This is an excerpt from my forthcoming travelogue about Canadian cities.
For me, Northwest Territories is where the scale and grandeur of Canada hits home. Northwest Territories is 1 million square kilometres bigger than Germany, whose population is over eighty million. The Acasta Gneiss, the world’s oldest rocks–at least those measured by the radiometric dating of zircon crystals–are in NWT to the east of the Great Bear Lake. The gneiss was metamorphosed 3.58 to 4.031 billion years ago (approximately). The Great Bear Lake is the largest lake entirely in Canada (Superior and Huron straddle the Canada–US border) and the eighth largest lake in the world (if you accept the Caspian Sea is the largest). The shoreline of the Great Bear Lake measures 2700 kilometres. This is a harsh part of the world as the Great Bear Lake can freeze from November to July, all 31,153 km² of it – that’s an area bigger than Belgium.
I visited Yellowknife, the capital of the NWT, which is about three hundred kilometres south of the Great Bear Lake. Flying to Yellowknife from Whitehorse convinced me that Canada has as many lakes as the rest of the world combined. Yellowknife is on the Great Slave Lake, the tenth largest lake in the world. It’s also worth mentioning that if you draw a line due north of Yellowknife to the Arctic Ocean in neighbouring Nunavut, the line doesn’t cross a single road. That’s a distance of 600 kilometres.
As with Whitehorse, from the airport it was a ten-minute ride into the centre of the city, where I saw four six- and seven-storey high-rise buildings. There is one major crossroads in the centre of the city from where you can get to all the places you want to go. There are no mountains or even hills to speak of, although the road down to the older part of the city by the Great Slave Lake is steep and misshapen.
Yellowknife and the surrounding areas are a suitable place to see the Aurora Borealis, especially from November to February. There are tour companies that take visitors out into the surrounding forests to specially built chalets where Aurora spotting is better, as there’s zero light pollution. I checked the chances of spotting the Aurora at the tourist information. There are also small lighthouses dotted around town that provide a traffic-light code for the chances of the Aurora being seen on the upcoming night.
I didn’t see the Aurora during my stay though when I’d become half frozen standing by the Great Slave Lake for 45 minutes, a keen photographer showed me a time-lapse photo that had a small patch of green on the horizon, a very faint sign of the Aurora. For a detailed explanation of what causes the Aurora, please see Appendix D.
Franklin Avenue (50th Avenue) is the principal thoroughfare linking the more modern uptown with the Old Town dating from the 1930s. Some buses run along this road at various times of the day, but I enjoy walking and the air felt fresh and healthy as I headed towards the lake. The first sight I came to was the Cultural Crossroads. Here on a mound of rock are hundreds of colourful handprints, created by Metis, First Nations, Inuit, French-, and English-Canadian artists. Above the handprints is an image of a soaring eagle and on top of the mound a skeleton of a tepee. To the right were various docks and moorings for boats and seaplanes. Across the water by a small, wooded island were colourful floating homes in pastel shades. Canoeists skimmed over the waves.
Ahead were some people on a small hill and I followed the road around, almost doubling back on myself before finding steps up to the Bush Pilots Memorial, a small metal statue similar in size to a paper plane made from an A4 piece of paper. Trees and water stretched to the horizon in all directions. The bush pilots were true pioneers in the early days of aviation and as I’ve already described in Whitehorse, not all of them survived. These pilots were the ones who allowed the wilderness to become home to many people who relied on aerial services as roads weren’t and, in some cases, still aren’t an option. Nearby were the floatplanes of Air Tindi, who provide tours over Back Bay and Yellowknife Bay from their dock.