Downtown Yellowknife does not have a lot to recommend it. The old city is quaint but almost all residential with a couple art galleries scattered throughout. The lakefront scene might be fun in the summer but in the winter the few houseboats out there are ice-bound and there really isn’t much going on to speak of. It is that ice, however, that provides for some excellent recreational options as well.
The two main winter sports represented in town are snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. We didn’t do much research into the former but the latter was quite accessible and incredibly fun. Not far from the center of town and most of the hotels is Overlander Sports. For CAD$25/day ($40 for a weekend) they rent out skis, poles and boots for cross-country skiing. And the region is literally covered with lakes, most of which are small enough that they freeze over pretty early in the season, leaving nearly limitless options for where to go out skiing.
In our case, in part because it was my first time on cross-country skis and in part because we didn’t have other transportation options, we chose to simply walk across the street, pass behind the RCMP local headquarters and wander out onto Frame Lake, smack in the middle of town.
As we set out on to the lake the sun started to peek through the clouds, offering us a beautiful day and a beautiful setting on which to enjoy the great outdoors. There were several others out on the lake. Some just walking, some skiing and some on snowmobiles. There was more than enough room for everyone to enjoy the afternoon without bumping in to each other.
Plus, the sun resting low on the horizon made for spectacular lighting when I paused at the random islands out in the lake to take photos.
Indeed, downtown Yellowknife doesn’t have much going on, but even if you do not have a car to get out of town to see some of the awesome local parks and sites there are things to do in town that don’t completely suck. I actually really enjoyed my first cross-country skiing experience and I can see having a lot of fun doing more of it in the future, especially if I’m not carrying a 30 pound backpack around with me.
The above line, or something similar, was an oft repeated refrain throughout our visit to Yellowknife. Apparently we managed to time our trip with the point in the year where the ferry providing terrestrial access to the rest of Canada was out of service due to low water levels but also before the hard freeze had set in, allowing the cargo to come in via the ice roads. The net result was that many supplies were a week or more behind in being delivered to town.
For some supplies – like petrol for cars – the situation was near dire. Most gas stations in town had run out of their supply and the couple that did have a supply were rationing it out at prices that sent a shiver down my spine. There were public service announcements on the radio reminding folks not to take out their aggression or frustration on the station owners and also reminding them to stop idling their cars so much so as to conserve what little bits of petrol were still available.
That shortage was, fortunately, not particularly dire for us. The rental car my friend picked up had a full tank and we didn’t get close to finishing it off, even with the few trips we took into the outskirts of town. But there were other shortages that did affect us, some more seriously than others.
At the Black Knight Pub – definitely the best food in town that we ate – we quickly discovered just how critical the situation was. First we finished off the last of the sweet potatoes in town with our third order of their delicious sweet potato fries, served with a garlic aioli. They also ran out of several menu options, from the bison burger to bangers & mashed, because they could not get the ingredients they needed to prepare the dishes.
Then we started to run out of beer options. One by one we watched at taps ran dry at the Black Knight and other watering holes around town. Fortunately enough taps remained flowing that we were able to stay warm and well lubricated, but there was some concern for the welfare of the town if things got much worse. “The great beer riots of 2010” does have a nice ring to it.
OK, so most of this post was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was actually rather eye-opening to see just how serious the situation can get when the transport options are so limited. The local government eventually had to order an airlift of petrol to alleviate the crisis. And they were still rationing fuel to consumers when we left town. The airlift was a stop-gap measure and the situation was still bordering on critical at many levels.
There was no beer on the flight as far as I know.
Or at least that I’ve seen.
License plates are generally boring, a functional device but not particularly attractive or exciting. Every now and then someone will come up with an interesting design but just as often you’ll get something like the hideous current iteration in New York State.
And then there are the license plates in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Yes, they’re still functional. But they are also creative and representative of the region without going too crazy. Most notable, however, is that they aren’t just another boring rectangle.
I’m a big fan!
Most roads end eventually but there are few that do so in such a dramatic fashion as the Ingram Trail outside Yellowknife, Canada.
Sure, there is Mile Marker 0 on US 1 down in Key West and that’s certainly entertaining, but you’re still in the middle of town there and not particularly at the end of the world. When NWT Route 4 ends, about 70 kilometers northeast of town, calling it dramatic would be an understatement.
