Story by Hélèna Katz
YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES — As I walk along Yellowknife’s main drag, the downtown core’s tidy rectangular blocks give way to the winding streets of Old Town. This funky neighbourhood down the hill looks like people built their ramshackle houses wherever it seemed convenient. Then the surveyors showed up and built streets around them. As my stern Grade 7 teacher would’ve said with a disapproving look, the place seems higgledy-piggledy. But that — and the local artists who live in Old Town — are what give it a distinctive character.
It’s here that you’ll find Ragged Ass Road, which Canadian musician Tom Cochrane used as a song and album title. This tiny street’s name comes from a slang term for dirt poor — and the name of a small gold mine north of Yellowknife. Rumour has it that some miners, fuelled with a few drinks one night in the 1940s, decided to rename their street. They grabbed some paint and put up a sign. The joke was a hit and the town officially renamed the street Ragged Ass Road.
Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, sits on the edge of Great Slave Lake and is home to approximately 16,000 people. It’s named for the copper-coloured knives the area’s Dene people used when explorers first arrived. Old Town is built on a rocky peninsula that juts out into Yellowknife Bay. The town has been trying to live up to its Dogrib name, Somba K’e (the money place), since prospector Johnny Baker found gold on the shores of Yellowknife Bay in 1934.
Honouring Gold Seekers and Bush Pilots
I can almost feel the ghosts of the hopeful gold seekers who came to Old Town in droves around 1938 and lived in canvas tents and shacks when two mining companies were going into production. Some of those prospectors lived in what was once firewood merchant Einer Broten’s Woodyard on the edge of the water.
Now the humble two-room shacks — which don’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, and are heated with a wood stove — attract people looking for a simpler lifestyle. Those residents bond with the families who live year-round in houseboats on Yellowknife Bay — the northernmost houseboat community in the world. Climb the stairs to Bush Pilot’s Monument for a good view of the area. The monument is dedicated to the bush pilots and civil engineers who opened up the North in the 1920s and 1930s.
Landmark Places to Eat
Tiny Bullocks Bistro (3534 Weaver Drive) oozes character with hand-scrawled messages of appreciation and stickers on the walls of its 1936 building. Squeeze past the waitress carrying plates heaping with fries and salad to grab yourself a beer from the fridge. Then sit at the bar and banter with the cooks while they whip up muskox, caribou, bison, and fresh fish from Great Slave Lake. Menu prices range from $17-$40.
The Wildcat Café, built on Wiley Road in 1937, was saved from demolition by a group of residents who banded together to preserve the log cabin. The café reopened in 1979 and is usually open during the summer. It also made headlines nationally when its francophone manager wanted to change the name to Le Wildcat Café five years ago, but was denied by citizens who were concerned with maintaining the heritage of the historic restaurant. Menu prices at the restaurant run $15-$40.
Old Town Shopping
Down the road, the Old Town Glassworks (3510 McDonald Drive) showroom displays rows of glasses with northern motifs, including bison under a northern sky, muskox, wolves, and polar bears. The worker co-operative recycles old wine bottles into glasses, vases, and other giftware. Bottles of different sizes, shapes, and colours they’ve collected from Yellowknifers fill shelves and milk crates in the yard.
Inside the cramped shed behind the showroom, John Kolkman is picking out a northern design to stencil on his glass. He and his wife, Kate Quinn, are taking a two-hour workshop during which they’re taught how to sandblast a design onto a glass they’ll take home as a souvenir.
Then I head to Just Furs where a small sign on a shelf announces that small pieces of fur cost $20. The northern style fur hats and scarves that are draped around the shop are more expensive. Owner Kristine Bourque helps me pick out two pairs of Lulu Bijou earrings made by her daughter Naomi. They’re fashioned from modern beads and a piece of caribou the local aboriginal people have harvested since long before gold seekers arrived. The jewelry reminds me of what Yellowknife once was and what a part of it has become.
Northwest Territories Tourism: www.spectacularnwt.com
Northern Frontier Regional Visitors Centre: www.northernfrontier
A MAP OF YELLOWKNIFE SHOWING THE PLACES MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE
View Larger Map