Good Weekend

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Why Canada's Yellowknife is an ideal spot to see the northern lights

Yellowknife is not a foodie destination. It doesn't have chic hotels with rooftop bars serving craft beers. There is no vibrant hipster scene dominating gentrified industrial neighbourhoods haunted by the ghosts of a displaced working class. That said, it wears its bounteous ethnic diversity like a favourite jumper, and is the friendliest city I know.

The capital of Northwest Territories, Yellowknife lies 400 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle beside Canada's deepest lake, Great Slave. It supports about 20,000 people in a territory of just over double that, with Indigenous peoples – the Dene, Inuvialit and Métis – constituting a quarter of the city's population and half of the Territories'.

Flying in, the lake-riddled landscape could be the age-worn hide of a lone wolf or rogue bear. Miners rushed to the area from the 1930s and, though gold has given way to diamonds, individuals continue to prospect for flakes and nuggets and "The Knife" still fancies itself a place of mercenaries, missionaries and misfits.

I visit Yellowknife in late June, when daytime temperatures are in the mid-20s and night lasts only four hours. A free bus takes me to Folk on the Rocks festival for a sunny evening that includes throat singing, a Montreal blueswoman and some food-truck cuisine.

The next morning I roll into Old Town on a borrowed visitor centre bike alongside laid-back traffic; there's no road rage here, locals say, just twice-daily irritation.

Despite close proximity to the city's administrative centre, Old Town speaks of another time and attitude. On Ragged Ass Road, in the Woodyard neighbourhood, longstanding timber shacks built straight onto bedrock proudly remain off-grid, without running water or sewerage systems.


"That's my bunk, that's my junk," says deckhand Karla Peterson at nearby Government Dock, where I've come in search of fisherman and tour operator Shawn Buckley. The fishing on Yellowknife lakes, I hear, is so good that your angling arm gets tired long before the fish stop biting.

Buckley isn't expecting me and is back home in Hay River, so Peterson suggests I return in two days. I easily fill the time stand-up paddle-boarding, poking around in galleries, walking to Bush Pilots Monument lookout, eating lake trout at Bullocks Bistro, and falling into countless conversations. I lose hours in Weaver & Devore Trading, opened by trappers in 1936, and nearly buy a coyoteruffed Canada Goose parka, except they don't have the blue I like in my size.

Yellowknife isn't just a summer destination. On winter evenings, when temperatures can drop to 30 below, locals and visitors cram into bars such as Black Knight, the Raven, the Cellar, the Monkey Tree and the Gold Range – nicknamed Strange Range and infamous for its tequila slammers and house band, Welders Daughter. The outdoor scene is even livelier, with dog-sledding, snowmobiling, ice-fishing and festivals.

It's also when the locals drive their cars home across the lake rather than paddle their canoes. When I ask how they know the ice is thick enough, one gestures towards a neighbour. "That guy's crazy," he tells me. "When he starts driving, I wait two weeks." Then there's the aurora factor. Yellowknife is noted as a great place to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

Two days later, Buckley is still in Hay River but Peterson cooks me breakfast anyway, inviting a neighbour who regales us with tales of his Jamaican childhood. The next day, I fly to Fort Simpson for a week of rafting the South Nahanni River.

Six months after that, when I know Yellowknife's sun will be making its daily tired-arm arc between long nights of brilliant aurora, and locals will be building an ice castle on the lake in preparation for Snowking's Winter Festival, an email arrives from Weaver & Devore. They have a parka in my colour and size. I ask how long they can hold the jacket for me.

The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Canada and Northwest Territories Tourism.

Keep it real

DREAM ON Sleep comfortably in one of the city's hotels; try the Explorer or Chateau Nova. Alternatively, overnight like a local in a B&B, lodge or log cabin, or one of the houseboats on Airbnb.

GET CRAFTY The Woodyard Brewhouse & Eatery in Old Town adjoins NWT Brewing Company. As well as beer on tap, there are brisket tacos, charcuterie boards, mac 'n' cheese, tempura vegetables and a Shack Burger with an optional smear of peanut butter.

SEE THE LIGHT If Aurora's out and about you can see it from the city centre but the show is significantly better without light pollution. Viewing experiences are offered by companies such as North Star Adventures, which claims to be "100 per cent Aboriginal owned – 50,000 years of experience".

HAVE A BLAST Old Town Glassworks is an off-grid co-operative selling glassware by local artists and giving workshops on how to sandblast patterns onto glasses made from salvaged bottles. Old Town Bikeworks, on the same site, rents out reclaimed bicycles.

TOUR OF DUTY A free guided tour of the Legislative Assembly – known in Yellowknife as "The Ledge" – is not just about government, ministers, law-making and parliamentary proceedings but also architecture, culture, acoustics, maces past and present, and some of the territory's most exquisite Aboriginal artworks.

GET OUT OF TOWN From Yellowknife you can access a vast area comprising small communities, countless lakes and wild rivers, canyons, mountains, and forests where bison, moose, grizzly bears and black bear roam free. Whether guided or independent, winter or summer, you are guaranteed an adventure.