Yellowknife: (/ˈjɛloʊnaɪf/; Dogrib: Sǫǫ̀mbak’è]) is the capital, largest community, and only city in the Northwest Territories Canada. It is on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, about 400 kms (250 mi) south of the Arctic Circle, on the west side of Yellowknife Bay near the outlet of the Yellowknife River.
Yellowknife is on the Canadian Shield, which was scoured down to rock during the last ice age. We found the surrounding landscape very rocky and slightly rolling, very similar to our trip into northern Manitoba in the Flin Flon area also one of our favourite trips. There are many small lakes in addition to the larger Great Slave Lake the second largest lake in the NWT of Canada. It is also the deepest lake in North America at 2,014 feet and the 10th largest lake in the world by area. Trees such as spruce and birch are abundant in the area, with smaller bushes, but there are also many areas of relatively bare rock with lichen. Due to Yellowknife’s high latitude daylight hours range from five hours of daylight in December to 20 hours in July. Twilight lasts all night from late June to mid-July. This took some getting used to as RVers we head to bed when it gets dark, making for some long days.
While we were there it was a little overcast with light rain and we’re told by our friends in August this was normal. Yellowknife has a subarctic climate with winter being predominantly polar, rapid heat waves emerge at the summit of summer due to the immense path south. Yellowknife experiences very cold winters and mild to warm summers. The average temperature in January is around −26 °C (−15 °F) and 17 °C (63 °F) in July. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Yellowknife has the sunniest summer in the country, averaging 1,034 hours from June to August. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Yellowknife was −51.2 °C (−60.2 °F) on 31 January 1947, and the highest was 32.6 °C (90.7 °F) on 2 August 2021. In 2014, Environment Canada ranked Yellowknife as having the coldest winter and longest snow cover season of any city in Canada, while also experiencing the sunniest spring and summer of any city in Canada.
Yellowknife, like most other urban centres, has distinct commercial, industrial, and residential areas. Frame Lake, Niven Lake, Range Lake, and Old Town are the residential sectors, with some of the population living in high-rises in the downtown core. Another area that amazed me was the houseboat community. Jolliffe Island sits in Yellowknife Bay and is public land under the jurisdiction of the City of Yellowknife after a land purchase when Imperial Oil vacated the site. The island is surrounded by a community of houseboats, where people have been living off the grid since 1978. Their relationship with the city is complex and often strained as the houseboats are popular with sightseers, but at the same time their residents live outside of the city’s tax jurisdiction while still using city services. I would really love to tour one of the houseboat homes to see their set up off grid. Some people like a big house on the rocks some like a little house on the rocks and some like a little house on a barge should be room for all. I could live in a RV no problem but many could not.
It’s amazing to see how many of the original business and their location still exist in Old Town yet today pointed out by Wayne on our crash tour. So it motivated me to dig a little deeper into the history which I will share hopefully in brief.
Yellowknife and its’ surrounding water bodies were named after a local Dene tribe, who were known as the “Copper Indians” or “Yellowknife Indians”, today incorporated as the Yellowknifes Dene First Nations. They traded tools made from copper deposits near the Arctic Coast. Its population, which is ethnically mixed, was 19,569 per the 2016 Canadian Census. Of the eleven official languages of the Northwest Territories, five are spoken in significant numbers in Yellowknife Dene, Dogrib, North and South Slavey, English, and French. In the Dogrib language, the city is known as Sǫǫ̀mbak’è (Athabaskan pronunciation: [sõːᵐbakʼe], “where the money is”). Modern Yellowknifes members can be found in the adjoining, primarily Indigenous communities of Ndilo and Dettah.
The Yellowknife settlement is considered to have been founded in 1934, after gold was found in the area, although commercial activity in the present-day waterfront area did not begin until 1936. Yellowknife quickly became the center of economic activity in the NWT, and was named the capital of the Northwest Territories in 1967. When the gold activity died down Yellowknife was primarily a government town during the 1980’s. The discovery of diamonds north of the city in 1991 changed all that with transportation, communications and tourism adding to the industries today.
Con Mine was the most impressive gold deposit and its development created the excitement that led to the first settlement of Yellowknife in 1936–1937. Some of the first businesses were Corona Inn, Weaver & Devore Trading, Yellowknife Supplies and post office, and The Wildcat Cafe. Con Mine entered production on 5 September 1938. Yellowknife boomed in the summer of 1938 and many new businesses were established, including the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Hudson Bay Company, Vic Ingraham’s first hotel, Sutherland’s Drug store, and a pool hall.
The population of Yellowknife quickly grew to 1,000 by 1940, and by 1942, five gold mines were in production in the Yellowknife region. However, by 1944, gold production had ground to a halt as men were needed for the war effort. An exploration program at the Giant Mine property on the north end of town had suggested a sizable gold deposit in 1944. This new find resulted in a massive post-war staking rush to Yellowknife. It also resulted in new discoveries at the Con Mine, greatly extending the life of the mine. The Yellowknife town site expanded from the Old Town waterfront, and the new town site was established during 1945–1946. The Discovery Mine, with its own town site, operated 81 km (50 mi) to the north-northeast of Yellowknife from 1950 to 1969.
A new mining rush and fourth building boom for Yellowknife began with the discovery of diamonds 300 km (190 mi) north of the city in 1991. The Giant Mine was the subject of a bombing during a labour dispute in 1992 that resulted in one of the deadliest mass murders in Canada with 9 deaths. The last of the gold mines in Yellowknife closed in 2004. Today, Yellowknife is primarily a government town and a service centre for the diamond mines. Today the Giant Mine is back in the news as the most expensive mining cleanups in Canadian history. With an estimated cost of around four billion and ongoing costs for safe storage of the arsenic recovered from the contaminated site, it should serve as a reminder to us how important environmental protections in future operations are. In Canada there are more than 20,000 locations on the federal contaminated sites inventory. We viewed only part of the massive clean-up and believe me it is massive.
Today, Yellowknife is primarily a government town and a service centre for the diamond mines. On 1 April 1999, its purview as capital of the NWT was reduced when the territory of Nanavut was split from the NWT. As a result, jurisdiction for that region of Canada was transferred to the new capital city of Iqaluit. Consequently, Yellowknife lost its standing as the Canadian capital city with the smallest population.
There is so much more to Yellowknife I have just scratched the surface. We loved the area round the city the vast wilderness lakes and rock mixed in with the tree growth. If you love nature, hunting, fishing and camping in a wilderness setting this trip may be for you. Thanks to Wayne,Annelle and girls for your hospitality and friendship. Enjoy the images a few of many.
We are off to Wood Buffalo National Park Canada’s largest National Park and one of the largest in the world established in 1922 to protect the last remaining herds of bison in Northern Canada. What was going to be a quick overnight in Hay River on the way ended in a not planned extended stay. Tell you why in the next Post…
Take care out there and we really hope to meet you down the road…may the wind be in your back.