Yellowknife: the Best Place in Canada to See the Northern Lights8 min read

Yellowknife is an extraordinary place where skies turn to ethereal colours and where it is so calm that the only thing you can hear is just your own breathing. Being the capital and the only city of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Yellowknife is well known for its extremely cold winters, dog sledding, and ice roads. Moreover, this remote city is one of the best destinations in Canada to watch Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis! With a purpose to regain peace of mind and photograph breathtaking show of light, we left rainy Vancouver in January 2018.

Northern Lights in Yellowknife
The view of Northern Lights captured over the frozen lake

At this time of the year, temperatures drop to -40 (where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet) thus we knew we will put ourselves beyond the limits. The locals Jack and Jan, who we accidentally met while flying to Yellowknife, clearly confirmed our concern. I asked them what is their life like during the winter months in Yellowknife and heard their confident “it is cold up there”. The answer was very amusing and I giggled willingly. After a moment, Jack and Jan offered to host us a dinner. Obvious exciting opportunity to be involved in the community! We agreed to visit them before departure but until then our time was filled with activities and search of Northern Lights. Let the adventures begin!

Few facts about Yellowknife and Northwest Territories

– The city of Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories. At the same time, it is the largest and the only city in the Northwest Territories.

– The population is about 20k according to the newest census.

– Yellowknife used to be a gold miners paradise for about 60 years.

– The most Northern airport in NT with security screening is in Yellowknife.

– Today NT is gaining a lot of attention due to the vast diamond deposits that were discovered back in the 90s.

How did everything go?

We arrived at late Saturday night and took a cab to get to a nice and cozy Jenny’s B&B where we had a chance to feel like at home. Our host seemed to be very informative and happy about meeting us and we were grateful for the additional information, recommendations and help that we received throughout our stay. On the first night after a dinner, we went to one of the darkest, coldest and nearest places considering the walking distance from where we stayed to potentially see Northern Lights and we successfully did! Unfortunately, the lack of skills and limited abilities to change camera settings with a double pair of gloves prevented us from shooting it well. Accordingly, we admired it as long as we were able to stand the coldness (after all it was -35 Celsius that night).

The next day was dedicated to sightseeing and rest. While walking throughout the city we started noticing many different types of arts. Painted skids hanging on the fence, huge wall paintings, colourful benches, houses, even license plates seemed to be interesting and unique in its own way. After some time we realized that it is so cold that we barely feel our feet and not even mentioning how hard it was to say something with frozen jaws we were looking for a place to get a decent meal, drink or at least some warmth. Honestly, there was only one cafe in entire downtown that was open that day so we went straight to it and stayed as long as they kept serving us coffees.

After wonderful sightseeing, we decided to draw our breaths for the rest of the day and to search for Northern Lights when it gets darker. However, due to lower activity level and some clouds, we were unable to see it but we knew that higher activity and a clear sky should be expected the next day. Therefore, we were feeling happy, positive and willing to rent a car to go further away from Yellowknife to observe what we craved for.

Dog sledding tour

The next day after quick breakfast, we were about to go to the local kennel and take one of the dog sledding tours with Yellowknife Tours at Enodah Kennel. Glad we did! We were picked up from our B&B and taken to Enodah Kennel which is located 15 minutes from Yellowknife in the beautiful forest. During the drive, owner of Yellowknife Tours introduced us to a history of the city, air traffic importance in NT also told us about how people live in remote areas. One of the unimaginable things about living far North in remote communities is that you are likely to receive your food order once a year! That is because there are mainly no roads except for the ice which is only in use from January to March when roads built on the ice reach out across the Northwest Territories to re-supply communities and mines. Alternatively, there is aviation but we were told it is not as popular food delivery option.

Dog sled team
Dog sled team

Shortly, we had to sign waivers and went on rewarding dog sledding tour with Coady, who was our amazing guide. Coady loves dogs and has a few dozen of them. There is also a team of professional race dogs which participate in racing events. On some days when there are no booked tours, Coady still goes for a sled ride with all of them anyways. Unlike other dog mushers, Coady pays attention not only to dogs physical abilities but also where they grew up. He said that some of his dogs grew up frequently surrounded by kids which made them really friendly and welcoming to other people.

Our dog team seemed to be very keen on pulling their sled. However, we learned that one of the dogs is actually not pulling and just pretending that he is what I found to be quite funny. We also did not go very fast for safety reasons but it was enough of speed to enjoy the trip and take pictures. Typically, there are two people per one sled where one is standing and driving while another sitting inside and taking pictures. Overall, we had a blast and would definitely recommend trying this sort of activity if there is a chance.

 

After this wonderful tour, we rented a car and went to city hall to collect some free gifts: a yellow knife pin and diploma which is a symbolic reward for the adventurous traveler. The rest of the day we tried to capture the momentum of water turning to ice and of course went searching for a dark and remote place for a spectacular light show.

Turning water into snow instantly
Turning water into snow instantly

Viewing Northern lights

The amazing Northern Lights occurs by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field. In Yellowknife, it is typically visible for an average of 200 nights per year what makes it one of the best places in the world to see this natural phenomenon. With that being said.. here are a few of my the best shots:

Northern Lights in Yellowknife
The best show of light on Earth

 

Northern Lights in Yellowknife
The lights are constantly moving and changing position

Dettah Ice Road

We were curious what it is like to drive on an ice road like in a famous TV show “Ice Road Truckers”. Fortunately, every year in the winter the ice road opens and connects Yellowknife and the small First Nations community of Dettah. Located just outside the capital of Yellowknife, it is a 27 km drive by all-weather track in summer, and in winter, Dettah can be reached by this ice road with a length of 6.5 km across the Yellowknife Bay. The road is really wide and nicely plowed from snow. It is pretty safe to drive on it with a light passenger car but only up to 50km/h. We learned that on other ice roads heading up north the maximum speed limit for heavy trucks is only 40 km/h. There are mobile ice road police checkpoints along the road which try to enforce speed limits. If the driver is caught speeding for the first time, he gets a hefty fine. After the second time, his license is suspended. This is because if the truck travels above a certain speed, it can damage the roadbed so severely that the next vehicle that follows will break through the ice.

Dettah ice road
Dettah ice road

Before departure

On the final day of our trip, we went for a little hike expecting to find frozen waterfall near Yellowknife through Back Bay Cemetery. The hike was relatively short and easy and it was as worth visiting as Yellowknife itself. Perhaps we are interested in many aspects of life; therefore, we did some more sightseeing that day. We decided to visit NWT Diamond Center where courteous diamond cutter and his assistants allowed us to try cutting diamonds ourselves and showed an interesting 15 minutes presentation about local diamond mines and its operations. We also found out that employees of the mines are treated well and paid best market wages. Their camps around the mines are made to meet all their comfort expectations.

Last but not least, we went to Jack’s and Jan’s place (two friendly people that we met on the flight). Jack recently renewed his beautiful house and told that after installing solar energy panels on their roof they constantly have to invite guests to help them clean it from the snow. We were laughing and willing to help but instead, Jan suggested to have dinner with them before our flight home. We had a blast during this wonderful trip and are looking forward to sharing our adventures of future travels!

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