Yellowknife, Canada: Diamonds in the Rough

Dinosaur and palm tree cutouts at the Paleo- Emporium in Yellowknife, Northwest Territory. Photo by John Alexander

By Janelle Muntz Lassonde

“Who wants deep fried halibut?” the waitress calls.  “Raise your hands up high.”

I sit with a handful of mining executives in the graffiti-strewn Bullocks’ Bistro, one of Yellowknife’s most reputable restaurants.

My guidebook declares this eatery one of the top five highlights in all of the Northwest Territories, and that’s no small space. The waitress demands our order like a sergeant barking a drill, even though we’re the only patrons of this popular joint at the unlikely hour of 4:00 p.m.

“Help yourselves to drinks,” says Bullocks’ cook, her muscular, flour-dusted hands thrust deep into bread dough. These are fairly polite directions. I later heard that she asks other first-timers whether their legs are broken.

Frizzy, honey-colored hair pokes out from her green baseball cap.  She nods toward the refrigerator doors that line the log cabin’s wall.

The refrigerators are plastered in bumper stickers. “My wife keeps saying I never listen to her… or something like that,” says one red and white sticker. The log cabin’s ceilings and walls, too, are smothered in photos and multicolored graffiti.

Nearby, a guy scrawled on the ceiling, “I conquered this place.”  Beneath his name he wrote, “Then Martha. Then Sarah. Then Rhonda.”

Pierre, my husband, grabs an oversized bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator. “You can fill it to the rim,” the cook says, pointing to a green Grolch beer bottle that has been recycled into a wine tumbler.

I like to think of dining at a sit-down restaurant as an escape from my own kitchen. A deserved reprieve, when someone smiles at me and brings me drinks and takes an interest in my dinner order.  When somebody else cleans up my mess.

At Bullocks, my escape has been enhanced by the charm of self-service, of making me feel at home in someone else’s kitchen. Tap water? I can help myself behind the bar, next to the grills.

A team of miners gets ready to tuck in at graffiti- strewn Bullocks’ Bistro. Photo by Janelle Muntz Lassonde

Bread?  Up there on the counter, the buns still fixed to their baking sheets.

Butter? A young assistant slides a cereal bowl full of yellow glop across the bar, the same mound used in the kitchen.

From the table I can see our cook deftly slice dark grey, scaly skin from the salmon-colored flesh of the Arctic char I ordered.  On the way out, we bus our plates.  And yet, we still leave a tip.

The fish is fabulous (so fabulous that Readers’ Digest recently named Bullocks’ fish ‘n’ chips the best in all of Canada), but it’s the restaurant’s self-dubbed “frontier style” service that charms us into booking a last-minute reservation the very next night, squeezing our entire gang of seven back into the rowdy dining hall with 30 other patrons. It’s as if the place is one enormous joke, but somehow we’re all in on it.

Today’s Frontier

Like Bullocks, Yellowknife is frontier territory. Frontier territory: It’s a surprising way to describe any location in this age of Blackberries, Podcasting and drive-thru Starbucks. But just 318 miles (512 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures average -18°F (-27.9°C) in January and where mosquitoes pack the summer air, some 20,000 sturdy folk call Yellowknife home.

The Ekati Diamond Mine, where miners unearthed an estimated 10 million carats from 2000 to 2006, in this single cavity, known as the Koala Pit, including some very large (100-carat) yellow stones. Photo by Janelle Muntz Lassonde

The rugged climate percolates straight into the city’s psyche, breeding a spirit of self-sufficiency.  An I’ll-do-it-my-own-way attitude toward life.

Built by the 1930s gold rush and frequented by miners, hunters, entrepreneurs and outdoorsy folk, Yellowknife remains the only city in the vast and barren Northwest Territories, and it’s growing.  Today serving the thriving mining communities to its north, Yellowknife is dubbed “Diamond Capital of North America.”

Diamonds are what brings me here, to the edge of the wilderness, as I join my husband on a business trip with these mining executives and geologists on a tour of the region’s diamond mines.

I’m excited. I’ve seen scores of gold and copper mines before, but this is my first, up-close-and-personal encounter with the commodity that is, according to astute advertisers, “forever.”

I’m lured here, too, by an uncommon fascination with remote living – the hardy people, their old-fashioned sense of community, their charming habits that contrast so starkly with my own ways in a big city having many fewer degrees on its latitude belt – like the isolated worlds I’ve already experienced in Finland’s Lapland, in Argentina’s Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, and in the red centre of Australia.

Some Yellowknife residents choose to live offshore – literally – thereby averting municipal taxes. Photo by Janelle Muntz Lassonde
Some Yellowknife residents choose to live offshore – literally – thereby averting municipal taxes. Photo by Janelle Muntz Lassonde

I stroll out of Bullocks with Pierre and a couple of geos, eager to work off those hip-hugging-but-oh-so-tasty, home-style fries before tomorrow’s flight north to the Ekati Diamond Mine.

