There is a saying in Canada’s Northwest Territories that “the land is untamed and the people are too”. But while the land may be untamed, here in this extraordinary wilderness you’ll find good old-fashioned northern hospitality and people with heart.
Our journey begins in Yellowknife, the ‘Diamond Capital of North America’ and one of the world’s last frontiers.
With around 20,000 residents – Yellowknife is full of quirky culture and colourful characters – with street names such as Ragged Ass Road and eateries such as The Wildcat Café and Dancing Moose.
An essential part of Northern Canadian history, The Wildcat Café is Yellowknife’s most beloved restaurant, originally founded in 1937 when coffee was a dime and bacon and eggs were a buck.
Legend has it that Ragged Ass Road, the most famous street in Yellowknife, was named by a group of drinking miners one night.
Yvonne Quick, of Quirky City Tours, gives us a local’s insight into the often eccentric culture and history of this city, climbing to the top of Pilot’s Monument for the views over Yellowknife Bay; visiting the stunning legislative assembly building and the vibrant Old Town.
We finish with a tour of Buffalo Airways, the home of hit reality TV series ‘Ice Pilots’, established in 1970 by another of the NWT’s colourful northern characters, “Buffalo Joe” McBryan.
The fleet of vintage aircrafts, much like the pilots and crew, are out of the ordinary. We’re flown in one of the fleet’s vintage DC‐3s across the ice-choked lakes to the town of Hay River.
Hay River is the gateway to the southern shore of Great Slave Lake and is where goods bound for isolated Arctic communities are loaded onto ships for the long trip to the Beaufort Sea.
It’s mostly known for its excellent fishing. After checking into the Ptarmigan Inn, a cosy lodge in the centre of town, we meet our guide, Tracy, who has lived in Hay River for more than 30 years.
Northwest Territories of Canada
Because it’s June and the sun sets in the Northwest Territories at around 11 pm at this time of year, there’s lots of daylight to enjoy activities well into the evening – even if it is a bit chilly, with temperatures ranging from 7 – 15⁰ C.
The short sub-Arctic summer showcases the resilience and tenacity of northern plant, animal and human life. After a long winter, Northwest Territorians take full advantage of the near 24-hours of sunlight, packing two days’ activities into one.
After a short drive to Alexandra Falls, we meet noted Aboriginal interpreter, Doug Lamalice, who leads us through the forest on his ‘Walk a Mile in my Moccasins’ tour. Doug explains the significance of Alexandra Falls from the perspective of the local First Nations people and the issues they are facing in the modern NWT of today.
Wood Buffalo National Park
It’s an early start from Hay River for the 275 kilometre drive to World Heritage-listed Wood Buffalo National Park, but being Canada’s largest national park, and one of the largest in the world, it’s an essential stop if you’re travelling in the NWT.
True to its name, we see plenty of bison roaming free, but the real thrill is the wildlife we see on the roadside on the way, including over-friendly black bears.
Although I travelled on an escorted tour, Canada’s Northwest Territories is an easy self-drive destination, although distances between towns and major attractions can be vast. The next day we set off for Fort Providence, around 175 kilometres from Hay River.
The remote Fort Providence community grew on the banks of the Mackenzie River around a mission school and a large farm. It’s a charming but remote community, where bison sometimes wander down the main street and moose-hair tufting is still a practised craft.
We check in to the aptly named Snowshoe Inn, before taking a boat trip down the Mackenzie River with another aboriginal guide, Steven Vandell of Vandell Ventures.
Steve tells us about the historical significance of the river and gives us an insight into northern life before modern conveniences. We are welcomed to dinner with a family at a local farmhouse and are given a lesson in the fine art of moose-hair tufting.
By contrast, when we return, Yellowknife no longer looks like a frontier town, but rather a big city. We feel privileged to have had such an authentic wilderness experience in a place that few visitors get to see, the Northwest Territories of Canada.
Whether you’re flying in a 60-year old plane, driving on an ice road, hanging on for dear life on a dogsled ride, fishing for world class trophy fish, golfing under the midnight sun, viewing the ‘northern lights’ of the Aurora Borealis, or eating the Canada’s best fish and chips on Ragged Ass Road, Canada’s Northwest Territories is a brilliant diamond in the rough.
Kris Madden travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and NWT Tourism.