When traffic grinds to a halt in the Northwest Territories, don’t blame congestion or roadwork. Usually, wildlife has overtaken the highway. But motorists barely notice the hold-up: their minds are reeling in awe. Indeed, here in the Far North, animals commonly saunter down the centerline, unbothered by the schedules of humankind. After all, it is they, not us, who are in control here.
It’s likely that your Northern roadtrip will be stalled at least once – by barricade of bison, or a brook of curious bear cubs, or a vast herd of caribou heading nowhere fast.
Travel with your camera on the dash and you’re nearly certain to capture unforgettable images of these wild fellow travellers.
Here’s what to look for, where and when:
What: Up to six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing close to one ton, the wood bison of the Northwest Territories are the biggest land animals in North America, dwarfing their lighter-coloured cousins on the Great Plains. They thrive on sedges, grasses and other vegetation.
When: Bison are a very common sight year-round. During summer they are especially likely to gather on highway corridors, as the wind keeps the bugs at bay.
What: Sometimes topping six feet at the shoulder and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, moose are kings of the deer family. Male moose typically sport a sprawling set of antlers. In summer they feast on pond weeds and waterlilies; in winter they switch to nibbling trees.
Where: Moose are nearly ubiquitous in the mainland Northwest Territories, but as lonesome wanderers, there's no telling when or where you'll see one. To increase your chances, head for the Liard Highway or up into the Mackenzie Mountains.
When: Year-round, but especially in autumn, when males are in rut and thus less shy than normal.
What: With a long snout, a prominent hump and a ruff around their muscular necks, grizzly bears are a familiar predator in the Northwest Territories. They can tip the scales at 450 pounds. They're omnivores, eating everything from roots to muskoxen.
Where: Grizzly bears are common both in the mountains and the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories. The likeliest place for a visitor to see one is along the Dempster Highway, where they patrol the open alpine country in search of food.
When: Late spring, summer, fall.
What: The tigers of the northern woods, lynx are eerie, stately and distinctive, with big paws, gangly legs, ear-tufts and a weight of up to 25 pounds. They prowl the boreal forests preying on snowshoe hares.
What: The great white lord of the Arctic, polar bears are right at home in the Northwest Territories. They are solitary wanderers, weighing 1,000 pounds or more and standing 10 feet tall. Seals are the staple of their diet.
Where: Polar bears are found all along the Arctic coast and throughout the High Arctic islands. There's a small chance of seeing one on the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
When: Summer, early fall. The rest of the year, polar bears are where they'd rather be: way out on the sea-ice.
What: These bright-white, nimble mountain sheep typically weigh between 130 and 200 pounds, with both sexes sporting amber-coloured, curling horns. Lichen, mosses and grasses make up their diet.
Where: Dall's Sheep are true alpinists – meaning that, to spot them, you have to head for the hills. Motorists can glimpse them by driving into the Northwest Territories from the Yukon, on the Tungsten, South Canol or Dempster Highway.
What: As tall as a man's chest and weighing up to 700 pounds, these sheep-like ungulates are leftovers from the Ice Age. They sport an underlayer of extremely warm wool, covered by a shaggy mane of dark-brown hair. They thrive on a diet that includes willows, rushes and crowberries.
Where: The majority of the world's muskoxen live on Banks Island, in the High Arctic. Very rarely, the beasts pop up in other regions of the Northwest Territories, including on the Sahtu Winter Road and near Yellowknife and Fort Smith.
What: A domesticated version of caribou, reindeer share their wild cousins' lanky proportions and splayed, snowshoe-like hooves. They're typically white, tan and brown, and both sexes have antlers.
Where: Canada's largest reindeer herd, 3,000 animals strong, roams the tundra of the Mackenzie Delta.
When: In spring, usually coinciding with Inuvik's Muskrat Jamboree, the reindeer are driven to their calving grounds on the Arctic coast. Hundreds of spectators gather to watch them cross the winter ice-road north of town.
What: Creatures of myth and mystery, wolves abound in the Northwest Territories. Looking like long-legged husky dogs, they range in colour from ghostly white to jet-black and can weigh up to 100 pounds. They thrive in packs, subsisting on caribou, muskox and moose.
Where: Motorists could spot wolves along any of the Northwest Territories' highways, but they are perhaps most common up north, along the Dempster Highway, and down south, near Wood Buffalo National Park.
What: The smallest and most common of the Northwest Territories' bear species, black bears can weigh up to 400 pounds and measure one metre high at the shoulder. They typically forage on plants, eggs, berries and carrion.
Where: Along any of the forested highways of the Northwest Territories – Highways 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
When: In spring, black bears seem to flood the roadsides; this writer once spotted more than two dozen during a single day's drive.
What: Weighing up to 300 pounds and standing more than a metre tall at the shoulder, caribou have traditionally been the most abundant ungulates in the Northwest Territories, and the most coveted human food-source to boot. They have long legs and broad-hooves – ideal for floating over the snow – and primarily graze on lichen.
Where: Woodland caribou thrive in low densities throughout the forests of the Northwest Territories. You stand a better chance of seeing Barrenground caribou, which form great herds. Look for them along the Dempster Highway, Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, and the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto Ice Road northeast of Yellowknife.
When: Year-round on the Inuvik-to-Tuk Highway; autumn on the Dempster Highway; winter and spring on the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto Road.
What: You might be inclined to believe these charming little balls of feather aren't very bright, but you'd be overlooking the fact that they are true masters of disguise. In summer they blend in seamlessly with tundra or underbrush, and in winter they can be mistaken for fluffy lumps of snow. Until you almost step on them, of course.
Where: All throughout the Northwest Territories, most often seen flying low in flocks across roads in winter.
When: Year-round, although they tend to be more elusive in summer, preferring to breed in the northern parts of the territory.
Further information on the Northwest Territories can be found at www.spectacularnwt.com.