Approaching Yellowknife by plane, the first thing that catches my eye is the enormous frozen Great Slave Lake. I’m about to embark on a week filled with winter experiences on my first visit to the Northwest Territories. And what better way to orient myself with its regional capital than with a couple of tours.
After checking into The Explorer Hotel (a lovely business class hotel right in the center of town), Trevor of My Backyard Tours picks me up in his van and takes me around to explore Yellowknife’s highlights, from the very cool Legislative Building to the quirky Old Town.
I soon learn how diverse this small city really is, for they’ve 11 official languages (including French and English; the other nine are Aboriginal) and 133 different nationalities!
Just over an hour by plane from Edmonton, NWT encompasses 1,170,000 kilometers with a total of 45,000 residents. Outside of Yellowknife, communities are much smaller and spread out.
There’s enough land to accommodate four national parks, five bird sanctuaries and a bison sanctuary with plenty more room to enjoy summer and winter pursuits alike.
Although NWT counts 45,000 residents, 20,000 of them live here. The town’s name is derived from the copper ore found on the ground thousands of years ago. Together with tourism, government (civic/municipal, territorial, federal, aboriginal) plays a large role in the NWT.
Visitors come from all corners of the world to enjoy the Aurora Borealis (Yellowknife is known as the Aurora Capital of the World)! Despite this winter’s abnormal amount of cloud cover, the city normally boasts nearly 250 nights of potential aurora viewing.
After a brief stop inside the Legislative Assembly building (housing some beautiful Native art as well as the Chamber with a bear rug centerpiece), we’re off again exploring some more.
This Ward Air Bristol Freighter was the very first plane to land on wheels in the North Pole in the late 1960’s. It’s mounted on a hill to admire and photograph along with the nearby iconic Welcome to Yellowknife sign.
You’d think that in a small town such as Yellowknife you’d get bored pretty quickly, but rest assured, alongside a beautiful ice castle celebrating winter, there’s outdoor skating, museums, tennis and curling clubs, a softball field, snow showing, dogsledding and a wide variety of year-round festivals.
March is a great time to visit as the Snowking mounts a castle that takes two months to construct when the layer of ice on Great Slave Bay is deep enough to sustain its weight.
The annual Long John Jamboree gets underway this coming weekend (March 25-27), and offers art, food, ice fishing, fireworks, a “brrr garden”, snow volleyball and more family-friendly fun. It’s definitely a unique way to greet spring.
Here’s another first for me: driving on a frozen lake. This 6.5 km (4 mile) road connects Yellowknife with the small community of Dettah during the winter, normally a 27 km drive in summer.
Yellowknife Bay is filled with activity, from the Snowking Castle and Long John Jamboree to skidoos and cross-country skiers, even kite skiing, where wind glides you along the ice as you steer a 20-meter kite along with your skis, snowboard or self.
The photo below is of the Wildcat Cafe, one of the city’s earliest buildings dating to 1937. It’ll open again when the weather warms up.
Before long, we’ve been out and about for over two hours and I’ve been given a great intro to the diversity of this Northern town. Trevor showed me so many little corners of the city that I’d likely not have had the time to fit in all on my own, together with lots of local tidbits and history of the area.
My Backyard Tours can also arrange art gallery/shopping tours from private to groups of any size. They’re keen on providing their clients a tour that will fit their interests, from city to Aurora viewing.
The next day, I’m on a tour with Canadian Tourism Lifetime Achievement Award winner Greg Robertson of Bluefish Services. He’s a local tour operator best known for his Snobear, a fun vehicle that lets you ice fish while keeping warm. It’s run on a snowmobile belt, has two gears and can travel 12 mph on the ice (up to 24 mph on smooth surfaces).
In China, Greg’s known as “The man who drives the tractor”. He takes visitors out onto the ice in this ‘ice tractor’ for guided ice fishing excursions. It’s a handy way to fish without the chill, though he won’t go out below -30C (too hard on the machine and pretty COLD to be on the ice).
Once Greg’s measured the holes on the ice to match the same removable floor panels at the bottom of the Snobear, we’re working together to drill through the ice. Greg drops a bunch of food through each hole (a process called chumming) to get the fish interested before baiting our rods.
Another cool aspect of the experience is the onboard Marcum camera. If there’s any fish around, it’ll show up on the screen in real time.
We’re about 10 feet deep on this tour, but the camera can see up to 70 feet down (though it’ll look a lot murkier). The camera adds a fun element to the experience. Greg recalls a few times when fish have tried taking a bite out of his camera down there!
Another stop on the tour is to a local fish hatchery where I’m soon sampling fresh-smoked trout and Inconnu, a fish that people just don’t know how to name, hence the French word for “unknown” is given to this large beast that can grow to a length of 1.5 meters.
After sampling both, I’m more into the trout. Speaking of fish, pike and whitefish are mostly what we’re trying to catch in these depths. We don’t get a catch, but before he winds up the tour, Greg takes us over to another part of the lake where we get a quick ice skiing demo (without the skis).
I soon learn how powerful the gusts can be and can only imagine the exhilaration felt while partaking of this fun sport on skis.
In fact, Greg’s pioneered the sport of ice skiing and loves to show it off and get some practice in whenever he gets the chance. I don’t blame him.
A big thanks to both Greg and Trevor for showing me around the city, both on and off the ice!
I was a guest of both My Backyard Tours and Bluefish Services courtesy of Northwest Territories Tourism. Opinions, as always, are my own.