Admittedly, a city with a population of only 19,000 in the Canadian Northwest Territories may not be the first vacation idea to come to mind for most people. However, drawing from its days a town that — literally — used to boom during a gold rush in the 1930s, Yellowknife is still an explosion of northern charm and colorful personality. Lucky for me, I was able to enjoy a self-guided Yellowknife tour, going back in time in its Old Town.
While gold was first discovered around Yellowknife back in the 1800’s, most of the mining industry’s attention was 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers) west in Klondike during this time. With that, it wasn’t until most of the western mines had been staked out that people began to turn their attention to Yellowknife.
Before any mining could begin around the area, the miners first needed to find a place to settle somewhere along the coast of the region’s Great Slave Lake. This proved to be a full task in itself, as the area was heavily forested and the terrain was highly uneven. As a result, most of the original settlements were forced into odd outcroppings along a lakeside hill (known commonly as “the rock”). Residents found this lack of urban planning pretty comical and honored it with street names like “Ragged Ass Road” and similarly miss-matched housing color schemes lead to others like “Rainbow Valley.”
Although mining was central to the town’s creation, not all of Yellowknife’s industries happened below the Earth’s surface. Trading posts like Weaver & Devore thrived and cafes, bars and bistros popped up along the shores of the Great Slave Lake over the years.
From Downtown To Old Town
Although expansion eventually required the city to extend off the rock, today the original downtown — now Old Town — remains intact and vibrant as ever. While the last gold mine officially shut its doors in 2004, many of the sites reminiscent of the golden age have been kept alive through heritage protection programs. These efforts have helped keep the area’s personality as strong as ever.
In my own visit to Yellowknife’s Old Town I found the perfect place to begin is Bush Pilot’s monument at the top of the rock. This site was dedicated to all of the bush pilots who flew out of Yellowknife, both in the 1930s when there was no other option for getting into town, and also to those who fly out of the city today. After a quick climb, I was faced with panoramic views of not only Old Town, but the surrounding waterways, aqua planes and rainbow-colored floating houses dotting the horizon. It was easy to tell why this location was chosen to commemorate the area’s bush pilots, as I felt like I was almost in the air from the top of the rock.
Old Town Shops
The dynamic scenery and rich history has called a gathering of modern and traditional artists and galleries alike to the old shores. I walked into what appeared to be a carving shop to find myself face-to-face not only with collections of narwhal tusk necklaces and statues, but also the owner’s kitchen and living room. At my slightly stunned face, she grinned at me, saying, “Welcome to the north, Hun. We’re just open like this.”
She then offered to bring me around to her husband’s workroom, where he was using a large saw to prepare several new pieces of bone for future projects. There was a passion in his eyes as he carefully prepared his materials, oblivious to both his wife and the stranger who had wandered into his workspace.
The nearby Gallery of the Midnight Sun carried a contrastingly professional image. Works of Inuit art and contemporary paintings hung side by side to display the best Yellowknife had to offer.
While certain shops carried a similar home-y atmosphere, the majority were purely professional, offering everything from $20,000 polar bear skin rugs to souvenir street signs for “Ragged Ass Road” and “Lois Lane” (an actual street named after Margot Kidder, a Yellowknifer who played Superman’s leading lady in the 1970s and 80s).
Old Town Eatery
The old miners themselves may have left Yellowknife behind, but their rough and tumble personas live on in Bullock’s Bistro across from Weaver & Devore. While the building appeared quite small from the outside, a lively group crowded around the outdoor patio gave the feeling that good things were about to come from this small package. My feeling was emphasized as I entered the narrow door to be greeted by an overwhelming collection of stickers and graffiti plastered all over the ceiling, walls and grill in the open-concept kitchen. My friends and I pulled up seats around a wood table and read previous visitors’ comments on the walls. Japanese guests had fallen in love with the northern lights from atop Pilot’s Monument, and Northwesterns had become equally enamored with being able to visit a restaurant in a big city, as most towns around the region don’t offer much in the way of dining selection.
After sitting for nearly 20 minutes without being greeted by the restaurant’s server, she eventually made her way over and informed us — in a tone that hinted something like this should be obvious — that we needed to shout our orders out to her if we wanted to get served. Since Bullock’s gets all of its fish, which is the only dish it serves, straight from the local catch of the day, our options consisted of whitefish, whitefish or whitefish (stewed, deep-fried or pan fried) served with a salad and French fries. I opted for the pan fried variety and received a quick nod. However, when a friend of mine tried to ask for extra fries instead of a salad, he received an onslaught of scolding not only from the waitress, but also from the chef for not wanting to eat his vegetables. While I would have found this type of service ghastly in most establishments, it seemed to fit right into a place that greeted you with a quirky “Caution: Kangaroos Crossing Ice Highway” sign.
While Bullock’s rough around the edges style meant the kitchen accidentally thought I ordered the deep-fried whitefish, in true northern style, they apologized by presenting me with both a deep-fried and pan-fried cut on my plate. After digging in, I found I had made the right selection with the pan-fried; it was made with an appetizing collection of seasonings, while the deep-fried variety was left a little plain. Fortunately, the meal came with tartar and feta cheese sauces that gave it some punch. The salad itself was a simple iceberg lettuce mix, but the dressing of balsamic vinaigrette with maple syrup and soya sauce turned it into a memorable side by adding both a sweet and salty kick.
Altogether, Bullock’s is a master of taking something simple, like a small space and the daily catch, and turning it into a unique experience. Along with the rest of Old Town, it’s definitely a place worth a visit.
About The Author
Currently working in a museum, Judi Zienchuk has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada. She loves travel, longboarding and coffee flavoured ice cream. To get more personal, check out her blog, Travvel Sized.
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