Updated: Jan 13, 2019
(...and really enjoys it!)
The memories of nights spent under the magical northern lights and ice fishing on gusty Great Slave Lake at -40 C in beautiful sunshine will stay with me for a long time.
I’ve had the idea of visiting Yellowknife in my head for some time, but definitely not in the winter. I am a huge fan of tropical vacations, so it took a bit of will power to embrace and prepare for this adventure.
My friend Manon, and travel companion for this trip, loves the North and all that goes with it. She had visited Yellowknife before, a few years prior, and fondly recalled horseback riding and the beautiful scenery of Great Slave Lake.
My two oldest sons are also familiar with this part of Canada, having worked north of Yellowknife as geo-technicians in their early 20’s. Both gathered beautiful impressions during their time working there. The stories of living in camp, the wild ski-doo rides, and meeting a polar bear up close had been part of our dinner conversations at home for years.
They all had plenty of advice and weighed in on what to expect in terms of temperatures as we prepared my travel wardrobe.
Instead of bikinis, flip flops, and sundresses, this time I was packing thick goose-down jackets, merino-wool underwear, thermo socks, snow pants, wool toques, scarves, and mittens.
Overall, I felt pretty prepared…despite this being my chilliest vacation to brace for yet. The only change I would make for a future trip is opting for a sturdy pair of winter boots over mukluks. While the Aboriginal slipper-like footwear was very comfortable to wear while walking, they didn’t stand a chance against the minus 40 C temperature drops.
If you plan to do any ice fishing and Aurora-Borealis-watching you will be mostly stationary, and believe me when I say the cold creeps into your bones. And, in those moments, the thick sole of a Sorel boot will be your best friend!
Putting the mukluk failure aside, Manon and I enjoyed an incredible night watching the northern lights dance across the sky.
Auroras are natural displays of light in the sky that can be seen with the naked eye.
According to an article that quotes the Canadian Space Agency: “Auroras occur when charged particles (electrons and protons) collide with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing tiny flashes that fill the sky with colourful light. As billions of these tiny flashes occur in sequence, the lights appear to move and dance. In the northern hemisphere, the lights are called aurora borealis, or northern lights, while in the southern hemisphere they are called aurora australis, or southern lights.”
In Yellowknife, visitors have a 90 per cent chance at admiring Mother Nature’s light show of vibrant purples, lime greens, and, if you’re lucky, yellows and reds. The long and clear winter nights between mid-November and the beginning of April tend to be the best times to catch the display.
With so little light pollution, you are in for a real treat!
There are many tour companies available to give you the red carpet treatment. We chose Aurora Ninja.
The four-hour tour starts at 10:00 p.m. and runs into the wee hours of the morning, 2:00 a.m. We were picked up from the hotel and taken for a 30 minute car ride to the outskirts of Yellowknife. Equipped with a high-end camera and lens, our guide captured the images that our camera and our smart phones simply could not. (I would suggest bringing a professional digital camera if you want to share the memories when you get home!) My iPhone was performing particularly poor with these cold temperatures, but Manon’s Sony Xperia smartphone was doing better.
We went to three locations, each time witnessing a new experience as we watched in awe, our eyes glued to the sky above us.
Our feet were frozen in the minus 37 C temperature, but we persevered. Our hearts filled with gratitude as we took in this magical show.
Our guide providing us with hot chocolate and a hot dog at midnight to help us warm up a bit.
Arriving back at our place at 2:15 a.m., the beautiful images were stored in our memory bank and on a flash drive, too.
The next day, ice fishing was on the agenda. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of tourism options here, too. Some are quick 15-minute demonstrations, but we wanted the real deal—the full fishing experience!
Our four-hour tour included a 30 minute ride on Great Slave Lake in a 15-seat van equipped with snow cat tracking belts to the fishing site. We were in for a treat as the sun made for a great ride and spectacular views. Upon arrival, we were given a baited fishing rod and proceeded to our ice fishing shack—which somewhat protected us from the icy wind. We dropped the line about 12-feat down into a hole carved in the ice. Then…it was a true test of patience. There were times when there was a tug on the line, but that’s all we got, and eventually the bait was gone too.
Then, excitement erupted in a neighbouring shack as someone caught a six-pound Burbot—a local freshwater fish.
The second part of our experience was spent learning about the traditional fishnet ice fishing, which consists of pulling a rope with a small net under the ice between two holes dug about 50-feet apart.
We had much more luck with this procedure, catching seven fish this time. The catch was mostly lake trout and white fish, and one arctic char. Four hours had passed and it was time to leave, yet we could not.
One of our fellow passengers had pushed down the automatic lock on the door of the van. The engine was running nicely as is customary in these temperatures, but we were all standing outside, with the 40-below wind.
Stranded outside a toasty van, the only option was for one of the fishing crew to head back to the main lodge about 20 min away via snow mobile.
We huddled, waiting, in the shack and were all relieved when he returned with the spare key. Our frozen bodies piled into the warm van and it was just a quick ride to the lodge where lake trout sashimi and a hot fish soup with homemade buns waited for us. The fireplace filled the room with a deep heat as we thawed out.
Overall, it was a beautiful arctic adventure!
Would I come back? The answer is yes, but this time in June to watch the midnight sun in flip-flops. (I’m still a tropical girl at heart!)