Oil is the lifeblood of Norman Wells (population 800), which lies along the Mackenzie River halfway between Fort Simpson  and Inuvik . Unlike other settlements along the Mackenzie River, Norman Wells did not originate as a trading post but owes its existence to oil. Imperial Oil produces 10 million barrels annually from field tapped by over 150 wells (the company’s largest source of conventional crude oil), shipping to market by pipeline.
The infrastructure is unique in that it comprises man-made islands in the middle of the Mackenzie River, directly offshore from town, allowing oil extraction to continue throughout breakup and freeze-up of the river.
The center of town, a 20-minute walk from the airport, is a semicircle of semipermanent buildings around a dusty parking lot. Here you’ll find the Yamouri Inn (867/587-2744, $130 s, $140 d), which has rooms, a dimly lit cocktail lounge, a coffee shop, and a restaurant.
Closer to the airport is the Mackenzie Valley Hotel (867/587-2511, www.mackenzievalleyhotel.com , $130 s, $160 d). The 34 rooms are cheerfully painted and each comes with a TV and phone.
Norman Wells has an impressive three-story airport complete with an observation deck and revolving baggage claim—not bad for a town of 800 people. It is a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) walk into town. North-Wright Airways (867/587-2333, www.north-wrightairways.com ) has daily flights from Yellowknife  to Norman Wells, as well as from Norman Wells to all Mackenzie River communities.