I'd always wanted to take a trip up north during the days of midnight sun. This is Part 1 of a weekend adventure in the character-packed northern Canadian city.
Friday night strangeness on the range
The sun was still shining brightly when Nonie and I landed just after 11:00 pm on the 4th Friday in June. We quickly checked into our hotel and headed downtown to experience Yellowknife by night.
The Gold Range hotel bar was dark inside due to its lack of windows and dim lighting. Even so, it didn't take long to see why it's known as the "Strange Range".
The bar was packed with intoxicated locals, mostly of a fairly young or fairly old vintage. A talented band played a mix of rootsy rock and country tunes, but it was hard to hear them over the din. There was an altercation in one corner involving some slurry, high-pitched female swearing and screaming. It was disturbing for a few moments, but eventually the ladies were hugging it out and all was good again.
We perched ourselves at a stand-up table, and soon a friendly but tipsy woman wobbled over. She hoisted her drink in our direction and proclaimed "Long time no see, ladies"! We laughed and told her we were just visiting, but she was quickly distracted when the band started playing her apparently most favourite song of all time. She asked us to watch her purse and grabbed the first guy she could find, dragging him towards the dance floor. He looked back at us, raised his free arm in sheepish surrender and did as he was commanded.
Knight of the brown tables
Out on the street, we saw more of Yellowknife's rough and tumble character come through. This time, four RCMP officers were keeping the peace between a few intoxicated youths. The cops were so calm, we figured it must all be in a night's work for them, so we just breezed on by.
Once we made it to the Black Knight Pub, we found a much more restrained atmosphere. It was fairly bright with a diverse, low-key crowd immersed in friendly conversations. There was a namesake knight in armour standing watch stoically over the proceedings. A soundtrack of classic rock tunes hummed over the speakers. It was a decent place for a relaxed drink.
We chose to pass on experiencing the self-proclaimed "best nightclub in Yellowknife" - The Raven. Even though the night was still bright, we knew we'd be no match for the 20-something crowd lingering outside as the dance beats pulsed from from within.
Saturday morning in Old Town
We started our explorations of Old Town at Bush Pilot's Monument. It's easy to find, since it's at the top of "The Rock" - Yellowknife's version of the Rock of Gibraltar and the biggest hill in town.
We climbed to the top for 360-degree views. We could see float planes and boats at docked all around the shoreline of Yellowknife Bay and brightly painted houseboats anchored around Joliffe Island. The modest city skyline stood across the bay and the streets of Old Town were below. It was all set handsomely against a classic Canadian Shield landscape, although threatened by some dramatic-looking clouds.
The monument itself is a simple iron sculpture of an ascending northward-facing "paper" airplane perched on top of a stone pillar. It honours the bush pilots who basically made life possible in Northern communities. They delivered mail and essential goods, picked up prospectors and miners from remote camps and brought in doctors and other personnel.
We spent some time poking around the quirky shops and galleries of Old Town. Each was housed in its own unique wood cottage or log building, and most were creatively decorated with funky artwork and signage. We saw so many beautiful handmade items: leather goods, beaded jewelry, fur hats and mittens, baskets, paintings and glass work. Surprisingly good shopping for such a small city.
It seems Yellowknifers like to pretty up almost every outdoor surface with bright paint and sassy designs. Probably to keep things cheery during the long dark winter months. We found colour on bus benches, garbage bins and outdoor art installations. We admired a collaborative cross-cultural art project that included a carved and painted cliff face, marble sculpture and clifftop metal teepee.
Not the yellow brick road
When visiting The Knife, you must make a pilgrimage to Ragged Ass Road. The street got its name during the area's Gold Rush days. It started with a sarcastic joke tossed out by a prospector after a tough season. Since he and his neighbours were feeling "ragged ass broke", they thought their street name should reflect their sorry state of being.
Locals embraced the name enthusiastically, but it took city officials a while to come around. Eventually they adopted it officially and posted city-issued street signs. When people started stealing them as souvenirs, local shops began selling replicas of the signs in both mini and life-sizes. And if the name sounds familiar, Canadian singer Tom Cochrane made the street famous well beyond the the territory with his song of the same name.
