The real wild wild Northwest

Never again will I make fun of ill-informed foreigners who visit Canada in summer expecting to ski in Toronto or dogsled through downtown Montreal. I was just as dumb when I headed up to Yellowknife for a four-day solo trip last June, laden with a woolly hat, warm mitts and hiking boots for braving the frozen Arctic tundra. I should have packed tank tops and sunscreen.

Sure, Yellowknife is north of 60 and is officially the city with the coldest winters in Canada; minus 40 is not unusual here in January. But Yellowknife is also the city with the sunniest spring and summer in the entire country. During my visit in the second week of June, temperatures topped 18 C every day, and the warm sun blazed out of the bluest sky with an intensity and clarity that kept me out walking the bright city streets until sunset, which was after 11:30 p.m. And as for Arctic tundra – well, I didn’t see any, unless it was hiding under all the birches, poplars, spruce trees and sparkling lakes in and around the city.

The vast majority of Canadians have never been to Yellowknife, which is a shame. But that may be about to change. The area is rapidly becing a hot destination for people from around the world who are attracted by the booming economy fuelled by two diamond mines, the still-unspoiled natural scenery and the spectacular fishing, hunting and boating opportunities. Situated at the “end of the road” – it’s the most northerly stop on the Mackenzie Highway, a 1,500-kilometre drive from Edmonton, although there’s also an airport that sees 300,000 passengers annually – Yellowknife tends to draw people who enjoy the giddy sensation of being on the edge of the world. It’s kind of like the Key West of the North.

While southerners may boast of the multiculturalism of Toronto or Vancouver, the diversity of Yellowknife is astonishing. Not only does this frontier city have 11 official languages, including nine native tongues, but it’s home to people from more than 100 countries. I met cab drivers from Morocco and Somalia, waitresses from Germany and Vietnam, and long-time residents originally from Scotland, Australia and Manhattan. Depending on the time of year, you could encounter Aboriginal Day with traditional storytelling and feasting, a Ukrainian New Year’s celebration, a Robbie Burns dinner and dance, or an evening of flamenco guitar by a Spanish virtuoso.

Yellowknife is not only the capital city of Northwest Territories, it’s the only city. Most of the other 30-plus communities are hamlets, largely fly-in only, with populations in the hundreds. Even with 19,000 people, Yellowknife is really only the size of a small town, although it may have grander ambitions. The street names – 50th Ave., 48th St. – suggest a large metropolis, but if you look closer, you’ll see that the numbering doesn’t start much before 40 and ends at 57.

As the capital, Yellowknife has amenities that any big city would envy. There’s the fascinating (and free of charge) Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, whose exhibits, including a genuine moosehide boat and an old Fox Moth bush plane, appeal even to non-museum people like me. The beautiful Legislative Assembly, designed like a traditional snowhouse with a circular council chamber, highlights the North’s consensus style of government. No political parties here – every MLA is elected as an independent. When you see the polar bear rug on the floor of the legislature, from an animal shot by an MLA who was protecting his community, you know you’re not in the south anymore.

New Town, which houses the downtown core, is an uninspiring grid of offices, frame bungalows and the notorious Gold Range Hotel, where noontime drunks are now giving way to young crack addicts. It’s a bit of a rough area – I saw a store clerk wrestle a suspected shoplifter to the ground, although locals assured me that was a rare occurrence.

Much more charming is Old Town, a rocky spit sporting an eclectic hodgepodge of homes, some the original buildings of gold prospectors from the Dirty ’30s. Ragged Ass Road really exists, as does the House of Horrors, a boarded-up shack that was once a gambling den and brothel. But long before the prospectors, there were the Dene, who have lived in the North for thousands of years. Adjacent to Old Town is the Dene community of N’Dilo, where front yards often sport a ceremonial tepee. Today, native people make up one-quarter of the city’s population.

By climbing the stairway up Pilot’s Monument, I had a panoramic view of Great Slave Lake, the ninth largest lake in the world, and watched, enthralled, as float planes continually took off and landed just below me. I also saw a scarlet macaw flying around – a resident’s pet. It seemed out of place, but then, my bed and breakfast, Embleton House, had an African gray parrot with a vocabulary of 150 words, most of them Japanese. Tourists from Japan flock to Yellowknife in fall, winter and spring, when the Northern Lights are visible. There’s a belief that a child conceived under the Aurora Borealis will be exceptionally bright — which, my B&B owner said wryly, should mean that all her children are geniuses.

The Wildcat Café, a historic log building from 1937, operates only during the warm months. I was seated at a picnic table among strangers – which, up here, really means friends you haven’t met yet. They persuaded me to try the marinated caribou salad, which was surprisingly delicious. I happened to be there on a Friday, which was Jam Night. Half a dozen amateur musicians – doctors, nurses and teachers by day – rocked the place with their impromptu combination of trumpet, guitars and bongos.

On my last day, I rented a car and headed out the Ingraham Trail into the countryside toward the Cameron River Falls Territorial Park. Expecting visitor information centres and guide maps, this city girl was a little disconcerted to find that 50 kilometres out of town, as I pulled into the empty parking lot, I was the sole person in that huge park. Checking that my cellphone would still work out here in an emergency (it did), I set out to find the falls. Orienteering is not my thing, but I followed my instincts and my ears and eventually came upon the lovely waterfall. As there was no one around to photograph me, I took my own picture.

On the outside, I may have been a tourist with a modern digital camera. But on the inside, I was an old-time frontiers-woman.

For more information on Yellowknife, go to