72 hrs in Yellowknife
Things to do and things to see in Yellowknife, NWT
The north. The endless miles of tundra and taiga, the vast stretches of unknown and uninhabited wilderness, the small scattered communities flung across an immense and icy emptiness. This idea of north is something that defines us as Canadians, gives shape and promise to our identity. In many ways the boundless wilds act as a kind of blank slate, permitting us to pin our own individual meanings onto it, something to be dreamt about, to hear harrowing stories about. But few Canadians ever actually travel up north, and fewer still come to know it.
This past September we travelled to the Northwest Territories with Far & Wide, a cross-Canada travel series produced by Much and Explore Canada. Setting up in the subarctic city of Yellowknife, we went on a canoe picnic, fished for giant northern pike, sampled some local brews, and stood in awe under the aurora borealis. All in all a pretty good 3 days.
DAY 1: CAMERON FALLS
Staying in a hotel near the downtown centre, our first foray was to check out Pilot's Hill, a little rocky outcropping overlooking the old town. After a quick climb up we were greeted to views of Houseboat Bay, bush planes and boats, and the scenic spread of Yellowknife nestled against the shore of the mighty Great Slave Lake. Named after a memorial to the bush pilots who helped open up the north, it's a pretty little spot and a great first introduction to the city. And so is having a lunch at colourful hotspot and local hub Bullock's Bistro.
After grabbing a plate of fresh grilled fish we made our way to nearby Cameron Falls. A scenic 45 minutes drive out of town on the ill-fated Ingraham Trail, you pass lakes and cabins and a lot of golden boreal forest of spruce and birch. The landscape is mostly flat — ancient glaciers have scraped much of it down to bare rock — but here and there are stately hills and outcroppings and sudden drops. And, after an easy hike, some waterfalls.
For the scant amount of rain Yellowknife gets, there's a surprising amount of water everywhere. Some of Canada's grandest waterfalls and biggest lakes are here in the NWT. Cameron Falls, a set of cascades and pools tumbling down a rocky slope, is the closest to the city and are a pretty sight and definitely worth a day trip, but if you're looking to see some even bigger falls check out Alexandra and Virginia Falls further to the south.
Returning to the city we went down to the docks to catch the last light of the day, a distant storm on the horizon. We saw numerous float planes coming and going and boats big and small returning to harbour, all against the colourful backdrop of houseboat bay.
Yellowknife is first and foremost a resource town, founded on the discovery of gold in the nearby bedrock. The nearest gold mines now sit rusting and abandoned in the boreal, and diamond mines and government jobs have taken over as the main economic drivers. North of 60°, the city has a subarctic climate with warm summers and bitingly cold winters. But the weather is moderated by the massive Great Slave Lake, so the growing season is longer and the arctic treeline dips further south compared to similar latitudes to the east. Summers get up to 20hrs of sunlight, and winters get only 5. Like many northern towns, the long dark days are broken up with numerous winter celebrations, chief among which is the Snowking Festival, a month-long festival held in a giant and increasingly elaborate snow castle built on and from the frozen surface of Great Slave Lake.
Come winter the many boats are traded in for sleds and skis and numerous fishing sheds are hauled out onto the ice. It's a jolly and heart-warming sight, but the ice obviously has its challenges, too — during Spring thaw the unstable and increasingly mushy ice makes it difficult for residents to get out to the houseboats. But standing there on the shore of the great lake under dancing dramatic skies, it sure was hard not to romanticize an imagined life in those little floating houses.
DAY 2: CANOES AND NORTHERN LIGHTS
The following morning we met up with Cathy from Narwhal Northern Adventures for a quick canoe ride and picnic on the lake. Before leaving town we paddled up to a dock to hear some throat singing, and crossing the bay a folksy woman serenaded us with a flute and some sing-along sea chanties, which was a pretty fun moment. After about half an hour we pulled up onto the rocks where a big pot of moose stew was warming over an open fire, and we warmed up with hot chocolate and fresh bannock with gobs of maple butter. A delicious treat that I'll remember for a long time.
Yellowknife also happens to be one of the world's best places to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Not only is it under the auroral oval, but Yellowknife also has predominantly clear skies and a relatively flat terrain without obstructions for optimal viewing. Aurora is there most days of the year, but the best viewing is between August – October, or between mid-December – April when it's dark and generally without cloud cover. Thousands of people come every year.
And wow oh wow, was it ever magical. Caused by solar wind particles ionizing in the upper atmosphere, it started as a faintly green glow over the horizon, the lights moving almost imperceptibly, slowly sweeping up over us and growing in intensity. Before we knew it there were ribbons of bright light shimmering in the sky, undulating like waves, sweeping across the entire arc of sky. It was hard not too oooh and aahhh as the lights looped above us, and we stood there for hours, mesmerized, losing all track of time. It was one of the most singular and breathtaking things I've ever seen.
There are many ways to take in Yellowknife's northern lights. One of the most the well-known viewing areas is the Aurora Village, a collection of glowing tipis scattered artfully along the edge of a little lake. But there are also a lot of tour operators, and we went on an outing with the agile Aurora Ninjas who have various locations they can shuttled you out to depending on the conditions. Plus they'll offer up a warm snack at the end.
DAY 3: FISHING ON GREAT SLAVE LAKE
Late nights call for slow mornings, but come lunch we were ready to get back in the swing of things. Stopping by NWT Brewing Co for some coffee, chicken wings, and charcuterie, it didn't take long before we were sampling their delicious Ragged Pine Pale Ale and Bug Repellent IPA. A must visit.
Sated and satisfied, we made our way back down to the harbour to meet up with Carlos from Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures and head out onto the lake to try catch some northern pike.
In any other country the Great Slave Lake would be an incontestable marvel. At almost 30,000 km2 (11,030 sq mi) it is a bogglingly massive thing, more an inland sea than a lake, but in Canada it's only the fourth largest, and even in NWT it is dwarfed by Great Bear Lake. But even so the superlatives pile up — world's tenth largest lake, the deepest in North America — and it was an absolute pleasure to zip around in a speedy little boat. And if we learned anything it's that giant lakes produce giant fish. Northern pike are huge!
Carlos has this secret little spot near a rocky shoal near an island (just try and find it!) where you can just cast and catch fish all day long until your arm grows tired. But nearly every cast nets a fish, so those arms will be tiring mighty quick. It didn't take long until we were ready to call it a day, retiring to a little cabin for a dinner of Great Slave whitefish and all the fixings.
And then it was time to fly on outta there. We had arrived at night, so it was really neat to finally see the landscape from the air. It was startling how many lakes there were, how illimitable the unending forest seemed, how the rock stretched on forever. What crazy wonderful lives we eke out and seek out in this vast and wild country.