The sun beats on our shoulders as the last remnants of the year’s mosquito crop flutter at our faces. And in this moment I’m thrilled – overjoyed even – that today belongs to the month of August.

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The miners and I sprint up a rickety staircase that leads to the Bush Pilots’ Monument, a tribute to the legendary pilots who opened the far north. Atop six stories of rock, the spot is Yellowknife’s answer to Toronto’s CN Tower. The wind whips my hair. Enormous ravens swoop by. Each one is so big it should have landing rights.

But the view is magnificent. The grassy fields and leafy trees of more southern latitudes are replaced by pockmarked boulders, prickly evergreens and lakes. Oodles of icy lakes dotted over a pancake-flat terrain.

The waters of Great Slave Lake, the world’s tenth largest, filter right up to Yellowknife’s banks.  Just offshore, a scattering of homes and houseboats nestle into rocky islands.  Some houses and their boat docks are islands unto themselves.

Aerial view of Yellowknife - photo by Jim Hermann
The architectural grid of Yellowknife’s New Town lies within walking distance of its rambling Old Town peninsula. Photo by Jiri Hermann

“People live there to avoid taxes,” says one of the geos, nodding at the waters below.  It’s true:  By skirting municipal levies, the lake’s inhabitants enjoy tax-motivated, offshore living – frontier-style.

The city is divided into two sections. Beneath us, Old Town’s hilly streets weave among gold rush-era buildings; some literally perch on the rocky outcrop. Float planes dive into a nearby waterside terminal. A short walk away, sprawling toward the evening sun’s glowing ball, is the neat, architect-designed grid of New Town, where shopping malls mingle with a whole regiment of Canadian government offices that oversee the Northwest Territories.

Curiously – or perhaps not, given the fierce independence streak in this part of the world – the grid’s street numbering doesn’t begin at the beginning. Yellowknife’s main northeast-southwest routes, 49th through 52nd Avenues, are crisscrossed by 43rd through 56th Streets – with lower-numbered streets nowhere on the map.  Think twice – literally – when you’re directed to the corner of 50th and 52nd.

A Rocky Road

Our bearings secured, the mining crew and I go in search of Yellowknife’s most famous street, a relic of the gold rush that has inherited a coarser name. We amble toward New Town, then cut left onto a gravel, residential road. And then we stop short.

A veritable corner of today's frontier, Ragged Ass Road lives up to its name. Photo by Cornelius Van Dyke
A veritable corner of today’s frontier, Ragged Ass Road lives up to its name. Photo by Cornelius Van Dyke

Leaning against one home’s perimeter fence is a huge slab of rock, jam-packed with fossils. It’s the size of an Austin Mini Cooper, turned skyward on its tailpipe. Apricot-sized buttons protrude from the stone, ringed in concentric, circular ridges. Wavy lines score the rest of its massive surface. One of the geologists classifies nature’s stunning artwork as a “stromatolite.” It could be two billion years old.

A rounded, grey-haired woman starts up the home’s outside steps, balancing a laundry basket on her hip. She greets us.

“That’s a beautiful rock,” the geo says.  It’s a casual, geologist sort of way to describe the one-ton goliath occupying this front yard.

The woman confirms it’s a stromatolite. She flings out the name with somewhat less grace than the geologist did.

“Where’d you find it?” the geo asks.

“Along the shore,” she says casually, nodding toward Great Slave Lake. Her husband drives a barge that sometimes carries loading equipment. “One day when the weather was good,” she says, “he loaded it up and brought it home.”

Simple as that. The stromatolite is worthy of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, but at the edge of the tundra, the paleontological masterpiece is an everyday, garden gnome.

Visitors can purchase Ragged Ass Road street signs, like this one displayed along the road itself, as souvenirs of their time in Yellowknife. Photo courtesy of the City of Yellowknife
Visitors can purchase Ragged Ass Road street signs, like this one displayed along the road itself, as souvenirs of their time in Yellowknife. Photo courtesy of the City of Yellowknife

A Living Legend

Pierre, the geos and I continue along the gravel road. An old-fashioned signpost warns us to enter the upcoming historical district at our own risk. Then I spot a large, green and white street sign that nearly trumpets our arrival.

“Ragged Ass Road!” I call. “This is it!”

The story behind the name goes something like this: One night three neighbors met over a few beers. As “ragged ass” means “dirt poor” in these parts, I’m guessing they spent the evening bemoaning their bank accounts. In the wee hours they renamed their street “Ragged Ass Road.”  They painted a sign and hoisted it up, and eventually the city adopted its new name.

