Northern summer: endless days, riotous nature

Caribou crossing near Old Crow, the Yukon's most isolated village.

Caribou crossing near Old Crow, the Yukon’s most isolated village.

Summer in the North is short and sweet with riotous nature in bloom and joyous people at play through endless days. I get to Yellowknife now and then. Pammy has a great4granddaughter there, Danica, and her partner Jerry. A few years back Danica’s sister, Kerrin, was the mukluk annie running the Wildcat Cafe, the original watering hole for pioneer arctic pilots that was replicated and featured at Canada’s busiest museum, Civilization, when we had one (it has since been reformatted and renamed the Museum of History). Kerrin is in Umiujaq now, with her Inuk foster daughter, teaching school. But that’s another story. This one is about summer in the territories.
Yellowknife, beside the deepest lake in North America, Great Slave, built on a billion-year old geological thrust of rock and gold and diamonds, is the capital of the Northwest Territories and centre of summerland in the North. Not the geographic centre but the primary jumping off point for tourists and adventurers. This trip I was hanging mostly in town, where the start of the season is particularly vibrant. When I mentioned the visit to my friend Barbara, she posted, “I envy your opportunity to be in Yellowknife for the summer solstice! I have fond memories of many a summer solstice party in Old Town.”
Old Town. Within an hour of sighting the Giant Mine headframe that marks the airway in, I was on Ragged Ass Road heading there again. There’s a patio on the Wildcat. That’s new. But it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been back. On the whole the Knife looks much the same. Hard for much that’s new to take root here. It’s a government town. But it’s on the frontier, as far north as you can get to easily from most places in Canada. Easier from Ottawa than most and easier now than before.
One thing new in town is the Northern Lighthouse Project, five beacons strategically located and wired to flash colours on atmospheric conditions. Four feet tall and styled “Japanese lanterns” by the locals, they glow red for a possible geomagnetic storm that carries the likelihood of the fabulous northern lights, seen most vividly in Yellowknife and the primary draw for tens of thousands of Asian tourists who come to town to gaze in awe at the splendour of aurora borealis. Not in summer though. If you live here you might see an aurora or two around midnight in summer, but it’s not prime time for these spectaculars. That would be in the dark of winter. Seasons in the North are defined by light. It’s light for 18-20 hours a day in summer; dark for the same time in winter. The balance favours the summer because Yellowknife has more sunshine each year than anywhere in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, or the Maritimes.
Summer in the territories is all about fishing, paddling, photography, bird watching, fly-in trips to remote camps. The adventurous canoe trekkers who brave the South Nahanni River gather and outfit in Yellowknife for the flight to the land of the Dene at Virginia Falls. Over the years, quite a few people have perished in these hazardous waters, named a national park after Pierre Trudeau first saw and mastered them in 1972. My niece survived an attenuated version forty years later, so it’s no longer death-defying, and the Nahanni is just one of ten great rivers that host expeditions up to 28 days long. Of course, there are many less daunting canoe routes out of the Knife – from a one-day trip to Tartan Rapids on the Yellowknife River to a five day wilderness trip for advanced paddlers. Five national parks and 34 territorial parks are accessible by road. It’s wild, wonderful, unspoiled and largely uninhabited, with unique sounds and sights of pristine land, water and vegetation as well as the birds and beasts that thrive there. Ravens and ptarmigan are indigenous favourites but there are more than 200 species of birds in the area and hundreds of thousands waterfowl breed and feed in the Slave River delta. Scheduled tours leave the Knife to encounter the great caribou migration in mid-summer or to mingle with muskox anytime in the barrenlands of the far North. These jaunts cost several thousand dollars a head. On the other hand, you could meet a herd of bison for free on just about any road or trail.
Old Town is the hub of city culture, “where Yellowknife’s gold mining past meets its creative present,” as the brochure says. Crafts from weaving and Inuit carving to glass etching and fur products rub shoulders with B&Bs, cafés, boat launching and the seaplane port. There’s probably no better locale in the country to find traditionally tanned moose and caribou hides, beaded, fur-trimmed and fashioned into gloves, dresses and moccasins. Many young men wear embroidered jackets. It’s a young person’s town, average age 32.
