Forget Mexico - My winter vacay is to Yellowknife!

Published: March 12th 2014
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{Note: Travelblog doesn't host video any more but you can see a montage of a few clips from the trip here:

Usually I only dust off the ol' travel blog for international adventures, but I thought my recent extended weekend jaunt to Yellowknife in the the Northwest Territories was worthy of blog status because it was pretty awesome, and I think we don't give our own credit enough country a lot of the time.

I wish Canadians explored within our own borders more often. We have world class terrain which people come from all over the globe to experience, but many Canadians have only seen their own backyard. Granted, I can fly to Paris for less than it costs to fly to Newfoundland, but that doesn't mean Newfoundland isn't worth the effort. With this trip I have now taken separate journeys to every single province and territory in Canada (except for Nunavut - but since it's new I think I have more time to hit it!) and there are unique and exciting things to be found in all of them. In fact I've been already been a repeat visitor to all except Manitoba, PEI, and the Northwest Territories.
Making my markMaking my markMaking my mark
Not to say that world travel isn't awesome - I think I'm up to around 23 countries and 5 continents now - but let's give some credit to our home and native land, too.

OK, I admit it. After over a week of brutal temperatures in Calgary in the -20's and -30's Celsius I was kind of wishing I had picked the Mexico vacation. But Yellowknife was not about to disappoint. And a Thursday of snowboarding in postcard-perfect conditions up at Lake Louise with my orthopaedic surgery resident colleagues helped get me in the mood for continuing the winter fun up north.

On Friday I flew up to Yellowknife (on Aeroplan points, too. It's considered a short-haul flight from Calgary!), landing at noon into glorious, blazing sun. My childhood best friend, Laura, was waiting at the small airport to pick me up. She's working as a crown prosecutor (so proud!) and was able to nip away at her lunch hour to get me. I had planned to basically wander around for the next few days and make my vacation as I went, but Laura had gone above and beyond to plan an incredible itinerary for me to maximize
my Yellowknife experience. She took me to her apartment where a set of annotated google maps were waiting for me with suggested walking routes and points of interest in Old Town for the afternoon. Perhaps best of all, she had a gloriously cozy Canada Goose parka waiting for me.

In the north, Canada Goose is not just the cool coat to wear for downtown Toronto 20-somethings (ahem, It's legit warm weather (aka survival) gear. This was a serious parka. I have never worn such a functional garment. Pockets galore, fur linings, multiple strategies to keep aberrant snow out - this thing had it all.

Laura headed back to work and I bundled up and headed out for exploration with parka, long johns, and sunglasses all playing their part. I stopped first at a couple of art galleries and gift shops which Laura had outlined for me, where I picked up a pair of polar bear earrings carved out of caribou antler. I considered also buying a pair of earrings made out of antler cross-sections because they were so cool in showing the cortex and cancellous structure of the antler, but I chickened out, thinking they were too
Rosy cheeksRosy cheeksRosy cheeks
nerdy. I regret that, though. Let's be honest - I would totally wear them.

The second art gallery I went in to was a bit more commercial but it was here that I realized what a big deal the Northwest Territories was to Japanese tourists. The Northern Lights are a serious draw for the Japanese, so much so that this store had entire signs written only in Japanese and it had employed Japanese sales clerks. I had no idea!

I headed back out into the cold and sun further into the depths of Old Town. I was getting hungry and was hoping to find a cafe to grab a coffee and muffin in. On the way I checked out the colourful houseboats frozen into Great Slave Lake, but I was getting a bit chilly so I pushed onwards. Next stop was a everything-you-need general store which clearly had been there forever, although I forget its name. In fact, when I was reading diary entries from old prospectors at the museum later in the week I saw mention of it. They had SERIOUS gear for cold weather conditions in the upstairs of the store, as well as various fur
Laura at Bullock's BistroLaura at Bullock's BistroLaura at Bullock's Bistro
garments, knives, lanterns, food, fishing gear, pots, everything. I picked up a kind of neoprene face mask thing with breathing outlet that will come in handy on windy snowboarding trips. Next I wandered around the area looking at the really unique houses and then up to the pilots' memorial for an incredible 360 degree view of the area, where I ran into a couple Japanese tourists who were totally in awe of the scenery. I made my way back to the Bullock's Bistro which I had passed earlier in hopes that they would have the coffee I craved, but I didn't realize what I was getting myself in to (more on that later) and after a very confusing exchange with the waitress I ascertained that they weren't serving food for at least another hour so I just took off back to Laura's apartment.

