Going into the 'Knife

Monday, August 22, 2016 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Seeking True North, Day 7:  Yellowknife, NWT.
Yellowknife takes its name from the knives once used by the local Dene natives.  Known for fashioning knives from copper gathered along the Copppermine River near the Arctic coast, the Yellowknives Dene people have occupied the land adjacent to Yellowknife Bay for several thousand years.  

Non-Aboriginal settlers were not attracted to the area until the 1930s when large deposits of gold were discovered here.  The establishment of a Canadian military communication station in Yellowknife in 1938 fueled further growth as it opened up radio and telephone service to the area.  By then, the frontier town was bustling with tents and log cabins serving the needs of mining companies and prospectors with hotels, supply stores, saloons and cafes.
The vastness of the NWT
Aviation opened easier access to the North in the 40s and 50s, leading to more expansion, and by 1967, Yellowknife was named capital of the Northwest Territories.  Almost half the territory's 42,000 citizens live in what has become a rather cosmopolitan city, albeit with steadfast links to its frontier roots.   

Indeed, Yellowknife still retains an "end of the line" feeling.  When we picked up our rental car at the airport yesterday, Hertz agent Brad mentioned that, unlike the unlimited mileage norm elsewhere, the rental in Yellowknife comes with a 50 km (31 miles) daily allowance; any accumulation above that is billed at $.32/km.  After a couple of 250-mile day trips out of Whitehorse, we were taken aback.  When we mentioned our concern to Nova Scotia native Brad, he replied, "There's nothing near Yellowknife but Dettah.  It's 20 km away, but there's nothing there.  Around here, it's either 20 km away or 2,000 km.  You won't be going that far."  (This was a bit of an exaggeration but not by much.)
Yellowknife from The Rock
With an area twice the size of Texas, Northwest Territories certainly boasts some long distances between its 33 communities.  And that's as the crow flies.  Road distances don't apply because only the southern third of NWT has any highway access—except in the depth of winter.   

Before parting ways with Brad at the Hertz counter, we extracted a restaurant recommendation from him for dinner last night.  He sent us to Bullock's Bistro, a Yellowknife landmark with a salty, down-home atmosphere housed in an authentic Old Town shack.  Service is friendly and competent, and the walls, ceiling, tables, and other mismatched furniture in the log cabin setting are lavishly decorated with stickers, signs, and graffiti messages left by happy diners. Since Bullock's serves up huge portions of fresh fish caught daily from the nearby Great Slave Lake and enhanced by their special sauces, locals sit elbow to elbow with tourists, and friendly conversations are the rule of the day.
Bullock's Bistro
On the patio, we chatted for half an hour with Eden and Kaitlyn, a couple of recent college graduates working at the local sand golf course (and that's another story).  Both spoke warmly about Yellowknife, proud of its small town feeling.  One a Yellowknife native, the other a Vancouver transplant, they told of chance encounters with friends and acquaintances everywhere they go—the grocery store, restaurants, the golf course, even the airport.  Eden said she's never flown into or out of the city and failed to find someone she knew on her flight.

At our behest, they loaded us down with recommendations of places to visit, and both strongly encouraged us to return in the winter.  We're thinking about it.  While being totally up front about temperatures 40 below zero, they painted a picture of a winter wonderland—ice caves on the lake (Eden showed us some stunning pictures), the annual SnowKing festival with its pop-up ice castle arts center, and the NWT ice roads.  Highly developed and well maintained, the roads cross frozen lakes, rivers, and land from January to March and provide an overland connection to remote northern areas accessible only by air transportation other times of the year.  If you've seen History Channel's Ice Road Truckers, you know about these roads.
Pilots' Monument atop The Rock
Today we drove to Old Town and climbed the six-story staircase to the summit of The Rock, the massive granite outcrop on the waterfront that was at the center of the early settlement.  Perched on top is the Pilots' Monument,  erected to celebrate the early aviators who flew into virtually uncharted territory to help open the North.  The summit offers expansive views of Great Slave Lake (named for the Slavey Indians of this area), nearby houseboats, and the city of Yellowknife.  After enjoying the views, we searched for the only letterbox listed on Atlas Quest in the NWT, but it was nowhere to be found.
Yellowknife's TI
Next stop was the local tourist information office (TI), where we heard again there are no day trip possibilities from Yellowknife except the Ingraham Trail, a road that runs northeast from the city and offers parks and hiking trails.  So we picked up some information and set off to visit some of the attractions in town.   
Displays at the museum also pay homage to the contributions of aviation to the NWT.
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center offers exhibits relating area history and depicting various aspects of Dene and Inuit culture.  One haunting art exhibit portrayed the experiences of artist Robert Burke in residential schools for aboriginal children.  The son of an African American soldier and a Chipewyan mother, Burke was abandoned as a toddler and delivered to the local residential school by the RCMP.  His childhood was characterized by rejection due to his mixed heritage and the kinds of abuse that were prevalent in these schools.  Ultimately, he forged these painful experiencess into an award-winning career as an artist.
One of a collection of paintings by artist Robert Burke
Near the museum is the Legislative Assembly building, where we joined twenty others on the 1:30 tour.  Maria, our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, regaled us with stories of the past and explained all the bits of symbolism architects lavished throughout the building.  A luncheon for government auditors attending a conference in town had just concluded, and Maria explained that the building's Great Hall can be booked free of charge by any citizen for events such as weddings, parties or meetings.  
NWT mace (photo from mace artist Allyson Simmie's web site)
One compelling piece of symbolism relates to the territorial mace, the ceremonial staff carried by the speaker of the legislative assembly at the opening of each session.  The hollow shaft of the mace contains pebbles collected in each of the NWT's 33 communities by elders and young people.  When the mace is shaken, the small stones rattle to remind members that the assembly is meant to be the voice of all the territory's people.
Had we come in winter, we would not have been able to visit this summer-only eatery.
From the Ledge, we headed over to Wildcat Cafe, another of Yellowknife's legendary eating spots.  Still serving up local fish and other northern staples in the rough-hewn log shack where it began feeding prospectors and bush pilots in 1937, the 'Cat is the oldest restaurant in town.  Once slated for demolition after a lengthy period of neglect, this local institution was saved by a group of residents and re-opened.
NWT Diamond Center is the only cutting and polishing operation in the territory.
The gold mines around Yellowknife have all closed, but mining remains critical to the area economy.  The territory's current stake is in diamond mining with four mines in the sub-Arctic 200 miles north of Yellowknife, so we visited the NWT Diamond Center to learn about this very profitable new industry, which has made Canada the world's third largest diamond producer.  Exhibits showcase the mining process, and an experienced cutter demonstrated how raw diamonds are polished.  