The road comes to a rather abrupt end at the edge of the water with views like this one.
Looking back on the road you see the beauty of the sun, low on the horizon.
And just a few steps away is the frozen lake, strong enough at this point for walking and, in a few weeks as the freeze sets in further, strong enough for the large tractor-trailers to drive on. This is the launching point of the ice road that feeds the diamond mines and which starred in season one of Ice Road Truckers.
The landscape is desolate but also beautiful. It is somewhat amazing how small you can feel standing in the middle of nowhere and still absolutely love the feeling.
When the weather is a balmy -20°C outside and you’re riding through the woods outside Yellowknife, Canada with your head hanging out the window and not feeling the cold at all there must be a good reason for it. In my case that reason was the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.
The natural light show is one of the few things I would consider a “bucket list” event and I don’t really have such a list. I’d seen the photos before and in the days leading up to this trip I was looking at them again more often. The photos are amazing – and I definitely made a few of my own – but seeing the spectacle live is other-worldly and truly the only way to actually have the experience.
In our case the sighting was not without some troubles. We were originally scheduled to visit Aurora Village for a viewing party on the first night of our trip. When we arrived in Yellowknife my friend who we were meeting informed us that the weather forecast was quite unfavorable so we were not going to see the Aurora that night. Night number two actually had worse weather than night one; it was snowing rather than just being overcast. Alas, our reservations were not particularly flexible to begin with and after managing one change we were stuck with what we had. No Aurora on night two either, though we did spend 3 hours out in the cold with about 30 Japanese tourists.
Our friends were scheduled to leave on our third day in town. They made it to the airport only to discover that the flight to Edmonton was oversold. They took the bump in exchange for some VDB credits and another night in town. Maybe – just maybe – that was something of a sign: the airline needed them to stay in town.
Drinks and dinner and drinks and some live music later, we were staring down 10pm and headed outside for a weather report. Stars. We saw stars in the sky. Clear skies finally! We quickly suited up, adding a few extra layers for the outdoor adventure, and piled into the rental car, heading north towards Vee Lake, about 20 minutes from town and just a few miles from Aurora Village. As we cleared the town’s light pollution we were looking out the windows hopefully. Our wishes were granted. The Aurora was there!
A few close calls on the road (driving while watching the Aurora is NOT recommended) and a few minutes later we were standing out on the frozen surface of Vee Lake, staring up at one of the most amazing natural displays I’ve ever seen.
The Aurora is dynamic, constantly shifting in colors and shapes at the particles striking the atmosphere are moving. One minute there would be a broad green stripe clear across the night sky and a few minutes later the stripe had faded, with smaller strokes closer to the horizon popping up. The main color – green – was more visible at some times than others. Occasionally the Aurora looked more pale or white. And, with the help of our cameras we were able to see the reddish fringes on the edge of the Aurora.
I spent most of the time out on the ice with one or both gloves off, fiddling with my camera gear. Strangely, my fingers never got particularly cold. Adrenaline is a strange drug.
It is also worth noting that the Aurora actually makes it harder to spot some constellations in the sky. Maybe it was just the distractions of the awesomeness that was the Aurora or it was the extra light that made finding some darker stars a bit harder. Still, Orion, 7 Sisters, Big Dipper and The North Star are all pretty easily recognizable in the above photos (not all constellations in all photos). That was another fun bit of the sighting time.
If you happen to be in Yellowknife for an Aurora viewing and you’ve got a rental car at your disposal I’d skip the Aurora Village and just head to Vee Lake on your own. It is essentially the same view and a heck of a lot cheaper. Sure, no heated pods to sit in but they weren’t all that warm to begin with. And you can pack a thermos of coffee or hot cocoa for a lot less than $125/person. Plus, you can leave when you’re ready. Definitely an easy trip to do on your own. Maybe drive out to the lake once in daylight to familiarize yourself with the route, but it is pretty easy. And completely worth it.
Aurora Village, with no Aurora:
One thing the Yellowknife region is not short on is park lands. Despite being the center of a mining and industrial region there are more lakes than can be counted and a massive amount of park lands surrounding town. Fortunately for tourists the Ingram Trail, a/k/a NWT Route 4, provides access to many of these facilities.
