A glimpse of the icy tundra slowly spread across my line of vision, as my eyes strained to see through the frost-covered windows of the late evening flight. Propellers whirring, the plane descended for the final leg of my travel to Yellowknife, affectionately known as the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Located on Chief Drygeese Territory, traditional home of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, as well as the traditional lands of the North Slave Metis, Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories and sits a mere 400 kilometers from the Arctic Circle.
With a population of just under 20,000, Yellowknife — or Somba K’e in Dene — is a mix of old and new architecture. A colorful and sprawling Old Town meanders into the shiny and orderly New Town, full of locals, worldwide visitors, and miners that come in from the various diamond mines surrounding the city.
I first fell in love with this rocky northern town seventeen years ago when I hopped on a Greyhound Bus from Toronto and made the sixty-odd hour journey north, marveling at the roving wildlife along jarring, dusty roads. Exhausted, filthy, but utterly captivated with the view, I staggered off the bus to stretch my aching muscles. This was a vastly different view from my years spent in bustling metropolises. Although bus service has since been discontinued, today’s visitors to Yellowknife can drive the approximately fifteen hours north from Edmonton, Alberta or take one of the many weekly flights from Edmonton International Airport.
Since this initial first visit, I have been fortunate to spend both Summer and Winter Solstices in Yellowknife. Although these days may pass unacknowledged in many parts of the world, Yellowknife’s unique geographical location makes them particularly significant. Winters can be brutally harsh, dipping below minus twenty degrees in over twenty hours of darkness, while reality blurs in the surrealness of over twenty hours of sunlight during the summers. Yellowknife will initiate the inexperienced quickly. My advice is to avoid naps, unless you enjoy frantically searching for a clock.
Summer: Summers are full of music and food festivals, hiking and canoeing. They’re also perfect for visits to museums highlighting local Indigenous history. A word of warning; any attempt to canoe on the windiest day of the year on Great Slave Lake, North America’s deepest lake, will result in nearly capsizing in the reeds and mockery from the locals. If you feel brave enough (or foolish enough) to attempt a canoe ride with no experience, please wear a life jacket.
Yellowknife events include the annual Pride Festival, the eco-friendly Old Town Ramble and Ride music and art festival, and Folk on the Rocks, a music and cultural festival hailing back to the 1980, featuring international and national acts. Yellowknife also proudly celebrates the annual Days of the Pink, which work toward ending prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying and violence, as well as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Winter: Winters are frigid but beautiful, with a lively nightlife and music scene continuing despite the falling temperatures and darkness. Yellowknife is also one of the best places in the world to see Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Peak times are mid-November to the beginning of April. Winter is also the best time to see the Dettah Ice Road, which connects Yellowknife with the community of Dettah across Yellowknife Bay.
Old Town: Old Town Yellowknife is visually stunning, with multi-colored houses juxtaposed against steep rock faces overlooking Great Slave Lake. Pilot’s Monument atop “The Rock” outcrop offers visitors stunning vistas of floating houseboats on Great Slave Lake, which began in the early 1980s and expanded into a small community. While walking through the winding streets, keep a look out for a photo opportunity of Old Town’s Ragged Ass Road.
Downtown: Further downtown, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre houses the NWT government’s area documents and artifacts, as well as artist collections and galleries. It’s also immediately adjacent to Frame Lake’s winding hiking trails,
Food Scene: The food scene in Yellowknife is extensive and varied, well-known for its wild game, including bison, as well as fresh fish and bannock. Some of my absolute favorites are the world-famous bison stew from Wildcat Café, as well as the fresh local caught fish and reindeer and buffalo steaks from Bullock’s Bistro, and the injera and goat curry at the family owned Zehabesha Traditional Ethiopian Food.
Day Trips and Beyond: Outside of the city, Cameron Falls located in Hidden Lake Territorial Park is a perfect day trip for those wanting to experience more of the area, home to cascading waterfalls and walking trails. Visitors can also continue east further into Nunavut or west into the Yukon and Alaska.
History: No visit to Yellowknife would be complete without acknowledging its Indigenous past and present. The NWT were the first in Canada to make June 21 Indigenous Peoples Day a statutory holiday in 2001. In Yellowknife, celebrations take place with fish frys, delicious bannock, and traditional music and performances.
2019’s Indigenous Peoples Day was dedicated to Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In northern Canada in particular, there exists a long history of missing women and girls, most prominently along Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, known as the Highway of Tears. The 2019 Final Report of Canada’s Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Women and Girls (MMIWG) revealed that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people” and lists 231 calls to justice. During the 2019 celebrations, the North Slave Metis Alliance delivered eight of these calls.
Despite Reconciliation, which engaged “Canadians in dialogue and transformative experiences that revitalize the relationships among Indigenous peoples and all Canadians,” and Indigenization efforts in academia, problems continue. Indigenous populations must still contend underfunded reserves, water shortages and contamination, and unequal policing and incarceration rates.
Awareness of Canada’s colonial past and the systems that many of us continue to benefit from is essential when travelling throughout the country, particularly the North. I have never experienced a place as surreal and beautiful as Yellowknife, but it’s the Northern hospitality that keeps me coming back. With respect and gratitude, I thank Yellowknife for the warm welcome.
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