilderness region about one hundred and twenty miles north east. They migrate in September but unfortunately so do the hunters so avoid hunting season from mid-August to mid-October and get there first in spring.
Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, and Baffin Island are the best places to see whales, most of whom navigate to identical areas when migrating. The waters around Lancaster Sound, running between Baffin Island and the Perry Islands get the most activity.
Ellesmere Island is good for viewing Musk Oxen.
A young polar bear investigating a Tundra Buggy near Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.
Norway, Sweden, Finland:
Northern regions of these countries are home to the Sami people (Laplanders). The best time to visit is in March – April when snow is still abundant but temperatures are mild.
Kautokeino in Finland has a large Sami population and they hold the Sami Easter Festival here, one of the best times to visit.
Jukkasjaervi in Sweden has one of the most interesting hotels in the world made entirely of ice which stays solid from December to May each year. It has overnight accommodation including bedrooms made of ice and a bar where drinks are served on the rocks using glasses cut from the local river ice.
Hmm, snoozing on a tropical hammock on a powder sand beach or sleeping on a double mattress made of solid ice? Decisions, decisions.
The ‘Banished Dragon’ bedroom in Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel, Sweden.
• Cruises and shore visits, possibly even camping on ice, with close up viewing of wildlife.
• Sea Kayaking off some cruise ships or land base is a dramatic way to get quietly closer to nature.
Airborne sightseeing tours: particularly in Alaska and Canada where infrastructure and fuel prices make this practicable.
Cross Country Skiing and Trekking: this allows the more active traveller to see land based interest on foot.
Skiing and Snowboarding: in some regions.
Sledding: as above but for a more relaxed holiday let the huskies, reindeer or horses do the work.
Snorkelling: watch whales while immersed, but get into a drysuit first! (provided by your agent or ship). Ideal for Beluga viewing but perhaps less advisable amongst hunting packs of Killer Whales in case they mistake you for a tasty seal.
Aurora Borealis: view the Northern Lights.
The region covers several different countries but inhabitants are generally of Asian origin through migration. Once referred to simply as Eskimos the various groups are :
• The Aleut, Yuit and Inuit(‘Eskimos’) who inhabit Alaska, Northern Canada and coastal Greenland.
• The Saami (‘Laplanders’)who inhabit the most Northern parts of Scandinavia (particularly Finland).
• Russian groups including the Komi, Tungus, Yukaghir and Chukchi inhabit the northern most expanses of Russia including Siberia.