For the first time in my life I didn’t care when my luggage came out at the baggage claim. I had plenty of entertainment as I stood there watching a polar bear lunge toward a seal that was diving through an iceberg, right on top of the carousel.
It took one car, two trains and three planes to get to Yellowknife Airport in Canada but, staring at this massive Arctic diorama, the post-travel disorientation had me thinking I had walked into the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Instead, I am in one of the northernmost towns on the planet in Canada’s Northwest Territories, about to take part in an Arctic photographic adventure with My Backyard Tours. It’s an area so remote they didn’t bother to even give it a specific name – they called it Northwest as if to say, “It’s over there somewhere.” Yellowknife is a true frontier town. It’s full of miners and bush pilots, has a shop that sells sealskin mittens, a saloon full of liquor, tattoos and piercing options, and even a general store that stocks rifles, baby formula and local lore.
No time is wasted introducing our small group of six to the wonder of Yellowknife. Our tour leader and local photographer Robert Berdan takes us on a private tour of historic Old Town and the Prince of Wales Heritage Center, which offers a comprehensive overview of the complex history of the land from the First Nation people to the future of this mining-turned-tourism destination. We are just setting the scene for the spectacular landscapes we are about to explore.
Our boat carves a ribbon through the indigo mirror that is Great Slave Lake, floating past flashy houseboats, each one dazzling with its brightly coloured and flamboyantly artistic uniqueness. We travel north along the Ingraham Trail in search of the majestic Cameron Falls. Robert points out the wildlife and shares tidbits of history, unlocking the secrets of the area as we gaze in amazement at the prolific beauty of this far-flung area.
Well outside the lights of Yellowknife, we stop at a place called Aurora Village. This region has remained somewhat of a secret from tourists despite being one of the best places on the planet to see the aurora borealis. Experiencing this phenomenon here is possible almost year-round, with the clear winter nights of November to April offering the best viewing. The mild temperatures of summer and early autumn, however, make it a tad more comfortable. The village consists of a great dining hall, gift shop and a grouping of mansion-sized teepees that glow bright orange in the darkness thanks to the wood-burning potbelly stoves inside. The scene is set and Robert quickly runs through some pointers to help us get the best shots of the aurora. We turn our heads toward the heavens and wait. When the lights finally take to the stage to perform their five-hour magical dance, we’re all left slack-jawed.
I’ve yet to see a photo that communicates just how otherworldly the phenomenon is. Ribbons of green and purple float across the jet sky, as if a god’s silk scarf has fallen from the heavens and been caught in the celestial breeze. I feel the awe of the people around me, and a strange sense of community forms. It is truly enchanting and one of the only things I’ve come across that offers a childlike belief in magic.
Still high from the previous night’s experience, we are greeted back in Old Town by Chuck Rockwell, a tall, friendly man who is our Air Tindi bush pilot. He’s flying us an hour north to the final destination on this tour, Peterson’s Point Lake Lodge. After a champagne toast we find ourselves skimming across Great Slave Lake in a Twin Otter seaplane. With a quick right bank into the wind, we are on our way.
Below us, lakes dot the surface of the land like a spots of rain on a car bonnet, caribou trails dart in various directions and, from this height, the patchwork of pigmented terrain resembles the colour static on an old television. We spot the cluster of cabins that is our home for the next five nights. Swooping down, the plane gently jostles to a stop atop the sandy lake shore where we are met by the wide smile of Amanda Peterson, owner of this unique nature refuge.
Inside the communal cabin we are greeted with fresh blueberry scones and cranberry muffins pulled from the giant iron stove just minutes before by Norma, the resident chef. We discuss the next five days: hikes through the Arctic expanse, tracking caribou, wolves and bears, world-class fishing, fine home-cooked meals and, of course, more of the aurora. Our guides are as much family as they are employees – they are well-versed outdoors men who have been visiting the lodge since it was simply a summer home Amanda’s father built by hand. Now it is bigger, with multiple cabins featuring diesel stoves, sinks and solar panels – there’s even Wi-Fi. The lodge has a real nostalgic feeling, like being welcomed by long-lost family members. It is paradise of a different kind.
In this land of a thousand lakes, we travel by boat in every possible direction, and our legs carry us through the painter’s palette that is the Arctic tundra. Explosive reds, orange, greens and blues attack our notion of natural in this cartoon land. The few trees here reach barely two metres high, and the shrubs look like manicured bonsai. There are sand dunes, hundreds of metres high and kilometres long, left thousands of years ago by the slowly retreating ice shelf. Mosses and lichens cover every inch of ancient black rock and thick bog pads each step, making it feel as though we’re walking on a giant memory foam mattress.
Our guide’s keen eye spots wildlife in the distance. A mother and calf caribou swim swiftly across a great expanse of lake and a lone white wolf ascends a nearby peak looking for its next meal. There are times when our eyes avert to the ground to study mushrooms, and we pick the blueberries, cranberries and crowberries lying low at our feet. With every step, the tundra sprays us with the sweet pine scent of Labrador tea and berry – it’s as if we were walking through the perfume department of the tundra store.
My fishing skills normally extend to hunting for keys in the couch, but here I’m able to easily snag a catch, reeling in several large pike that later become lunch. On a nearby beach, the fish are battered and fried on large cast-iron skillets, then served accompanied by buttered potatoes and fresh salad. There is nothing quite like catching your own meal, except perhaps for a dinner cooked by Norma, who I think is actually Julia Child in disguise. Caribou steaks, chicken florentine, lasagna and an array of delicious meals are served. When night falls our bellies are full and our imagination even fuller from the day’s adventure.
Each night, over cake and hot drinks, Robert gives a brief presentation about photography, covering subjects from composition to processing, preparing us for the next day’s hunt for the perfect image. On the final night, we gather together in the main cabin and relive the magical experience through each other’s eyes. This was more then a typical holiday – it was an otherworldly experience.
The last morning, as we await our seaplane, I gaze over the vast expanse of wilderness. We’ve spent nearly a week exploring and photographing this precious beauty, and yet there is so much more to discover.
That’s the enchantment of Peterson’s Point Lake Lodge and Yellowknife – these are places from which you never fully return. Their beauty is simply too magnetic not to leave a piece of yourself there, waiting for your return.
United Airlines and Air Canada can take you to Yellowknife via Calgary or Edmonton from Sydney or Melbourne. From there Air Tindi offers chartered flights to Peterson’s Point Lake Lodge, which can be arranged through the lodge.
There are many hotel options in Yellowknife, such as the grand Explorer Hotel, which is a sublime experience. Once up at Peterson’s Lake Lodge, accommodation consists of clean modern cabins. The main lodge offers a communal lounge, hot showers and wood-fired sauna.