Sunday, 24 March 2019

Canada's North - a true gem!

The entire concept of this “cool” adventure all started back at the annual Ensemble Travel Group  conference that took place in Nassau, Bahamas in October 2018.  Each year Ensemble, works with many very generous suppliers and partners who donate prizes that are then featured at the Circle of Excellence dinner and charity auction to benefit the Children’s Make-a-Wish Foundation.   As part of the evening Ensemble invites a Make-a-Wish child and their family to tell their story at the gala event.  This year was a very courageous and incredible eloquent 12 year girl.  As she shared her story it was easy to see that this girl had something special – you could sense her ambition and her gratitude and excitement.  By the time she was done, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.  The charity auction raised over $272,000 that evening which pushed the 8 year total to almost 1.15 million dollars.  I can’t help but think it was this incredible girl, her ambition and ability to tell her story that made everyone want to open their wallets!

 I will admit that the only vacation thoughts on my mind at this time were ones that involved sunshine, sand and tropical umbrella drinks but as the auctioneer was announcing the details of the next item up for bid, my excitement and need for a different adventure grew.  The trip was to Yellowknife!  Sure, it might be sunny, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking sunshine.  Suddenly out of nowhere, my hand was flying up to bid.  It was as though it wasn’t even an extension of my own body.  At one point, Ken leaned over and asked if was “just bidding up the auction item or if I really wanted to buy it?”.  It seemed like the kind of trip that was very much out of the ordinary, at least for me...and just like that I was awarded the honor of the highest bidder. Yeah me!

This Yellowknife experience was put together and donated by Touch the Arctic Tours, NWT Tourism, Canadian North, The Explorer Hotel, My Backyard Tours, Bluefish Services, and RCO Tourism Marketing Services.  We embarked on this adventure with no real expectations.  My one goal was to get at least 1 decent photo of the aurora dancing across the sky and we certainly succeeded! (more on that later)

As we boarded our flight in Edmonton on Canadian North, it was the first glimpse of “northern hospitality”.  What a delightful surprise to be served a full hot breakfast during our short 1hour, 51 minute flight into Yellowknife.  You certainly never get to enjoy that sort of service much anymore unless on long haul international flights.  The plane itself is not very roomy, especially if you’re travelling with your bulky winter coat or parka but that said, it’s comfortable enough for the short duration and the surprise of the meal and free luggage, easily made the squishy quarters all seem worthwhile. 

Upon landing, My Backyard Tours was there waiting for us and just as soon as we had collected our luggage we embarked on our introduction to Yellowknife with a city tour, which helped us get the lay of the land for the days ahead.  We were driven past and/or stopped for photo ops at iconic things such as the Welcome to Yellowknife, the Wildcat Cafe, stopped at the Pilots Monument, Prince of Wales Museum, Mining Heritage Museum, the famous Snow Castle, legendary Bullock’s Bistro, Legislative Assembly, Yellowknife’s answer to Starbucks – the Birchwood Cafe, drove the Dettah ice road, regaled with stories and the history of the area.  It was the perfect introduction to a new city!  My Backyard Tours also provided us with our arctic gear.  Of the 4 of us, 3 had good fits overall however I always have to be the fly in the ointment.  One call to Amanda and a time was set to meet the next morning to try some alternate options.  What a doll – she came to the hotel loaded down with different makes and styles for me to try on and seemed more than happy accommodate me on my quest for the best fit!  We did find a gem and I was toasty warm the entire time!

We arrived at the Explorer Hotel around 12:30pm with the intent to just leave out bags and gear but, as luck would have it, were able to check in right away.    We were accommodated in the new section of the hotel.  The rooms were great – new, of course, but very comfortable beds, crisp sheets, fluffy duvet, contemporary furnishings and everything we could need.  The Explorer is well located and within a 5 minute walk to many things like the Prince of Wales Museum (great lunch spot by the way), the Legislative Assembly, Black Knight Pub, Shoppers, NWT Diamond Centre, etc.

Queue the dog sledding with Tugah Northern Experience - this was probably my second most  anticipated excursion.  I love wildlife and animals of all kinds but in particular dogs
 so it was very exciting to see these 'fellas' in action.  Tolson and his team were ready and waiting when we arrived.  They did a brief tour, showed us how to harness up the dogs and then, just like that, we were off and running.  Literally!  Now, I'm going to be a prairie girl, I've always had this vision of sled dogs being more husky-like...thick fur coats with the distinctive markings and coloring, maybe at least one blue eye...but these guys...well, they were built for speed.  They were a little mix of everything and everything but clearly they possessed the most important characteristic needed in a sled dog - they loved to run!  After the dog sledding we enjoyed hot chocolate, bannock and some tales in the cabin.  All in all, a great time but next time, I want to learn how to be the musher!

All this fresh air has our tummy growling and thankfully had called ahead to make a dinner reservation.  Bullock’s Bistro had been highly recommended and it did not disappoint – what a treat!  So fresh and tasty!  This is a must visit and as a self proclaimed foodie, it was quite amazing watching as the one lone cook was banging out dish after dish, all the while chatting with patrons in a very relaxed way from behind the counter of the open concept kitchen. 