It wasn't long before Laura and her boyfriend, Mark (also a prosecutor), got home from work and we were getting ready for the evening's activity - curling! I used to curl seriously in grade 12 but as I had less and less time for it in undergrad I got progressively worse and worse to the point
The grillThe grillThe grill
where I didn't really want to curl at all any more. I hadn't been on a house in years and I actually was kind of nervous about how I would do. While Mark played in his regular league game Laura and her friend, Dave, and arranged for a fun match between some other friends, most of whom had never tried curling before. While I curled TERRIBLY I at least wasn't the worst out there. It was fun, though, and that was what mattered! It was actually a pretty good league. There were tons of Laura and Mark's colleagues involved and it was a really social atmosphere. After the games were over we decided to take the party to the "BK" (Black Knight) as it was supposedly a legendary YK spot that I should experience while I was in town. I really liked the place, and sure enough my new friends ran into many people they knew while we were there.

On the way home we drove onto the frozen Great Slave Lake to see if the Northern Lights were out, and we were in luck! The sky was alight with dancing bright green. Beautiful. Unfortunately we weren't really bundled
Driving on the ice roadDriving on the ice roadDriving on the ice road

There's a video of this, but Travelblog won't host videos any more. I'll try to put it on YouTube instead
up so we didn't last long out there, but I'm very glad we made the effort because after that the clouds rolled in and I wouldn't have another opportunity to see them.

Saturday was jam-packed with fun. After a bit of a sleep-in we all got up and Laura made us a tasty breakfast while Mark was on fancy coffee duty. He could make a serious latte! Once fuelled up Laura and I headed out for a snowshoe adventure while Mark stayed back to prep for a party they were hosting that night. Laura drove me about 20 minutes outside of town to a snowshoe trail she and Mark like to check out regularly. For the life of my I can't remember the name of the hill even though she told me a thousand times, but it had a great 360 degree view of the area, just like the pilots' monument. The weather was sunny and lovely, though cold, of course (but, honestly, warm for Yellowknife standards at that time of year. Around -24, I think). We took a few other trails while we were out there just to explore and see what we could find. I
The Snow CastleThe Snow CastleThe Snow Castle

Obviously this picture doesn't remotely do it justice
took the opportunity while crossing a frozen lake of virgin snow to stomp out some art, but it snowed pretty hard the next day so my handiwork didn't last for long! Laura has the pictures so unfortunately I don't have anything to show. My iPhone 5 has a frustrating habit of freezing up in any cold weather at all (like, even at a Flames game) and just turning off, so I didn't even bother trying while we were on this outing. It did come through for a few pictures later in the trip, though.

We were out there for a few hours so when we got back to the vehicle we had to make our way straight to Bullock's Bistro (the one I had ventured into the day prior) in order to make it in time for lunch. I guess Bullock's is famous for their abusive waitstaff so it's not surprising that my earlier encounter had been strained. Lunch was supposed to be a kinder, gentler, experience, however. Also, as a seasoned 'Knifer Laura knew that although the place was pricy, the portions were huge so two could easily share a lunch platter and be satisfied for half the
Snow Castle ArchwaySnow Castle ArchwaySnow Castle Archway
cost. I should set the scene a little bit here. Basically Bullocks is like a shack you could envision providing grub for a small mining outfit out in the wilderness. Dark and wooden. Over the years people have drawn messages all over the walls, and each inch of real estate is covered with pictures and paraphernalia from various places, as well as bumper stickers with edgy sayings like "My other car is a broom." There was a caribou head with undergarments draped over its antlers and just generally not a lot of space. When we entered all the tables were full but there was a little space at the bar/counter/food prep area which we squeezed into. This wasn't Laura's first rodeo, and she knew what to do. Before long the poor guy who was tasked with serving and cooking all the food for these people single handedly was Laura's #1 fan. He was not impressed because a large Japanese tour group was an hour late in showing up for their lunch and it had thrown everything off, but he let us sneak our order in quickly and we got served before he even started making food for their huge group.
The Ice Slide!The Ice Slide!The Ice Slide!
We split the whitefish with fresh baked rolls and salad with delicious homemade feta cheese dressing, and a cinnamon bun to go. Verrry tasty after a morning snowshoeing in the cold. On the way back we drove the ice road across the Great Slave Lake. Pretty nuts to think that the huge lake becomes solid enough for large transport trucks to use it as a highway in the winter.