If you’re here for the first time and want a quick fix on the people, wildlife and geology of the place, you’ll find it all laid out in story and artifact at the Northern Heritage Centre. Five minutes stroll away and just down the hill if you stay at the historic Explorer, a hotel my wife and I once had entirely to ourselves when the staff took a surprise Christmas break, is the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre, where can be found everything there is to know about goings-on in town and where bicycles are on loan (no charge) for day trips.
Every month has its festivals, races, tournaments. The go-to event each week in summer is the outdoor food and crafts market on Tuesday evenings at the civic plaza in front of City Hall. It starts with a gong at 17:30 sharp and runs officially until 19:00, though the day I was there the chicken byriani was all gone by 17:45.
There’s much more to say and books have been written about Canada’s North and why Canadians should know it better. One reason more of us don’t know it better is because it hasn’t been easy to get to. For all the time we’ve had family up there, about a quarter century, the way in was through Edmonton. Fly to Edmonton by Air Canada or Westjet, sit for hours around the airport, then on to Yellowknife, and the same way back. It wasn’t convenient and it wasn’t cheap.
Now along comes a brash alternative. Air North has been in business for 37 years from its base in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. For new Canadians and those who haven’t learned their geography, the Yukon is about one-third the size and immediately to the west of the Northwest Territories, of which I write, and much the same things can be said about it. Air North connects Whitehorse with turboprops to towns throughout the Yukon and Northwest Territories and, with Boeing 737s configured for plush single-class seating, to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton as well as Yellowknife and Ottawa. It’s the only scheduled airline whose founder and CEO, Joe Sparling, is also an active 737 Captain.
For the first time this summer, Air North is running a new route, non-stop and direct from Ottawa to Yellowknife. It doesn’t go often, just twice a week on Monday and Friday. But it gets there in half the time (four hours) and appears to cost about 20% less, insofar as one can decipher air fares. The flight jumps on from Yellowknife to Whitehorse, a first for that link as well. Return flights to Ottawa run on Sundays and Thursdays.
There have always been particularly tight ties between the territories and the nation’s capital. For most of the 20th century, until Yellowknife got the job in 1967, the Northwest Territories was governed directly from Ottawa. There are more Inuit living here than in any other southern city (every place is south seen from the North) and more in town temporarily for medical or other assistance, or for schooling. It’s a link we should be glad to strengthen, something they feel even more strongly in the North.
There are no roads into Old Crow 500 miles due north of Whitehorse near the Alaska border. You can get there by boat in summer or snowmobile in winter but by air is the only sure way year round. The Vuntut Gwitchin who live there, a community of about 300 people, think isolation is a blessing because it lets them preserve their language and traditional pursuits such as fishing, trapping and particularly hunting the massive Porcupine caribou herd, a hunt they have mastered over centuries. Nevertheless, connecting with the rest of us has always been high on the Vuntut Gwitchin agenda. After concluding a land claim deal with the feds in 1995, they decided to buy an airline. A share of Air North was available because Captain Sparling wanted funds in order to buy 737s to expand service between Whitehorse and Vancouver and intitiate it to points east, first to Alberta in 2002, now Ontario.
At least in part, Ottawa’s improved link to the North comes via investment by this tiny First Nation. And more, if the bright night of Yellowknife is too much metropolis for the North you envision, and Whitehorse even more so, know that Old Crow near the top of the land is just a flip away, with flights in and a warm welcome every day but Saturday.

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One thought on “Northern summer: endless days, riotous nature

  1. You’ve been busy again. I take it this is what came out of your last, paid this time, trip to YK. Halloween becons – got to run.

    luv ya Kerrin

    Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2014 21:49:20 +0000 To: kerrincooks@hotmail.com

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