Want a real winter this year? Head north to Alaska for polar bears, husky-sledding and glorious, ice-bound wilderness
There are few experiences that compare to the intense sense of peace you feel when travelling with a team of huskies along a wilderness trail, silent except for the sound of paws on snow. Or to the wonder inspired by the extraordinary blue that emanates from an iceberg. Or by the sight of a female polar bear romping with her cubs.
OK, so winter in the Arctic is cold. But if you wear the rightclothing, it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as most people think. Even when the mercury has dived like an Arctic loon with a fish in its sights, the northern air is dry; the cold doesn’t penetrate like it does in the damper south.
And the Arctic winter is well worth wrapping up for. This is an enchanting world, where glittering hoar frost clings to the trees, and where reindeer and wolves outnumber human populations. Long twilights are tinged with pink, purple and blue, and the ice glows golden at noon. On clear nights, the northern lights weave and tumble in shades of jade against black, starry skies.
Yes, the Arctic winter is bitter, dark and dangerous – small mistakes can kill – but dress properly and travel wisely, and it delivers experiences that nowhere else can match.
Dog-sledding trips are like bits of string: you can cut them as long or as short as you like. But to really appreciate the experience you need to bond with your dogs, to learn each of their names and personality quirks, and even to come to love them a little. And for that you need time.
For the relatively hardy, nothing beats a multi-day dog-sledding and camping trip, during which you drive and care for your own team under the supervision of an experienced guide. As the days progress and your skills improve, you’ll notice that your dogs – who can scent a novice at 100 paces and then behave like a class of six-year-olds with a supply teacher – respond more keenly to your commands. It’s also worth making the effort to participate in the more workaday aspects of dog-sledding, such as feeding and learning to fit harnesses. The dogs work better for people they know.
Winter camping can be arduous, and different operators approach it in different ways. Some run only on certain trails, where they have heated tents and cabins set up for the whole season. This makes life easier for the client but means you have less flexibility in your route. Even with the tent ready pitched, though, winter travel with dogs is hard work. Just to melt enough snow for water for a group of dogs and humans takes hours each day.
Your choice of destination is important as the dogs are bred differently in different parts of the world. Greenlandic and other coastal Inuit dogs tend to be more traditionally raised: they are generally less affectionate than those in North America and Scandinavia.
For an authentic, well-run dog-sledding experience north of the Arctic Circle, it’s hard to beat Kiruna in Sweden – the home of the well-known Ice Hotel. Trips range from overnight tours to week-long expeditions through the surrounding mountains, sleeping in cabins and caring for your dog team.
Ultimate alternatives... on the other side of the Atlantic, Canada’s Yukon is prime husky territory. Most operators are based in Whitehorse, south of the Arctic Circle, but run camping trips to the far north. Further west, a great place to experience hardcore dog-sledding while sleeping in warm, soft beds is Winterlake Lodge in Alaska. The owner, Carl Dixon, keeps his own dog team, which guests can drive on short outings.
Around 80% of Greenland is covered by inland ice, which stretches 2,400km from north to south – that’s equivalent to the distance between London and Athens. If you have a few weeks to spare and you’re feeling robust, you could ski or snowmobile across the ice cap (its width is considerably shorter than its length). Otherwise, it’s easy to drive there for a stroll. The most convenient access point is Kangerlussuaq, the former American military base at which all international flights arrive. The journey to the ice cap takes about two hours, and you stand a good chance of spotting muskoxen, Arctic fox and reindeer en route.
Greenland’s most dramatic icebergs are further north, most easily seen from Ilulissat (meaning ‘icebergs’ in Greenlandic), which sits at the mouth of a fjord filled with vibrant-blue bergs that break off from the fastest-moving glacier in the northern hemisphere. If Ilulissat isn’t remote enough, take another flight and a helicopter ride north to Uummannaq, which also has excellent opportunities for spotting fin, minke, humpback and killer whales during the summer months.
The aurora borealis is best observed near the magnetic North Pole (not the same as the geographic pole; indeed, the best places for seeing the northern lights are not in the very far north). The lights are seen most often, and with the greatest intensity, in the areas within the auroral oval, which changes in position as the earth rotates, and in shape and size according to the level of solar activity.
You’ll get a better view away from city lights, though displays can still be seen from built-up areas. The best times of year are around the equinox – either September or March. The sky needs to be dark (there’s no aurora-viewing during an Arctic summer) and free from cloud.