In the evening Mark and Laura had a bunch of friends over for a tropical pre-drink before we headed out to the Snow Castle for a salsa party. Mark had been working all afternoon to prepare mojitos, margaritas, and cuba libres for their guests. After imbibing and socializing with a latin soundtrack in the background, it was time to trek back across the frozen lake to the ice castle. I'm going to describe the castle now, but I honestly think you won't believe me/won't appreciate the scale of this thing if you weren't there to view it with your own eyes. First of all, it was HUGE. Like, it had a massive main room where probably 150 people were dancing and multiple other hallways and little rooms with
Dancers insideDancers insideDancers inside
tables, seats, bathrooms (outhouses, of course) and, my favourite, a GIANT ice slide which was super fast and fun. And in each of these rooms and hallways the attention to detail in terms of decoration was incredible. There were intricately carved archways with patterns carved in the snow and then clear blocks of ice for extra accents, all lit up with coloured lights. And, I believe, all created by volunteers. Incredible. On the night we were there they were having a salsa party with dancers from the local salsa class, followed by a night of everyone dancing to latin/I'm-not-sure-what music by a band from Edmonton made of guys from all over south and central america. We were allowed to bring our own bevies in water bottles and travel mugs, but you had to drink quick or else it would freeze on you. Just a crazy fun experience. Seriously one of the best things I've ever experienced travelling. Oh I can't forget to mention Mark's shirt at this point. He had this hilarious tropical-print shirt which he rocked all night over top of his long-underwear. I said it was like Jim Carey's mask in "The Mask" because he was really into
Ice StageIce StageIce Stage

The band played on, cold fingers and all
the salsa dancing, and I don't get the sense that's Mark's normal baseline. I think he was channeling the power of the shirt. He was great!

The night wasn't over yet, though. After leaving the Snow Castle we trudged back through the snowbanks, dropped off a few extra things at Laura and Mark's (it is seriously hard to keep track of a purse on top of a big parka - what was I thinking?) then made our way to the Gold Range. This was another mainstay of the local bar scene that needed to be experienced. It's a bit of a rougher joint and is really popular with the local native population. They have live bands on the weekend, although apparently this night they didn't have their regular Saturday night band. I can't say they were extremely skilled in the musicality department, but they certainly had a lot of energy so I give them points for that. And the base player was seriously rocking out despite the fact that he had a congenitally deformed right hand which he didn't let slow him down for a second. Post-bar we needed late night pizza (obviously), so we hit that up. This
Dancing in a Snow Castle!Dancing in a Snow Castle!Dancing in a Snow Castle!
night happened to be daylight savings night, so with that working against us we didn't get back into the apartment until around 4am. Whoops! A great night.

Needless to say, the next morning's start was a bit delayed. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed we had another great breakfast from Laura and coffee from Mark, then Laura and I scooted off for... wait for it... dog sledding! This was really the main goal of my whole trip. I wanted to go dog sledding so badly and Laura came through in a big way. We were originally going to do a trip where you take a dog sled out to a cabin at night and then sit and watch the Northern Lights, but we decided to see the lights on our own instead and then do a daytime dog sledding trip where we would get to drive our own teams. We woke up to it snowing quite hard with huge flakes, which is quite unusual for this time of year in Yellowknife. It actually made for a beautiful scene during our dogsledding, though, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Our little team had 3 dogs
Parkas for the winParkas for the winParkas for the win
and a small sled which was big enough for one of us to ride bundled up under a sleeping bag while the other stood on the back to drive. As with many things in Yellowknife, the outfit was heavily geared towards Japanese tourists and the other couple on our trip was from Japan. Our "instructor," such as it was, gave us our starting instructions in both English and Japanese. I am convinced that our "musher" (the guide who took us out and supervised on a snowmobile) was aboriginal but Laura swears he was Japanese. We were all really bundled up in goggles and parkas and stuff, OK? It was hard to tell! Anyway, we started off with our two dog teams pulling our sleds but we were attached to our musher's snowmobile behind us. Laura rode in the sled and I "drove." We weren't really told what was going on and the dogs just took off - they seemed to know the way. We traveled across a road, over some hills and gullies, and across a frozen lake with a shinny rink covered with snow. A few times I had to get off to push the sled to help the
Our dog teamOur dog teamOur dog team

Laura stands in front of our team, while our musher stands on the brake so they don't make a run for it
dogs get Laura up hills, then jump on the moving sled once the dogs got it going. At this point Laura was getting a bit concerned that us "driving" the sled was really going to be us chained to a snowmobile and directly beside these other Japanese tourists, but in short order we reached the end of a long lake. At this point our guide told us to break, and he unhooked our sleds. He said to me "if the dogs stop, just push. We'll stop at the end for pictures and to switch drivers. Go for it!" And with that, we were off across the frozen lake: just me, Laura, and our three dogs who were just loving life pulling us along. We were travelling at a pretty decent clip. I wouldn't have been able to keep up if I was running, that's for sure. Our guide would pull up to us now and again for a "thumbs up" and to give the dogs some extra motivation but otherwise we were left to ourselves. The silence was beautiful - just the sound of the dogs panting and the sled creaking, with snow falling all around us. When we reached
All ready!All ready!All ready!

