Yellowknife: Winter Fun & Games

What makes for a quality urban adventure? 

It often starts with an interesting, historic community, a vibrant arts scene, ancient traditions, many small private galleries, character neighbourhoods, colourful architecture, friendly people, fantastic coffee, local craft brewing, wonderful views, and plenty of great, unusual restaurants all within walking distance of your VRBO houseboat?

That sounds good, but it's even better when your houseboat is frozen into the ice beside Old Town in Yellowknife right under the amazing aurora borealis.

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  The Aurora Borealis is spectacular, constantly changing and lighting up the night sky. 

The Aurora Borealis is spectacular, constantly changing and lighting up the night sky. 

Too Much Fun

  Hockey rink developed and maintained by the houseboat community.

Hockey rink developed and maintained by the houseboat community.

Looking out the window right now there are cross country skiers, kite surfers, a hockey game, many skidoos, kids throwing snowballs, the giant Snowking Ice Castle, along with a parade of colourful neighbouring houseboats that look like a Ted Harrison painting.

A bunch of college kids have built a structure to occupy while they make hot chocolate on an open fire on the ice (together with their six dogs that are rolling and tumbling like the Muddy Waters blues song). The dogs are making big, fluffy, white clouds of snow while the leap in the air, flip, and instantly change direction while falling all over each other.

There are many fat tire bikes on trails crossing ski trails and it's busy. You need to pay attention if you are driving the ice road to Detah.

  Bullocks Bistro, one of many quirky eating establishments.

Bullocks Bistro, one of many quirky eating establishments.

Hipsters Fun

  Mario's Marvellous Movie Emporium and Coffee Shop. The green flag is up.

Mario's Marvellous Movie Emporium and Coffee Shop. The green flag is up.

The local coffee ship (it really is a ship) and movie emporium is not on Trip Advisor.

They don't advertise because they don't want any more business. It's underground and strictly word of mouth.

It’s just down the snow path on the other side of a little rock island.

When the green flag is up, it’s open. Red flag, it's closed. The barista lives next door and opens when he feels like it.

Last night he was the showing of the 1951 classic; "The Thing From Outer Space" on a snow sculpted screen built by another neighbour. There is free popcorn, and there might also have been a little extra (under the counter) that can be poured into your coffee when you are at the outdoor fire pit on the deck. They know how to celebrate winter in Yellowknife.

Yesterday afternoon we went for a dog sled ride; shared with three polite Asian girls wearing fur hats that look like Hello Kitty animals. Beck's Kennels have 160 dogs and they make so much noise it's understandable why the neighbours are mostly storage depots and industrial supply companies. Their kennels are right next to a lake, which is perfect for a very smooth and incredibly scenic mushing experience.

From our urban houseboat, we can walk to several architectural offices. There could be a happy hour late on a Friday afternoon and then it's just a short walk to local craft brewery - NWT Brewing Co. (circa 2017). Locals told us the brewery started just last year by a few young entrepreneurs and is already an institution.

  Mushing with sled dogs on one of the nearby smaller lakes.

Mushing with sled dogs on one of the nearby smaller lakes.

Breaking The Rules Fun

This is a community where everyone seems to know your name within 48 hours. You just might meet the lady who sold you the sheared beaver hand warmers on the deck of the coffee ship the next morning.

  Architectural detail from the North West Territories capital building evoke sense of the ice snow and light that creates a unique sense of place in winter. 

Architectural detail from the North West Territories capital building evoke sense of the ice snow and light that creates a unique sense of place in winter. 

The NWT legislature is an amazing building that looks like science fiction, even though it is more than 25 years old.

Designed by Vancouver architect Kiyoshi Matsuzaki in association with FSC architects, the building exhibits characteristics of the Arthur Ericson tradition, with detailing and material treatments that are completely appropriate to this unique northern context.

We couldn't have the normal tour because the guides were all suffering from the flu, but no problem. The receptionist gave us pins and postcards along with the official and unofficial history through a few juicy stories involving some of the colourful politicians represented here.

Did I mention the ice road to Detah?

  Joggers on the ice highway.

Joggers on the ice highway.

This is an amazing 150-foot wide, totally slippery, extremely busy thoroughfare right in front of our houseboat.

It is an official, seasonal highway that links Yellowknife to the neighbouring indigenous communities across the bay.

There are joggers, ice fishers, ATV's, cross country skiers, Asian tourists, dozens of big trucks, skidoos, dogs, more Asian tourists; many taking “selfies” with the ice, and even more trucks.

It's fun to do donuts on the ice. It's probably not legal, but this is not a place that cares much about legality. It's more about civility, safety, and being considerate of your neighbours.

Off The Grid Fun

Last night after a house party, we were able to walk home; well after midnight on the airport ice runway enjoying the incredible northern lights for the entire half hour walk.

  Living off the grid in a VRBO houseboat frozen into Great Slave Lake.

Living off the grid in a VRBO houseboat frozen into Great Slave Lake.

If you are off the grid, you might need to re-ignite the pilot light in the heater and the separating toilet requires some training before you use it.

One story was told of an unusual freeze cycle a few years ago that saw houseboats freeze at an angle. For the entire winter they could only drink a half a cup of coffee at a time.

Today we enjoyed a three-hour ice fishing adventure with Greg Robertson (Bluefish Services). He picks you up in his Sno-bear specialty caterpillar track van. This has holes in the floor, special fishing seats, and comes with a hands free camera that is dropped below the ice linked to a viewing screen that lets you see the fish biting your hook. Sometimes the camera itself is bitten. It's amazing.

We missed the old time fiddling competition today because we chose fishing. We had previously decided not to do the late night electronica dance party on Friday. There are activities and events going on all the time in the Snowking Winter Festival in March.

  The unique sno-bear mobile ice fishing machine.

The unique sno-bear mobile ice fishing machine.

  Winter bikers passing the sno-bear.

Winter bikers passing the sno-bear.

 We love Yellowknife.

We love Yellowknife.

Last Word

Maybe skip Palm Springs next year and enjoy some real Canadian Northern adventure. Asians are raving about it. They are currently getting 20,000 tourists a year and it's growing.

This is a city with opportunities. We thought the connections were largely to Alberta, but we are meeting mostly easterners. People from Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes love this city.

Western Canadians seem to prefer Palm Springs in the winter, but once you have been to Yellowknife  in March for the Northern Lights Snowking Winter Festival we can't understand why more people don't give this town a try. 

Everyday Tourists: Charles & Leila Olfert

 

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