The street was residential and the homes along the way seemed rather less "ragged-assed" than they might once have been. Many had small greenhouses - a logical way to extend an otherwise short growing season for gardeners. We also spotted scrap metal "art" and battered cars in some of the rocky yards. Definitely a street with character.
Afternoon eats & drinks
We chose local institution Bullock's Bistro for lunch and couldn't have dreamed up a better midday meal. The place oozed character inside and out, with sarcastic signs and handwritten messages from past patrons decorating every available surface.
Almost as soon as we sat down, the waitress delivered a plate of homemade bread and butter, still warm from the oven. The fish dishes were generously portioned and super fresh. They came with both salad and fries on the side along with house-made tarter sauce, salad dressing and a fantastic dill cheese spread for our bread.
As we were finishing, the cook pulled a warm tray of cinnamon buns from the oven. If only we'd left room for dessert! In the end, our bill was not a small one, but you know what they say about getting what you pay for...
We'd spotted the NWT Brewing Company during our morning walkabout, so we couldn't resist stopping in at their brew pub - The Woodyard - to try some local ales. Kudos to NWT's creative beer-naming team; the Kicksled Cream Ale and Bug Repellent IPA were both well enjoyed by us.
Visiting a government building might not seem like an exciting thing to do, but I'd read about the unique design of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building. The location itself is attractive. It's on the shore of Frame Lake surrounded by rocky shield landscapes and native spruce trees. We have to give thanks to the security guard on duty who was kind enough to let us in for a look, even though he was about to lock the place up.
The round Assembly Hall is unique. It represents a "unity of purpose" and the territory's northern style of consensus government. We saw a striking polar bear rug spread out on the centre of the floor, and there were etched glass windows circling the upper walls that let soft natural light flood the space.
In the Great Hall outside the Chamber, we saw two magnificent maces on display- the "old" one from 1956 and a new one created in 1999 when eastern part of the Territory was broken off to form Nunavut.
Both were created by teams of local artists and craftsmen using native materials like the tusk of a narwhal (the 'unicorn of the sea'), muskox horns, Yellowknife gold, porcupine quills, beadwork and oak wood salvaged from a nearby shipwreck. The new one added in shiny precious metals -- silver and bronze -- and a huge 1.31 carat diamond from the Yellowknife area at the top of the crown. Stunning.
I never expected to be so inspired by a government building. What an example for politicians everywhere.
Golfing in the nighttime sun
It was on Nonie's list to play a round of later-than-usual evening golf. She booked the latest tee time the Yellowknife Golf Club staff would allow - 8:00 pm. The time restriction was nothing to do with a lack of light, but rather so the staff could close up at a reasonable hour. She'll have to return for the annual solstice tournament (which we missed by a week) if she wants a true midnight golf experience.
I'm not much of a golfer, so I chauffeured Nonie around in the cart, snapped some action shots and ensured her plastic wine glass (shh!) was always filled. It was a unique course with mostly sandy fairways. There was groomed grass on the greens, but even those were coated with a layer of sand. The course borders Long Lake, so there were good views of the water from a few of the holes.
The club staff gave Nonie a small turf mat to use for her fairway shots - a new style of golf for her. There was barely a cloud in the sky, so it really felt like the middle of the day the whole time.
Music into the wee hours
The night wasn't over yet. Thanks to a pre-trip Twitter exchange with <a href="" target="_blank">Yellowknife Online, we knew about the EDGE YK Solstice Slam music festival featuring local bands. Conveniently, the location was right next to the golf course, and it was starting just after we left the pro shop. We couldn't very well NOT go.
Anyway.... back to the Solstice Slam. I think it was the happiest music festival I've ever experienced. It started with the friendly gate staff offering free bug spray to all - a must for the cooler hours. There were smiling patrons perched on painted picnic tables, grooving to the beats. Strangers happily shared lighters for the festival-provided mosquito coils. Free-spirited music lovers danced in bare feet on the sand in front of the stage.
We could tell everyone was in fine spirits in appreciation of these longest days of summer. Quite understandable given the months of winter darkness they endure.
On our way out sometime after 1:00 am, we followed a few locals down to the lakeshore to enjoy views of the almost-sunset. It was a lovely way to end a fine full day in The Knife.
But we weren't finished yet. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our northern adventure. And here's to never-ending sunsets,