With an aurora chasing tour planned for 10 p.m., we returned to the hotel for a nap before dinner.  Just at the appointed time, Sean Norman, a Vancouver native who fell in love with the Aurora Borealis eight years ago in Norway, pulled up to the hotel in his white Ford Flex.  On board already were Aaron and Kayla, University of Toronto construction science students on vacation.  Sean moved to Yellowknife to satisfy his obsession with the northern lights and now operates a snug B&B in his home and leads visitors on aurora chasing adventures.

Sean drove us about 30 miles out of the city on the Ingraham Trail and parked beside a small lake at one of his favorite viewing spots.  After helping us get our cameras adjusted to the appropriate settings, he unloaded chairs, thermoses of warm beverages, and home-baked treats to keep us comfortable.  For the next four and a half hours, we searched the sky for the famed dancing solar flares.  Weather was clear and stars filled the sky, with Sean pointing out the names of constellations and brighter stars.  Eventually, we saw faint auroras.  With shutter speeds of eight to 15 seconds, the camera saw more.  Knowing August is not the optimum time of year for viewing the northern lights, we were not disappointed.  When activity diminished, we left and arrived back at our hotel around 4 a.m.
Aurora borealis outside Yellowknife (photo by Sean Norman)
Sean could not have been a better guide, and if we return next March, we definitely want to sign up for another of his chases.  He is so passionate about this natural phenomenon, he takes visitors out at all times of year and tends to lose himself in the show.  Here's a photo from his web site of him one night when he lost track of how long he had been outside in the cold.
Sean watching the aurora
Tomorrow we'll check out some more Yellowknife landmarks before setting out on the Ingraham Trail on Wednesday.

'S No Snow Days in Yellowknife:  At the top of The Rock, we met Kathy, a local fourth grade teacher, who was enjoying a walk on her last day before returning to work.  Originally from Ontario, she and her educator husband, have been working in Yellowknife schools for 25 years, still spending summers at their Ontario cottage.  With the city's reputation for harsh winters, we asked if Yellowknife schools ever close due to weather.  "In my 25 years here," Kathy reported, "school has closed one day.  The temperature was 50 below zero (that's -58 Fahrenheit), and there was concern the buses wouldn't be able to run." We told her of Atlanta's propensity to shut down at the hint that a little snow might fall.  Admitting she had heard that before, she was stunned to learn it was actually true.
The room with no secrets
Partisan Politicians Need Not Apply:  Along with Nunavut, the Northwest Territories have the only legislative assemblies in Canada that are nonpartisan.  Both territories are governed by consensus.  That's not to say there are no disagreements, of course.  An important space in the Ledge is the caucus room.  Symbolically built in the round, the room has its own rules.  All members are on equal footing when meeting there, even the Speaker.  Unique acoustics have led to its being nicknamed "the room with no secrets" for anything spoken there, even whispered, can be heard by all present. 

Bobbing to the Top:  When the territory of Nunavut was split off from Northwest Territories in 1999, consideration was given to changing NT's name, perhaps to something that would reflect its significant aboriginal population.  One proposal was Denendeh, which means 'our land' in the local Dene language (exactly the translation of 'Nunavut' in Inuktitut, the Inuit language).  In public opinion polling, the name 'Bob' was suggested as a prank, but soon gained popularity, coming in second—albeit a distant second—to the preference to retain the name Northwest Territories.  Among the tongue-in-cheek reasons cited in Bob's support:  a) It's dyslexic-friendly.  b) It is pronounced the same in all 11 official languages.  c) Parents could show off their territorial pride by naming their kids after it.

Northwest Territories by the numbers:
- 43,623 population (would fill only 3/4 of seats in Yankee Stadium)
- 11 official languages (English, French, and nine aboriginal languages)
- 33 communities (1 city, 5 towns, assorted other settlements)
- 519,700 square miles (twice the size of Texas)
- $58,744 average income
- 1.28 price index (1.00 average for Canada)

More Photos from Today
Bullock's Bistro recommended as the city's top restaurant, listed in the visitor guide under Fine Dining
We left our mark at Bullock's, too...an image of our letterboxing stamp.
Though the food may not look like fine dining, the prices qualify.  This whitefish plate cost $28.95.  
Central air is not the norm, but we're glad to have this portable AC in our hotel room. 
Ken got a real charge out of these engine warming electrical outlets.
At the Ledge, a sculpture of a caribou carved from one whale vertebra.
Great Hall at the Ledge, free for any NWT citizen to reserve for an event