For adventurous travellers, one of the best places to see the northern lights is the tiny village of Wiseman, Alaska: population 13. It’s just off the Dalton Highway, the haul road that leads from Fairbanks to the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay.
There are two accommodation options, both with electricity and running water: Boreal Lodge opens its comfy four-room cabin to winter visitors, while Arctic Getaway has three cabins open year round. The drive to Wiseman takes the best part of a day from Fairbanks; the Northern Alaska Tour Company operates multi-day tours to Wiseman and the nearby trucking stop, Coldfoot Camp.
Ultimate alternatives... other good places for viewing the northern lights are Tromsø in Norway, Svalbard (where rare daytime auroras can sometimes be seen), and Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. For the really keen, Canada’s Churchill Northern Studies Centre runs northern lights courses.
The people of Nunavut invite visitors to share experiences that go way beyond the regular tourist cultural shows. Many operators and guides in Nunavut are Inuit: travel to Pangnirtung on Baffin Island and local guides will teach you how to build an igloo. Elsewhere, Ellesmere Island is home to Quttinirpaaq, Canada’s most northerly national park, where Inuit and Thule sites date back 4,000 years and Peary caribou, Arctic hares and muskoxen roam. Also on Ellesmere Island is Canada’s most northerly town, Grise Fiord (population: 141).
Each April, Nunavut’s largest town, Iqaluit, celebrates spring with Toonik Tyme – expect seal-hunting, igloo-building, traditional outdoor games, throat-singing workshops, seal-skinning contests, ice-sculpture competitions and dogsled races. You can fly to Iqaluit via Toronto or Ottawa.
Ultimate alternatives... the Chukchi reindeer herders of Siberia maintain nomadic traditions, living in skin tents, dressing in reindeer skins and subsisting on reindeer meat. Reindeer numbers plummeted following the collapse of the Soviet Union but are slowly recovering. Adventurous tour operators offer trips to visit them; flights depart from Moscow to Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka.
The Greenlandic Inuit are one of the groups maintaining traditions while embracing the modern era. Even those in the capital, Nuuk, take pride in offering guests food they have hunted or fished themselves; local markets and restaurants offer seal and whale meat.
You won’t find a more remote spot for viewing polar bears than Russia’s Wrangel Island (Vrangelya). Sometimes called the ‘polar bear maternity ward’ due to its high concentration of dens, this island nature reserve lies off the north coast of Chukotka, in Siberia’s far north-east.
Wrangel Island’s weather can be seriously inhospitable. Few visitors go there, and most who do arrive in the summer on Arctic icebreakers. The lucky ones see female polar bears romping with their cubs, but even if the bears don’t come out to play you should see Pacific walrus – around 100,000 of them spend the summer around Wrangel, constituting the largest concentration of these creatures in the world. Wrangel is also a nesting area for more than a hundred species of migratory seabirds, including snow geese.
Ultimate alternatives... the Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is the largest island, is home to thousands of polar bears. Again, most people visit on summer cruise ships. For those who don’t like the idea of cruising, polar bear enthusiasts beat a well-trodden path each October and November to Churchill, Canada, where the bears congregate on the shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice to form so they can travel north.
More offbeat and still not requiring a cruise, the second-best place in North America to see polar bears is reckoned to be Kaktovik, a remote village on the coast of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by air from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Scandinavians must feel smug in winter, as they relax in warm wood cabins with saunas having enjoyed a day of glorious solitude on the ski trails, knowing the Alps are crowded and snow-poor. In Arctic Scandinavia the snow is reliable, the trails are silent and, in parts of Lapland, the season extends into May so you can ski beneath the midnight sun. There’s downhill skiing, too, for those who must.
Finland has tens of thousands of kilometres of marked, maintained trails. Ylläs (accessible by flights to Kittilä, via Helsinki) is one of its most popular resorts, with 330km of cross-country trails, and downhill options, too. You can ski there from October till May; the light is better from February onwards but if you choose to ski in the dark months of December and January, 38km of trail are illuminated.
Ultimate alternatives... for real escape, ski multi-day from cabin to cabin. Sweden’s Kungsleden (King’s Trail) is a good choice, running for 425km from Abisko, near Kiruna. It takes a week for the very fit. It has outstanding views of snowy peaks and frozen waterfalls, and you sleep in cabins dotted along the way.
A hop, skip and reindeer pee through Finland's winter activities | Destinations... More