Thursday, July 4, 2013

both sides of Yellowknife

People experience the city of Yellowknife in different ways, depending on where they're from.


If you're from the South, you go there for your chance to experience a northern city: you want to see the Northern lights, experience daylight at 11PM, go for a hike in the woods and get lost in the embrace of the wilderness.

If you're from the North, you've gotten plenty of the Northern lights, permanent daylight, and wilderness. For people passing through Yellowknife on their way home to the North, Yellowknife signifies the last stop for "big city" luxuries. I mean, with a population of almost 20,000 (that's two thirds of the population for all of Nunavut), Yellowknife seems like a huge metropolis compared to the Arctic communities. Yellowknife is where northerners stock up on baby diapers, meat, alcohol, and Big Macs.  We go to the movie theatre for the rare chance to see a Hollywood movie; we consult medical specialists and shop at the Wal-Mart.  While some southerners move to Yellowknife to lead a bohemian lifestyle while growing a thick full beard to protect against the cold, northerners get excited about staying at the Super 8 on Old Airport Road so we can be close to the McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Liquor store, and Tim Hortons.

When I spent my first night in Yellowknife, as a southerner now living in the North, I was most excited about the trees. Trees! Everywhere! I had missed trees, living in the Arctic circle. I had the uncontrollable urge to hug one. I was uncomfortably hot in my Canada Goose jacket built for -60 degree weather. It was 2 degrees that night in Yellowknife. It was also my first time being in a car for more than five minutes.

downtown Yellowknife

Once I checked into my hotel downtown, the fancy Explorer Hotel, I went for a walk.  Downtown was dead for a Sunday night.  I admired the skyscrapers, the sidewalks, the paved roads, and the street signs.  Something felt strange; and then I realized that I was experiencing night for the first time in a long time.

I asked my friend H, a former resident of Yellowknife now living in Ottawa, to create a good running route for me that would allow me to see the heart of Yellowknife.  Although I've passed through Yellowknife a half a dozen times, I rarely get to spend much time there because I always go there on layover.  Still, I figured an early morning jog through the city would give me a great introduction.

houses in Yellowknife

What struck me first about the buildings around Yellowknife was how unique a lot of the houses were. Yellowknife, especially Old Town, seems to be a place where people go and experiment what they can do with a house.  It's particularly interesting for me, since I come from Ottawa where a lot of the houses (especially in the suburbs) look quite uniform and cookie cutter - you don't see a lot of bright pink paint or unusual shapes. I think people in Yellowknife do it for a lot of reasons.  It's pretty neat to see brightly coloured houses in a environment that is often quite bleak and harsh, especially in the winter.  Also, I think it reflects a lot about the spirit of people who choose to live in Yellowknife.  Is your property on a big rocky slope? No problem - we'll just build a house that climbs down the cliff.

What I also really appreciated about Yellowknife was the random art everywhere. The people of Yellowknife seem to really like their public art. It's a peculiar brand of art too - it's not necessarily aeshetically pleasing or high art that you'd find in a high end gallery.  Sometimes it's, like, a sculpture of a chainsaw poking out of a rock. But there it would be, this art, popping out unexpectedly next to a trailer, as though to say everyone can make art; art is for everyone; everything can be art.  I liked it.



Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than on Ragged Ass Road and the nearby Woodyard.  With a name like "Ragged Ass Road" and the shack-like appearances of the homes in the Woodyard, you'd think this might be the ghetto slums of Yellowknife; yet a friend told me that there is actually a waiting list to move into the Woodyard, as it's apparently a hotspot for bohemian artists and adventurers.  And the houses on Ragged Ass Road are colourful, vibrant, full of personality, and clearly have history - it's definitely not low income housing.   Go figure. It's fascinating.



Einar Broten Historical Area: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK 

There was also quite a bit of aboriginal art around town:

Upon my friend's advice, I climbed up the many steps up the side of the hill to the Pilots' Monument, where I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the surrounding area.


The Pilots Monument

On my next time going through Yellowknife, all the ice on the lakes had melted, and the grass and trees were all green and growing, launching a full blown attack on my allergies.  Who knew it? I'm allergic to trees, it seems. Nature was everywhere; I couldn't breathe.  My cab driver took pity on me and pulled over at the Wal-Mart, where he coaxed the Dene employee to keep the Wal-Mart open a little longer while I grabbed some Reactine.  My taxi driver was from Uganda.  He says his allergies are bad too.  We are allergic to Canada.

I ran down the aisle of a mostly abandoned Wal-Mart as employees impatiently tapped their feet, waiting to close.  All of the cough syrup and cold medication had been locked up for the night - they don't sell the stuff without the supervision of a pharmacist because people will drink that stuff for its alcoholic content.  In Cambridge Bay, cough syrup is locked in a display case behind the cashier's counter along with cigarettes.  Luckily, Reactine is not a restricted product, so I found my relief.  We checked into the Super 8.  I grabbed some Tim Horton's for dinner, and stuffed some tissues up my nose to try to sleep.  I felt as though my heart was slowly becoming one with the North, the beautiful north where there were no allergen-ridden trees. We could have hit the bars, the museums, the shows during our stay in Yellowknife. Instead, we stayed at the Super 8 so that we could get up early the next morning to stop off at McDonalds.