Yellowknife's appeal is its simple but stark beauty. When arriving by plane, the city suddenly pops out of bedrock in the tundra. It is a small, modern sub-arctic capital city on Great Slave Lake and the largest of the Territories' 33 communities. The city first boomed when bush pilots and gold-hungry prospectors arrived in the early 1930s; very little of those pioneering days remains, but a spirit of adventure and love of the outdoors lives on. Of today's 20,000 residents, many are government workers and artists who live within the city limits and the outlying communities of Dettah and N'dlio. The Dene of the region are proud descendants of the Chipewyan and Tlicho people who first inhabited the area and are known as the Yellowknives Dene. They call Yellowknife Sombe'Ke -- or "where the money is" -- and their language and culture remain strong. Traditional Dene languages can be heard when the legislative assembly sits, or in grocery stores and on the radio.
Miramar Con and Giant Yellowknife gold mines defined the community for 40 years, but today, Yellowknife styles itself as Canada's diamond capital. Gold played out just as geologists traced a trail of micro-diamonds to kimberlite pipes out on the tundra. As the seat of government, the city is at the center of a transportation network that connects communities across the Arctic.
The bordellos, gambling dens, log-cabin banks, and never-closing bars of the gold-boom days are merely memories now. But the original Old Town is here, a crazy tangle of wooden shacks hugging the lakeshore rocks, surrounded by small commercial airlines that supply mining camps and transport hunters and fishermen to wilderness lodges -- on floats in summer, on skis in winter.
Yellowknife is a vibrant, youthful place, made expensive by isolation and high salaries paid to transient young professionals and local entrepreneurs who pay big-city prices for homes. A significant portion of Yellowknife consists of people in their late 20s and 30s. Yellowknife attracts young people just out of college looking for high-paying public-sector jobs, wilderness recreation, and the adventure of living in the Arctic. After a few years, however, many of them head back south to warmer climes. Yellowknife is also the center for a number of outlying Dene communities, which roots the city in a more long-standing traditional culture.
People are very friendly and outgoing, and seem genuinely glad to see you. The party scene here is just about what you'd expect in a town surrounded by Dene villages and filled with geologists and young bureaucrats. There's a more dynamic nightlife here than the size of the population could possibly justify. It's a city of contrasts. One night, you can listen to classical music, while the next night, you are sipping hot chocolate in wolf-skin mitts under the northern lights.