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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Yellowknife or Bust

Hay River to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories  08/18-19/06 (Day 115-116)
Yellowknife or Bust

You know us. We’ll pretty much drive anywhere, any time, for any reason. But we seriously debate whether or not to go all the way up to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. For one thing, we’ve got our heart set on getting to Wood Buffalo National Park ASAP (more on that later). For another thing, we can’t seem to unearth much information about Yellowknife. It’s almost like no one’s ever been there. In the end, it’s the very mystery of the place (and the fact that the weather forecast for Wood Buffalo National Park sucks for the next few days) that makes up our minds for us. What the heck goes on up there anyway?
For one thing, the flora and fauna changes pretty dramatically and anyone who read our last journal entry (Who’s Counting?)  knows that that’s a good thing. After crossing the Mackenzie River on a ferry (duh) we are bombarded by a series of roadside signs warning us that buffalo are frequently seen in the area. As if on cue, we see one within five minutes of disembarking from the ferry. The poor thing is being absolutely tormented by flies that have created a kind of Pigpen-like cloud around its impossibly huge head. These same flies, by the way, swarm our Silverado anytime we dip below five miles per hour.

This buffalo could be from the nearby Mackenzie Wood Bison Sanctuary which has been so successful at breeding the once-endangered Wood Buffalo that they now wander around freely in pretty big numbers. They’ve also, sadly, interbred with their American Buffalo cousins, creating a kind of half-breed that nobody seems too excited about.

The further north we drive on Highway 3 (there are only nine highways in all of the vast NWT), the more buffalo we see—over a dozen before the day is through—along with a surprising number of hitchhikers. Where have they come from and where are they going out here so far from anything that even resembles a starting or ending point?

We eventually do reach a town and as we pass the dusty turn off for Rae Edzo, the scrubby, watery Tim-Burtonesque boreal forest we’ve been driving through for so many days suddenly peters out and is instantly replaced by huge slabs of rock and the exposed flanks of half-buried boulders dragged, scraped clean and left there by glaciers. This terrain is dramatically called the Canadian Shield and it continues all the way up into Yellowknife, which is built on such deep and stubborn bedrock that construction workers have to jack hammer holes into the solid rock then slip dynamite inside to blow away enough of the stuff to build a foundation. Pop! Pop! Pop! You get used to it.

Our first glimpse of the city’s skyline (yes, skyline) confirms that we’ve made the right decision. Yellowknife is a surprise already! But before we check out the town itself we take advantage of the hours of daylight still at our disposal and head out to the very end of the line where Highway 4 (aka, the Ingraham Trail) heads out of town and dead ends with little more than a redundant stop sign to mark the spot (is anyone keeping track of how many times we hit the end of the road on this trip?).

Back in Yellowknife we check into City Lodge B& B run by Bryan and Miki. It’s here that we witness our very first Aurora Borealis, though we would have missed the whole thing if Miki hadn’t knocked on our door and told us to look outside. Bless her. We are stunned as the famous Northern Lights swirl across the sky in slow motion like a day-glo etch-a-sketch in the shaky hands of a wino. We stand in the middle of the sidewalk with our necks craned staring up at the sky while non-plussed locals are forced to navigate around us. Dorky, yes. But everyone’s a little awkward their first time.

This is far from a strong Aurora, so we hop into our Silverado and high tail it back out the Ingraham Highway hoping to increase the drama in the sky by escaping the lights of Yellowknife. But even out in uninhabited wilderness there’s still so much natural twilight left in the sky around here, even at 1 am.

We are so far north that people point their ubiquitous satellite dishes not up toward the stars, but out toward the horizon since that’s the level at which satellites circle up here. You’d get yourself a satellite dish too if you lived in Yellowknife since movies are $12 a ticket (this makes us immediately stop whining about the $10.50 Manhattanites routinely pay). A beer will cost ya $6.50. A bad beer. In a bar with a little too much character, if you know what we mean. And everything else you care to mention is pretty expensive too, except for fish. We buy a whole freshly caught pink salmon for less than $5 at the local supermarket.

Yellowknifers also have the world’s coolest license plates since every car in the NWT is issued a stark white plate cut into the shape of a polar bear. Rumor has it that neighboring Yukon Territories, not to be outdone, is contemplating a cut-out, all-black raven-shaped license plate but, if you ask us, there’s no way that big black bird will ever be cooler than that big white bear.

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