This blog post was made possible in partnership with The Great Canadian Travel Company.
Established in 1980, The Great Canadian Travel Company is a long-standing tourism company that offers worldwide tours for wanderlusters of all types. This past weekend, we took part in one of their Arctic Canada tours: the Yellowknife Stopover – a four day, three night excursion to the capital of the Northwest Territories.
Yellowknife is an aurora mecca, drawing tourists from all over the world, most obviously Japan - over 30,000 Japanese visitors have flocked to the Northwest Territories in the last two years. But while a large majority of people visiting Yellowknife come from southern Canada or other parts of the world, the city is also frequented by its fair share of Northern residents from neighbouring territories - like us! Here's what the Knife had in store for us this past weekend.
Flight to Yellowknife via Rankin Inlet
The second we stepped onto the tarmac, we were greeted by wide green bands of northern lights overhead. The timing of our Yellowknife Stopover coincided with the annual Snowking Festival, so after taking the free airport shuttle to our accommodations, we headed down to the snow castle on Great Slave Lake for some live music and hot chocolate.
Description: Guided tour of Yellowknife in a vehicle.
Duration: 2 hours
We were picked up at our hotel by tour guide Kyle Thomas, long-time resident and the founder of Yellowknife Online. Our 2-hour tour took us all around Yellowknife, giving us a lay of the land as well as a good bit of both historical and current context. Highlights for us included stops at the 6.5 km ice road to Dettah, a drive by Yellowknife's famous houseboats, and a hike to the top of Pilot Monument for panoramic views of the city and a cup of hot chocolate.
My Backyard Tours will take groups of up to 10 people, which gives the tour an intimate, personal touch. Having a knowledgable tour guide is an added bonus: not only was Kyle able to give us a host of vetted recommendations to fill our spare time, but his familiarity with the town meant we were privy to local landmarks you wouldn't find in a tour book, like Freya, a husky who watches over the neighbourhood from the comfort of her own roof.
The fact that we weren't on a bus packed full of people also meant that we could customize our tour based on our interests and whims. Heck, we even tacked on our own Yellowknife Sushi Tour!
Description: Aurora-viewing at a fully-equipped cabin about 30 minutes from town by snowmobile.
Duration: 4 hours
Carlos from Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures brought us from our hotel to their office where we met our tour companions for the evening, a lovely couple from St. Louis, Missouri. After brief introductions, we were handed helmets and escorted to a set of warm-and-waiting snowmobiles. Obviously, we arrived with all of our own gear (minus the helmets), but for those travelling from non-Arctic regions, Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures provides winter clothing rentals, from boots to parkas to balaclavas - everything you would need to keep warm while driving your skidoo.
Geared up and seated two to a sled, we followed Carlos out onto the frozen lake and towards his cabin, about 25-30 minutes from town. Nestled on a hill surrounded by little trees and frozen water, the cabin and grounds included various decks, platforms, and other viewing spots, perfect to capture the aurora.
We were treated to unseasonably warm weather during our stay, with temperatures between -20 and -9 degrees Celsius. This meant we were able to actually enjoy being outside (imagine that), giving us time to set up shots, experiment with composition, and most of all, have a lot of fun. That being said, Yellowknife is generally a cold, cold place, but visitors who arrive to less desirable climes need not fear: in between light shows, you can warm yourself by the fire in Carlos' spacious, beautifully appointed cabin. For your enjoyment, you will find an assortment of freshly-made hot beverages, as well as country food expertly prepared by Carlos (who is also a trained chef). On the menu for us was spicy deer meat, pan-fried to perfection.
Now, as Iqaluit residents, we have seen our fair share of the aurora. That being said, while aurora-viewing is possible in many northern locations, Yellowknife is world-renowned for its near-nightly shows. For us, the landscape of trees, cabins, and snow provided an interesting and dynamic background, different from the tundra-rock-sky vista we're used to. More importantly, the Northwest Territories don't claim title of the Aurora Capital of the World for nothing: the aurora above Yellowknife is not merely predicted, it's expected. We were told that if you spend three nights outside, your chances of seeing the aurora are 98 percent. It only took us one night.
