Yellowknife is not a foodie destination. It doesn't have chic hotels with rooftop bars serving craft cocktails. There is no vibrant hipster scene dominating gentrified industrial neighbourhoods haunted by the ghosts of a displaced working class. Yellowknife sits at Aurora's sweet spot, wears its bounteous ethnic diversity like a favourite jumper and is the friendliest city I know.
The capital of Northwest Territories lies 400 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle on the banks of Canada's deepest lake. Yellowknife supports 21,000 people in a territory of just over double that number. Dene, Inuvialuit and Metis people make up half the territory's population and a quarter of Yellowknife's while everyone else comes from either there or near or far.
Flying in, the lake-riddled landscape could be the age-worn hide of a lone wolf or rogue bear. Gold was discovered there in 1898, but everyone was busy rushing to the Yukon's Klondike and the float planes, boats and gold miners only began flocking in from the 1930s. Commercial gold mining has given way to diamonds, but individuals continue to prospect for the yellow stuff 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 only lasts four hours. That first evening, I catch a free bus to Folk on the Rocks for traditional throat-singing, a Montreal blueswoman and a food truck dinner. The next morning I borrow a visitor centre bike and roll into Old Town alongside laid-back traffic; there isn't road rage in The Blade, I'm told, just twice-daily road irritation.
Five minutes from a city centre dominated by practical administrative buildings, Old Town speaks of another time and attitude. I pedal Ragged Ass Road in the Woodyard neighbourhood where timber shacks, built straight onto Canadian Shield bedrock, proudly remain off-the-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 who isn't expecting me. Yellowknife lakes are so robust "my arm got tired before the fish stopped biting" one visitor tells me. Shawn's gone home to Hay River, but Karla shows me around the boat and suggests I come back in two days.
I easily fill my time in Yellowknife stand-up paddle-boarding, sandblasting patterns onto repurposed bottles at Glassworks, eating pan-fried lake trout at Bullocks Bistro then settling up "inside by the caribou", poking around galleries, walking up Pilot's Monument, falling into countless conversations. I lose hours in Weaver & Devore Trading; a true northern store opened by trappers in 1936 where I nearly buy a coyote-ruffed Canada Goose parka – Yellowknife's unofficial winter uniform – but they don't have the bright blue I like in my size.
On winter evenings, when temperatures can get to 30 below, Yellowknifers cram into the Black Knight, the Raven, the Cellar, the Monkey Tree and the Gold Range – also called the Strange Range and infamous for giant egg rolls, tequila slammers and house band Welders Daughter.
The winter outdoor scene is even livelier with dogsledding, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, festivals and is the season when house-boaters can drive rather than canoe home. When I ask one how he knows the ice is thick enough, he gestures towards a floating neighbour: "That guy's crazy. When he starts driving, I wait two weeks."
Then there's the Aurora factor. Yellowknife's particular position of 68 degrees magnetic north means exceptionally few clear dark nights without lights.
Shawn's still in Hay River but Karla's cooked me breakfast anyway and invited a neighbour who regales us with stories of growing up in Jamaica and more recent self-publishing exploits. In the afternoon I tour the Legislative Assembly – in Downtown, which is "back uptown" from Old Town – then follow my nose and the rainbow crossing to elk and cranberry smokies at the farmers' market and a moose hide tanning demo.
The next day I fly to Fort Simpson to raft between kilometre-high canyons on the territory's wild Nahanni River.
Six months later, when I know Yellowknife will be soaked in midwinter's peachy light as the sun makes its low tired-arm arc, an email arrives from Weaver & Devore. A parka my colour and size has arrived. Short days will be giving way to long nights of brilliant Aurora. Locals will have begun building an ice castle on the lake for the royal ball, table tennis tournaments, live bands and film screenings of Snowking's Winter Festival throughout March.
I ask how long they can hold the jacket for me.
The Woodyard Brewhouse & Eatery in Old Town adjoins its 3.5-barrel craft brewery NWT Brewing Company and serves a peanut butter hamburger. See nwtbrewingco.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Destination Canada and Northwest Territories Tourism.