Sit yourself down on the ice road in Yellowknife Bay under a starry winter sky and ponder the fact that 2,000 kilometres of icy highways are plowed every winter to connect Canada's isolated communities for a precious few months. It's just one of the quintessentially northern experiences that I've loved during trips to the spunky capital of the Northwest Territories.
Sit yourself down on the ice road in Yellowknife Bay under a starry winter sky and ponder the fact that 2,000 kilometres of icy highways are plowed every winter to connect Canada’s isolated communities for a precious few months. It’s just one of the quintessentially northern experiences that I’ve loved during trips to the spunky capital of the Northwest Territories.
Hunting the aurora
They call them “aurora tourists.” They’re people who come from around the world — namely Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and China — to see the northern lights (a.k.a. the aurora borealis). You can chase the gorgeous green streaks in the sky from roughly September to April from the comfort of a fly-in lodge, by snowmobile, on foot, by car or at a temporary village complete with warming stations and meals. North Star Adventures took me on a mobile adventure in a van. We drove the back roads for hours, staring eagerly at the sky and tumbling out onto a frozen lake when the lights showed themselves. Yellowknife claims to be the best place in the world to view the aurora.
Hiking to ice caves
Rosie Strong, a heritage interpreter, took me on a winter hike that went from a mining heritage site to a remote cemetery to a magical ice cave in the forest. She offers packaged group tours — like Shopping in the Boreal Forest and Canadian Shield Sampler — as well as custom tours. Best of all, the Strong Intrpretation tours end with homemade, northern-themed snacks and forest-inspired tea.
Sure you can pop into Old Town Glassworks and just buy something if you’re in a rush. But you’re better off booking time for a two-hour workshop to create your own glassware from rescued and recycled bottles at this worker’s co-operative. First you pick a northern stencil by a local artist. Then you cut, polish, stencil and sand-blast your creation, with help, of course. Workshops are offered daily.
Giggling at street signs
While you’re in Old Town making your glass souvenir, don’t miss the city’s famous Ragged Ass Road. Legend has it drunken prospectors who were “ragged ass poor” created the catchy nickname and the city eventually agreed to use it. Now it’s possibly Canada’s most famous street and the homes on it are anything but ragged ass, but the sign is still fun. Yellowknife does its best to thwart sign thieves so stay out of trouble and find one of the shops that sells replicas.
Sometimes you can get lucky and randomly nab a table at Bullocks Bistro, but it’s much safer to make a reservation and avoid the inevitable lineup at this eclectic joint. Yellowknife’s favourite fish house offers deep-fried, pan-fried or grilled options. My go-to meal is deep-fried Great Slave cod, also known as burbot, but local whitefish and Arctic char are also great choices. Be sure to sign — and read — all of the walls, especially in the bathroom.
Fishing on Great Slave Lake
It’s no ordinary fishing trip. Third-generation fisherman Shawn Buckley of Great Slave Lake Tours takes people out on North America’s deepest lake and shows them how he sets nets and harvests fish (whitefish is the key catch). Even better, he serves fish-inspired appetizers and fish pan-fried in the tiny kitchen on his boat. In winter, Buckley leads ice-fishing trips, as does Greg Robertson of Bluefish Services, who took me out during the Long John Jamboree.
Counting polar bears
Bill Braden, who took gave me an insider’s view of his city with My Backyard Tours, planted the idea to count Yellowknife’s polar bears. I’ll share a few to help you get started. There’s taxidermied one poised to nail a seal at the airport luggage carousel, and there’s a polar bear hide rug at the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Now it’s up to you to seek out the others, but rest assured that live polar bears don’t actually stray this far south as they prefer to live near the ocean so they can hunt seals on the sea ice.
A castle made of snow and ice is ground zero for SnowKing’s Winter Festival every March on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife. It’s the brainchild of “SnowKing” Anthony Foliot (“Yellowknife’s reigning monarch”) who builds the palace with a loyal crew with an all-ages slide, ice bar, exhibition area and stage for a month of festivities. Meanwhile, the Long John Jamboree also happens over one three-day weekend in March. The year I went there were ice-carving contests, bush plane and helicopter rides, mini ice-fishing trips and a massive bonfire on the ice known as “Burn on the Bay.”
Obsessing over the temperature
It’s funny what organically becomes a tourist attraction. The YK Centre clock tracks Yellowknife’s temperature and appears in the backdrop of an untold number of tourist photos. So just how cold is it in Yellowknife? Honestly, most days it’s comparable to my home in Toronto, and this March was warm enough to cut the SnowKing Festival short. The big difference is that Yellowknifers dress for the weather and it can drop to minus 40C or so. Summers, though, are generally “room temperature” and once famously made it up to a record high of 39.4C.