Description: A (partially) self-driven dog sled ride around Grace Lake.
Duration: 1.5 hours
From our hotel, we joined a bus full of other tourists that took us to Beck's Kennels, about 20 minutes from downtown Yellowknife. There, we were divided three pairs to a group and shuffled to a set of sleds, all three tethered on one end to dog teams and on the back end to a snowmobile. Once we were on the sleds, one standing on the back, one seated, the snowmobile 's engine started and the dogs took off. Without having received any instruction or guidance, we glanced at each other over the sled's railing. Would we be attached to the snowmobile and the other two dog sleds for the entire trip?
As it turned out, the snowmobile was only necessary to help control our path through a few small roads. Once we reached the open space of frozen Grace Lake, each dog team was set free, and we had the opportunity to ride our sleds unescorted. The dogs were a mix of breeds, all much smaller than the huskies we're used to in Nunavut, and spritely little things that knew exactly where to go. If you've never been dogsledding before, this would be the perfect introduction, and much more fun than just riding in a sled.
Description: Aurora-viewing at a cabin at the end of the Ingraham Trail, hosted by long-time tour operators.
Duration: 4 hours
Confession: This trip almost didn't happen after a slight miscommunication on our part. That we ended up participating was entirely due to the wonderfully accommodating and understanding My Backyard Tours staff, beginning again with the affable Kyle Thomas, who drove us out of the city and along the Ingraham Trail to a clearing where we parked the car, grabbed our headlamps, and continued on-foot along a path lit by lanterns.
At the end of the trail we were met by Margaret (Maggie) and Murray who welcomed us into a large but still cozy cabin, built by Murray himself. Inside, we met another group travelling from the States, this one a trio of teens and a chaperone from Arizona, all of whom were surprised that we found the weather pleasant (it was -10 degrees Celsius; that is not cold). Maggie, who has also been running Peterson's Point Lake Lodge for over 30 years, immediately offered us a slew of homemade treats, including fresh-baked bannock and jams, hot apple cider, and fruit crumble cooked atop the wood-burning stove with ice cream - enough to warm any soul, no matter the temperature.
In between snacking, we were enthusiastically engaged in conversation with Maggie and Murray, both of whom have been living in and travelling around the north since the 1970s. Without a doubt, Maggie makes this experience, period. From the aforementioned fix-up of our mix-up, to the baked goodies, to her infectious attitude and caring demeanour, she clearly loves welcoming people into her world and ensuring they enjoy their time whilst there.
Of course, good hospitality is desired in any tour situation, but it may play a special role when it comes to aurora viewing. Why? Well, here's the thing about the northern lights: they're never a guarantee, even in the Aurora Capital of the World. On this particular night, the lights were faint at best, and non-existent most of the night.
So what do you do with six aurora watchers and no aurora? Well, if you're Maggie Peterson, you have them suit up, go outside, make snow angels, slide on toboggans, and just generally enjoy the great outdoors anyway. It also helped that our American counterparts were just as easygoing and festive as our hosts, all motivated to make the most of their northern vacation. Fuelled by food and great company, we forgot the absent aurora and instead made our own light show.
On our final morning, we had a few hours to spend catching up with friends before our flight at 10:20 AM. Again, we had a brief stopover in Rankin Inlet (if you end up staying in the community a bit longer, be sure to check out our travel guide for Rankin Inlet!) before heading home to Iqaluit.
After spending so much quality time in the Knife, it became clear to us that the two Northern hubs offer very different experiences, even for us Arctic dwellers. And with so many personal and professional ties between the two capitals, it's almost certain that another Yellowknife stopover is in the cards for us - and maybe you, too!