Southern Canadians may run whimpering from winter, but when the Great Slave Lake freezes, it opens up a massive playground of dogsledding, snowmobiling, ice kiting, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice fishing and watching the Northern Lights gambol across the sky.
This refreshingly cold and crisp lifestyle is treasured by locals and glamorized by the Japanese. And yet a spring getaway to the frozen North sounds to many Canadians like a frostbitten contradiction in terms. A trip to Yellowknife and Hay River gave us four fantastic days of thrilling outdoor experiences punctuated by celebratory feasts of caribou and fresh fish served up by some of the most hospitable and gregarious people we've ever met.
Dazzled by the Northern Lights
Our Northern experience begins as we join a group of Japanese tourists on a tour bus to Aurora Village, about 30 minutes east of Yellowknife. We arrive at 11 p.m. to a stunning scene: huge glowing tepees standing over a frozen lake. With the temperature outside hitting -20 C, the tepees are warm and inviting thanks to wood stoves, comfy couches and buffalo-hide blankets.
Brittany - a charming young woman from Lloydminster - shows us around the village, which includes heated viewing booths on an outdoor deck next to a lodge-style dining room. At 11:45 p.m., the aurora borealis begins, and soon its greenish-white veil stretches across the black sky. Oohs and aahs follow the lights as they change shape, including the rare flashing "piano keys" that magically dance from one end of the horizon to the other.
We aren't back in our comfortable hotel rooms at the Chateau Nova until 2:30 a.m. But we're ready for more action at 8 a.m. the next day.
A great day on Great Slave Lake
We join a group of Mississippi tourists and meet Greg Robertson, his son, Scott, and able assistants, Sean and Hans, near a floatplane terminal on Latham Island. Greg owns Bluefish Services and in summer takes clients on fishing and nature-viewing expeditions.
We ride in trucks as far as we can on the famed Great Slave Lake ice road and travel the last mile over the lake on toboggans towed by snowmobiles. It's great fun, as long as your face is protected from the wind and you hang on tight. At our destination, Greg sets up our day camp and Hans punches half a dozen holes in the metre-thick ice with a power auger. Although the fishing is slow, we (okay, Greg) catch a nice pike, and Scott's friend Andrew lands a small lingcod.
Some guests roast bratwurst around a campfire lit right on the ice; others try their hands at a winter sport the locals call "kiting" - skimming across a frozen lake on skis or a snowboard towed by a parasail. The force of the wind is so strong a large man - whooping with excitement - is whipped around the ice like Kleenex.
Feasting on fresh fish at Bullocks'
We arrive back at our hotel in time for a couple of drinks and a steam. Relaxed and refreshed, we walk to Bullocks' Bistro, Yellowknife's funky seafood diner. Seafood? Yellowknife? Absolutely. Yellowknife is a coastal city with a daily catch of fresh whitefish, pickerel, lake trout and a little-known but delicious relative of the whitefish, inconnu. We feel obligated to try all the seafood entrees that night: pan-fried whitefish and pickerel and grilled Arctic char. They're all delicious, but the pickerel is so good we have to have more, and end up wolfing down five meals between the two of us.
After dinner, we head back onto the frozen lake to the Snowking Rock and Roll Meltdown. Yellowknife's annual Snowking Festival is held in the Ice Castle, a medieval-styled cozy creation of snow and ice that takes Yellowknife volunteers three months to build and fits a couple of hundred enthusiastic locals. When a folksy opening act gives way to three-chord rockers, we leave the castle and are instantly blindsided by the Northern Lights. This time, pink and purple tones are thrown into the spectacle.
The next morning, we're off to dogsledding legend Grant Beck's kennels, 10 minutes from downtown. His Alaskan huskies are smaller and faster than typical husky breeds, and after a quick lesson our five-dog team hauls us around a nearby lake. What an exhilarating ride. The dogs, in their element, run silently; as the beautiful scenery rushes by, all we can hear is the sound of the sled's runners on the snow.
Our last Yellowknife activity is a historical tour by My Backyard Tours. Margaret Peterson, co-owner of a local hunting lodge, takes us through the old and new parts of town, explaining the challenges pioneers faced. Some parts of the city still only have summer water service, meaning both drinking water and sewage disposal are provided by trucks during the long winter.
A night in Buckleyville
The final day of our adventure starts with a flight to Hay River for a trip to tour operator Shawn Buckley's ice camp, about eight kilometres out on Great Slave Lake. The camp consists of three simple cabins. As a quiet falls over the place, we're made speechless by the narrow band of flaming orange sunset over the blue desolation of the frozen lake. For dinner, we enjoy more local delicacies: Alder-smoked inconnu (known locally as "coney") is a delicious appetizer, rich and sweet with a succulent texture, followed by generous helpings of pan-fried whitefish, coated with a crispy crust and served with bannock topped with homemade bittersweet soapberry jam.
When we began our adventure just 72 hours earlier, we wanted to know why so many Japanese flock to Yellowknife - more than 5,000 a year just to Aurora Village. Surely it had to be more than the old superstition about the good fortune in store for a child conceived under the aurora borealis. Finally, we asked Tomo Kawamoto, who had come with her husband, Tomohito, for their honeymoon: "Why do Japanese people love to visit Northern Canada?"
Her response: "Why? Canadians don't?"
Special to the Globe and Mail
Pack your bags
GETTING THERE Fly Canadian North ( www.canadiannorth.com) to Yellowknife; Buffalo Airways ( www.buffaloairways.com) from Yellowknife to Hay River; and Northwestern Air ( www.nwal.ca) back to Edmonton.
WHERE TO STAY Yellowknife Chateau Nova Hotel and Suites, 4401-50th Ave.; 1-877-839-1236; www.chateaunova.com. From $159. Hay River Ptarmigan Inn, 10 J. Gagnier St.; 800-661-0842; ptarmiganinn.com. From $139.
WHAT TO DO Bluefish Services for fishing trips, shore dinners, bird watching and outfitting; 867-873-4818; www.bluefishservices.ca.
Yellowknife city tours by Margaret Peterson of My Backyard Tours ( www.mybackyardtours.com) 867-920-4654 and Yvonne Quick of Quirky City Tours 867-873-4036, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aurora Village for Northern Lights; www.auroravillage.com; 867-669-0006
Great Slave Lake Tours; 867-874-3617; email@example.com.
MORE INFORMATION Visit www.spectacularnwt.com.