Peering down over my toes and into the water as I stood on the narrow metal dock, I could see streaks of underwater movement in the white glare of my headlamp. Outside of my meagre beam of light, pure darkness – the quiet wilderness of a Northwest Territories night closing in.
Below, dozens of lake trout fought against the current of the channel, a midnight dash up the channel to spawn. I’d never really given trout much of a second thought, and here I was, somewhere north of Yellowknife, mesmerized by their movements in the dark, clear water of Duncan Lake.
Earlier that day, I’d taken a 20-minute float plane ride from Yellowknife’s old town harbour on Ahmic Air northeast to Yellow Dog Lodge, a fishing and outdoor adventure lodge located in the NWT wilderness.
There’s no roads here, unless you were to forge your own across a vast landscape of rocks, forest and frozen lakes via snowmobile in the cold winter months. But this was the end of summer, where the lake water is a balmy 13 degrees Celsius and the sun still warms your skin as it lingers on the horizon for hours.
Moments after my float plane landed on the lake and idled towards the lodge, I was greeted on the dock by three friendly dogs, with lodge owner Gord Gin in tow. Dropping my bags and looking around, I immediately accepted Gord’s offer for a hike to the surrounding hills to help get my bearings. The beauty and solitude of the area captured me immediately. The fall colours were just starting to turn, hanging off twisted branches of stunted trees, who, with stubborn persistence, somehow establish roots here: a land made of rock and water, north of 60 degrees latitude, with a mere four hours of daylight in the winter (and 20 hours in the summer).
Whether flora, fauna or human, it’s the bold and courageous who call the North home – building a foundation through wild landscapes of rock and water, inhospitable at first glance but teeming with life and nourishment when you get up close.
The open wilderness around the lodge was a stark contrast to the northern urban feel of Yellowknife – a city of 20,000 whose history has evolved from gold mining to diamonds, and whose other precious gems are the green ones that glow in the night sky – the Northern Lights. Known as the Aurora viewing capital of the world, Yellowknife offers big, wide skies with a relatively small amount of cloud cover, making the lights easily visible between August and April.
Whether she’s sharing her magic in the sky or on the ground, Nature is queen here, and escaping to the wilderness lets one soften the sharp edge that city living can bring to our souls. Says Gord Gin, “Guests will call to book, and ask me how quickly they can be out here. Fortunately, we work around their itineraries, not ours, so we can get them from home to Yellowknife and onward to the lodge very quickly.”
He adds, “When people get up here, you can see the incredible impact a place like this has on them immediately. They get here, and they immediately want to see and do everything. But by the third day, people have relaxed into the surroundings, and are taking their time.You see it with everyone who comes here.”
It’s easy to see why – an onsite Chef, Frankie Parker, who had the privilege of cooking for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their 2011 trip to Canada, prepares every meal from scratch, whether it’s homemade cinnamon rolls in the morning, fresh-caught fish chowder for lunch, or hearty pork chops and mashed potatoes in the evening.
According to Gin, five-day trips are the most popular, which includes fly-in, fly-out service, guided fishing, food, accommodations and other activities like hiking, canoeing, kayaking, aurora viewing (especially good from the wood-fired hot tub), a sauna in the woods and more. Guests can even opt to sleep on a barge – a tented, motorized raft, complete with furniture and a BBQ, which can be rented for multi-day trips, giving its occupants the freedom to roam and anchor on the lake wherever they wish.
While fishing is a key activity at the lodge, you don’t need to be a pro to give it a shot. According to Gin, only about five percent of their guests are at an “expert” level. For novices like me, the lodge staff were very accommodating, helping me get sorted with equipment and providing tips to from casting to lure selections to reeling in my catch.
The lodge encourages catch and release fishing, although fishing for shore lunches or for guests to make use of the on-site smoker to take their catch home is offered as well. There’s no shortage in these undisturbed waters – On a good day, guests can expect to catch upwards of 20 lake trout, and dozens of Northern Pike, many in 40 inch range.
The unending access to lakes, forest and isolated islands right outside the door from Yellow Dog Lodge is unparalleled – approximately 20 per cent of the area is water, each lake teeming with fish and its shores home to an array of wildlife. On one afternoon, Gord took me across Duncan Lake by boat, where we pulled up onto the rocks, grabbed some fuel and tackle and started to make our way into the forest, climbing over the imposing boulders on shore and deep into the trees, eventually finding a rudimentary trail, which led us to another lake, with a humble boat conveniently stored there.
“What’s this place?” I asked, stopping to stare the beautiful lake in front of me, which could have easily been the cover photo of any outdoor magazine. “Oh, I don’t think it has a name,” said Gord, shrugging his shoulders, as he prepared the boat for our next adventure. Shrugging, he said, “We just call it Pike Lake around here.” And with good reason, catching Pike with nearly every cast, we were kept company by a playful mink and a curious beaver. While we kept our eyes on our lines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many unseen eyes in the trees had their eyes on us.
Later that evening, through the rising steam of the wood-fired barrel-style hot tub, I started to sense that the dark night sky was starting to build a glow in the southern sky. Within moments, the Northern Lights started to dance their way across the sky, above me, behind me, all around.
Dancing their way across shining constellations and unleashing their glorious arcs in bands of green, pink and white, Nature orchestrated a masterpiece that few get to witness but none ever forget. For over an hour, the sky took on a life of its own, the jewel tones of the sky mimicking the shades of the gems that are hidden in the mines far below.
I knew that the float plane would be making its return to collect me the following morning, back to city life and alarm clock; traffic and obligations. But in that moment of a Northern night, I sank into the water a little lower, letting my bones soak up the green glow from the black sky above, and listening for the trout leaping in the dark channel below. Funny how a place made of wilderness and hard rock can be the best remedy for softening a city soul, if only for a few days at a time.
If you go:
The Explorer Hotel, Yellowknife
Things to do:
Yellowknife Aurora: Sean Norman Aurora Viewing
Visit www.spectacularnwt.com for trip planning ideas.
Places to Eat:
The Fat Fox – Downtown artsy coffee bistro
Bullocks’ Bistro – Fresh caught from the lake, some of the priciest and most delicious fish and chips you’ll ever eat
The Woodyard at NWT Brewing Co. – Enjoy microbrewery beers and tasty pub fare