For such a storied road, tourist pickings are non-existent. There are no postcards, no hole-in-the-wall ice cream counters, no mini-putt greens. The place is – if we can speak honestly here – an utter shambles.

The front half of a disused, yellow school bus pokes out of one garage. Nearby, white paint peels from a tiny, gold-rush-era, wooden house. Tattered couches and an old pink bathtub perch as garden ornaments. From the roadside wall of each house, a six-inch, horizontal pipe aims disconcertingly at passersby, like a cannon tracking troops that approach a city’s rampart walls.

A highlight of the autumn and winter seasons, the northern lights shimmer in breathtaking swirls over the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center. Photo by Stephen Cumming
A highlight of the autumn and winter seasons, the northern lights shimmer in breathtaking swirls over the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center. Photo by Stephen Cumming

“They don’t lay underground sewage pipes here,” Pierre says of this permafrost-stricken land. The sole Canadian among us, he explains that, basically, the cannon blasts sewage from the property whenever a collecting truck makes its rounds. We foreigners nod appreciatively at the harsh living conditions – and give thanks today is not collection day.

But what’s most striking is the residents’ pride in their street’s name. It’s everywhere.  Almost every house has its own green and white Ragged Ass Road street sign tacked onto a railing, a window sill, or its very siding. Living on Ragged Ass Road is hardly an embarrassment. It’s a privilege.

So Much To Do

My Yellowknife days are filled with diamond mines, Canada’s best fish ‘n’ chips, and late sunsets that explode in peach and indigo and yolk-colored brushstrokes in the northern sky.

If I stay in the city longer, I could visit the well-reputed Native art collection at the bubble-roofed Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center.

I could visit John A’s Paleo-Emporium, the fossil and dinosaur museum complete with giant dinosaur and palm tree cutouts gracing its front entrance. The Emporium closed in 2006, but the new owner has left the cutouts because they have become a local landmark.

At a time of year when the sun barely sets, Yellowknife’s big skies paint dramatic summer sunsets – signaling those few hours when the sun will dip below the horizon. Photo by Dave Baker
At a time of year when the sun barely sets, Yellowknife’s big skies paint dramatic summer sunsets – signaling those few hours when the sun will dip below the horizon. Photo by Dave Baker

I could visit the requisite Just Furs shop to pick out a pair of souvenir, beaver mukluks and the Ragged Ass Road Shoppe to buy my own, authentic Ragged Ass Road street sign.

Lacking connection to the region’s working diamond mines, I could visit Diavik’s Diamond Visitor Centre. Or I could go on a kayaking expedition or a good hike. But for this visitor, it’s the everyday, northern living that steals the show in one of North America’s few remaining frontier towns.

A Fitting Postscript

The mining team continues northward, and I head south alone. As my Calgary-bound flight boards, three men loiter by the gate.

“I guess we go last,” the biggest one says to the medium-sized one. The rotund man looks like a nightclub bouncer in an Orioles shirt, the mid-sized guy his younger brother. Their companion is a wiry Inuit man with long, wavy black locks and full array of facial hair. I wonder, fleetingly, whether he’s flown before. His dark, narrow eyes meet mine. I look away instinctively.

The four of us occupy rows 11 and 12 of the 13-rowed aircraft.  The younger brother says, “I’ll sit next to Albert.”

As we hit a turbulent patch on the climb, I check how Albert, the Inuit, fares on his inaugural flight. He’s sleeping, his head resting on the quart-sized window, his hair cascading over his face.

Only now – as we ride captive in this tiny, aluminum tube, in this era of sky marshals and concealed weapons – do I notice Albert’s long-nailed hands. They are fixed together by silver handcuffs.
Shockwaves grip my innards. My brain reels, illogically. Do these burly minders have guns? Did Albert murder somebody? Will he go berserk in this shrunken prison, a little, metal ball slamming around a flashing pinball machine?

The younger brother closes his eyes. The bouncer nods off. His thick lower lip sags. I panic, silently, all over again.

In Calgary Airport I introduce myself to Mark, the pinched-voiced steward on the flight. We’re both sipping Starbucks.

“So what was the story with the handcuffs?”  I ask.

Apparently the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used to operate their own aircraft to ferry prisoners to hearings, but financial cutbacks mean they now use commercial planes on longer routes.  The handcuffs are another Yellowknife special, a mark of the far-stretching outback, of that precious, surviving frontier.

Of things you’d never find on a Toronto-Montreal flight.

Janelle Muntz Lassonde

Formerly based in London and Johannesburg as an investment banker in the mining industry, Janelle Muntz Lassonde recently moved to Denver – and to the right side of her brain, as a freelance writer and a director of Denver’s largest non-profit writing organization.


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