Photograph by Jason Pineau
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The northern lights fill the sky over Great Slave Lake.
Photograph by Jason Pineau

Yellowknife and Great Slave Lake

Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, is an isolated mining town built on gold and now sustained by diamonds—an outpost of civilization surrounded by a vast, austere landscape of rock and tundra and water—most notably, the enormous Great Slave Lake, on whose shore the city is built. Come for the wilderness and stay for the people, who know how to make their own fun in this raw country.

When to Go: Summer in the Northwest Territories is short and sweet. Folk on the Rocks, an outdoor music festival on Long Lake and the biggest event of the season, lands in mid-July. Due to its location, Yellowknife is blessed with spectacular views of the northern lights, best seen near the fall and spring equinoxes. March is when the city celebrates winter with a pair of festivals: the Long John Jamboree is a long-weekend event featuring ice fishing, helicopter rides, crafts, and kids’ activities; the monthlong Snowking Festival is held in a genuine snow castle on frozen Great Slave Lake and includes theater and musical performances, story slams, and film screenings.

How to Get Around: Downtown Yellowknife is compact and walkable, but you’ll want a rental car to explore more outlying areas. Heading further afield? You’ll probably need a floatplane.

Where to Stay: The Explorer Hotel, in downtown Yellowknife, is the go-to place to stay. But if you’re keen to visit Old Town, Brent Reaney, publisher of local magazine EDGE YK, offers another option: “Bayside Bed and Breakfast is comfortably furnished and does a great eggs Benedict,” Reaney says. “Its rare waterfront location is as great in summer as it is in winter.” Want to get out on Great Slave? The Plummer family helped pioneer fly-in fishing lodges in the north—they first landed back in 1938 where their Great Slave Lake lodge now sits.

Where to Eat or Drink: Yellowknife has a cluster of dining and drinking options, with most located downtown. Says Reaney: “Have a pint at the Black Knight (BK to the locals) and a plate of pan-fried pickerel at Bullock’s Bistro. In summer, hit Bullock’s early (even before five) to make sure you get a seat inside the cramped log cabin.”

What to Read or Watch Before You Go: The city draws television producers like flies: Ice Road Truckers and Ice Pilots NWT and the fictional drama Arctic Air have all filmed here. “Of the Y.K.-based reality shows, Ice Pilots NWT is probably the most accurate in terms of northern weather and people's experiences in the community,” Reaney says.

Helpful Link: Spectacular NWT

Fun Fact: Margot Kidder, of Superman’s Lois Lane fame, was born in Yellowknife.

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. She is a frequent contributor to Canadian magazines Up Here and Up Here Business.