On a planet containing seven billion people, it is difficult to imagine that there are still places as empty as the Northwest Territories. A vast swath of boreal forest and Arctic tundra five times the size of England, it has a population of a small provincial town. After driving through one of the most remote stretches of highway in the world, we arrived in Yellowknife. Coming into the Capitol of the Northwest Territories, we discovered a vibrant and crowded city that contains 50% of the Territories’ residents. Sadly, like many Canadian and American cities, it also contained a sizeable number of homeless and destitute people. The city was founded in the 1930s as a gold mining town and the Old Town still retains the look of its rough and tumble roots. Diamond mining has replaced gold mining and Yellowknife still has the feel of a boomtown. However, like in many boomtowns, some locals are wondering what comes next when the stones run low in the next decade or two.
After checking in to the Explorer’s Hotel, we were surprised to find an excellent Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Yellowknife. The refugee couple that owned and ran the business were struggling but somehow managed, through hard work and deep faith, to keep their hopes alive. After today’s long drive and a great meal, we decided to spend the rest of the evening enjoying the clear sky and perpetual dusk of the Far North.
We followed a beautiful trail the city has created along a shore to the Museum and the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. We later walked over to the Old Town and immediately felt that this part of town was our home in Yellowknife. It was filled with small, funky shops, cafes and old pioneer houses. From the Bush Pilot’s Monument atop a large rock, we had a sweeping view of this entire area. We looked down on a small frozen inlet and noticed several people on cross country skis out on the ice. After our initial trepidation, we gingerly stepped out onto the frozen lake and immediately understood why this is a magical place. We walked out to the hand-built houseboats frozen on the lake and talked to a young man living in one of these quasi-legal homes. It reminded me of a photo-essay I did years ago on a similar quasi-legal community living on boats in San Francisco Bay that were called “anchor outs”. The people here embodied the free spirit of this alternative community living at the end of Yellowknife Highway.
The next morning, we photographed the exquisite Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Library. The librarian explained that this modern circular building was built to mimic the design of an Indigenous igloo. Prior to the construction of this building in 1990s, the Legislative Assembly would meet in different communities throughout the Northwest Territories carrying a large, throne-like chair to establish their authority.
Our next stop was the Public Library of Yellowknife. The library seemed to have some issues with security. I was asked several times to show my letter of permission to photograph in the library which indicated that the mean streets outside sometimes came in here. However, it was full of great public art purchased by the city created mostly by local artists. Libraries like this are often a reflection of the complicated reality of the communities they are in.
After photographing these two libraries, we were determined to see and experience as much of this area as possible. Although located next to the vast Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife didn’t seem to have much public access to the fifth largest lake in North America, and the tenth largest in the world. We drove along the Ingram Trail to the Indigenous community of Dettah which is right on the lake. From the shores of the Great Slave Lake, we could see the ice-covered water stretching off to infinity. The opposite shore was beyond the edge of the horizon.
We continued east from Dettah on the Ingram Trail until the paved road ended. Ahead was a gravel road that continued for a few more miles and then, no road at all between there and the North Pole. This spot defined the word “remote”. This marked the most remote Walker and I had ever driven.
Driving back, we stopped at one of the most amazing hikes that I have ever been on. The Cameron Falls Trail in the Hidden Lake Territorial Park clambered over Canadian Shield rock through pine (what kind?) and birch forests ending at the breath-taking Cameron Falls. The river had been covered in ice that had recently partially collapsed revealing a raging torrent beneath the blanket of ice. For both of us, this view represented one of the defining moments of the trip and one of the highlights of the spectacular Northwest Territories.
Back in Yellowknife, we headed to the oldest building in Old Town called Bullock’s Bistro. This place has been through a lot and it did a good job of retaining the memory of its earlier, rowdy days. The character of the place seemed real, but it is very popular with tourists, especially during the summer. When we were there, all the people we talked with were locals and everyone wanted to talk with us. We became instant celebrities when we said that we had just driven from San Francisco. The place was filled with characters. Our French-Canadian waitress was speaking in French to our neighbor who was Arcadian from the Maritimes. Her husband was a mining engineer who spoke French and Spanish and had worked for long periods in Mexico. The couple in back of us invited us over for drinks and everyone thought that Yellowknife was the greatest place on Earth. After today, we would tend to agree.
We ended the evening with another short hike out on the nearby ice lake. The temperature today had gotten up to the 60s and we could tell that the ice was thinner. At one point my feet broke through the crust and my boots got soaked. Fortunately, the underlying ice held, and I quickly scampered away to more solid ice. Of course, this didn’t stop me from photographing several of the quirky houseboats sitting on their icy beds in the Arctic twilight.
We will be very sad to leave tomorrow after our impossibly short stay in Yellowknife. As we headed back to our room at the Explorer’s Hotel, we paused to take a selfie in front of a much-photographed polar bear. I am thankful for our explorer’s spirit that compelled us to make this long but incredible journey. I am sure that we will be back.