A World Away: The Northernmost Inhabited Place on Earth

(Image:  Flickr )

(Image: Flickr)

Alert, Nunavut, is the kind of place I used to look up on my laptop when I was supposed to be paying attention during class in college, the kind of place that is so unusual or awesomely difficult to get to that it presented a natural magnetic attraction for me.

Right up there with otherworldly destinations such as Wadi Rum, the Star Wars-esque Jordanian desert thirty miles outside the city of Aqaba, and Adamstown, the capital and only settlement on the Pitcairn Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — the former of which I've actually traveled to; the latter of which I can only dream of journeying to at this point — Alert is the northernmost permanently-inhabited place on Earth, sitting at the top of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian province of Nunavut.

Named after the HMS Alert, a British ship that wintered near the site in 1875-76, Alert is home to a Canadian Forces Station, an Environment Canada weather station, a Global Atmosphere Watch atmosphere monitoring observatory — all located within a single facility — and an airport, because flying there is definitely the only way you'd be able to make it.

That fact is true for every one of Nunavut's 25 isolated communities spread across the massive province that accounts for a fifth of Canada's 3.85 million square miles (it's the second largest country in the world by land mass, wouldn't you know, eh?). As Nunavut Tourism puts it: "It took thousands of years for the indigenous people of Nunavut to explore its vast expanses and there are still many corners of this beautiful territory that have never been visited by any human beings at all."

Alert is not one of those unexplored areas, however, as it has been home to the weather station located there since 1950, when Charles Hubbard started creating interest in the establishment of a network of Arctic information stations. Sadly, our good pal Chuck would die that same year after the Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber plane he was riding on crash-landed near Alert while making a supply drop.

Alert sits atop Ellesmere Island in the Canadian province of Nunavut, just 500 miles from the North Pole. (Image:  Wikimedia Commons )

Alert sits atop Ellesmere Island in the Canadian province of Nunavut, just 500 miles from the North Pole. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Aside from that fun fact — fun for everyone but Charles and the eight other crew members who died in that crash, I should say — one might also be interested to learn that Alert is plunged into total darkness for four months out of the year (with another four accounting for a 24-hour daylight period); that the daily mean temperature in the area's hottest month (July) is 38.1 degrees Fahrenheit, while the mean temperature in the coldest month (February) is -27.8 degrees; and that ice cave exploration is a popular pastime for military and civilian residents alike.

That last fact, along with quite a few others I have yet to share with you, I garnered from The Globe and Mail's John Allemang, who published a wonderfully-detailed article on his trip to Alert in May 2015, accompanied by marvelous illustrations from Tonia Cowan, who is now at The Wall Street Journal.

Among the other details Mr. Allemang and Ms. Cowan were able to elucidate for me with their write-up on Canadian Forces Station Alert? Well, let's see:

  • A detailed medical form must be filled out before traveling to Alert due to the fact that evacuation for health emergencies can take up to 18 to 36 hours or more

  • Supply transports carrying passengers and perishable food items arrive at the station on a weekly basis

  • Two months on/two months off comprises the typical schedule for civilian workers at the station

  • A "mess committee" organizes games and social activities and there are social clubs for residents, such as the coffee connoisseurs who often meet in the library

  • Alcohol cannot be brought to Alert or consumed in private quarters, but there is a bar on site that's open nightly

What with all these wonderful revelations about the world's northernmost permanently inhabited place being thrown in your face, I can just imagine you're all jazzed up to hop on a plane and get yourself to Alert — I know I am, anyway. But here is where I must drop the bad news bomb: civilian travel to this tiny community at the top of the world is practically impossible.

Why, you might ask? Well because the Canadian Armed Forces says so, that's why. Flights to Alert typically only leave from CAF bases further south, such as the one in Trenton, Ontario, that Allemang traveled from a couple years ago. Chartered flights, it seems, are also possible, but permission from the Canadian military is still required in that scenario and, from what I've read, you have to come up with a pretty darn good reason for needing to fly to the edge of the world.

All hope is not lost, however, because travel to the next best thing, the Inuit community of Grise Fiord on the southern end of Ellesmere Island, is available for anyone willing to make the trek.

A residential street in Grise Fiord (Image:  Wikimedia Commons )

A residential street in Grise Fiord (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Upon a cursory glance, unless you're already located in a Canadian city like Winnipeg, Edmonton, or Montréal, that trek will involve four flights: the first to one of the three aforementioned cities (or another Canadian locale that offers the next flight in this sentence); the second to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut; the third to Resolute, a community situated at the northern end of Resolute Bay and the Northwest Passage; and the fourth and final flight from there to Grise Fiord.

Grise Fiord's website has more detailed information, but you may just want to avoid the headache altogether and get a travel agent on this one — not to mention a heavy-duty winter coat; the average yearly temperature there is 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit. You'll probably also want to be rich because those flights are not cheap, my friend.

In the meantime, for those of you still fixated on Alert itself, as I am, maybe consider entering the Canadian Armed Forces?