“So, what’s in Yellowknife?” asked my doctor while he examined me after I informed him about my upcoming plans.
“Well,” I responded, “it’s an isolated city on the Canadian Shield in the Northwest Territories overlooking the Great Slave Lake. It’s also far enough north for excellent viewing of the aurora borealis.”
“But what else is there?” he emphatically demanded.
Fearing that he was missing the point I responded, “As a touring motorcyclist I look forward to the trek to a distant place at the end of the road,” and let it go at that.
And so I set forth to discover what, indeed, there was of note in Yellowknife. My numerous rides west from Albany, New York, follow a familiar itinerary: Albany to Conneaut, Ohio, the first day for 466 miles. Thereafter, I turn north out of Toledo, Ohio, to Bay City, Michigan; then Bemidji, Minnesota; Williston, North Dakota; and Shelby, Montana. From there I head north into the Canadian Rockies.
In Mackinaw City, though, I picked up a riding partner during a lunch stop at a hot dog stand that seemed a convergence for motorcyclists. Gene is from Windsor, Ontario, aboard a Suzuki Bandit bound for Edmonton, Alberta, to visit family. He was content to follow my pace and schedule as we followed U.S. Route 2 west. I’ve always been a lone wolf during my 53 years of touring, because seldom do I encounter a more compatible riding companion. It certainly made the long slog westward more tolerable.
In Williston, North Dakota, we met two Honda ST1300 riders returning to their homes in Edmonton after a visit to the Black Hills. We were invited to tag along entering Montana, but their pace left us a diminishing view in their rearview mirrors. “Albertans seem always in a hurry,” Gene would later inform me. He and I separated outside Calgary. He directed me to Alberta Highway 22 through the picturesque Turner Valley. Many motorcyclists were enjoying the route, and each waved, including the high-riser Harleyists.
Riding the Banff-Jasper route on the way to Canada’s Northern Territories is an imperative. During my last tour through here on my way to Alaska three years ago it was rainy and 48 degrees. This time around the Canadian Rockies unwound like a Technicolor film reel. Kicking Horse Pass led me into the heart of them, and a hanging waterfall plunging 1,250 feet. The Icefields Parkway glided by ragged peaks lapped by glacial tongues.
Alberta Highway 40 out of Hinton is billed as the scenic route to Alaska. It plows through a large watershed for a lonely 325 kilometers to Grande Prairie. Signs warn of potentially dangerous encounters with caribou. Grande Prairie itself is a crossroads where one splits northwest to Alaska, east toward Edmonton, or due north for the Territories, as I do. The colorfully striking suspension bridge over the Peace River suddenly looms against a backdrop of calendar art. Within an hour I arrive at ground zero in Grimshaw.
The granite mile-zero marker of the Mackenzie Highway in Grimshaw may not be as famous as Mile 0 of the Alaskan Highway 125 miles due west of here, but the town makes the most of it by providing an extensive park with a lot of informative signage. The highway is named after Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish fur trader who explored the Northwest Territories and traveled the full course of his namesake river, approximately 2,550 miles. I only have 600 miles now to Yellowknife, according to the marker.
Reaching the 60th parallel on the border with the Northwest Territories now means I am halfway to Yellowknife along the Mackenzie Highway. There’s a very nice visitor center here with a campground. But it’s raining, and I wouldn’t camp anyway because it appears the Northwest Territories is prime bug-breeding ground. They swarm me at every stop, a phalanx of horseflies, blackflies, dragonflies, yellowjackets, mosquitoes and midges. Occasionally at speed a fat one would ricochet off my helmet like a pistol shot. Flagmen at road construction sites wear mesh hoods. Alaska was never this bad.
This section of the Mackenzie passes through an extensive Bison Management Zone, and they are given free range, which means they occasionally amble onto the road. At one point I encounter an entire herd alongside the highway. They display their indifference at my passing. I test the antilock brakes on the BMW when I see a baby bison leaping across the road ahead like a deer. Remain alert, I remind myself.
Near Enterprise, Alexandra Falls thunders into the Hay River Gorge, and kayakers have risked their lives plunging into its raging torrent, so says my whitewater-running eldest son, who assures me he has no notions himself of attempting the feat. Another low octane fill up at Enterprise, all that’s available up here. But I learn to top off where I can because fuel may not be obtainable at the next stop.
