Our Travels: The Ultimate Yellowknife Experience
The people who live in the Land of the Midnight Sun inspire with their grit and creativity.
To Yellowknife, with Love
My journey through the Canadian landscape has taken me to many large cities and rural communities over the past couple of years in preparation for touring exhibitions of my paintings inspired by Canada this year, coinciding with the Canada 150 celebrations. One year ago, on Canada Day 2016, I had the opportunity to celebrate in Canada’s North, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. I spent Canada Day week in Yellowknife on an epic journey in the land where the sun and the people never sleep.
I flew in over Great Slave Lake as the midnight sun chased us, throwing a gilded, glistening spotlight from rivers to lakes as we touched down. Global warming is having the most dramatic impact and causing visible shifts, say my hosts, who shared some pizza with me at a neighbourhood watering hole just a stroll down the gravel lane. That first night, I slept in an artist’s shack moved to Old Town in 1980 from nearby Jolliffe Island; it seemed fitting I would rest my head inside this tiny piece of Canadian history.
Walking into downtown Yellowknife the following morning, I found myself at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, named after the British prince himself. It is a thoughtful and impressive museum for its size, telling the story of the first peoples here, the Dene First Nations.
My hosts in Yellowknife were a savvy media team: Kyle created YK Online, and Jen is the creative director for Tait Communications. Both are community connectors who made my trip both educational and entertaining.
We ventured into town and took in the Canada Day parade on a sweltering day in the “Arctic desert,” as the region is often referred to locally. Our evening featured a cast of local characters and creators, and a feast of blueberries, whitefish, trout and a little homemade birch syrup delivered by Pike Mike. Pike Mike is best known for his role on the Animal Planet series Ice Lake Rebels. A man with serious skills, he can weave a yarn, play the mandolin, help you catch record-sized trout and teach you about surviving off the land, all in one evening. After, we settled in for a patio roundtable of five creative women: a filmmaker, an engineer, a graphic artist, a printmaker and myself. It felt like a residency of sorts, all in one day in a small community in a land of extremes. At 1 a.m., it was still light out. Days are full here this time of year with the midnight sun, and everyone is trying to squeeze out every minute of this golden time.
Our Saturday was spent exploring what this area of Canada does best: the wild and life on the edge. The day started with some off-road exploring by jeep and a hike to Cameron Falls with Kyle, Jen and Steve Schwarz, a geologist and Getty-selling photographer. The experience was vivid and informative; my brain was buzzing and firing on both halves. The rocky climbs were endless, and evidence of tectonic shifts and things bubbling up to the surface displayed blueprints left for geologists in this land so rich with minerals and precious metals.
In the afternoon, the lake beckoned and we hopped into a motorized canoe for a close-up tour of the colourful houseboats around Jolliffe Island. Parking the boat on an uninhabited island gave us another chance to explore lichen and moss-covered rock. Finds of the day included remnants of furry inhabitants and a claim stake from a prospector of the past.
Check out Canada’s 10 Most Beautiful Waterfalls.
Evening landed us at the WildCat Cafe, an Old Town log cabin turning out food since 1937. An evening walk took us to Latham Island through a neighbourhood of architecturally diverse homes with stunning vistas. Many homes here—whether million-dollar or shack—display a nice rack of horns or a skull, and lots of Canadian flags. We ended the night with one more hike up and across rock to Pilot’s Monument, which affords a 360-degree view of the town.
We set out the next day to circle Yellowknife by car, filling in the blank spots in my visit. The outskirts of the city are dotted with communities that blend expensive, contemporary properties with modular homes and funky workshop shacks. Everyone here seems to be a tinkerer, a creator, a craftsman or an artist. A seemingly inconspicuous shed can hide a meticulous and treasured workspace.
You can easily find a Timmy’s or a $6 iced cappuccino here, which was well worth the bucks during the continuing sweltering heat. We took our custom coffees to the Lakeview Cemetery, with gravesites as meticulously crafted as the creations in the makers’ sheds we’d seen earlier in the day. Some sites were encircled with white picket fences, and some had trees growing in the centre. Miners, children, Natives, hockey fans and even Elvis fanatics are present here, reflecting the lives I have seen in the area. Our day ended with a feast fit for a mineworker at the famous Bullocks Bistro in Old Town, a legendary shack brimming with diners’ graffiti and things left stapled to the walls and ceiling. It’s a sassy and humorous place serving up fish, bison and even caribou ribs. A thunderstorm and a rainbow marked our way home as we wrapped another full day on the edge.
On the Monday, I spent half a day visiting with two distinctive and well-known Arctic artists. Jen Walden is a painter, as well as a filmmaker, a hockey coach and founder of the Borderless Arts Movement in Yellow- knife. Her distinctive, dimensional and textured style explores Canadian and northern life through people, wildlife and topography. I then went looking for Fran Hurcomb, a veteran Canadian photographer and photojournalist with more than 30 years of experience capturing Canada’s North. Fran recently published a book about Yellowknife’s Old Town, where she lives, depicting the area’s vivid history and individuals from the past three decades.
Here are the 10 Best Places for Nature Watching in Canada.
We then hit a molten-hot tarmac at Buffalo Airways and got a personal tour from Mikey McBryan, who’s featured in the docu-series Ice Pilots. My evening included a visit with a husky from a sled dog team, seeing “YKEA” (the local dump is known as Yellowknife’s IKEA; nothing gets thrown away here), scavenging and a late-night climb with a bottle of vino, some blueberries and stories as a red sun crested the horizon, not to set, but only to rest and rise again.
Before flying out, I had a chance to visit the talented folks over at the Aboriginal-owned Erasmus Apparel, which creates Aboriginal-inspired designs screen-printed on clothing, the perfect souvenir for this trip.
And then that was it for my six days on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where helping your neighbour really is the first order of business, and the only way to survive in this land of extreme weather and extreme living. This experience inspired many a painting when I returned home to my studio on Vancouver Island. These people have heart and grit and talent beyond whatever expectations I had going in. I love you, Yellowknife—see you for the freeze!