End of the road

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

It’s a lonely, loud propeller plane ride from southern Canada up to Yellowknife. The cities disappear, the Rockies, the roads, the farms and plains of Alberta, and then… no signs of civilisation. You see the familiar Canadian Shield out of the window: bedrock, bogs, short trees, and a million lakes. Like a random map generator, it’s endless permutations of taiga (or boreal forest if you prefer). Then all of a sudden, Yellowknife.

Despite being so far west, in terms of travelling east, Yellowknife is basically it. It’s the easternmost territorial city connected by road to the rest of Canada. (Never mind the fact that across Canada’s three territories, only their capitals are cities, and they’re all pretty small! Yellowknife’s just under 20,000 people, containing roughly half of NWT’s population.) Other tiny settlements east are accessible by ice road in the winter, but the summer? Good luck with that.

So let’s stock up and head east! Wait, whaa?

On this trip with my friend Alex, we rented a car and drove into town to grab some food for the road. The new downtown isn’t much to write home about, but it’s a quick way to glimpse how Yellowknife runs. Big rigs. Functional but not particularly pretty buildings, made to withstand the weather. Same old creature comforts as the rest of the country, maybe with a little price premium. A population very eager to inform you and inform you again and again when briefly heading the wrong way down a one-way. A surprisingly diverse population, at that.

Aaaand then we drove, as far as we could. The Ingraham Trail leads out of Yellowknife, mostly paved, and ends abruptly 70 km later at Tibbitt Lake. If you want to go any further, you need either a boat, a plane, or an ice road.

Hey, if you want to drive on an ice road in summer, be my guest

But it’s here and now that you see the true character of Yellowknifers: freed at last from the cold winter replete with long hours of darkness, it’s now 25°C out, there’s 24 hour sunlight (the sun dips below the horizon for 4 hours), and everybody’s outside enjoying nature. And with views like this, who can blame them? Pick a lake, any lake. Hike anywhere. Come in an RV if you want. Build your house in the middle of nowhere. Head down that unmarked, unpaved road, maybe with that ATV. Bring your motorboat, maybe some waterskis. Go on that epic canoe or kayak trip — the road may end but with all these rivers and lakes, you could probably paddle up to the Arctic Ocean if you really know what you’re doing. Don’t forget the fishing rods! And why stop for the evening?

Yes, their license plate is a polar bear!

Out of supplies or gear? Don’t have any, like us? Oh, well I guess it’s back to Yellowknife then! We greatly enjoyed our time out there — hiking to Cameron River Falls, even commencing a hot beach day at 7:30pm, with the sun feeling more like 3pm back home, and taking a dip in freezing-cold Prelude Lake — but could only imagine the possibilities if we had access to the right gear and more time.

With a rental car for a second day though, we headed west of Yellowknife instead, on the road “connecting” to the rest of Canada. Well, with the mileage limits and time we had, we certainly weren’t driving to Alberta! We settled for driving west up to the Tłı̨chǫ (one of several Dene First Nations groups in the area) community of Behchokǫ̀ and a bit further in hopes of spotting some wild bison. (We didn’t, maybe if we had gone a few hundred kilometres further…)

The road is long and empty, and beyond a few odd houses and teepees by the roadside, there’s no actual points of interest. Even in the town of Behchokǫ̀, scenic as it is on the edge of the Great Slave Lake, the friendly locals admit as much — they pointed us to a town-wide garage sale, which would’ve been fun if we didn’t hide in the car away from the swarms of mosquitoes out in mid-June. The town’s visitor centre is torn down, and though there’s a strong local tradition of craftwork, it takes place in private homes. And of course, long gone are any traces of the North West Company (competitor to Hudson’s Bay Company/HBC before they merged), who began the settlement as one of many trading posts with the fur-selling First Nations. (On a side note, the two companies used to govern vast swaths of North America and were the largest landowners in world history! They ceded their land to Canada together as the Northwest Territories… in 1870, they pretty much were Canada.)

Oddly enough for a town with a population of 2000 though, we saw no signs of economic activity, maybe except for one hotel, the gas bar, and the corner store. The answer likely lies in what we passed several of on the roads: mines. The abundance of precious minerals has led Yellowknife and its North Slave Lake surrounds to supported dozens of mines over the decades, including gold, rare-earth metals used for electronics, jade for the Chinese market, and diamonds, its current largest export.

While the biggest source of employment, it’s also been a big headache in several regards. Giant Mine (gold), located just by Yellowknife city limits, had a labour dispute in 1992 that led to a deliberate bombing that killed nine people in the mine. The environment’s taken a big toll too, with effects lingering long after its 2004 shutdown: asbestos remains in the now-closed mine village, and arsenic has contaminated the air, grounds, and water of the nearby Yellowknives Dene First Nation (from which the city gets its name), poisoning people for over 50 years. It continues to stay in the news, even in a newspaper I picked up, and continues to concern the drinking water supply. That’s all issues from just one mine — there’s a bunch of other closed ones all over the Ingraham Trail, barely fenced off, dubiously left to rot. We’ll see how the current mines go: they’re internationally touted as a labour-ethical source of diamonds.

On the other hand, mining’s what made Yellowknife in the first place, attracting people in a post-Great Depression rush from all over Canada and further afield. More people flooded in to address the needs of those in mining, bringing with it a wider range of occupations and growing the city. And what a city it’s become! It may be small, but there’s a healthy visible minority population: city hall was flying the flag of the Philippines during our visit, our Airbnb hosts for our two visits were from Russia and the Bahamas, and a cursory glance through Couchsurfing matches the eclectic mix of people. They came for the work, liked the small town vibe, and stuck around. Never mind the winter darkness and cold, they’ve got the aurora. (The burgeoning local tourist industry certainly won’t let you forget that.)

And while it’s hard to say that Yellowknife has made a significant cultural impact on the rest of Canada, it’s certainly got a strong personality to match its beautiful landscape. The outdoors isn’t just something people go to out of town, it’s something the city fully embraces. Small lakes, parks, and trails pepper the city, but nothing compares to the enormous Great Slave Lake (North America’s deepest), which plenty of residents live on by way of colourful houseboats, some flying flags of provinces and regions across Canada. Seaplanes, motorboats, and barges zip around; we chose to canoe for a few hours, docking ourselves at a cafe for a beer break.

What the new downtown lacks in character, the old town makes up for in spades: from quirky old homes to interesting architecture, it’s all visible from the hilltop Bush Pilots Monument, but better experienced while meandering. Funny who and what you find at the edge of mass civilisation. Let’s just say people collect weird things…

The old town, all several blocks of it, is home to a lot more! The summer festival season brings outside the good music. While we weren’t able to see much of it, being in town on two Sundays when galleries and most businesses were closed, there’s good art. Restaurants both old and new offer local char and bison and just good food. And of course, Yellowknife also has the northernmost brewery in Canada: good brew — ohhhh what I wouldn’t give for another one of their amazing white ale, which they really oughta bring south someday!

Good vibes. Proud, local vibes.

Just avoid mosquito and fly season.

Leave a Reply