The Deh Cho Bridge frames the horizon on my approach to the mighty Mackenzie River, Canada’s largest watercourse and the second largest river system in North America. Considered an engineering marvel that took four years to construct because of extreme weather, the Deh Cho (indigenous term for the Mackenzie River) was completed in 2012. Previously, ferry service was provided and an ice road was maintained during the winter. I thread its intimidating isosceles pylons over the Mackenzie and into Fort Providence, where I fill up for the next 200 miles into Yellowknife.
The last 60 miles of road into Yellowknife are the worst I encounter. I’m carefully negotiating numerous gravel sections, bouncing over buckled pavement and dipping into whoop-de-dos. Seeing the “Welcome to Yellowknife” sign is a relief, but it’s elevated on a hillside, making getting the bike into the picture a precarious undertaking.
I locate my B&B, the Bayside, in Old Town. This is where Yellowknife was originally settled when gold was discovered in the 1930s. Diamond mining is the new gold standard for this city of 20,000 and capital of the Northwest Territories. To gain a perspective of the city I climb the steep, zigzag staircase to the top of Pilot Hill, otherwise known as “The Rock,” an escarpment of bedrock forming the Canadian Shield.
An obelisk monument here pays tribute to the bush pilots who mapped the area and brought supplies to the fledgling settlement. Colorful houseboats cluster in the bay, while seaplanes skim the water like dragonflies, leaving broad wakes as they take off and land. Great Slave Lake sparkles in cyan radiance to the horizon, perhaps because it’s the deepest lake in North America.
My B&B provides a delicious breakfast, and has its own restaurant called the Dancing Moose that serves gourmet fare. But to experience an Old Town tradition I am directed to the Wildcat Café, Yellowknife’s oldest restaurant located in a log heritage building. Bison burgers are on the menu, and so is a variation of a Canadian standard, bison poutine. Just up the road is quirky Bullock’s Bistro, offering wild game and the “freshest fish in the Territory.” But you’ll pay handsomely for it. I have my best repast on my final day at the Woodyard Brewhouse–a decadent charcuterie and cheese board washed down with a flight of NWT suds.
Riding out of Old Town toward downtown I squirm over Ragged Ass Road. This lane is so-named by the gold-rush era prospectors who had gone stone broke (ragged ass), and so built their ramshackle cabins here. The road is in no better shape now, as noted. Nearby is a rock face carved and painted with cultural symbols representing the indigenous Inuit, Métis and Inuvialuit.
In downtown Yellowknife I locate a mural that depicts Northwest Territories themes, including a colorful aurora borealis. Given the nearly 24-hour daylight I was not going to actually see them on this trip. I had learned the best time to view the northern lights was before the spring equinox, or in the dead of winter. Hmm, the first time period was too early to risk a motorcycle ride, and forget the latter option. Regardless, there are many variables that affect the viewing of northern lights. The aurora is a magnetic storm caused by the capricious solar winds, so predicting and timing their ephemeral nature is a veritable crapshoot.
Regardless of the disappointment, I was content to ride this deep into the Territories, especially feeling smug having learned there is not a single road between here and the Arctic Ocean yet to challenge. I had seen few touring motorcyclists, and perhaps only two local riders. I got to thinking, the Mackenzie and Alaska highways both have deep territorial reach, but the Mackenzie is half the length of the Alaska. Why aren’t there more brethren exploring its terminus? Organizers of the Iron Butt Rally should take note.
Maybe I found nothing too exceptional in Yellowknife, and the northern lights didn’t display themselves, but I return home with the satisfaction of achieving yet another distant horizon, which should be the goal of any adventurous touring motorcyclist.
Back in July of 2015, I went on a fairly epic 12 000 kilometre ride from Toronto to Yellowknife, North West Territories.
Great read! If you’re wanting to see the Aurora while the roads aren’t yet covered in snow, they’re really great in late-August and September. And it’s Pilot’s Monument, rather than Pilot Hill. The midnight sun is such an amazing time to be in the North, but if you were looking for the Northern Lights, it’s too bad you didn’t look into Aurora conditions when planning this trip.
If you wanted to ride up to the Arctic Ocean, make your way to Dawson City, Yukon, drive the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, NWT and then take the new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. This all-season road just opened in Nov 2017.
Loved reading your article and seeing the photos of your trip. I have driven to Yellowknife three times but by van to start a canoe trip on 3 different river trips. We dined at the wildcat Cafe and enjoyed caribou as well as Muskox stew etc. On two of these trips we paddled into the Arctic Ocean.