My four day trip into this part of my country is an eye opener in many ways.
Before boarding the flight to Yellowknife, I had a very busy month of teaching, holiday prepping and celebrating. There was no time to do any research on Yellowknife other than having scant knowledge of it as being extremely cold in the winter.
To my embarrassment, I thought Yellowknife is the capital of Yukon. My fellow traveler friend F.Y. corrected me that it is actually the capital of Northwest Territories. Also, the image I had of Yellowknife was not true. Instead of a tiny remote, barren and outdated place, it is much bigger than I envisioned with all the modern amenities you would find in a big city. Of course, in comparison to Toronto, Yellowknife is much smaller.
We were staying in the heart of the city at Quality Inn & Suites, so everything was accessible by a short walk from the grocery store (Independent Grocer), Shoppers Drug Mart, restaurants (Boston Pizza, Black Knight Pub) to several banks (TD & CIBC). Our hotel was attached to the Centre Square Mall, so it was convenient to get there without putting on our jackets and snowpants. Tim Hortons and A & W were in this mall.
The frigid temperature of Yellowknife is definitely true. On the first day we arrived, it was around -35 but it felt more like -50. When breathing outdoors, I felt the chill air hurting my nostrils and cheeks. Needless to say, dressing in layers was paramount especially during the nearly five hours we were outside at night (9:30pm-2am) waiting for the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) to appear. By the last day of our stay, we mastered dressing in layers quickly and staying relatively warm.
*Here is my rule of thumb for layering during winter in Yellowknife:
Head- wear a head warmer, a toque and the hood from your coat
Neck- wear one to two scarves depending on how much cold you can tolerate plus one breathable scarf or neck warmer to protect your cheeks/lower face from the elements
Eyes- if you wear eye glasses, wearing a pair of ski goggles is a must since the eye glasses will definitely freeze and/or fog up; even if you don’t wear eye glasses, the ski goggles can protect your eyes from the cold
Upper Body- one to two base layers, one sweater, one fleece top/jacket/sweater, one light down jacket, one thick Goose Down Parka
Lower body- one to two base layers, one pair of leggings, one pair of fleece-lined jogging pants, one pair of insulated snowpants
Hands- one pair of mittens/gloves as base layer, one thermal mittens/gloves on top
Feet- two to three pairs of thermal/insulated socks and a very good pair of snow boots made for at least -40 weather (I bought mine from the Canadian brand Baffin and my feet were very cozy warm)
Here are some other important facts I learned while staying and travelling in Yellowknife:
1. On top of layering clothing, hand warmers and toe warmers have to be the final touches to stay completely warm if spending a lot of time outdoors (e.g. Aurora hunting, ice fishing etc.). The brand “Grabber Warmers” is the best out there. It really heats up quickly and lasts for a long time. Any other brand pales in comparison in terms of keeping warm for long durations.
2. Forget about dieting or eating clean! Eating a lot of food to pack on the fat to protect yourself from the extreme cold temperature is oh so important. Besides, I found my body was craving for constant food. Bread, butter, cheese, potatoes, hot chocolate, anything goes!
3. Packing extra food in the luggage is a smart move! I learned that from F.Y. who packed half of her luggage with our snacks and meals. As a foodie, I always love to explore the area I travel to and find locals eats. However, in Yellowknife I found the weather so unbearably cold that once we returned to the hotel from our daytime activities, I didn’t want to go out again to find food. These snacks and meals came in handy. We usually had a big local meal for lunch and then for the evening we ate these packed food before going Aurora hunting at night.
4. Bringing a thermos to sip a hot drink (my preference is hot chocolate!) while Aurora hunting is much needed! And snacks of your preference.
5. The sun rises at 10am and sets at 3pm. during winter so make use of the daylight!
6. Napping before Aurora hunting is a good idea so you have energy staying awake for at least 5 hours late at night and early morning!
7. A regular cell phone and/or camera will either freeze or work very slowly since the battery is not used to such frigid temperature. I noticed people with DSLRs had no problem taking photos!
8. Almost all restaurants and shops are closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
9. Yellowknife has a diamond mine. Diamonds were discovered in the early 1990s.
10. Homelessness is a big issue in Yellowknife. It seemed everywhere we went in downtown, we encountered the homeless. Seeing so many of them wandering around and trying to keep warm in the extreme cold weather really broke my heart. 😦 I have been reading about this issue since returning home, and also asked one of the local guides on the last day of my stay how tourists can help. From her suggestion and my research it looks like we can give monetary donations to a few organizations helping the homeless. I found this website which lists four shelters/organizations in Yellowknife: https://www.yellowknife.ca/en/living-here/shelters.asp
If you are interested, feel free to read about them and perhaps you would like to make a donation too. 🙂 I plan to make some donations.
My highlights for this adventurous trip were…
-driving my own dogsled at sunset around a snow-covered lake!
-participating in an Aboriginal Ice Fishing demo by our guide William (I helped pull the fish net out from the hole) and then eating fresh whitefish that we caught at Great Slave Lake. The homemade Aboriginal meal of whitefish chowder, pan-fried whitefish and bannocks was so hearty and delicious!!
-enjoying the frigid chill air of Yellowknife and the sceneries along the way as we walk into Old Town Yellowknife.
-eating at the funky popular little restaurant Bullock’s Bistro in Old Town. It is set in a heritage building from 1936 and serves fish fresh from Great Slave Lake. The walls and ceiling were decorated with tourists’ notes and memorabilia which was very cool! We were served with their freshly baked bread and rich butter and ordered the “King Fishers Haul” whitefish combo where we could choose to have the fish deep-fried, pan-fried or grilled, plus have fries, salad or both (half and half) to go with it. The portion size was very generous and when we finished eating that day we didn’t have a big dinner. Tip: To avoid being turned away since it is very popular, it is advised to make reservations at least 3 days in advance. They also take walk-ins but it may be a long wait depending on how busy they are.
-enjoying the sunset and view of the city and Great Slave Lake on Pilots’ Monument, located on “The Rock”, the highest peak in the city.
-seeing the Aurora Borealis with my naked eye!! According to our guide, usually on a clear night, the Northern Lights are guaranteed to show up. However, on the first two clear nights we were there, we had a very difficult time spotting it. Only people with DSLRs were able to spot it. Finally on our last night we felt so fortunate that she finally danced for us on and off in various forms! Being there in person witnessing this beautiful phenomena was incredible and I have to say, the pictures don’t do it justice.
Overall, despite the extreme freezing temperature of such I’ve never experienced and the long exhausting wait for the Northern Lights each night, I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure with my dear friend and feel enlightened by getting myself acquainted with this remote part of Canada. I would love to return to Yellowknife someday during warmer weather to see the Northern Lights with other colours like magenta and violet!