I'm driving, with Laura in the sled
the end of the lake, as promised, we stopped for some photos and then I took my place in the cozy sled while Laura took her turn driving. She told me that she had a friend who said her grandfather used to use dog sleds to travel over great distances. He would curl up in the sled and sleep through the night while the dogs ran. They knew the way on their own. When we woke up in the morning, he would be at his destination! I love trust partnerships with animals like that. The dog sledding really was great, but despite my two layers of thick woollen socks under my winter boots my feet were pretty cold by the time we were done so we packed into the car in pretty short order upon arriving back at the kennels.

Later that afternoon we went to check out some more galleries including a really cool sandblasting glass place where you can make your own glass art, but we were a bit too late to be able to do it ourselves. We actually thought it was closed because most things in Yellowknife are closed on Sundays, but that wasn't the
Bundled upBundled upBundled up
case. Oh well! They let us tour the workshop anyway. Then we went for a soak in the hot tub at the local racquet club, where our friend Dave was working (he has many jobs!). I love being in hot tubs when it's snowing, although I think this experience wins for the coldest air temp I've ever been in. You can't beat a beer in a hot tub in a light snow fall. My bare feet did NOT appreciate the run through the snow between hot tub and door of the racquet club, and I felt a bit sorry for the dogs from earlier in the day who had to run for so long in the snow, although I think they have some evolutionary advantages in that department.

We took it easy that evening. Dave came over for a delicious roast dinner prepared by Mark, followed by popcorn, wine, and a movie. It was still snowing so there were no Northern Lights to be had on my last night in Yellowknife.

On Monday morning Laura and Mark had to go back to work, but I took the opportunity to sleep in a little bit longer. I don't like
The teamThe teamThe team
interfering with people's morning work routines when I'm visiting, anyway. Shortly after they left I got up and got ready to go out on my own. My plan was to visit the territorial legislature and then the Northern Heritage museum. Most people wouldn't suggest such things for their visiting guests, but Laura knows me well (25 years well, in fact), and knew I would love both. She was right. I had studied the route to the legislature the day before and had no trouble finding it on foot. I was bundled up but it was only like minus 20 so it really wasn't bad at all. I half unzipped my jacket for most of the walk. There was a guided tour at 10:30 that I was heading for. I won't go into great detail about everything I learned at the legislature (although I could!) but basically they have a really neat system of consensus-based government there. Each MLA is elected as an independent on their own merits - there are no political parties. Once the caucus is elected by the people of the territories, they meet together and throw their hats in the ring for various positions like speaker, cabinet
ministers, and even for premier. Then they elect each other to those roles by secret ballot. The whole government is based on a model of mutual respect. It is not loud and boisterous like most provincial legislatures or the house of commons. Both the caucus room and the larger legislative assembly room are round to further emphasize the idea of mutual understanding and cooperation. There are 11 official languages in the Northwest Territories. Before Nunavut was created they needed simultaneous translation when the legislature was sitting because some of the MLAs could only speak Inuktitut, but currently they are all able to conduct business in English. There was much more to tell but I will restrain myself! The legislature was beautiful, though. Oh, and one last thing. The main lobby area is considered to be owned by the citizens of the Territory and therefore anyone can use it rent-free. So the space is constantly in use for public events, weddings, etc. Very cool!

After the tour I walked across to the Museum of Northern Heritage. I love museums and could have spent more time there but I was running a bit short on time before I had to be
Back to the kennelsBack to the kennelsBack to the kennels
back for my flight home. I had lunch at their cafe and enjoyed the exhibits about how the aboriginal people used local animals for clothes, tools, and shelter, but then I had to scoot off back across town to Laura and Mark's apartment to pack up.

I should mention that Laura and Mark have amassed quite a social circle during their time in Yellowknife and I was fortunate to meet many kind people during my short stay there. On the walk back someone friend-idly (is that a word?) honked just as I was turning on to the main road, although I wasn't able to see who it was. There were so many possibilities of who it could have been at this point!

In no time at all Laura was in the parking lot waiting to take me back to the airport. It was a really short trip but boy did we pack a lot in. I'm so glad I came, and I couldn't have asked for better hosts. Laura and Mark were unbelievably hospitable. Every time I met someone new and I explained I was just up for a short visit, they would always say "oh well you
Frosted mugs and frosted hairFrosted mugs and frosted hairFrosted mugs and frosted hair
MUST come back in the summer - it is wonderful up here!" So... perhaps I'll need to be back to experience that at some point, as well!

I have been to Whitehorse and the Yukon 3 or 4 times but Yellowknife was completely its own flavour. Yellowknife seemed a little more "wild" and more connected to its northern aboriginal roots. I love Whitehorse, too, though. You should go visit them both!

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Kids' cabin at the museumKids' cabin at the museum
Kids' cabin at the museum
Inside the cabinInside the cabin
Inside the cabin

I could have played here for hours as a kid
Kids' fishing boatKids' fishing boat
Kids' fishing boat

Complete with play fish and everything. So fun!

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