The trail leads north-east from Yellowknife for about 70 kilometers and all along the way are public park facilities that provide entertainment year-round. In the summer there are boat launches and campgrounds. In the winter the lakes freeze over to form cross-country skiing or snowmobile tracks and the rivers mostly freeze up as well.
Fortunately for us on this trip, however, the -15–20°C weather was still early in the season. The falls may solidify fully later in the winter but it was not yet sufficient to actually freeze Cameron Falls completely. There was plenty of ice on and around the falls, but the water was still running and visible, making for a beautiful scene.
Getting to the falls involved a 25 minute hike through snow-covered hills and amongst some rather amazing scenery. Birch and conifers lined the well marked path – mostly just earthen but raised boardwalks in some areas – and their ice-covered branches sparkled in the low sun barely peeking over the top of the hills.
About 15 minutes into the hike the sounds of the running water coming from through the trees spurred us on and we were very soon upon a clearing at the top of a hill overlooking the falls.
From here we continued on the path, walking a bit upstream from the main falls as well as descending down the hill until we found ourselves on the banks of the river. Keeping an eye out for what was land and what was an ice shelf was particularly important at this point as it was obvious the ice was not particularly solid across the river. Still, getting up close to the falls meant some phenomenal views of the different sections and their various states of freezing over.
The trail also showcased some local wildlife. Despite the cold there were still a few animals out enjoying the brisk early winter weather. As an added bonus they were not particularly intimidated by humans nearby.
The hike served a dual purpose on this chilly afternoon. We were all quite toasty by the time we made it back to the car and headed out for the next adventure. Maybe it was the five layers of clothing that really solved that problem, but the moving around definitely contributed.
It turns out that I really prefer travelling on the holiday rather than the day before. The roads and the airport were quiet this morning and the plane is only a third full, meaning we started boarding 15 minutes late and still pushed back early. No complaints there at all.
Today is my first trip ever (or at least in a long time, but I’m pretty sure ever) on Air Canada: Newark – Calgary – Yellowknife. The first flight is 4:18 on an Embraer E190. I’m a huge fan of the aircraft type – generally quite comfortable – but the only food in coach is BoB, so I decided to raid the lounges in the airport for breakfast supplies instead.
Due to some rather poor planning on my part I needed to stop by the Continental Presidents Club in Newark as well as the United Airlines Red Carpet Club. They’re in different security areas in the A terminal which means I got to clear security twice today. At least no Nude-o-Scopes in service in these terminals yet. On the plus side, it slowed me down enough that I got to se the awesome sunrise rather than already being holed up in a lounge.
It also means I got to pick up my favorite breakfast supplies from both clubs rather than having to choose. A lot of folks are pretty die-hard about whether they like the snack options at one lounge or the other better. For me, however, a solid airport breakfast is a combination from the two: yogurt from the RCC and a granola bar (or three) from the PClub. Yummeh!
I suppose now is as good a time as any to offer up a brief review of the Air Canada product, at least first impressions. When the plane is only a third full it is easy to feel like it is incredibly comfortable. Plenty of room for bags, easy boarding and plenty of space on board as well. I think it would be the same even if the plane was full based on my experience on other E190s though overhead space would be a bit harder, particularly with all the heavy coats headed north this morning. Even with the light load, however, the crew was pretty phenomenal. A flight attendant passed through the aisle every 20-30 minutes offering water throughout the flight; a nice touch.
The IFE system – enRoute – is pretty slick. A roughly 10 inch touch screen in the seat back offering movies, TV, music and games on demand is always a good thing. Sadly, the map feature was not working this morning but the other stuff seems to be pretty solid. The XM music appears to be a recorded loop, not the live feed but there are also about 100 CDs available to choose from. The movie selection was pretty current (Salt and Inception were both options on this morning’s flight) and there are a few older films on offer as well. The Classics were a bit older than I was hoping for but a solid representation of the era. A few dozen TV episodes available, too. Truly, if you cannot find something to pass an hour or two of the flight on the AVOD system you’re probably doing it wrong.
Finally, the seats. They’re pretty nice. My only (small) complaint is the lack of an adjustable headrest on the seats.When I’m sitting upright the bottom of the headrest is in my shoulder blades rather than supporting my head and neck. But I don’t sit up all that often so not the end of the world.
Overall a rather comfortable way to fly. I’m now pretty confident that I’ll be quite comfortable on my trip to Munich and Salzburg with Air Canada in January.