Images of life in Yellowknife
Yellowknife, or Somba K’e in Dogrib (one of the Northwest Territories’ many languages), means “where the money is.” The name springs from the city’s original source of economic prosperity – mining. In the 1930s, gold deposits drew settlers from warmer climates to the territories. The population of Yellowknife increased dramatically and new residents built shacks near the shores of Great Slave Lake. That area is now known as Old Town.
It wasn’t gold that attracted me to Yellowknife – though the city’s northern frontier heritage, which is still very much alive today, is a draw. Yellowknife is in many ways still a city of transients, with people coming from around the world to live, work, and play. For me, it was the welcoming spirit and creative culture I witnessed when I first visited – during the winter of 2010 – that made me want to return for a longer stay.
I’ve returned. I brought my dog, found a job, and I’m subletting a townhouse – for a year, at least, though I could be a lifer. From the original settlers down to me, everyone who has spent time in this city would agree: there’s a particular sense of home that you get from Yellowknife, no matter how long you’ve been here.
My townhouse does not offer quite the same, uh, charm as the shacks in Old Town, a few of which still stand today. Their common features include heat by wood or pellet stove, only, and – due to lack of plumbing – honey buckets, which are nowhere near as sweet as they sound. Over the years, some shacks have disappeared as new residents buy up land and build their own dream homes. In other cities, this familiar story usually ends with the town losing its charm. Not so in Yellowknife. These newer structures in Old Town are full of character and intrigue for new residents who pass by with cameras.
Since the settlement of Old Town early last century homes and businesses have been designed to suit the needs and ideas of their future inhabitants. Some are large, some small, some built with natural materials, and others with fabricated ones. Additionally, due to sparse tree growth, building materials often have to be imported, so lightweight siding is usually the material of choice instead of brick, which is popular in the southern parts of the country. The upside: architects get creative with their designs. With the exception of modular homes, you rarely see the same design twice here.
The clever, precarious positions of Old Town’s land-based homes are almost trumped by one of the area’s better-known lifestyles: houseboat living. Houseboats are usually one-storey buildings of relatively small square-footage, built on pontoons. They float in Great Slave all summer long, accessible only by boat. In the winter months, houseboat owners walk across the ice to get home after a long day’s work. In break-up and freeze-up during spring and fall respectively, houseboaters cross the ice with a canoe in tow, should the ice be too thin to cross by foot in some parts. Like shack living, house boats lack plumbing and are heated only by wood stove.