For the aurora viewing, it initially felt like we may not see anything at all.  We tried to temper what would be our disappointment and kept reminding ourselves that you can not control the weather or the solar flares.  If clouds rolled in or the sky decided not the put on a show, we’d still enjoy the experience of sitting out on the hilltop watching the night unfold, the dogs yipping and barking in the distance, shooting stars darting across the sky.  By 11:45 at Aurora Village, we were rewarded for our patience as the faintest white shadows began to appear.  That haze was very quickly replaced with an amazing sky filled with a 360 degree view of choreographed lights that ever so slowly grew with intensity.  Aurora is nothing new for me being from Manitoba.  Often we will see the white and green dance at the horizon.  This experience was different because it started at the horizon and went straight up and all the way across to the opposite horizon.  Of course, when you take photos, you’re able to capture even more color intensity than is visible to the naked eye.  So, yes, we did manage to get a few really great shots of the beautiful aurora.

Ice fishing in the comfort of the snowbear with Greg of Bluefish Services was such a fantastic afternoon!  It was so relaxed and comfortable and Greg was just delightful telling stories of the lake and fishing
and OHH his excitement at seeing a lake trout on the camera!!  Sorry to disappoint you Greg but we’ just couldn’t convince that trout to jump into the frying pan.  We each did have some nibbles on our lines  (apparently I may have been able to actually
catch a fish had I listened more/talked less!)  but in the end, no one was able land anything.  It didn’t matter though – ½ the fun of fishing was the time spent with friends and the fish tales!  Greg even arranged for one of his buddies to bring out a special delivery by snowmobile – Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts.  What could possibly be more Canadian than delivering Tim Horton’s on snowmobile to a group of people ice fishing in the middle of the lake!  Love it! :)

The temperatures during our stay were perfect!  We had daytime highs of around -12C and the nights were -20C.  Again, being from the prairies, I’m no stranger to the cold but this was actually at least 10 degrees warmer than I had been thinking we’d experience.  The challenge was figuring out the optimum clothing and outdoor gear to wear for the different activities.  It’s hard to know how many layers and what the right combination is in order to be not too hot but not too cold.  I felt like Goldie Locks trying on multiple options before settling on my “regular Manitoba jacket” for our next excursion, “Shopping in the Birch Grove”.

What an incredible afternoon spent with Rosie of Strong Interpretation!  We snow-shoed  approximately 3 kms on mostly unbroken or semi-broken trail through the boreal forest.  Rosie would point out specific animal tracks, plants indigenous to the area and explain the various uses for medicine or for cooking, baking and even in martinis. (she had me at martini!)  She carried with her a bag of “visual aids” – a rabbit foot, candied pine needles and birch syrup to taste, and anything else she needed to help us interpret her stories.  At the end of the trek we settled in for a winter picnic in a small hut used when the birch trees are being tapped.  Before us were her tasty homemade offerings (some of which we had already heard rave reviews of from Greg during our fishing trip).  Everything she had prepared incorporated many of the forest items she had harvested in the fall from cranberries to mint and rosehips.  It was a delicious reward after a wonderful outing!  Interestingly enough, Rosie was originally from Manitoba!

For dinner we took a cab over to Old Town to try out the Woodyard/NWT Brewhouse, Canada's most northern brewery.  Great food, fantastic service and we almost had to roll out of there after several flights of brew!  This is sure to be a place for a few casual beverages and a great dinner.  Try their in-house brews made with Canadian grain and the freshest, clearest water in the country. 
The annually built Snowking Castle seemed to always have some sort of activity happen day and night.  Saturday was the Royal Ball and having no idea what to expect, we were blown away by the talented musicians.  It was such a fun event and in a very unique setting!  Those in attendance made dancing in winter gear look easy but I'm thinking that only comes with practice!  We even saw the ‘Snow King’ himself!

And what trip to Yellowknife would be complete without talking about a little bling!  Canada (and NWT in particular) is one of the world's leading producers of the 'girls best friend'.  A visit to the NWT Diamond Centre was interesting and informative to see how the diamonds are mined and the process to take it from its rough form to the polished and dazzling brilliant stone in the finished state.  I even tried my hand at polishing a diamond and held in my own hand a 4.02 carat diamond priced at $175,000.  Needless to say, that little bobble did not come home with us!  


Our final event before we headed to the airport was taking in the Sugar Shack Brunch, again held at the Snowking Castle.  We suited up one last time in our warm artic gear and enjoyed not just a tasty meal but some toe tapping entertainment too!

I feel truly fortunate to have experienced this part of Canada that is so often overlooked as a destination in itself.  This little part of Canada's Great White North is not just a northern gem but certainly a Canadian gem!   I’d like to extend my sincere thank you to Antje and Susan of Touch the Arctic for their part in helping us experience Yellowknife and this fabulous adventure and to our good friends, Garry & Alanna for being game to try something new and out of the box!