Casseroles, hearty soups and freshly caught lake trout are on the menu yet the wild caribou burgers command top billing at the legendary Wildcat Cafe.
A true frontier stop, the cafe is the oldest restaurant in town and the most famous log cabin of all, serving superb cuisine on split-log tables and rickety benches where the table you share with a stranger can be a gold miner or a diamond merchant from New York.
Rivalling the early gold-rush days, diamonds are making Yellowknife sparkle. In the “Diamond Capital of North America” jewellers are selling the precious stones that have been mined, cut and polished in the North to visitors from around the world.
“I have sold custom-made rings, pendants and jewellery to people who have made special trips to Yellowknife,” says Margaret Baile, a long-time resident who recently opened Arctic Diamonds, one of an impressive eight diamond retailers in the city of 18,000. “Our bonus is that diamonds are cut and polished here.”
Each diamond mined in the Northwest Territories comes with the signature of Premier Stephen Kakswi, a Dene from Fort Good Hope, along with a certificate that assures its quality and color. “Diamonds are a nice complement to our tourism,” Baile said. “It’s really raising our profile.” In the land of the midnight sun – Yellowknife has more summer sunshine than any other Canadian city – the wilderness city is the lodestar for northern lights in winter. The peak season for the aurora borealis, which runs during fall and winter, attracts some 15,000 Japanese and Koreans alone to Yellowknife.
Perched on the rocky shores of Great Slave Lake, the capital of the Northwest Territories has come a long way from its rough and tumble beginnings when the Wildcate Cafe opened and gold was discovered on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Named after the Yellowknife band and their yellow-bladed copper hunting knives, the first settlement was established by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789.
Miners on their way to the Klondike a century later discovered gold but it was not until 1934 that the rush began, and two years later Yellowknife was a boom town.
Wrapped around Back Bay, the Old Town pokes into beautiful Great Slave Lake, the clear, cold and deep waters glittering with colorful houseboats, gleaming sailboats and noisy float planes. In winter, the crisp air crackles with the sound of panting dogs and the swish of sled runners gliding over the snow-crusted lake.
Old Town is dotted with aging gold-rush buildings and Rainbow Valley, named for the brightly coloured Dene houses. Once a thriving fuel depot run, the historic Woodyard is best known for Ragged Ass Road, a street that memorializes a defunct mine and its hard-luck miners. Ingraham Drive passes over The Rock, a steep pitcropping where miners first pitched their tents in 1934. Stairs lead to the Bush Pilots Monument, a marker which honours the legendary pilots who opened up the North. From atop the promontory, visitors enjoy a magnificent panorama of Yellowknife and the lake.
Armed with a historical walking tour guide, follow the handsome brochure as it describes the history and heritage of Yellowknife buildings and landmarks.
Lined with modern stores, restaurants and high-rise office and apartment towers, New Town is a striking contrast to the original settlement. Franklin Avenue is the main drag, an easy 20-minute walk which can extend for hours with the many diversions along the way.
Just off Franklin Avenue is Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. A good introduction to the North, the museum contains artifacts such as a woolly mammoth tusk, beaded Dene clothing and Inuit stone carvings. It also features an exhibit devoted to the search for the Northwest Passage, and an aviation gallery dedicated to bush pilots and legends such as Wop May, Punch Dickens and Max Ward.
A short walk from the museum facing Frame Lake, one of several lakes in the city, is the glass-domed Legislative Assembly. Rising from the boreal forest, the striking building was designed to accommodate the unique consensus of northern government. Decorated with paintings and Inuit art, a large oval table takes centre stage in the round chamber, giving representatives equal voice in a manner practised by aboriginals. Surrounding the chamber are translation booths which permit debates to be carried out in nine official languages. There is no word for “diamond” in Chipewyan, Dogrib or Inuvialuktun. No one seems to mind down at the Wildcat Cafe because – as diamonds may be a girl’s best friend elsewhere – they are everyone’s friend in Yellowknife.
For more information on this destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission website www.travelcanada.ca .
Yellowknife is 1,500 km north of Edmonton, where flights are available. Flights are also available from Ottawa, Montreal and Winnipeg. Travelling by car, the highway is paved except for the last 100 km which is an all-weather gravel road.
Here’s an amazing list of tours and things to see in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. For information about travelling to and accommodations in Whitehorse, Yukon or other destination in western Canada, click here.
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