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Speaking 'Northern Canadian'


    When you travel in the North, or read about the region, you may see some terms that you don't recognize. Most of us speak English, but parts of it may sound like a foreign language - here are some useful terms to add to your dictionary. To add more to the list, just drop me a note.


  • Alaskan husky - the "in" term for any dog that has some Siberian, Malamute or other double-coated spitz-type dog in its background. In the usual Northern useage, a dog bred specifically for sled racing. Not a recognized breed, and has no "breed standard."

  • Alcan - the Alaska Highway, which was built in 1942. A shortened version of "Alaska-Canada". This term is mostly used by American tourists - locals generally use the proper name, or just "The Highway".

  • ANWR - (pronounced "Ann-waar") the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (in Alaska), calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, which winters in the Yukon. A very controversial area, as it is also rich in oil and gas deposits.

  • Arctic - the region north of the Arctic Circle, which is at 66° 30' North Latitude. Capitalized as a noun, or lower-case as an adjective.

  • Arctic Islands - all the islands, large and small, off the northern coast of Canada.

  • bear paws - small round snowshoes, for use when only a little bit of support is needed. Used by many winter joggers.

  • break-up - the departure of the ice, which arrived at freeze-up.

  • cache - a storage shed built up on poles to keep food, furs and other valuable away from animals. A couple of feet of each pole is ringed with metal so that animals can't climb the poles.

  • Canol - a World War II project to get oil from Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse, then on to Alaskan military bases.

  • cheechako - a Yukon term, which originated during the Klondike gold rush. Designates someone new to the North, as opposed to sourdoughs.

  • dog driver - the common term for a musher.

  • duct tape - a heavy grey tape that has gained fame for fixing anything, from holding a broken windshield in your truck to sealing packages.

  • freeze-up - the arrival of ice, which leaves in various ways at break-up.

  • glacier - an icefield that moves.

  • hoar frost - a white, feathery, crystalline formation that covers trees, cars and just about everything else, sometimes for months at a time. Technically, formed by sublimation, by water vapour which changes directly into ice without going through the water stage first.

  • Husky - any dog that has some Siberian, Malamute or other double-coated spitz-type dog in its background. Can be capitalized or not.

  • ice bridge - a road that crosses a river on the ice. Often artificially strengthened by pumping water onto it. The current weight limits of each ice bridge on the highway system are a regular part of road reports in the Canadian Territories.

  • ice edge - where the sea ice meets open water in the spring. The most productive part of the Arctic in terms of life, and a polar bear's favourite hunting location.

  • icefield - a sheet of ice, normally in the mountains, that never melts. If it moves, it's a glacier.

  • ice fog - Fog that forms in clear air at about minus 45° C., but when pollutants are in the air can be several degrees warmer. To see a large photo of ice fog in Whitehorse at minus 42° C., click here.

  • ice road - a road that generally runs down a river or across the sea on the ice. The longest one in common use runs from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk. Not the same as a winter road.

  • Inuit - the cultural family of the Arctic formerly known by the term "Eskimo".

  • Inuktitut - the language of the Inuit.

  • Kabloona - the term used by Inuit for white people. Not considered complimentary, but similar to cheechako.

  • Klondike - the Yukon goldfields which are comprised of the creeks that flow from King Solomon's Dome, south of Dawson City.

  • loon shit - not all our terms are "politically correct" - this colourful one denotes mud that is so slimy that it reduces vehicle traction to near-zero.

  • mall - 8 stores under one roof!

  • mickey - a rather flat, slightly curved 12-ounce bottle of booze. Easy to tuck into your parka so it doesn't freeze.

  • mushing - driving a sled dog team.

  • the North - capitalized as a noun, lower-case as an adjective. For the boundaries of the North, see next listing.

  • Northern Canada - now there's a controversial subject! See this discussion by a group of historians.

  • Outside - pretty much anywhere south of 60° - north of 60, though, is not Inside. Always capitalized.

  • overflow - water flowing over the top of river ice. A very dangerous condition to be mushing through.

  • parka - a bulky jacket built for the cold. It has been said that the term "fashionable parka" is an oxymoron.

  • permafrost - permanently frozen ground.

  • The Quest - the Yukon Quest, an annual 1,000-mile sled dog race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Advertised as "The Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World", and I've never heard that questioned - far tougher than the more famous Iditarod in Alaska. See the Quest's Web site here.

  • rat - muskrat

  • ratting - trapping muskrats.

  • sled - depending on who's using it, either a dog sled or a snowmobile.

  • snowbird - someone who leaves for the winter, migrating to milder climes. Not often used in the Territories, where most people are permanent residents, but common in Alaska - in September, the Alaska Highway looks pretty much like a one-way street!

  • snowmobile - a machine driven by a flexible belt, specifically designed for traveling across snow. Pretty much replaced dog sleds when the technology advanced dramatically in the 1960s. See lots more snowmobile information here.

  • sourdough - the exact definition varies, but someone who has been in the North for a while (at least one winter).

  • sun dogs - bright glowing spots on either side of the sun in the winter. The scientific term is parhelia, usually called sun dogs, mock suns or subsuns. See a photo and more information here.

  • taiga - the northern edge of the coniferous forests of the circumpolar world. Characterized by small, widely-spaced trees, notably black spruce.

  • traffic jam - 5 pickups waiting to get onto the Alaska Highway from a side road.

  • tundra - the rolling, treeless, often very wet plains of the Arctic.

  • village dogs - any mutt running loose. Called Alaskan Huskies when someone wants to sell one.

  • whiteout - an extremely dangerous condition for Arctic pilots in particular, in which the clouds and snowy ground blend into a single white blanket. Sometimes used for ground blizzard or blowing snow conditions which reduce visibility to near-zero.

  • winter road - a road which is only useable during the winter, usually because the ground is too soft once it thaws. Common in the resource extraction industries in the North. Not the same as an ice road.

  • the Yukon - despite efforts by some people (mostly temporary Yukon residents from Outside) to eliminate the "the", this is still the most common way to use the name.

  • Yukoner - a resident of the Yukon Territory.